Entertaining English Royalty

Shooting party including King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra

AT the time of the Tranby Croft baccarat case a very bitter and powerful article appeared in one of the leading English weekly papers, entitled “Purveyors to the Royal Family.” Without actual mention by name of any of the wealthy plutocrats whom the Prince of Wales at that time delighted to honor with frequent visits, the whole circle were held up to scorn as spending not only their worldly substance but in some cases their health and the major portion of their time in entertaining the numerous members of the royal family, by whom, it was pointed out, they could but be regarded as superior hotel-keepers.

Severe as was the indictment, the rebuke administered to those in high quarters was to a great extent merited, and there is no doubt that since the lamentable scandal of the autumn of 1890 far more care has been taken, both by the Prince of Wales and by those whose duty it is to advise him in such matters, as to the selection of royalty’s hosts.

In this connection it is interesting to see what manner of men and women they are whose privilege it is to entertain members of the royal family. As a young married woman, Queen Victoria paid visits from time to time to the country-houses of those whom Disraeli, with his nice choice of words, rightly entitled “the high nobility;” and often these royal visits were splendid and imposing functions and cost the entertainers immense sums, in some cases the whole house being refurnished in honor of a visit from the Sovereign. On the other hand, when spending a brief holiday in Scotland, the Queen paid quite informal calls on those of her neighbors with whom she felt on a really friendly footing. In that portion of her. early “Diary” which she has given to the world are to be found some charming descriptions of visits paid by her and by the Prince to various Highland homes, notably to Inveraray, the famous home of the Duke of Argyll, where they saw for the first time their future son-in-law, the Marquis of Lome, then aged two years, and, to use the words in which the Queen recorded her impression, “a pretty, fair, fat little fellow.”

But neither the Queen nor Prince Albert—for, as is well known, the Prince Consort early made it a rule never to pay any visits without his wife—ever made even the shortest of sojourns beneath the roof of any person who was not of illustrious or distinguished position. In other words, the host of royalty had in those days either to be by birth a member of the great British nobility, or he must have achieved a position by his own merit, or by those exceptional qualities of head and heart which lead to the honorable building-up of a huge mercantile fortune. It may be safely asserted that during the first twenty years of the Queen’s reign the hosts of royalty were invariably those whose selection for the honor seemed perfectly natural, and excited no surprise whatever.

To the premature death of the Prince Consort may be directly traced the state of things which some years ago made possible the Tranby Croft episode. Queen Victoria has taken no part since her widowhood in social life. With the exception of a very few informal visits to her old friends and faithful servants, including the famous morning call at Hughenden, when her Majesty honored Lord Beaconsfield by a visit, none, even of those who may be said to have a presumptive right to entertain the Sovereign, have been distinguished by this mark of royal favor. Meanwhile, an immense circle of royal personages, all eager to be amused and entertained, and, it may be hinted, in many cases not overmuch blessed with this world’s goods, have taken the lead of English society. While forming as it were a caste apart, they have from a curiously large variety of motives—of which the two most conspicuous, perhaps, are love of amusement and good nature—allowed themselves to forget, in this matter of accepting lavish hospitality, not only their dignity but the nice sense of honor embodied in the motto: “Noblesse oblige.”

It is said that early in her married life the Princess of Wales made up her mind that in a very real sense her husband’s people should be her people and his friends her friends. There must have been a time when the future Queen of England could have drawn a very sharp line between those whom she considered worthy of her friendship and the larger circle who seemed to take delight in occupying even the lowliest position in the train of a royal personage. These distinctions the Princess till lately deliberately ignored, and while herself regarded, and rightly so, as the very ideal of what a woman should be, she has done nothing to check the vulgarity, ostentation, and reckless extravagance now characteristic of a very large section of English society.

Twenty to thirty years ago, that is to say in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, there was formed a group of men and women who became familiarly known as “the Marlborough House set.” Of this set it is remarkable how few ” survive,” in the social sense. Some, indeed, have really died, notably Mr. Christopher Sykes, nicknamed the “Benefactor,” and Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, while others, not less conspicuous in their day, have suffered social extinction and have ” gone under,” of whom perhaps the most obvious example is Sir William Gordon-Gumming. At the present moment the Prince of Wales has but few contemporaries with whom he was really intimate as a young man, but such a circle reconstitutes itself with magic celerity, and in however sudden and tragic a fashion the void has been created, there have been always plenty who are eager to step in and take their chance of meeting with the same fate.

