Through the keyhole
LINDA PORTER is amused by a fast-paced exposé charting key moments in the private lives of Britain’s royals
Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the Royal Household by Adrian Tinniswood Jonathan Cape, 384 pages, £25
On 31 July 1737, the Princess of Wales’s dancing master was unexpectedly summoned to his royal mistress. But it was not instruction on the finer pointsi off theh quadrille that Princess Augusta needed. This young woman from Saxe-Gotha in Germany had suddenly gone into labour. It was her first child and the pains were coming fast and furious. She was then at Hampton Court, where her in-laws, George II and Queen Caroline, were in residence. They wanted her to give birth there, but her husband, Prince Frederick, longestranged from his parents, was determined that the baby would be born at his London home, St James’s Palace.
Accordingly, with the help of the dancing master, Frederick half-dragged and half-carried the desperate Augusta, her breaking waters gushing all over, to a coach. Off it sped, complete with her lady-in-waiting, two dressers and a plentiful supply of handkerchiefs indecorously “thrust one after another up Her Royal Highness’s petticoats”. Miraculously, both the princess and her child survived this unnecessary ordeal, which had been brought about by the appallingly bad relations between her husband and his parents, an example of the predisposition of Hanoverian monarchs to dislike their firstborn sons.
This episode is one of many vignettes which form the substance of Adrian Tinniswood’s latest book. The title is misleading for, as he admits himself, this is really a book about the private lives of royalty rather than the royal household. We learn nothing more about the hapless dancing master, or, indeed, much about the personalities of most other royal servants until we get to Queen Victoria. Those who waited on monarchs were meant to be quietly loyal – the souls of discretion – if they wanted to keep their jobs. The royal household may now be firmly in the digital age, but it is still no place for anyone addicted to selfies.
Instead of revelations about pageboys and laundresses, Tinniswood retells some of the best-known and best-loved episodes in British royal history, from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II. We start with the expensive entertainments put on for Gloriana at Kenilworth by Robert Dudley in 1575 and end with the death of Diana in 1997. In between are more familiar stories – the madness of George III, Prince Albert’s deathbed, the abdication of Edward VIII and Princess Margaret’s doomed romance with Peter Townsend – as well as other tales that are less well known, such as those from the lively court of Oliver Cromwell.
Tinniswood relates all of this with elegance and wit. The subject matter may not be entirely original but it is based on extensive research, as is apparent in his bibliography. Your grandparents will absolutely love this book as a Christmas present – unless, of course, they are closet
Augusta of SaxeGotha was caught up in her royal in-laws’ disputes