As private secretary to four successive British monarchs from King George V to the present Queen, Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles (1887-1981) witnessed life behind palace doors at the closest of quarters. His diaries, published posthumously in 2006, give a fascinating insight into the flawed character of the Duke of Windsor who he served as Prince of Wales in the 1920s and as King Edward VIII in 1936.
Sir Alan Lascelles was born into the courtier class. A grandson of the 4th Earl of Harewood, he was educated at Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge. He became assistant private secretary to the Prince of Wales in 1920 having served as aide-de-camp to his brother-in-law, Lord Lloyd, who was Governor of Bombay. He returned to England with a new bride, Joan Thesiger, who was the Viceroy of India’s daughter. In 1922, Lascelles’ cousin the 6th Earl of Harewood married King George V’s daughter Princess Mary bringing the courtier closer to the family he would serve for the rest of his life.
In his first years of service to the Prince of Wales, Lascelles was charmed declaring him ‘the most attractive man I have ever met’. By 1929 when he resigned his post, Lascelles complained bitterly ‘I have wasted the best years of my life’ and wrote ‘the King (George V) gave me an MVO for looking after his son. It was the hardest earned military medal I ever had’. This from a man who had won the Military Cross on the Western Front in World War One.
Disillusion had set in on the Prince of Wales’s royal tour of Canada in 1927. Lascelles accompanied him and ‘felt in such despair about him that I told Stanley Baldwin that the Heir Apparent, in his unbridled pursuit of wine and women and of whatever selfish whim occupied him at the moment, was going rapidly to the devil and would soon become no fit wearer of the British Crown’. In his turn the heir to the throne admitted to Lascelles, ‘I’m quite the wrong sort of person to be Prince of Wales’.
Lascelles was a bibliophile, he had an exceptionally sharp memory, he appreciated classical music and he was a proficient speech-writer. The Prince of Wales enjoyed jazz, cocktails, the Charleston and didn’t know who had written Jane Eyre. The editor of Lascelles’ Diaries, Duff Hart Davis, questioned whether the courtier was the appropriate advisor for the Prince: ‘it could be said that his moral outlook was too severe, his idea of duty too rigid, his code of conduct too unbending for him to be compatible with such a highly spirited employer’. He concluded ‘it could equally be said that he was exactly the right person for the prince and that someone of precisely his calibre with his powerful intellect and high principals was needed to shape the future King for the role’.
In 1929 Lascelles resigned his post and travelled to Canada as secretary to the Governor General. He returned in 1935 as Assistant Private Secretary to King George V. Within six weeks the king was dead and Lascelles was obliged to serve King Edward VIII: a man of whom he’d said in 1927 ‘words like decency, honesty, duty, dignity and so on meant absolutely nothing to him’. He cautioned to treat the new King like a petulant child: one whose first question will always be ‘can I get away with it?’
Sir Alan Lascelles’ Diaries paint a disapproving picture of the monarch ‘hiding away’ from Thursday to Tuesday in Fort Belvedere (his retreat on the Windsor estate) then returning to Buckingham Palace where he would ‘shut himself away’ with his twice-divorced paramour Mrs Simpson. The King told him ‘can’t you understand that nothing matters – nothing – except her happiness and mine?’ Lascelles quite rightly concluded ‘the vast majority of the King’s subjects … would not tolerate their monarch taking as his wife, and their Queen, a shop-soiled American with two living husbands and a voice like a rusty saw’. The King abdicated in favour of his brother King George VI in 1936.
Loyalty to the new king was rewarded with a Knighthood in 1939. It was to mark his new title and appointment as Personal Secretary to The King that Sir Alan placed his first orders at Henry Poole & Co: a blue dress coat and dress trousers, a pair of stripe winter cashmere trousers and (as war approached) a khaki service jacket. As Private Secretary to The King since 1943, Lascelles was privy to all Cabinet papers during World War Two. As he said, ‘I get as much illumination on the drear fog of war as anybody in this country’. He knew about the atom bomb six months before it was dropped on Japan.
The Private Secretary was also privy to King George VI’s explosive temper; episodes he code-named ‘Nashville’ because the monarch gnashed his teeth and raised his clenched fists to heaven. When King George VI died in 1952, Lascelles served as Queen Elizabeth II’s Private Secretary for a year before being appointed Extra Equerry. It was he who told Group Captain Peter Townsend ‘you must be mad or bad or both’, when the courtier declared his intention to marry Princess Margaret. For the last thirty-years of his life, Lascelles lived in the Old Stable Block at Kensington Palace and was considered a wise old man who connected The Queen with the reign of her grandfather King George V.