It has been computed, though of course such statistics are impossible to obtain with any accuracy, that the entertainment of royalty costs English society each year two millions sterling,—that is to say, fully ten million dollars. Hardly a week passes, save at those comparatively rare times when the whole of the British royal family is plunged into the deepest family mourning, without some fortunate persons finding themselves in the position .of host and hostess to a royal personage. A very clear distinction is still drawn between those houses where the Prince and Princess of Wales go together in semi-state, and those to which the Prince invites his own friends. In the latter case it is understood that he is quite at liberty to make a convenience of his hosts in every sense, and of course it was on such an occasion that the incidents which led to the great baccarat case occurred. The British plutocrat who desires to entertain royalty, buys or hires an estate close to one of the great race-courses. Tranby Croft, destined to mark an epoch in the social history of England, was a case in point. The Prince and a party entirely composed of his own immediate friends were staying with Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wilson during the St. Leger week, and, as became clear at the trial, the baccarat which was got up each evening on the royal party’s return from Doncaster races was played in absolute disregard and defiance to the host’s feeling, though the Prince of Wales—who is personally a courteous and well-bred man of the world—would certainly not have sanctioned even the mild gambling which then took place had he been aware of Mr. Wilson’s feeling on the subject.

It would be very difficult to lay down any hard and fast rules as to what are the special gifts and, it may be added, peculiarities required of those who form the charmed circle of entertainers of royalty, an exception of course being made in favor of the great nobility, who apparently regard the privilege as a not altogether desirable appanage of their position. Although great, or at any rate apparent, wealth is of course an essential, the golden key does not necessarily open the door to a royal visitor. But still human nature, even royal human nature, loves to be entertained, and several of the most successful hosts of royalty owe the favor with which they are regarded to their power of providing new and original forms of amusement. The late Mr. Christopher Sykes, who was for so many years one of the closest of the Prince’s intimates, was a Yorkshire gentleman of no great position in the world until he became known as his future King’s fidus Achates. Not only the Prince of Wales but the Princess and the young Princesses were very fond of Mr. Sykes; he was a frequent guest at Sandringham, and his fatal illness began while he was on a visit to the Duke and Duchess of Fife.

Even at the present time, when it may be so emphatically said that the old order changeth, certain definite rules obtain as to the visiting arrangements of feminine royalty. Thus it is considered a breach of etiquette for either the Queen or the Princess of Wales to be the guest of a bachelor or a widower. The Princess of Wales has only once or twice broken this rule, notably, now many years ago, in favor of her future son-in-law, then the Earl of Fife, who was a son of one of her early friends. Again, it has become known that the Princess does not care to be asked to meet component parts of “semi-detached” couples. Accordingly, when the Prince and Princess visit some great English country house, the list of proposed guests, before being submitted to their Royal Highnesses, is made up in absolute deference to the Princess’s wishes in this respect. A complete list of those whom royalty will be compelled to meet as fellow-guests is invariably submitted, whether the visit be long or short, formal or informal, and from a social point of view nothing can be more unfortunate than a royal taboo. The number of people whom the Prince of Wales is always pleased to meet is curiously limited. He remains very faithful to old friends, but his taste is eclectic. As all the world knows, he is very fond of Americans, and among those who have the gift of amusing and interesting both the Prince and Princess of Wales is Lady Randolph Churchill, who is nearly always included in a royal house-party.

Among the minor rules and regulations which must be learned by those who have the felicity of meeting royalty for the first time on the kind of equality brought about by being members of the same country house party, that concerning mourning is the most explicit. Thus, if a royal princess in deep mourning accept an invitation to a house, all those invited to meet her must equally appear clad in the deepest black, and those who are often thrown with royalty are practically compelled never to travel without the hundred and one accessories of dress which go to make a half-mourning wardrobe. This curious rule also applies to those personages who are simply asked to a dinner party honored by the presence of royalty, and it has not unfrequently happened that, owing to the thoughtlessness of the hostess in sending out the invitations, unpleasant contretemps have occurred, for the rule is one of those which even the most jovial and kindly of royal personages does not care to see broken.

