Book Review: King’s Counsellor: The Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles

Kings Counsellor: Abdication and War: The Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles (ed. Duff Hart-Davies, Weidenfiend and Nicolson £25)

The last volume of Sir Alan Lascelles’s diaries, published in 1989, left him disillusioned with the abdicating Edward VIII, whom he called ‘the most tragic might-have-been in all history’. Now, at last, we have some more. Finely written, frequently amusing, at times stern, they are spot on in their judgments and conclusions, and I found it impossible to put them down until I had devoured them in 24 hours.

Lascelles was a fascinating man. Evidently lacking in ambition, he was erudite (his admirable editor must have been deep into his Latin primer and Greek lexicon to provide us with footnotes), he loved music, was president of the Literary Society, and a member of Grillions. He ended his days as a bearded recluse in the Old Stables of Kensington Palace. In the meantime, he rose to be Private Secretary to George VI, serving in the latter years of the war and into the present reign.

Revisionist historians and documentary makers raking the embers to find alternative villains in the Abdication saga can do no better than to read Lascelles’ contemporary and later-life version of these events, to which he was a key witness. He concluded that it was not a moral issue, but that as the ‘vast majority of the King’s subjects were called upon to support a monarchy, they 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’.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall in October 1945 when Lascelles urged the Duke of Windsor to make a final sacrifice, accept his chosen lot, and leave his brother in peace. Lascelles is superb on Churchill and hilarious on Montgomery. The book also gives his version of the Townsend crisis, in which again he played a significant part, contradicting the later versions of Princess Margaret and Townsend, and proving that both were perfectly well briefed about their options.

Although the passages about the Duke of Windsor are, of course, intriguing, an unsung hero emerges subtly from these pages George VI, who gains in stature and wisdom as his brief and difficult reign progresses.

If the Royal Household ever had doubts about the merits of these diaries being published, then that is the vindication. On one matter Lascelles is not fully forthcoming, and that is the handover between himself and Alec Hardinge in 1943. I hope that one day the exchange of letters between them can be published, which will prove that Lascelles was rather more proactive in forcing Hardinge’s hand than he was prepared to admit in this fascinating diary.