Sir Alan "Tommy" Lascelles (right), was private secretary to four British monarchs, including King George VI, which is when he met Prime Minister Winston Churchill (left) at a London banquet in 1949. Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
London Times reporter Valentine Low provides a fascinating examination of “the men and grey suits," who are the Royal Family’s most trusted advisers / BY Leanne Delap / February 17th, 2023
Palace courtiers – the men in grey suits, as Diana, Princess of Wales, infamously called them – are mostly anonymous, behind-the-scenes string pullers. But they have been much in the news lately, from the dramatizations of The Crown to the claims of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that courtiers were plotting against them and ignoring their mental health concerns.
Indeed, it was Meghan Markle who prompted The Times of London royal correspondent Valentine Low to write Courtiers: Intrigue, Ambition, and the Power Players Behind the House of Windsor. “Meghan made me do it,” he says in a phone interview from London. “Here is a quote from the back of the U.K. edition cover, from Meghan in the Oprah interview. She said, ‘there’s the family, then the people who are running the institution. Those are two separate things.’ When she said that, she was basically pointing the finger at the courtiers. So that begs the question: Who are they and what do they do? And are they as bad as she makes out?”
Technically, a courtier is an adviser to the King or Queen, subject to what Low terms “the vicissitudes of court,” meaning they can get swept in and out of the Royal Family’s extended household on a whim. To stay in the court, as we have learned from historical dramas in castles, is to plot a game of thrones, as it were.
Low, who has been a royal reporter for The Times since 2008, is best known for breaking the Meghan bullying staff scandal on the eve of the Oprah interview. He previously wrote a book about his allotment, which is Brit-speak for his garden plot, a subject he had turned over for several years in a newspaper column.
The Fine Points
Some of this book is what you could call inside baseball, a discussion of minutiae that only likeminded people – in this case, royal super fans – would find absorbing. I confess I have a capacity for a whole lot of detail about tiaras, yet this stuff is the meat of the royal story. Low tells it well, and he places his characters into the drama and holds your interest. Some of the names jump out, like Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, who was assistant private secretary to four monarchs (George V to Queen Elizabeth II), and who probably knew more royal secrets than anyone else. In The Crown, he was portrayed as a strict enforcer of traditionalism, thwarting both Edward VIII and Princess Margaret in their pursuit of divorces. Of Lascelles, who published his diaries in a 2006 book, King’s Counsellor, Low writes: “As a diarist, he is judgmental in the extreme, and scathing about bores…”
Low reveals that Princess Margaret had her own name for the courtiers: she called them “the moustache men.” In Lascelles’ day, courtiers were well educated and connected to high places: in other words, properly posh. As times changed, the palace roster has slowly started to represent more social classes, if not the diversity of the wider world. You start to see women hired as senior courtiers, for instance, circa 2010. Charles spent a great deal of time, Low reports, searching for outside business leaders willing to join his team. “I guess Charles felt that by getting people from different worlds, he might get people more in tune with his interests and enthusiasms. Which indeed he did. Get people to do what he wanted more effectively.”
The pay, however, is not commensurate with the private sector. The draw, then, is power. The essential question Low attempts to answer is, in his words: “Who wields the power? To what extent do servants play the master? And who – or what – do they serve?”
Even after digging through the history books and his contacts, Low admits the roles are amorphous. “I think no one really knows what they get up to. It’s quite a mysterious world, even to some of us who work [with them]. I know a lot of these people, but the book was a journey of discovery for me.” Things change slowly, he repeats. The phrase that courtiers use to stymie initiative is “not quite at this time,” says Low. “It is quite a palace malaise.”
A House Divided
This ring fencing of access to, and information about, the royals leads, inevitably, to the warring factions between royal households, which Low thinks is endemic. The peak was “the Charles and Diana years, when you had Charles’ household splitting in two. But, at that time, Charles was also often at odds with Buckingham Palace. There very concrete issues of power and influence and strategy that needed to be resolved.”
As for the fractious relationship between Harry and William’s households, Low believes it is somewhat overblown. “I think Harry exaggerates the extent to which they were at war. He exaggerates completely the extent to which William’s household was briefing [the press] against him. I don’t think that really happened at all.”
He doesn’t see Harry and Meghan’s departure as a great tragedy, although he believes it could have, and should have, been handled better. “I don’t think the fact they left the royal family was a disaster or even avoidable. I don’t think loyalty to the Royal Family should be a life sentence. I think if you are happy doing that sort of thing, great, but if it doesn’t suit you, you should be able to get out. Other royal families in Europe have handled that. What was a disaster was the way it was handled, or rather the way it wasn’t handled.”
He does treasure the Queen’s response to Meghan’s accusations of racism in the Royal Family following the Oprah interview in March 2021: “Some recollections may vary.” It was, says Low, “a brilliant phrase, and a rare example of a palace statement being interesting.”
The Fifth Estate
So, what is it like being part of the Royal Rota, the pool of reporters who have inside access to the family? “It’s not this evil cabal, walking hand in hand with the palace,” he says. “We are not spoon-fed stuff. Yes, you are very dependent on the palace for information, but there are other sources of information. We are just journalists.”
He doesn’t buy into Harry’s major plot point in his docu-series and memoir tour. “If you recounted to the palace Harry’s account that we are all in cahoots with them, I think they would laugh at you, because you know they exist in a state of constant tension with us.” As in: “We want information and a lot of times they don’t want to give it.”
He says the palace is quite professional with journalists, so long as no one is doing anything to break the rules or behave badly. As for the bullying scandal, which sparked an internal investigation by Buckingham Palace after Low interviewed staff who claimed the Duchess of Sussex browbeat them, he says: “The palace has got a very thick skin. They cope with these things. They may not like it. They may be a bit bruised, but largely they carry on treating you professionally.”
Courtiers has some fascinating history, and Low explains he had to jettison much more in edits. Of course, Harry and Meghan and William and Kate are the hot commodity, so they are on the North American cover of his book. So much of it is about modern-day events, but I agree with what Low is telling me in between the lines: all this is cyclical. Young, attractive royals come and go, and the courtiers are part of the mortar that holds the monarchy together. Sometimes there is push, sometimes pull. The institution, with a monarch who embodies a crown, a nation and a Commonwealth, has unwieldy dynamics, and no organizational structure is going to make things run smoothly. There will always be power struggles: there is a crown, after all, at the heart of it. But yes, the men in grey suits – the men with moustaches – could probably use a bit of a makeover. And maybe a raise, to attract broader talent and skillsets.