With but few exceptions all the great historic houses in England, Scotland, and Ireland have a royal suite of apartments which are, in many cases, notably at Goodwood House, at Chatsworth, at Eaton Hall, at Inveraray, at Dunrobin, at Welbeck Abbey, never used save on the occasion of a royal visit. This suite of room, which has often been furnished especially in deference to the personal idiosyncrasies of the Prince and Princess of Wales and their children, generally forms a kind of large flat, practically self-contained, and entirely cut of? from a too near proximity to the rest of the establishment.

During a sojourn at a great country house royal personages do not spend very much of their time with their fellow-guests; they breakfast and spend the morning in their own rooms, and rarely even join the house party at lunch,—in fact, very often a royal visitor is scarcely seen by his host or hostess till tea-time. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but in practice as well as in theory royal guests are, in the United Kingdom, made to feel themselves in a very literal sense at home in the houses of those whom they honor with a visit.

Owing to its close proximity to a famous race-course, Goodwood House, the splendid Sussex seat of the Duke of Richmond, has received during the present century more royal visits than any other country-house in England. There the best suite of rooms in the house is really used only one week in the year, and this in spite of the fact that priceless art treasures form part of the permanent furnishing of the rooms. Thus the pretty apartment known as the Princess’s drawing-room is hung with a set of the most valuable Gobelin tapestries in the world, a present from Louis XV. of France to the third Duke of Richmond. In the state bedroom is hung Titian’s “Sleeping Venue,” and in the study specially dedicated to the use of the Prince ‘of Wales is the original of Hogarth’s famous “The Lady’s Last Stake.” Owing to the Duke of Richmond’s increasing age and infirmities, and also to the absence of the Princess of Wales from England, the usual country-house party will not be gathered together this year. Instead the Prince of Wales will stay en gargon at Westdean Park, his host and hostess being Mr. and Mrs. Willie James, the latter, who is a daughter of Helen, Lady Forbes of Newe, having always been a great favorite with the royal family.

Comparatively lately the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Westdean for a week during the shooting season; at the time this was considered somewhat of a social departure, for it has very rarely occurred that the Heir Apparent and the future Queen have honored a commoner in this fashion. On this occasion a royal suite of rooms was of course improvised, for Westdean, beautiful and imposing as is the house, is comparatively limited as regards accommodation. The house party brought together to meet the Prince and Princess, though exceptionally brilliant, spent a very quiet time, the ladies, while the men were out shooting, taking part in a truffle hunt, West Sussex being noted for truffles.

Royal visits may be divided into the semi-state and the entirely private; the former occupy in the royal engagement-book the position of what old-fashioned people used to style ” duty calls.” When any member of the royal family is asked to lay a foundation-stone, to open a local municipal building, and so on, the great local magnates place themselves and their houses at the disposal of the royal visitor. The proceedings are almost invariably the same, the royal couple, whether they be the Prince and .Princess of Wales or the Duke and Duchess of York, know that though their convenience will be consulted, their private feelings will not be considered more than need be. A presentation takes place at whatever may be the nearest town, that is to say, where the railway stops, and once the municipal authorities have had their say, the drive to the country-house where the royal party will be “put up” for the night takes place in a carriage and four, accompanied by an escort of the local yeomanry and a guard of honor, between lines of staring, cheering country people. The guests composing the house party asked to meet their Royal Highnesses are largely local in character, and after the royal dinner-party many informal presentations take place. The day following the arrival of royalty to the neighborhood is generally a very busy one, for the royal personages naturally desire to thoroughly complete, as it were, their round of duty in that particular neighborhood. There is no town of any importance in the United Kingdom that has not at some time or other been officially visited by a leading royal personage, but those whose duty it is to organize the daily round and common tasks of royalty take care that its favors should be equally distributed all over the country.

