Thursday, October 12, 2023

A Guest Post: Hugo Vickers in NYC by Kori Roff Lawrence


@Rusty Thomas

I wanted to attend Hugo Vickers' lecture on the British Monarchy on Saturday, October 7.   This would have required catching a 7:30 a.m. bus from Union Station in Washington, D.C., to NYC.  On Saturdays, the Metro does not open until 7 a.m., so I would not have made it to Union Station to catch the 7:30 bus.  The 8:30 bus would have arrived in NYC after 1 p.m. when Hugo's talk began.

Thankfully, Kori Roff Lawrence was able to attend, and I asked her if she would write a blog post about Hugo's event.  She agreed.

@Kori Roff Lawrence

On Saturday, October 7, I was fortunate enough to be able to hear a speech by renowned royal author and commentator (and all-around gentleman) Hugo Vickers. It was part of the Fine Arts Book Festival in New York City at the beautiful St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. (Seriously, put this church on your next trip itinerary, it was filled with beautiful mosaics.) Romanov expert Nick Nicholson moderated the talk. The topic? The Future of the British Monarchy. 

The following is a summation of the general ideas and views put out by Hugo during his talk as well as in the Q&A that followed. All comments marked by quotes are Hugo’s own words and phrasing. 

@Rusty Thomas

@Rusty Thomas

Hugo started off his speech with some brief anecdotes of the late Queen Elizabeth II. He drew the poignant comparison that the first time the public saw the Queen after her ascession, she was coming down the plane steps where she was greeted by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and shook his hand. The last time the public would see her was in a photo released of her greeting her last Prime Minister, Liz Truss. It was this sense of stability and continuity that has been one of the monarchy’s most important contributions to British life. Another example is that the monarch must accept the advice of the Prime Minister, however, the Prime Minister is not bound by the same responsibility. 

Hugo went on to note that Charles is himself a ‘highly cultured’ man with a variety of interests. He even has a royal harpist! In his opinion, Charles has a ‘sense of liberation’ now that he has ascended to the throne. At the same time, there has been a suggestion that, given his age, Charles sees himself as a ‘caretaker’ of the throne. However, this is a view that Hugo finds doubtful.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        While King Charles’s great-grandfather, King George V, told his eldest son in 1919 that he was making the monarchy ‘too accessible’, the current King and his own eldest son have endeavored to do just that. In Hugo’s opinion, even as Prince of Wales, King Charles frequently spoke out and he was ‘right’ to do so. However, this increased availability of opinion about issues led to a decrease in the privacy to which he should have been entitled. This was especially apparent when his so-called ‘spider letters’ were leaked and published. 

While Charles had given hundreds of speeches throughout his long public career, it was Hugo’s opinion that the one he gave to the nation, and the world, upon the death of his mother, was his ‘greatest’. In its personal nature, it too provided a glimpse into the level of accessibility the King would provide to the public and ‘set the parameters’ of the new reign. Additionally, his new position will allow him to both receive information and discuss issues close to him at a ‘higher level’. 

@Kori Roff Lawrence

Another facet of this new accessibility is the fact that the new King is continuing to mostly reside, and vacation, at homes that were his during his tenure as Prince of Wales. This included the Scottish homes of Castle of Mey and Birkhall in Scotland, his country home of Highgrove, and, most notably, Clarence House in London rather than in Buckingham Palace. The latter is driven by the ongoing renovations to the Palace but is also in accordance with the King’s personal wishes. He is likely to remain at his much-loved Clarence House for the ‘remainder’ of his reign. 

The change in philosophy and style was on full display for the world during King Charles’s coronation this past spring. Whereas Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was filled with pomp and ceremony, with hundreds of gowned and bejeweled peers and peeresses of the realm, Charles’s was far less glamorous. There were no tiaras, even for the royal women, and only a relative smattering of peers. The latter was something which would especially come to the notice of the press and aroused a good deal of comment. Even Hugo felt that there was a ‘spirit of exclusion’ in the guest list which he was not a fan of. It left people out, despite the opening up of the type of people that were invited. Nor was he a fan of certain guests like TV personalities Ant and Dec. Given the situation involving the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and the attendant drama, Hugo found it a ‘relief’ that it was only Harry who attended. 

