Memorably unpleasant —Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens) in The Crown. Credit: Netflix

August 3, 2021   9 mins

Forty years ago, on 10 August, a tall and wiry old man died at Kensington Palace, aged 94. He had been a cultivated chap — a former Director of the Midland Bank, Secretary of the Literary Society and Director of the Royal Academy of Music. He read Shakespeare on the Tube as he travelled to meetings at the bank, and wrote amateur poetry. Occasionally royalty stopped to chit chat on their way past, as Princess Margaret once did with her new baby. In later retirement, he had become something of a hermit, looking like “a pot-bellied old beaver”, to use his own words, and growing an ungainly beard.

This man was Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, former Private Secretary to George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, and the Assistant Private Secretary to Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales. He had lived, grace-and-favour, at the Old Stables at Kensington Palace (he thought it was one of the nicest houses in England) since he retired in 1953. Having been a courtier, on and off, from 1920-1953, he gives a fascinating insight into how to preserve a monarchy in a democracy.

Lascelles gets caricatured as a stiff-arsed, hard-bristled, curmudgeonly enforcer of horrible rules in The Crown, forever thwarting true love’s course. As well as playing a role in Edward VIII’s abdication, Lascelles is seen as one of the Establishment men who decided Princess Margaret couldn’t marry Peter Townsend. But despite this crucial role in modern Royal history, the real Lascelles remains slightly out of sight to us. There is no biography. His archives in Churchill College, Cambridge are largely closed — especially material relating to the monarchy. Edward Owens, who recently wrote a book about the royal family and the mass media, was denied access to them. His diaries, although excellent, were selectively edited by his friend Rupert Hart-Davis; they reveal a much more emotional, sensible, likeable man than the popular image.

There is no consensus, then, on Lascelles’s true character. To Edward VIII, living in exile as the Duke of Windsor, Lascelles was always “that snake”. The feeling was mutual. When Harold Nicolson had lunch with Lascelles three days after the Abdication, the courtier said the former King was “like a child in the fairy stories who had been given every gift except a soul”. He was also spitting with rage about the fact that Edward VIII was not patriotic enough: “He never cared about England or the English.” Ferdinand Mount remembers Lascelles visiting his school, where Mount “was startled by his explosion of venom against the Duke of Windsor … He was memorably unpleasant.”

But Lascelles wasn’t just a stickler for arcane and snobbish standards, nor did he take a cruel pleasure in enforcing them. He stood for fair play and pragmatism. When Noël Coward was recommended for a knighthood, Lascelles advised George VI against. The King was constantly approving courts-martial against young RAF officers who had written dud cheques, and Coward had recently been fined for cheating his Income Tax. It would have been wrong for those young men to be punished while Coward was honoured.

Essentially honourable, then, despite being memorably unpleasant. Lascelles understood that although monarchy must be staged, that doesn’t mean it can be fake. The public spectacle has to be a true enough expression of the values it upholds. That is why the knighthood had to be refused, and why Wallis Simpson couldn’t be Queen. (In one of his more venomous moments, Lascelles wrote that the King’s subjects would not tolerate “a shop-spoiled American, with two living husbands and a voice like a rusty saw”.) That is why, after the abdication, Lascelles went to some lengths to keep Edward out of the country, to try and eradicate the whole affair from the public mind. It is also why, irrespective of the way it happened, Lascelles came to believe the abdication was inevitable. Edward, he said, was “habitually ready to sacrifice truth to his personal likes or dislikes”; Edward’s celebrity wasn’t enough to maintain the monarchy.

Lascelles believed in the institution but said, “I have never idealised any member of the House of Windsor”. When Harold Nicolson was commissioned to write George V’s biography, Lascelles told him it would be the biography of an institution, and that there would be no need to “descend into personalities”. This isn’t just bluster. The night the abdication was announced, Lascelles walked round and round St James’s Park, thinking about James II. The stability of the monarchy mattered to him. He described the abdication as “a real tragedy in my life”.

