Crowning story: interview with historian and royal biographer Robert Lacey
Surrey-born historian and acclaimed royal biographer Robert Lacey talks to John Thynne about a life spent behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace
One of the Queen’s private secretaries once said the function of the monarchy is to roll out a carpet of happiness – and, you know, it is,” says renowned historian and biographer Robert Lacey.
There are few people who know more about our monarch than Lacey. He has been writing about the Queen for 40 years and is perhaps best known for Majesty, a ground-breaking look at Elizabeth’s first 25 years on the throne, and Royal, released in 2002 to coincide with the Golden Jubilee. His latest instalment A Brief Life of the Queen builds on those works and is published in time for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations – a huge party that’s guaranteed to lift the nation’s spirits. He arrives at Guildford’s G Live on May 26 to talk about it.
Lacey, 68, says he has been fortunate enough to have met the Queen “half a dozen times. I always emphasise that I have never interviewed her. The Queen does not give interviews. I have interviewed Prince Philip, Lord Mountbatten and other members of the family. I’ve travelled with her on her royal tours. That’s a very good time to… it’s presumptuous to say ‘to get to know her’ … but you’re all travelling as a group and there’s a sort of esprit de corp. There’s always one party for everybody on the trip and that’s when you get a chance to talk to her about things.”
And according to Lacey, Her Majesty is far less detached from the rest of us than you might imagine.
“What you find when you meet her is what a modest and self-effacing person she is,” he says. “I think the reason why people have, through good times and bad, kept their respect for her is that nobody thinks she’s too big for her boots.”
While freely admitting that she has enjoyed the privileges of a royal life, he points out that the Queen was brought up during the Great Depression and has seen a succession of economic crises envelope the country. He tells the story of how the teenage Princess Elizabeth’s nursery maid, dresser and confidante, Margaret ‘Bobo’ MacDonald, taught her to unwrap her birthday and Christmas presents carefully so she could press out the paper and use it again for herself.
“She’s very thrifty – she goes round the Palace at night making sure the lights are switched off,” says Lacey.
Other surprises lie in store in A Brief Life. “This book is the first really to look at the Queen’s view of Diana which, as I show, was actually surprisingly supportive. She’d known Diana from childhood. It was crucial to the Queen that she should succeed as a member of the Royal Family and she did everything to help her do that.”
He points to how, following Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, the Queen took the unprecedented step of summoning all the Fleet Street editors to Buckingham Palace, “asking them to go easy” on the new Princess. And when the couple separated in 1992, Elizabeth insisted that Diana continued to live life as a royal.
“The Queen said, ‘She’s still the Princess of Wales. She still must have an office in St James’ Palace, she can still use the royal plane, the royal train. She may be separated from Prince Charles but she’s still a member of the team.”
Lacey believes that the Queen still plays a vital role in modern society and that “she represents the best of Britain – the most dignified of Britain, what is historical about Britain but also what is willing to change.” He says he was struck by the significance of the Queen’s visit to Ireland last year.
“That really symbolised the reconciliation. I went to Ireland a few weeks later and I was astonished by how moved people were by the fact that the Queen had spoken a bit of Irish and had worn a shamrock and had bowed her head to the men and women who had died. That’s something that no prime minister can do.”
Although he was educated at Bristol Grammar School and attended Selwyn College, Cambridge, Lacey is, in fact, a local boy born in Holmbury St Mary near Dorking.
“My parents were evacuated there during the war and I spent the first couple of years of my life – although I don’t remember much about it – living in the countryside outside Guildford. In later life we would occasionally go back to visit the cottage where I grew up so I have very fond memories of the Surrey countryside.”
He started his career as a journalist with the Illustrated London News and The Sunday Times before turning to writing full time in 1974. He has by no means been restricted to writing about royalty, though, and boasts a diverse and impressive back catalogue including biographies of Sir Walter Raleigh, Grace Kelly and Henry Ford as well as The Queens of the North Atlantic (the stories of the Cunard liners Mary and Elizabeth) and Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class, an account of life behind the scenes at the world’s oldest auction house.
Lacey is well known for throwing himself into his work – he lived in Detroit and worked on the car assembly line while researching his Ford book and, perhaps even more impressively, moved to the Middle East while he worked on The Kingdom, the story of Saudi Arabia at the end of the oil boom. In 2009 he produced the follow-up, Inside the Kingdom, which, according to Lacey’s website “is a story of oil money that opened the door to Western ways, and produced a conservative backlash with effects that are still being felt today… a story of a people attempting to reconcile the religious separatism of the past and the rapidly changing world with which they are increasingly intertwined.”
Although both latter books have been banned from distribution in Saudi Arabia, they are considered important study texts at universities.
He is now working on a new book about a lady called Eileen Ford, who created one of the world’s first modelling agencies, but despite this varied line-up, Lacey insists the royal projects are his favourites.
“The British monarchy touches the hearts of so many people over the world. The more I travel, the more proud I am of the monarchy and the way in which something like last year’s royal wedding totally eclipsed every other event in the world. Everywhere I went – in Saudi Arabia and America – it was all that people wanted to talk about.
“I think, therefore, that it’s something very precious that we sometimes lose sight of but the good thing about a jubilee is that it reminds us of what joy it spreads.”
Robert Lacey will be speaking about A Brief Life of the Queen (RRP £9.99), a 156-page hardback featuring 48 illustrations and photographs, at G Live in Guildford from 7.30pm on Saturday May 26.
See the G Live website for more information.