Hugo was also ‘terribly sorry’ at the loss of the traditional sight of the Garter Knights holding up the golden canopy as well as other traditions that were done away with to democratize, and shorten, the ceremony. One tradition that was kept was the seclusion of the monarch behind the screen during the moment of their anointing. Charles was, in Hugo’s words, ‘very emotional’ at this portion of the ancient ceremony. He also told an entertaining anecdote about how magnificent the Archbishop of Canterbury looked at the 1953 coronation as he spread his arms after placing the crown upon the Queen’s head. This was in comparison to the ‘screwing’ of the crown upon Charles’s head. (This appearance he demonstrated quite amusingly!)

All this is not to say there was a lack of royal glamour. An immense gathering of royalty, including several reigning monarchs and/or their heirs was present. As were several German, Greek, and Romanian royals who represented Philip’s side of the family. (The caveat being that they were also related to the late Queen, but it was Philip to whom they were most closely related.) This latter representation garnered little international notice in contrast to the press attention given to the lack of an invitation to Philip’s cousin Lady Pamela Hicks. While Lady Pamela stated that she was not put out by this, her daughter India, was less sanguine. India, who was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Charles and Diana, and who currently has a podcast, stated her disappointment publicly. Hugo took pains to state that India was, however, incorrect in her assertion that Lady Pamela had attended the 1937 coronation--something which India had cited in her disappointment of her mother not being invited. 

@Kori Roff Lawrence  

Hugo also greatly admired the concert held on the grounds of Windsor Castle the day after the Coronation. He was particularly full of praise for the speech that the Prince of Wales gave. He described Prince William as having ‘leapt on stage’ whereby he delivered a ‘Shakespearean level speech’. This was a coronation innovation that Hugo strongly approved of! However, he noted how quickly press attention shifts--Saturday the King was crowned and by the next day, they already had a ‘new focus’. He also noted that the media ‘loves negativity’. 

This lessening of majesty is also representative of the long-planned ‘slimmed down’ monarchy--an idea driven by Charles and dating back decades. There is not only a small pool of ‘working royals’ but it is likely to continue to constrict. It is a philosophy that Hugo believes is ‘not a good idea’. The royal bread-and-butter appearances are vital to the monarchy in making them known to the public and are ‘hugely special’. These visits may ‘not be very exciting on a day-to-day basis’ but they are very ‘important’. Meanwhile, the ‘most successful’ members do not ‘compete’ with the monarch or the institution. 

This slim down will, of course, have a significant effect on the traditional system of royal patronages that has been a mainstay of royal life and work since the Victorian Era. It is inevitable that hundreds of organizations will lose their royal patron as the elderly Duke of Kent and his sister Princess Alexandra, Lady Ogilvy, contemporaries of the late Queen and Prince Philip, either retire or pass away. Even the Princess Royal, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, not to mention the King and Queen themselves are senior citizens. The Prince and Princess of Wales, both over forty, are the youngsters of the working royals. Until the Wales children come of age, there will be no one to replace the older royals. And even then, there will be a net loss. It is Hugo’s opinion that we will continue to see more patronages placed under so-called umbrella organizations such as Heads Together involving general themes such as mental health rather than hundreds of individual groups. 

The slim-down was seriously impacted by the departure from royal life by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in early 2020. In his talk, and in the question-and-answer session which followed, Hugo stated that the King is ‘disinclined’ to expand the number of working royals to include the York princesses, Beatrice and Eugenie, whom he described as ‘very good girls’. This despite the viewpoint expressed by some in the audience, and which Hugo agreed with, that Princess Beatrice would be an admirable addition to the Firm. He believes that Princess Beatrice, who already is the patron of some charities, and who does a ‘fantastic job’, will continue to take more on even if she is not a working royal. In fact, she may ‘have to’. He also stated that while Louise and James, daughter and son of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, are legally entitled to be titled Prince and Princess, there is little likelihood that they will take it nor will they undertake royal duties. 

Hugo referred to the royal philosophy of ‘just get on with it’ exemplified by the late Queen and Duke of Edinburgh as well as the Princess Royal. He compared this to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and their life philosophy. He found the publication of Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, as well as the Netflix documentary series that the couple produced and starred in, ‘shocking’. Hugo was also obviously distressed at the stress and strain he believed their attitudes and behavior caused the late Queen in her last two years. He believed that the King showed ‘admirable reserve’ in his treatment of his son and daughter-in-law. Hugo praised the Invictus Games, created by Prince Harry, as ‘brilliant’ but found it ‘ironic’ that the Games celebrate the indomitable spirit and survival of veterans while its creator, also a veteran, seems the ‘epitome of victim’ himself. 