And yet for someone with such strong principles, Lascelles lacked a sense of direction. As a young graduate, he was rather louche. Although he was skittling around London dining with what Bertie Wooster would call some of the better elements, his diary never comes alive like it does when he shoots his first stag, or when he’s riding a horse. (He gives thanks that he inherited the “long, flat Lascelles thighs.”) His main interest as a young man — just like Edward VIII’s — was to be active. A series of possible careers — Foreign Office, stockbroker, journalist — were tried, hated, failed or simply never started. Without the war, he would have been edging towards becoming a drifter. Instead, despite a somewhat inactive war, he was awarded the Military Cross.

After the Armistice, he worked for his brother-in-law, the Governor of Bombay. Writing to his uncle Adolphus Liddell (another slightly lost soul) he said: “there is much in all the flummery and ceremonial which, even after a long course of military discipline, irritates me profoundly.” We might be surprised at this lack of admiration for imperial flummery. This is, after all, Alan Lascelles: reactionary, establishment stalwart, slayer of marriages, arch defender of the old order. But it was precisely this slightly detached view that made him such a good courtier.

Lascelles believed in the substance of royalty, not just the display. The day after George V died, nearly 20 years after that complaint about imperial flummery, the King’s body was taken to a little church at the end of the garden at Sandringham for a small private ceremony ahead of the large, public spectacle:

“The guardsmen, with scarcely a sound, slung the coffin on their shoulders and laid it before the altar; and there, after a very brief service, we left it, to be watched for thirty-six hours by the men of the Sandringham Estate. I daresay when all the tumult and shouting dies, that little ceremony will remain in my mind as the most impressive of all.”

Lascelles was not the sort of Royalist who was in it for the memorial plates and days out at the park. He was a genuine believer. He could talk of the King as a Deity with little exaggeration. He was burying the head of his tribe. This is why there was such a kerfuffle with the new King. Edward VIII wanted to run a very different sort of tribe.

Lascelles’s history with Edward VIII is essential to understanding later events. When he returned from India in 1920, his friend Letty Elcho brought him a letter offering a job with Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales. Lascelles was attracted to the job partly because St. James’s Palace was half a mile from his house and a quarter of a mile from his club, but mostly because “I have got a very deep admiration for the Prince, and I am convinced that the future of England is as much in his hands as in any individual”. Remarkably, had this job not come along, he would have signed on as an apprentice to a printing firm.

This deep admiration would not last, and Lascelles’s ability to see the ridiculous in the Royal was important to his role as a courtier. After nine years of watching the Prince drink, gamble, womanise, neglect his duties, be rude to members of the British establishment, and — shockingly for the feudal Alan — show very little interest when there was a scare that George V might die, he stormed out in 1929, in the sort of resignation so many of us have dreamed of making:

When he asked me why I wanted to leave him, I paced his room for the best part of an hour, telling him, as I might have told a younger brother, exactly what I thought of him and his whole scheme of life, and foretelling, with an accuracy that might have surprised me at the time, that he would lose the throne of England.

Most of us, after such an exit, would never go back. And Lascelles had only drifted into the role. Quitting it, he called himself “an inverted Falstaff” (because he was thin, just as thin in middle age as when he was young), leaving Prince Hal to “work out his own damnation”. But, after two years of reading and gardening with his family in the country, and a stint working for the Governor General in Canada, he was asked to re-join the Royal staff.

At first, he refused. The job was with George V, who he once described as “the godhead” — but Lascelles had said in his resignation letter: “Very few men can go on being private secretaries all their lives, and I am not one of them.” And besides, he pointed out, when the king died, he would be in a very difficult position, to put it mildly, having told the next-in-line exactly what he thought of him. Clive Wigram, George V’s Private Secretary — who was hiring Lascelles to be his assistant — told him not to worry. The King was in splendid health and had years left in him. Lascelles wrote to his wife Joan saying he was going to take the job: “It is no use going about the world singing ‘God Save the King’ if one isn’t prepared to assist the Deity when called upon.”

