Monday, January 21, 2019

"Behind the Throne" by Adrian Tinniswood

In November 1810, the favorite daughter of George III died of what was then called consumption and what we would call tuberculosis today. Princess Amelia was 27, and her last reported words were, “Tell Charles I die blessing him.” Charles was the royal equerry Charles Fitzroy; he and Amelia had been in love for years, despite the reality of equerries were not considered suitable mates for princesses.

Amelia left almost all of her estate to Charles. He was summoned to Windsor by the Prince of Wales (the Prince Regent) and the Duke of Cambridge. Charles was asked, to protect Amelia’s and the royal family’s reputations, that he assign his rights to her estate to the Prince Regent, and then they would make sure he received all the proceeds of her will. Fitzroy did the honorable thing and agreed, even signing a document of agreement. A month later, he received a few empty bookshelves, an empty box, and a small quantity of plate with the princess’s monogram removed. Fitzroy resigned as a royal equerry.

British author Adrian Tinniswood tells that story, and quite a few more, in his new Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household. This is a historical account that concerns how English and British monarchs from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II organized and ran their households, and the men and women who helped them do that. It is less about the great events of British history and more about domestic relations within the monarchy. 

Tinniswood has an eye for the amusing, the poignant, and the telling, and his highly readable work is filled with anecdotes, examples, and solid historical research, including 11 pages of bibliography.

We see Queen Charlotte and the physicians trying desperately to manage the madness of King George III, and understand how his madness became a factor in Tory-Whig political competition. We read about the importance of money, and how virtually every sovereign from Elizabeth I through the Prince Regent (finally crowned as George IV) usually spent far beyond their means. George IV’s successor, William IV, somehow managed to live mostly within his budget; William’s successor, Victoria, did so for most of her long reign largely because of the reforms and budget constraints implemented by her husband, Prince Albert.

Adrian Tinniswood
We find the unexpected, like the parliamentarians (“roundheads’) and government committees auctioning off Charles I’s art collection, palace furnishings, and personal belongings after the king’s execution – and often helping themselves to favorite pieces. Edward VII, of abdication and “the woman I love” fame, was heartily disliked and seen as vain, selfish, and destructive to the monarchy, even before he met Wallis Simpson. And the early part of Elizabeth II’s reign required an understanding and coming terms to the age of the news media, in a way no previous monarch had faced. 

Behind the Throne is both a fascinating account of how the British monarchs ran (or didn’t run) their households and how that was a significant influence on the monarchy overall and British history.

Top illustration: The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrik Danckerts.

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