More interesting from every point of view are the royal hospitalities frequently organized by the great nobility. Among the favored hosts of the Prince and Princess of Wales are Lord and Lady Londonderry. During the last ten years the Prince has visited Wynyard three times, and in 1890 the Princess and the late Duke of Clarence accompanied him. At Wynyard royalty is entertained in the good old style. Lord Londonderry is in no way ashamed of the fact that he is a retail coal dealer, and when the royal visitors arrive in the evening they literally drive through an avenue of fires on either side of the splendid approach to the house, the horses having, of course, been trained to take no notice of the, to them, terrifying phenomenon. The estate is famous for its excellent shooting; during one royal visit seven thousand head fell to seven guns in four days, the largest bag made being over two thousand seven hundred.

It is said that the Princess of Wales is fond of staying with young married people, and certainly one of the most successful royal visits paid of late years was that which took place in the late autumn of 1S9C to the newly married Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. By special wish of the Princess the house party was largely composed of the Duchess’s countrymen and countrywomen. During the royal visit at Blenheim eight thousand four hundred and twelve head of game were killed in four days, the bag including over two thousand pheasants and six thousand rabbits. Although the royal visit was more or less private in character, the Prince and Princess were present at a great concert given in their honor by the Duke and Duchess, and the latter also organized some very successful and brilliant private theatricals, these being, curiously enough, a very favorite form of diversion with the royal family; it was on this occasion that Lady Randolph Churchill made her debut as an amateur actress in “An Idle Hour,” a musical burlesque composed by Mr. Ian Malcolm, in which she took the part of an American lady journalist. The Prince and Princess and the other guests appeared so genuinely to enjoy the performance that amateur theatricals are now nearly always included among the various amusements provided for royal visitors, both at Chatsworth, where the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire frequently entertain royalty, and at Welbeck Abbey, where the Duke and Duchess of Portland have many original ways of amusing their guests, for Welbeck is not only one of the most marvellous treasure-houses of the world, but possesses, in addition to the extraordinary subterranean rooms which are absolutely unique, a riding-school and a stud farm, to which frequent expeditions are always made on the occasion of every royal visit.

The royal suite of rooms at Welbeck rival those which the Duke of Richmond is able to place at the disposal of royal guests. There, in a room never occupied save by a royal visitor, is perhaps the most beautiful early portrait of the Princess of Wales in existence.

It is a curious fact that the farther off a great country-house is from town, the more informally conducted are the royal house parties which take place there. This is especially the case with more important Scottish country-seats; there, particularly during the autumn, sport reigns supreme. One of the great amusements of royalty when stopping in Scotland is fishing, and the Princess of “Wales, her daughters, and her nieces spend much of their time when there on the hanks of the Dee and other noted salmon rivers; indeed, fishing may be said to be the only out-door sport thoroughly enjoyed by the future QueenEmpress. During one of her brief visits to Ireland, within an hour of her arrival at Convamore, Lord Listowal’s splendid place, the Princess insisted upon going out for an hour’s salmon fishing. In this connection it is curious to recall that only on one occasion is there practically no difference made in honor of a visit from royalty; that is at the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin, for the Viceroy is technically the Sovereign, he precedes any royal visitor on all public occasions, and life at Dublin Castle, even during the royal visit, is stately and monotonous in the extreme. The day commences with prayers, invariably attended by the Viceroy and Vicereine; breakfast is served at four round tables, but royal guests never attend the first meal of the day; lunch is more or less informal, and when the Prince and Princess of Wales are in Dublin they partake of this meal in their own rooms. Dinner is a splendid and very formal meal, everyone being placed according to his or her rank, and when the time comes for the ladies to leave the dining-room, those nearest on each side to the Viceroy turn and courtesy to him.

The Prince of Wales has constantly been the guest of the wealthy Jews, who now form so important a section of English society. He is on really intimate terms with the Rothschild; indeed, he was present at the marriage of Mr. Leopold de Rothschild to Miss Perugia, and this at a time when no English prince had attended a synagogue since the year 1809. He was constantly the guest of the late Baron de Rothschild at Waddesdon, and he has paid many informal visits to Sir Edward Lawson, the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, at Hall Barn, while his intimacy with Baron Hirsch gave rise, as all the world knows, to a good deal of talk, it being hinted that he was indebted to the latter for large sums of money, though those in his confidence have authoritatively denied it.

