Finding a good book, or books, to read is one way to survive these frigid January days of a Canadian winter. The one I recently purchased on-line has been thought-provoking, enough to distract from the bitter cold as we, the dogs and I, took our morning walk down Cathedral Drive.
I should clarify, the dogs went about their usual busy-ness of sniffing out whatever creatures had been about during the night, and so on. I was the one distracted with thoughts about what I had been reading in King’s Counsellor, Abdication and War: The Diaries of Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles. That name may ring a bell for the millions who have watched the Netflix series, The Crown, a dramatic rendering, not necessarily totally accurate, about the ongoing reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
I was especially interested in the early episodes focusing on the abdication of Edward VIII in December, 1936, less than a year after becoming King upon the death of his father George V. After ascending to the throne, Edward, formerly Prince of Wales, had hoped to marry his lover, Wallis Simpson, when she obtained a divorce from her husband, Ernest Simpson. But the ensuing constitutional crisis went against him, leading to his abdication. His brother, Albert (Bertie to his family and friends) the Duke of York, became King, as George VI. As a result, his daughter, Elizabeth, now Elizabeth II, became heir presumptive, or first-in-line to the throne. Edward got a new title, Duke of Windsor. Wallis did get a divorce and they married, in France, months later, making Wallis Duchess of Windsor, but not welcome as part of the Royal Family.
In the midst of all that, to a significant and influential degree only fully revealed in recent years, was Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles. The grandson of Henry Lascelles, the 4th Earl of Harewood, Lascelles initially struggled to find suitable employment as a young man after graduating from Oxford University, and twice failing the Foreign Office exam for a possible diplomatic career. He served as an officer in the First World War, earning the Military Cross, after being wounded in action. Crucially, for future events, he became Assistant Private Secretary to Edward, then Prince of Wales, in 1920. Initially, he was impressed by the young prince, already a world-famous celebrity who travelled the British Empire and Commonwealth extensively. Edward visited Canada twice formally in the 1920s and liked the country so much he bought a ranch in Alberta.
But Lascelles’ attitude toward Edward changed drastically, mainly because of the lack of moral character he had observed time after time in Edward’s behavior. He finally resigned his position in disgust, in 1929, despite being a married man with a young family to support, and no immediate job prospect.
“Tommy came to regard (Edward, Prince of Wales) as hopelessly selfish and irresponsible, and quite unfit for his future role as Sovereign. So disgusted was he with the Prince’s behaviour that in January, 1929, he resigned,” Duff Hart-Davis, the editor of King’s Counsellor, wrote in an introduction to the book.
Also of interest to me, though not included in The Crown, is the fact Lascelles became Secretary to the Governor-General of Canada, Vere Ponsonby, the 9th Earl of Bessborough, in 1931, serving until 1935. If the reader is curious about the reason why I’m interested, I refer them to this link.
In late 1935 Lascelles was offered the position of Assistant Private Secretary to King George V. He was reluctant to accept because as Prince of Wales, Edward would immediately become King when his aging father died. However, assured by Royal officials that the King was in good health and likely to reign for at least another seven years, he accepted the position. But as fate would have it, George V died within a few months, and Lascelles again became Edward’s (as King Edward VIII) assistant private secretary, until he abdicated. Then, Lascelles served in that position for George VI, before being promoted to Private Secretary. He was knighted by the King during a successful Royal tour of Canada in 1939, which Lascelles helped organize. He remained Private Secretary during the first year of Elizabeth II reign, starting in 1952, until he retired in 1953. Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles died August 10, 1981, at Kensington Palace, at the age of 94.
His close connection with Edward through his several titles and manifestations is one of the great ironies of Lascelles’ long life and career in Royal service. His character as depicted in The Crown is that of a stern, ‘stuffed shirt’ of a man with an unpleasant personality, rather shallow, and lacking in sensitivity. Despite, how little I knew of Lascelles, except intuitively, I sensed the depiction was not accurate. My reading of his own words as recorded in his daily journal, letters and other documents confirm my sense of who he really was: thoughtful, sensitive, a good judge of character, and with a timely sense of humor to lighten a too-serious moment when needed in conversation or conference. It is noteworthy that he and King George VI were on exceptionally good terms, the king, who suffered from a speech impediment, being especially grateful for Lascelles’ “encouraging” attitude.
However, King’s Counselor, also reveals Lascelles as a man of his times, and perhaps his particular culture, in a disturbing way. In 1947, in the midst of a Royal Tour to The Union of South Africa, in a letter to his wife Joan back in England, he describes a “country of supreme beauty” where he might be “quite glad to live … if only it wasn’t for the blacks” who greatly outnumber “whites.”
Also, in journal entries near the end of the Second Worlds War, his lack of empathy for the countless victims of massive Allied bombing of German and Japanese cities was more than disturbing: it showed the extent to which war can bring out the worst, even in basically good people. Lascelles’ journal entries themselves stopped after the war ended. I hope he found it in him to feel differently about those attitudes.
The moment I found most touching in King’s Counselor was what Lascelles wrote in a letter to a friend dated January 30, 1965. He had just attended Winston Churchill’s funeral service which he called “deeply moving,” adding, “I cried a good deal. I was very fond of the old man, who was, for many years, abundantly kind to me. And I am more sure than I am of future life that, but for him, I should not be sitting here a free man.”
King’s Counselor is the most recent of a series of several books based on Lascelles’ journal and other papers stored in the Royal Archives. As Hart-Davis, the editor of the books notes, Archive officials were stubbornly reluctant to permit publication of certain documents for the second book, In Royal Service, published in 1989, which included an earlier period of Lascelles’ royal service; but it did not include a “devastating retrospective assessment of the Prince’s character and behaviour,” Hart-Davis wrote in an introduction to the 2020 edition of King’s Counsellor. Both that edition, and the earlier 2006 edition of the same book contain that revealing document, which corrected errors in the previous historic record.
For example, Lascelles shot down the prevailing sentiment that Edward, “a lonely bachelor, ‘fell deeply in love’ for the first time in his life with the soulmate for whom he had long been waiting.” Lascelles called that “moonshine,” adding, “he was never out of the thrall of one female after another. There was always a grande affaire and, coincidentally, as I know to my cost, an unbroken series of petites affaires, contracted and consummated in whatever highways and byways of the Empire he was traversing at the moment.”
I will say I found that interesting as well: apparent proof that it was entirely possible Edward, Prince of Wales, before he became Edward VIII, and then the Duke of Windsor, left inconvenient, illegitimate children behind him as he travelled the Empire; one in particular, and under circumstances that cast a long shadow to this day.