Something to Do

David Cannadine

  • Witness of a Century: The Life and Times of Prince Arthur of Connaught, 1850-1942 by Noble Frankland
    Shepheard-Walwyn, 476 pp, £22.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 85683 136 0

Few reputations are so fragile or ephemeral as those of minor modern royalty – the brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, younger sons and daughters, cousins and more distant relatives of big daddy and the queen bee. By birth and by definition, they are lifelong occupants of the substitutes’ bench, permanent understudies for the starring roles which rarely if ever come their way, too near the throne to be ordinary people, too far removed to be right royally important. For the most part, their lives are a bizarre and unhappy amalgam of cosseted privilege, unostentatious dutifulness, peripheral appeal, honorific marginality, wearying ceremonial, resentful disappointment, embittered loneliness and – if they are lucky – occasional scandal. In death the best they can hope for is to be instantly forgotten, with no realistic prospect of later rediscovery. Who, today, knows anything about such defunct dynasts as the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquess of Carisbrooke or the Earl of Athlone?

The subject of Noble Frankland’s well-intentioned but unconvincing effort at rehabilitation, His Royal Highness Prince Arthur William Patrick Albert, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, and Earl of Sussex, was the prototypical marginal royal. If the essential qualification for worldly fame and posthumous glory is the possession of a large number of close relatives with crowns, he had it in spades. In his own long lifetime, he was Queen Victoria’s favourite son; King Edward VII was his eldest brother, King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II were his nephews, and King Edward VIII and King George VI his great-nephews. And in the half-century since his death, the royal roll-call has been further extended. Queen Elizabeth II is his great-great-niece, King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden is his great-great-grandson, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark is one great-great-granddaughter, and the former Queen Anne-Marie of Greece is another. To describe him as well connected would be something of an understatement. But none of this helps in explaining who Prince Arthur actually was, what he accomplished, or why – if at all – he still matters.

From his birth in 1850, his life followed the paralysingly predictable trajectory of a royal younger son, obliged to juggle the competing claims of family, public duties and a professional career. Understandably, his mother found him preferable to his two delinquent elder brothers, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh. And, no more surprisingly, he was soon shunted off, at his own request, into the Army (not for nothing had the Duke of Wellington been his godfather). After training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he was moved around, like any mid-Victorian officer, from Britain to the Empire and back: Montreal, Aldershot, Gibraltar and Dublin. In between times, he paid a variety of royal and semi-royal visits: to Washington and New York; to Rome, Vienna and St Petersburg; and to army manoeuvres and family weddings in Germany. With his life thus set in a military-ceremonial groove, all that remained was for him to get married, and this he obligingly did in 1879. His bride, Princess Louise Margaret, was the great-granddaughter of King Frederick William III of Prussia. She had not been Queen Victoria’s first choice for her favourite son; nor was she Prince Arthur’s. But she was well-disposed, and by 19th-century standards, the marriage seems to have been a success.

For the next thirty years, the Duke’s life continued on its conventionally constrained course. There were two daughters and a son, in whose upbringing Queen Victoria took a characteristically domineering interest. There were more ceremonial visits abroad: to the coronation of Nicolas II at Moscow in 1896; to the Imperial durbar at Delhi in 1903; and to the opening of the Parliament of the Union of South Africa in 1910. And there was soldiering at home and on the reaches of Empire. In 1882, the Duke commanded the First Guards brigade at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt. He spent the remainder of the decade in India, first as a divisional commander at Meerut, and then as C-in-C of the Bombay Army. Thereafter, he returned home (much to his mother’s relief), and was moved from Portsmouth to Aldershot to Dublin. But while he was promoted inexorably, and loaded with every order of knighthood Victoria could bestow, the top military posts never came his way. Even though the Queen exerted herself single-mindedly on his behalf, he failed to become commander-in-chief of the Indian Army or of the home forces. Instead, he was fobbed off after her death with two grand-sounding offices which carried little real power and kept him out of the country: Inspector-General of the Forces (1904-7) and C-in-C Mediterranean (1907-9).

There was clearly no prospect of any further military advance, and in 1911, the Duke began a new career as a proconsul, going off to be Governor-General of Canada. He had already served there as a junior officer, and he was well-liked (if not all that well-known) in the Dominion. He and his wife entertained in appropriately – and unprecedentedly – vice-regal state at Rideau Hall. There were extended tours to most parts of the country, and he paid another visit to the United States. Once the First World War broke out, the presence of a royal prince was thought to be a valuable stimulant to Canadian patriotism and to the recruitment of volunteers. There were some disagreements with his government about the bestowal of honours, the training of troops, the command of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the provision of rifles. Connaught took a particularly dim view of Sir Sam Hughes, the maverick Minister of Militia, the full extent of whose devious and corrupt activities is here revealed for the first time. But his relations with the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, were mostly cordial, his term of office was generally deemed a success, and he and his wife returned to Britain in 1915 amidst near-universal feelings of appreciation and regret.