With the rather singular exception of the Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lome, and of the Duke and Duchess of Fife, who very rarely pay visits, all the Queen’s children and grandchildren are constantly entertained in the houses of the great nobility and of those whose wealth makes them agreeable and convenient hosts to royal personages. In this matter of royal entertaining it is essentially more blessed to give than to receive, for with the solitary exception of the Prince and Princess of Wales, who are hospitality personified and who give each year a considerable number of both large and small house parties at Sandringham, no member of the royal family entertains his or her friends, if certain trifling exceptions be made. This somewhat singular state of things is said to be owing in a measure to the formally expressed wish of the Queen.

On the other hand, the Prince and Princess of Wales are, unless in the very deepest mourning, rarely alone at Sandringham; even at Christmas time they generally have with them a few old friends who would otherwise be alone: A good deal that is true and probably more that is apocryphal has been written about the Prince of Wales’ country home. The royal host and hostess are extremely courteous to their guests, and the stately aloofness which is said to be the rule at Windsor Castle and at Balmoral is at Sandringham conspicuous by its absence. Still even there the Prince and Princess, as is perhaps not unnatural, live their own lives to a great extent apart from those of their guests. All the usual country-house amusements, lawn tennis, croquet, golf, a bowling-alley, a fine billiard-room, a suite of splendid libraries, and whatever sport may happen to be in season, are provided, but even the Prince rarely makes his appearance before lunch. The housekeeping, it may be mentioned, is also on the most lavish scale: to take the question of meals, the day begins with a huge breakfast, followed at a very short interval by lunch, where good old British dishes—Irish stew, beef steak and on ions, beans and bacon—strangle with French entrees; then follows afternoon tea, a long and elaborate dinner, and finally supper. At tea brandies and sodas, sherries and bitters, and during the shooting season cockle soup, are served in the afternoon.

The Sandringham shooting-parties, though they cannot stand in the very first rank, seem to be very much enjoyed by those who have the privilege of taking part in them. It has been said that the Sandringham woods are stocked with an abundance of game more various than can be found in any other portion of Norfolk, although that county is famed for its pheasants, partridges, and wild ducks. What may be called the mise en scene is charmingly picturesque. Over one hundred men working on the estate in various capacities turn out as beaters; their uniform is composed of royal blue blouses, low-crowned hats, knickerbockers, and long brown gaiters. The head keeper, a very important personage, whose income would be very much appreciated by many an under-secretary of state, has a perfect army of under-keepers. In old days, before the Prince entertained large bachelor parties, the Princess and her feminine guests generally joined the shooting-party at lunch, and there again the moderation and good taste of which the Prince of Wales seems to have the instinct always showed itself, for the meal, though ample and suitable, was not in any sense a gorgeous spread. No game bagged on the Sandringham estate is sold; a large proportion is packed the same day for despatch to local and London hospitals. Pheasant-rearing is carried on very seriously on the Sandringham estate, and it is quite usual for one day’s shoot to realize over one thousand birds. On one occasion during four days three thousand nine hundred and forty-six pheasants fell to the Prince and eight other guns. The best day ever known at Sandringham was the last day of the year 1885, when ten guns killed three thousand head, including one thousand two hundred and seventy-five pheasants. The rabbit-shooting at Sandringham is noted, something like ten thousand being killed in one year. The Prince is said to be the best shot in the royal family. The Sandringham shooting-parties never number more than ten guns.

In connection with the question of royal country-house visits a great deal of nonsense has been talked as to the gambling which is carried on both at Sandringham and at other great country house parties intimately connected with royalty. Undoubtedly the Prince of Wales has had a good deal to do with the introduction of the present craze for card games, his own favorite among them being Bridge, but of late years, at any rate, the Prince has discouraged high play and has used his influence, which is very considerable, in checking it.

~ McBride’s Magazine (1899)


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