And so, in January 1936, he travelled to Norfolk to start his new job. He had found a first-class carriage reserved for him at Liverpool Street. Once the journey was underway, “a young man appeared in the doorway of my carriage. I was about to tell him to go away when I recognised him as the Duke of York.” It was a good thing he recognised him. The young man would accede as George VI within 12 months, and Lascelles would become his Private Secretary in 1943. The Duke of York said to him halfway through the journey, “What’s all this about the King not being well?” George V died within four days. The soulless Edward was king.

And so, from a combination of lassitude, duty, and blue-blooded patriotism, Lascelles ended up as Assistant Private Secretary to a man he was morally repulsed by. Gentlemen do not just drop out of Royal service because they dislike the new King. It is perhaps surprising that Edward kept Lascelles on. But it seems obvious from this distance — as it seemed to Lascelles then — that Edward had never planned to make it that far and wasn’t going to stay long.

The royal family is meant to bring spectacle to our lives by displaying theirs: a glittering pageant of Births, Deaths, and Marriages. As the monarchy lost power through the nineteenth century, they replaced it with performance. Public engagement became Queen Victoria’s way of maintaining her relevance. And this new mode of royal existence is part of what made Edward VIII such a star as Prince of Wales: his tours of America, Canada, and South Africa were massive successes. But by the end of George V’s reign, British royalty had consolidated a new covenant with the people: “private probity, public spectacle.”

Lascelles was the high priest of the Georgian model and had seen first-hand that Edward was all public spectacle and no private probity. A courtier out of duty (and because he found nothing else to do), he realised that unless the royal family stuck to its principles — to the principles forced on it by a changing world — it would suffer. To the extent that he was a propagandist, an enemy of Edward VIII, a reactionary, and everything else he is claimed to be, it was because he realised the royal family had very little choice. Much of what Lascelles is said to have brought about may well have been inevitable as monarchy adjusted to democracy.

He had always been a slightly unwilling courtier. (He told his daughter long after he retired that, if he could have his life again, he would breed horses. “Racehorses, or cart-horses: any sort of horses.”) He was good at it, though. It remains to be seen whether he will eventually be remembered as the last of the old school who helped the monarchy transition to its modern function — or as a crusty old reactionary who needlessly destroyed a clutch of happy lives. But when his archives are eventually dusted off, I doubt we will find any dark secrets in there. We already know the fundamentals. He was a man who believed in royal morals underpinning royal spectacles.

What would he make of the modern monarchy? In his 1990 review of Philip Ziegler’s Edward VIII, Christopher Hitchens observed that “the magic of the throne is now inextricable from Charles and the Annenbergs, Diana and Donald Trump — the extension of Edward’s international white-trash habit into modern showbiz and celeb culture.” This line might stand as a eulogy for the Lascelles’s school: that there is little point in having a Royal Family unless they adhere to certain difficult and sometimes out-of-date principles. For Lascelles, as for the public at that time, those principles were about marriage. One of the last things he did was sit in the garden of Kensington Palace to watch the firework celebrations of Charles and Diana’s wedding. The next day, he asked for news about the event every few minutes, anxious it should all be going well. He died two weeks later.

Undoubtedly, the sort of revelations we have heard about the Royal Family since would have been anathema to his sense of decorum. But Tommy didn’t speculate. A young man from the BBC once tried to persuade him to appear in what Lascelles called “a television orgy on The Future of the British Monarchy”. Lascelles gave a forthright reply: “I told him I would as soon walk stark naked down Piccadilly.” We might find it easy to dismiss him as an old fogey. But how confidently can we say that we are beyond his concerns about private probity? Are we above worrying about what makes an acceptable royal spouse?

Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at The Common Reader.