Hugo also touched upon a couple of controversies. One involved the long-serving lady-in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey. In a story that gained worldwide attention, Lady Susan had asked a visitor to an event at Buckingham Palace, Ngozi Fulani, several times where she was from. Ms. Fulani, who is black, took offense at what she considered racial microaggressions. Hugo believes that Lady Susan was merely trying to establish some grounds for a conversation and introduction. Now, months later, Hugo was ‘glad to say’ that Lady Susan had returned to the royal fold. (She was also present at the coronation. During a separate interview, the Duke of Sussex took pains to say that neither he nor his wife believed Lady Susan was racist.) 

The second involved the Duke of York and his removal from royal life and duties, something which further constricted the number of working royals. It is ‘no secret’ that the King and the Duke of York are not close. Yet, Charles has shown his brother ‘compassion’ in not publicly disavowing him despite the various sordid controversies he’s been involved in. This was most recently shown when photos were published showing Andrew being driven to Crathie Church in Scotland in the company of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was a very public announcement that Andrew is in the family fold at least. 

The late Queen was always conciliatory, always moving things forward. She, along with Prince Philip, paid several landmark official visits. Hugo specified her first trip to Japan--the first ever by a British monarch--as well as her visit to Northern Ireland in 2012. This was by no means her first visit but, on this occasion, she shook hands with the former IRA member, and current Sinn Fein politician, Martin McGuinness. This was especially notable given the rumored role McGuiness had in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten. [Note: Mr. McGuiness died in 2017 and acknowledged his role in a private conversation with the Queen during this visit.]

Given that Hugo has written two books (with a third coming!) about the Netflix series The Crown, it was not surprising that he had a bit to say about it. He is no fan of their prevalent practice of substituting actual truth with ‘emotional truth’ and felt that the episodes dealing with royal life were worse than the ones that were preoccupied more with political issues. Bar none, he sees the episode dealing with the 1937 Hesse plane tragedy, which killed Prince Philip’s sister and most members of her family, as the absolute worst one. It took an immense tragedy, the worst event of Philip’s life, and gave a completely false narrative of the events around it. He found it ‘completely odious’ and, if he wasn’t such a gentleman, I imagine he would have used more colorful language to lambast it! 

Hugo finished up with some anecdotes and sidenotes. In one he noted that Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, when Duchess of York, received dolls for young Princess Elizabeth at almost every event. She gained such a collection that they would auction them off for charity. He thinks we should ‘keep an eye on’ Princess Charlotte. He related a story from the funeral of Prince Philip. Princess Charlotte gave the Archbishop quite a look when the Archbishop of Canterbury rather patronizingly attempted to shake her hand, shook hands as she exited the church and, upon entering the royal car, sat down and gracefully smoothed down her coat. This was in comparison to her mother who, in Hugo’s words, ‘plopped’ down on her own seat. 

He came back around to the beginning of his speech and the stability the monarchy provides along with the ever-changing level of accessibility, The monarchy always changes and adapts, while still maintaining a level of stability. This is one of the benefits of a constitutional monarchy. 

I asked a question pertaining to royal visits and their continued importance in relation to the Commonwealth given the moves by some nations to remove the monarch as their Head of State. He didn’t specifically answer whether we would see more tours ala the trip of the then-Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Caribbean, but he did state his belief that the Commonwealth itself is as strong as ever and that there are nations wanting to join. In a similar question, about a possible vote for Scottish independence, that they would ‘be stupid’ to leave. And if they did, the remaining countries of the UK would have to design a new flag. 

Another audience member asked about Cecil Beaton, whom Hugo has also written about, and his royal relationships given his legendary royal photographs. Hugo stated that Cecil approached his photographs through the lens (no pun intended) of his theatrical background, had great vision and, a ‘good eye’. He would compose shots to avoid faults as much as possible. He also was a fan of retouching, sometimes too much so. The Queen Mother even once returned photos she considered over-retouched. She quite liked him personally and, perhaps because he had known her before she was Queen Consort, was less in awe of her than he was of Queen Elizabeth. He was ‘terrified’ of the latter, ‘absolutely petrified’. 

All, in all, it was a wonderful talk, lasting an hour. And, as can be seen by the above post, there was a lot covered! Mr. Vickers was an absolute gem and such a gentleman. If one ever has the chance to attend any event where he will be present, try at all costs to do so. 

@Kori Roff Lawrence


JACC said...

Thank you very much for the detailed summary.

BayTampaBay said...

Thanks Kori!