Courting controversy

Prince Andrew’s woes continue a long legacy of men’s misdeeds at the Palace. Alexander Larman charts the history of errant royals

April 21 2020


Many who watched the car crash Newsnight interview with Prince Andrew felt utter disbelief. As the grand old Duke of York made his bizarre and fanciful assertions – being unable to sweat because of an “overdose of adrenaline” from serving in the Falklands; that he could not have slept with Virginia Roberts, then 17, because he was in a Pizza Express in Woking – he did more harm to the monarchy in one hour than anyone since Princess Diana. She, at least, had the excuse of avenging “the Firm” that had wronged her; Andrew failed to realise that his damage limitation exercise could backfire spectacularly. Tellingly, his initial reaction was that the interview went well. The press thought not.

Prince Andrew has been hugely embarrassing for the Royal Family. But he is only the latest in a long line of royals who have assumed that their status offers them carte blanche to behave as they wish; the feelings and rights of others be damned.

George VI and Elizabeth II were models of decorum, but Edward VIII proved to be a disaster before, during, and after his brief reign (20th January-11 December, 1936) – the shortest in history.

He was well known as a ladies’ man, much to the horror of his private secretary, Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, who said Edward “was never out of the thrall of one female after another… there was always a grande affaire, and, as I know to my cost, an unbroken series of petites affaires”. A typical episode was his seduction of a Mrs Margery Barns, wife of a local commissioner in Dodoma, Tanzania in 1928, while on a royal tour. What led Lascelles to call it “incredibly callous behaviour”, was that he had been informed of his father George V’s grave illness immediately before. Edward dismissed the news as “some election-dodge of [Stanley] Baldwin’s”, and pursued his libertine entertainments.

Yet he met his match in Wallis Simpson, his notorious inamorata, who has been rumoured to be everything from a hermaphrodite to a dominatrix. One disgruntled letter-writer described her as “queen of the golden grummet”, Thirties’ slang for a dominant partner in a gay relationship. Edward was disparaged as the submissive “knight of the golden grummet”. After he abdicated in December 1936, he was reduced to living an uneasy hand-to-mouth existence abroad, all but exiled from Britain and dogged by rumours that he was a Nazi sympathiser. Many argued that the price he paid to marry Wallis was too high for anyone to bear, despite her attractions.

Edward was just as foolish as Andrew in his choice of friends, who included his equerry, “Fruity” Metcalfe. “Metcalfe is not at all a good thing for HRH,” Edward’s assistant-private secretary, Godfrey Thomas, miserably informed the Queen. “He is always cheery and full of fun but far, far too weak and hopelessly irresponsible.”

This has been a pattern over the centuries with royalty, as princes and kings have often preferred the company of the licentious over the dutiful. Charles II was notorious for this, surrounding himself with a “merry gang” of playwrights, poets and wits, including the notorious ne’er-do-well, Lord Rochester. Charles enjoyed cavorting with his familiars, but always stressed that he, as King, held the power, and that they should dance to his tune. This did not always work: In one scandalous incident, Rochester, spying an elaborate sundial in Charles’s garden that reminded him of a phallus, shouted, “What! Dost thou stand here to fuck time?”, drew his sword, and smashed it to pieces. He was banished from court – yet again – but Charles always recalled him from exile. Court was too dull without him, he said.

The tradition of royalty with outré sex lives was perhaps best personified by Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, who rejoiced in the nicknames of “Dirty Bertie” and “Edward the Caresser”. He was so committed to his pleasure that in his favourite Paris brothel, Le Chabanais, he kept a bespoke siège d’amour (“love chair”) that allowed him to have sex with two women at once, and at his coronation in 1901, he had his own pew reserved for “the King’s special ladies”, for ease of access.

Andrew can take heart that his actions follow a long, ignoble tradition of royal bad behaviour. He is undeniably an international laughing stock at time of writing, and worse may ensue if he becomes a person of interest to the FBI. He can console himself by knowing that our nation’s history will be all the richer for his conspicuous shortcomings.

Alexander Larman is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book, The Crown in Crisis