General Right Hon Sir Dighton Probyn

Sir Dighton Macnaughten Probyn (1833-1924) was a soldier, statesman and courtier who earned his spurs as a Captain of the 2nd Punjab Cavalry in the British India Army who was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour at the Battle of Agra (1875) during the Indian Mutiny wars. Mentioned in dispatches, Probyn was famed for fighting off six Sepoys (rebel troops) single-handed armed only with a sabre when his horse had been cut down beneath him. His heroism was celebrated in an 1860 sabre-rattling equestrian portrait by Louis William Deanges.

Sir Dighton Probyn’s bravery in India earned him honorary Sikh status and on his return to England he was often to be seen at court and in official portraits wearing the national costume of his adopted land; a turban and a white beard flowing to his naval that he never trimmed for the rest of his long life. The beard was said to be so long that it entirely covered the Victoria Cross he wore when in attendance as Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Somewhat understandably, Probyn became known as something of an eccentric in royal and aristocratic circles.

In the late 1870s, Probyn was appointed secretary to the Prince of Wales and took-up residence at Marlborough House and subsequently the Prince’s Norfolk estate Sandringham House. In Jane Ridley’s biography Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (2012), the author transcribes a letter from the Princess of Wales revealing Probyn’s chivalrous courtly love for the woman he called ‘the blessed lady’. Princess Alexandra was a keen huntress much to the disapproval of her mother-in-law Queen Victoria. When thrown from her horse, the Princess writes ‘one of the gentlemen, Probyn, jumped off and pushed me into the saddle and then everything was well and I hurried on!!!’.

Probyn was the Prince of Wales’s most trusted courtier and averted scandal in 1888 by allegedly tipping off Lord Arthur Somerset (see Henry Poole Hall of Fame entry) to flee the country and avoid prosecution in the Cleveland Street rent boy scandal. He served as messenger between the Prince of Wales (for whom Somerset was Master of the Horse) and Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

The Prince of Wales was the authority on correct dress and decorations and would often publicly upbraid courtiers who erred sartorially. He chastised the Duchess of Marlborough for failing to wear a tiara at dinner and his own wife for pinning a decoration on the incorrect shoulder. Probyn’s orders in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers reflect the courtier’s obsession with wearing the correct orders to please his master. In 1903, Probyn gives Poole Buckingham Palace as his address to send a blue household tunic upon which new order loops had been added to attach ‘six new ribbons’. He subsequently asks Poole’s to add ‘a long Order of St Olaf ribbon’, ‘five (more) decorative new ribbons’ and ‘a short ribbon for a red Eagle of Prussia first class’ order to a blue superfine household tunic work at Sandringham.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were spendthrifts and it was Probyn’s responsibility to keep their affairs in order and introduce the Prince to wealthy financiers who could underwrite his expenses. When the Prince became king in 1901, it is to Probyn’s credit that his debts were all paid. Probyn’s love and loyalty towards Queen Alexandra remained true after King Edward VII’s death in 1910. Ridley describes him thus: ‘with his neck bent double, his chin and long white beard nodding on his chest, he fought a losing battle against the compulsive extravagance of the blessed lady’. Probyn predeceased the Dowager Queen Alexandra by a year. A monument to his love for Queen Alexandra still stands in the grounds of Sandringham. It is a folly overlooking a lake known as ‘the Queen’s nest’ and is inscribed to ‘the Blessed Lady’ from General the Rt Hon Sir Dighton Probyn. – a folly in the grounds of Sandringham – is still known as ‘the Queen’s nest’ and was built by Sir Dighton Probyn.

(c) James Sherwood

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