By then the Duke was 66, and Queen Victoria’s only surviving son. But he still had another quarter of a century to live. During this long, slow diminuendo, the themes which had bound his life together gradually unravelled. He undertook a few more foreign visits, notably to India in 1920-21, when he inaugurated the Montagu-Chelmsford constitutional reforms. His wife died in 1917, one of his daughters in 1920, and his son in 1938. Ten years earlier, he had celebrated 60 years of service in the British Army, and formally retired from public life. He divided his time between Clarence House, a country home at Bagshot Park, and a villa in the South of France. A variety of fashionable ladies brightened his old age, among them Leonie Leslie and Gladys Deacon. He kept in touch with visiting Canadians and with the British Army. He lived to witness the death of George V, the abdication of Edward VIII and the outbreak of World War Two. He survived until 1942, having outlived all of his mother’s children except Princess Beatrice. On the death of his grandson (who had succeeded him as Duke of Connaught) in the following year, his titles became extinct.

As the extended footnotes make abundantly plain, this book is based on massive research into the royal archives, and it inevitably sheds much light on the working of the modern British monarchy. We learn, for instance, a great deal about the way in which Queen Victoria interfered in the matrimonial arrangements of her children. When she deemed the time to be ripe, she drew up a short list of possible ‘candidates’, and made plain her own preferences once they had been investigated. We are presented with a son’s-eye view of the sovereign which leaves no doubt as to the degree of domestic tyranny she wielded. When the Duke of Connaught went off to India during the 1880s, it was she who insisted that his children stay in England, which they duly did. And we are never allowed to forget how close and how important were the inter-connections between the monarchy and the military: a subject deserving of much more research, not only for the 19th century, but also down to our own time – remember all those remarks about royal influence when the most recent round of regimental cut-backs were proposed?

Noble Frankland does not himself draw out these broader themes of recent royal history – the reader is left to do the work. For in more senses than one, this book is very heavy going. The prose is lifeless, and littered with tired, glib adjectives: everything is either ‘splendid’, ‘lovely’, ‘refreshing’, ‘excellent’, ‘beautiful’, ‘pretty’, or else ‘shocking’, ‘horrible’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘nasty’, ‘sad’, ‘improper’. Whether these are Connaught’s or Frankland’s words is not clear: either way, their wearying abundance merely reinforces the suspicion that the Duke was possessed of a two-dimensional personality and a one-dimensional mind. As such, it seems that he was ideally qualified for many of the jobs he was called on to do. Much of his life (and far too much of this book) seems to have consisted of social engagements, ceremonial appearances and subsidised travel. As to his military prowess: it is, quite simply, impossible to judge. His experience of battle was limited, and most of his appointments merely required him to keep a good table and to inspect the troops. And we shall never know whether he would have made a good commander-in-chief. It seems clear that he wanted the job less than his mother wanted it for him; and in that, at least, he may have shown good judgment.

Like so many royal biographies, this book is devoid of any real historical perspective. It is excessively informative and inadequately interpretative, and is written in the sort of coy and courtly language which the events of 1992 should have banished for ever. Of course the Duke of Connaught was himself very much a pre-1992 character, and the monarchy which he served, with undoubted devotion, was during his lifetime very much a pre-1992 institution. One essential prop to that institution was the successful maintenance (at least in public) of a happy and decorous marriage. A second was the armed forces, which provided an appropriate form of semi-employment for royal relatives, who were expected to sport a bemedalled military uniform and had to occupy their spare time somehow, but who could conveniently be given days off for the discharge of ceremonial duties. And a third was the Empire, which from the 1880s to World War Two enabled the British monarchy to re-invent and represent itself as a global phenomenon, one aspect of which was that it provided proconsular opportunities for peripheral royals.

In all these ways, the Duke of Connaught, no doubt as unawares then as his biographer is now, pioneered new modes of peripheral royal behaviour which were successfully emulated by the generations which came immediately after him. Until the Sixties, royal marriages simply did not break down; or if they did, the media did not let on, the public did not know, and divorce was unthinkable and (effectively) unobtainable. Until the present Duke of Gloucester qualified as an architect, and Prince Edward quit the Royal Marines for the theatre, it was taken for granted that the armed forces were the only honourable and appropriate form of employment for royal males. And as long as the Empire endured, there were always overseas tours to be undertaken, and dominion governor-generalships to be filled. Appropriately enough, this system reached its apogee at the very end of the Duke of Connaught’s life, and in the years immediately following his death. During World War Two, and just beyond, a clutch of royal males – all of them onetime military men – were sent out to govern the Empire: the Earl of Athlone in Canada, the Duke of Gloucester in Australia, the Duke of Windsor in the Bahamas and Lord Mountbatten in India. It gave them something to do, or at least kept them out of the way.

During the course of the present queen’s reign, this royal world – pioneered and exemplified by the Duke of Connaught – has very largely collapsed. Royal marriages do not seem to work any more; or the media will not allow them to work. The appeal of the armed services is not what it was, and the armed services are not what they were either. Nor is there any longer an Empire to provide plumed and padded proconsular positions. In the aftermath of the Whitlam-Kerr imbroglio in Australia, it was made plain that Prince Charles’s appointment to the governor-generalship would be too much of a risk, and by the end of the century, the post will probably have been abolished, assuming the country becomes a republic. The difficulty which faces the present generation of royals – to say nothing of those who may come after – is that it is much harder to find appropriate things for them to do than it was in the military-imperial heyday of then forebears. Like the present queen’s children, the Duke of Connaught was not over-bright. But at least he kept busy.