My thanks to Paul for providing such wonderful posts for the Blog Sitting project. Tonight an exclusive article for the blog that sheds light on some of the most unfortunate and sometimes fatal consequences of belonging to a Royal family.
Of Cabbages and Kings by Paul Andruss
Gore Vidal & Princess Margaret 1951
In one of her wire-tapped phone conversations Diana, Princess of Wales, referred to her in-laws as ‘that ‘king’ family’. Actually, there were three letters in front of the word KING; the first being F. But I left them out.
I have no axe to grind with the monarchy, but equally neither have I had the same provocation. While having no strong feelings either way, I will say that anyone who by their very existence prevented Tony Blair making himself lifelong President cannot be entirely useless.
Someone who did know royalty was American author Gore Vidal; bon vivant and member of the jet set. A term coined after the de Havilland Comet -the first purpose-built commercial jet airliner- made the world the playground of his generation’s rich and famous.
Vidal was great friends with Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princes Margaret. He records their first meeting at a costume party where she wore the blood stained shirt King Charles I was beheaded in; borrowed from Kensington Palace for the occasion. When you think about Prince Harry turning up to a fancy dress ball in a Nazi uniform, it’s easy to see where he gets his sense of style.
David & Wallis on their wedding day
(Getty Images 1937)
Vidal also knew the Duke and Duchess of Windsor during their exile in Paris. The Duke was Edward VIII (called by his 7th Christian name, David). He abdicated the throne to marry American Wallis Simpson. Vidal cheerfully admits to liking Wallis for her intelligence, and David because he was ‘deeply stupid’.
In 1936 Edward VIII abdicated because parliament would not approve his marriage to Wallis as she was divorced; or twice divorced to be pedantic. His speech contained the famous line so beloved of romantics: I cannot discharge my duty without the help and support of the woman I love. As they left England, his brother, Queen Elizabeth’s father, became king and the rest as they say, is history.
The British press always referred to the Duchess, somewhat disparagingly, as Mrs Simpson. They loved to portray her as a gold digger, who could not wait to slip the royal crown on her grubby colonial head. Vidal records Wallis remembering it differently. She was a wealthy divorcee who claimed never even wanting to get married. ‘It was all his idea,’ she told Vidal. ‘They act as if I’m stupid, not knowing who can be queen. But he insisted.’
‘I remember the morning after we were married,’ she continued. ‘There was David saying – And what do we do now? My heart sank. Every day of his life had been arranged for him and now I was the one who had to take the place of the entire British Government, trying to think up things for him to do.’
‘The Duchess took a long drink of vodka,’ Vidal finishes devilishly, ‘then began the denunciation of all the Royal ladies. And very entertaining it was.’
Like Diana, Wallis had a legitimate axe to grind.
David & Wallis meet an avid fan
(Getty Images 1937)
Vidal records the exchange in his memoir Palimpsest. As he explains it, a palimpsest is a parchment, scraped clean by a medieval monk for re-use. Such finds are invaluable as the original text is still faintly visible – a bit like memories. Sagaciously, he adds memoirs do not need to be weighed down by historical fact. So perhaps one should not take Wallis’s protestations of innocence entirely at face value.
Vidal’s recounts a story from the Duke of Windsor that’s worth repeating.
‘I was there at breakfast with my father and mother, the King and Queen, when an equerry came in. The King was furious. I mean this was breakfast for heaven’s sake! Not done, you know, ever! But the man went straight up to him with this note which the king read and gave to my mother. She read it and gave it back saying ‘No!’
‘Later that day I asked her what it was about and she said the British government was willing to send a ship to rescue my father’s relations Tsar Nicholas and his family, but she did not think it would be good for us to have them in England. So the Bolsheviks shot the lot of them.’
The unlucky Romanovs: intimate family portrait
Historically, a lot of reasons are put forward why Britain denied the Romanovs refuge. Explanations tend to focus on the fear of Bolshevism taking hold. Princess Margaret had another theory. She believed her grandmother was deeply resentful of real royalty. Even admirers describe Queen Mary as cold and hard.
Vidal tells the tale of Margaret’s outrage when reading Nicholas and Alexandra – the biography later made in to a film. ‘They were so perfectly ordinary. I mean it could be us!’ she bemoaned in stentorian Hanoverian.
Although that might leave you smiling or shuddering depending on your perspective, Margaret had a point. In private, the Romanovs lived the ‘simple’ secluded life of any upper middle class European, and fiercely guarded their privacy. Indeed, their daughters complained of a claustrophobic upbringing.
Yet politically, Nicholas was the supreme autocrat who could not bear to surrender an iota of power and focused much of his energy enforcing a medieval stranglehold on his deeply troubled and backward country.
Nicholas & Alexandra
Father & mother of all the Russias
His ineptitude and stubbornness consigned Russians to privation and doomed wars. He approved of anti-Jewish Pogroms, believing they unified the country behind his regime. He did nothing when his army slaughtered peaceful demonstrators. And he thwarted all attempts to introduce basic human rights, fearing it would erode his God-given authority as the ‘Father-of-all-the-Russias’.
All in all, Nicholas was rather like King Charles I, who also believed he ruled through Divine Right, ignored Parliament, caused a Civil War (between the Cavaliers and Roundheads) and was executed for his troubles.
So while Princess Margaret had a point about the Romanovs’ perfect ordinariness, perhaps she also needed to remember just whose shirt she was wearing at that fancy dress party. And exactly why it was blood stained.
My thanks to Paul another illuminating look at history.. and for blog sitting so elegantly.
You can find more about Paul Andruss via his about page on his blog: http://www.paul-andruss.com/about/
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