It is thirty years to the day that Sir Alan, or Tommy, Lascelles died. He served as a royal courtier for most of his professional life, rising to become Private Secretary to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. His name is remembered today for it was given to a set of conditions he envisaged - The Lascelles Principles - which should allow a Sovereign to refuse a Prime Minister’s request to dissolve Parliament. But he also left behind some diaries, all the more interesting for their glimpses into privileged drawing rooms.
Lascelles was born at Sutton Waldron House, Dorset, in 1887 the son of Commander Frederick Canning Lascelles and Frederica Maria Liddell. He studied at Marlborough College and Oxford, before serving as a cavalry officer in the Bedford Yeomanry during the First World War, and subsequently becoming Aide-de-Camp to Lord Lloyd, the Governor of Bombay. On returning to England in 1920, he married Joan Frances Vere Thesiger with whom he had three children, and he was appointed Assistant Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales.
In the first half of the 1930s, Lascelles was secretary to the Governor General of Canada. Between 1935 and 1942, he served King George V and King George VI as Assistant Private Secretary; and from 1943 to 1953 he served King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II as Private Secretary. He was also Keeper of the Royal Archives. Towards the end of his professional life, in 1950, he wrote a now-famous letter to The Times setting out the conditions under which the Sovereign could wisely refuse a request of the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament - later these became known as The Lascelles Principles.
After retiring in 1953, Lascelles became chairman of the Historic Buildings Council for England, chairman of the Pilgrim Trust, and a director of the Midland Bank. He also held the office of Extra Equerry to Elizabeth II until his death, on 10 August 1981. For further information see Wikipedia or thePeerage.com.
Lascelles kept a diary all his life, and extracts from these were published, along with a selection of letters, in several volumes between 1986 and 2006. The first two - End of an Era: Letters and Journals of Sir Alan Lascelles 1887-1920 and In Royal Service: the Letters and Journals of Sir Alan Lascelles 1920-1936 - were published by Hamilton in the 1980s. Another volume - King’s Counsellor - Abdication and War: the Diaries of ‘Tommy’ Lascelles - was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2006. All three volumes were edited by Duff Hart-Davis.
John Adamson in the Sunday Telegraph said, of the most recent volume, Lascelles’ diary ‘offers fascinating and hitherto unseen glimpses of some of the most significant figures of our age . . . however, none emerges more engagingly than the diarist himself’. And Dominic Sandbrook in the Evening Standard called the book ‘an elegant and precise diary’ which provides ‘a revealing glimpse into the drawing rooms of the great during the years of crisis and victory’.
Here are a few extracts from End of an Era, in which a youthful Lascelles shows a lively sense of interest in women, other diarist, and poking fun at authority!
16 May 1908
‘Lunched in Cadogan Square, and Cynthia Charteris and Mary Vesey came on to the theatre with us. Really, I believe those two are the most perfectly beautiful pair of creatures on this earth. Cynthia is at present the lovelier of the two, but won’t be in five years’ time. Now her beauty simply strikes one like a blow the moment she enters the room - and the more one looks, the more perfect it grows. But Mary V. is far the nicer of the two; she is a person of decided opinions, and with the most delightfully impulsive manner.’
For more on the diarist Cynthia Charteris see Heartbreaking day and The Diary Junction.
27 June 1911
‘The Coronation; up at cock-crow and escorted Maud to our seats in Montagu House. I marvelled that people should have given themselves so much trouble for so singularly unimpressive a ceremony. Dined v. happily at Brooks’s with Edward; and then on through crowded streets to Downing Street, where we picked up the Prime Minister, his entire family, D. [Lister], Kath, Venetia Stanely etc. Escorted by a policeman and a detective who spoke seven languages and never opened his mouth in one of them, we plunged into Pall Mall and wondered for hours looking at the illuminations and trying to extract humour from an annoyingly sober and ordered crowd. At Trafalgar Square the PM when home to bed, and we could join more freely in the sports of the people. I had hoped someone would have recognised him and started a demonstration but except for one man who exclaimed, ‘There’s Asquith - I should like to go and break his head,’ he excited no feeling. It was fun singing Gourdouli all down the Strand, and I nearly got run in for putting a paper cap on a policeman’s helmet, and was only saved by the intervention of our escort. Poor man, he was heartily ashamed of us.’
For another diary view of that Coronation Day see - A terrible ordeal
23 October 1911
‘Up to London . . . to Callow’s shop, where I told them to send rather a jolly hunting-whip to Diana [Lister], and, as Samuel Pepys observed piously on similar occasions, I pray God do make me able to pay for it.’
21 November 1919
‘ ‘W N P Barbellion’ is dead. This must be a shock to many reviewers, who, when The Journal of a Disappointed Man appeared, with a preface by H G Wells, said, ‘You can’t deceive us. Wells wrote this book himself’. But it seems you can, for a man called Bruce Cummings wrote it, and, as I say, he’s dead, at the age of 30.’
For more on the diarist Barbellion see The lure of birds’ eggs and The Diary Junction.