jane ridley

Heavy Lies the Crown

Writing a royal biography is a daunting task.Harold Nicol-son likened starting his life of George V to setting out in a taxi for Vladivostok. I know the feeling, having written a life of George V myself. For me, it begins with research in the Royal Archives. Sitting high up in the Round Tower at Windsor, I work slowly through bound diaries, letters and memos. It’s often not until the first draft is written that the answers to some of the questions emerge. Much biographical writing involves getting to grips with someone both as a human being and as a public figure. What distinguishes royal biography is that the private life – right from the moment of birth – is public. In the case of George V, the first question I set out to answer was: was he really as dull as people made out? !ankfully not.

Even so, George’s coronation was a humdrum aair. It was the first occasion when the royals appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the service. At three minutes to three, the king and queen stepped out and waved at the cheering crowds for exactly three minutes. George spent the rest of the afternoon answering letters and telegrams. He was the only monarch to be crowned in India as well as Britain. After this second coronation he wrote, ‘Rather tired after wearing the Crown for 3 hours, it hurt my head as it is pretty heavy’ – a vintage George V remark.

King Charles will be hoping that his coronation runs as smoothly as George’s.It’s remarkable how many coronations have gone wrong.!e worst coronation of the last two centuries was that of George IV. His outrageously lavish ceremonial was disrupted by his estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, who turned up at Westminster Abbey and had to be asked to leave.

Queen Victoria’s coronation was shambolic. !ere was no proper rehearsal. No one seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing, and the service lasted five hours. !e archbishop put Victoria’s ring on the wrong finger (‘most awkwardly,’ she wrote) and she had the ‘greatest diculty’ in taking it o. !e service was enlivened by the octogenarian Lord Rolle tripping as he climbed the steps to the throne and rolling down to the bottom. As he struggled to his feet, the queen got up to meet him and loud cheers broke out.

Edward VII’s coronation was postponed at two days’notice because he needed an emergency operation for a stomach abscess. !is was at the time a very risky procedure, and the king might easily have died. !e operation was performed at Buckingham Palace.!e surgeon cut deep into the monarch’s belly and reached a hard swelling.When he drove the knife in, a pint of pus squirted out.!e wound was cleaned and drained, and the king recovered.!e coronation was eventually held six weeks later. It was remarkable for the number of people who attended, eight thousand squeezing into Westminster Abbey – the same number as for Elizabeth II’s coronation. (For King Charles’s coronation the Abbey will hold just two thousand.)

Edward VII’s coronation was marred by old Archbishop Temple who insisted on doing everything himself, and at one point shouted loudly, ‘Go away!’ when someone tried to help him.

!e heaviness of the crown is a recurring theme.!e coronation in 1937 of George VI was a high-stakes aair. Needing to prove he was capable of doing the job after the abdication of his elder brother, George was terrified he would break down and stutter. On the day he performed rather well. He afterwards wrote an account in which he described the bungling of the bishops and the peers.!e archbishop managed to put St Edward’s Crown, which weighs around five pounds, the wrong way round on the king’s head, making it even more painful to the wearer.

Elizabeth II’s was the most successful of the 20th-century coronations, marred by neither bishops behaving badly nor illness. Meticulous preparations and exhaustive rehearsals were the key.!e queen wore the crown at home while reading the newspaper or sitting at her desk in order to get accustomed to its weight. !e coronation was pitch-perfect. !e queen was extraordinarily calm. Safely back in Buckingham Palace, she took o her crown and declared, ‘Oh that was marvellous. Nothing went wrong!’

Philip Ziegler, biographer of the uncrowned King Edward VIII, has died. A prolific author, he wrote authorised biographies of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, but he is best known for his royal biographies. As the ocial biographer of Edward VIII, Ziegler read twenty-five thousand letters in the Royal Archives.He was a safe pair of hands,but he didn’t conceal awkward facts.‘!e biographer’s first responsibility is to the truth and to the reader,’ he claimed. One of his critics remarked that he ‘had the gift of making the best possible case for his subject while not hesitating to show him – or, occasionally, her – in the worst possible light’.

Mountbatten, a biography of whom Ziegler published in 1985, was another tricky subject. While working on the Mountbatten book, he had a card on his desk upon which was written,‘REMEMBER, IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING, HE WAS A GREAT MAN.’ It is thanks in part to Ziegler’s cool professionalism that royal biographers are no longer expected to write what Tommy Lascelles, private secretary to both George VI and Elizabeth II, called ‘mythological’ lives, leaving out anything that is discreditable to the subject.

Ziegler wrote over twenty-five books, and at his service of thanksgiving we learned how he did it. He stuck to a strict routine, beginning each morning with a boiled egg at 7.10am. He wrote at home for two hours before going to the oce of the publisher Collins, where he was editorial director and later editor-in-chief. Returning home from the oce, he worked for another two hours. He wrote with a pencil while his black Labrador lay at his feet. Some traditions can’t be bettered.