Thirteen months after King Charles began his reign, writer Hugo Vickers has one small complaint: his majesty’s oft-reported plan to see a more slimmed-down monarchy might be unrealistic. “I don’t know who’s going to do all the work!” Vickers said in a recent interview. “People either want celebrities or they want the royal family, and they’d have a much better deal out of the royal family. I can assure you celebrities are very demanding and not very reliable.”
For nearly half a century, the biographer and broadcaster has been a premier observer of Britain’s aristocracy as it adjusted its traditions and worldviews for the modern age. In the 1970s, he tracked down the reclusive Duchess of Marlborough in a psychiatric hospital and turned what he learned over two years of conversations into a biography, reissued in 2021 as The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon – Duchess of Marlborough. Ever since, he has documented the royals and their orbit in their highs and lows, even seeking Prince Philip’s personal recollections for a biography about his mother, Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece. His relationships with courtiers and understanding of the royal family’s day-to-day life have given him a unique point of view on the challenges that King Charles has faced as he ascended to the throne.
Along with his books, Vickers has become a lecturer who interprets the history and symbolism of the monarchy for Americans, and it’s turned him into one of the institution’s most committed and visible defenders. This weekend, he will be a marquee speaker at the debut edition of the Empire State Rare Book and Print Fair. Founded by Eve and Edward Lemon of Fine Book Fairs, the event will fill midtown Manhattan’s St. Bartholomew’s Church with over 50 exhibitors and a slate of events aimed at getting a generation of young people excited about collecting. In conversation with writer and auctioneer Nicholas Nicholson, Vickers will discuss his views on the future of the monarchy and the legacy of the late queen.
In an interview before he traveled to New York, Vickers said he knows that promoting a hereditary monarchy might seem outdated, but he’s seen its benefits up close. “I know it’s unfashionable to promote anything being hereditary as opposed to on merit, but it does have its great advantages, because there’s a humility that goes with that. The queen was tremendously aware that she wasn’t there except by accident of birth,” he said, adding that he thinks King Charles has taken a similar approach. “I think it works very well. You wouldn’t invent it, necessarily, but it’s there.”
So far, he is giving Charles positive marks for his performance as king, emphasizing his energy and the success of his trip to Germany in March and France in September. “I think he’s doing a good job—and his two state visits abroad so far have been immensely successful,” Vickers said. “He is a real workaholic. He doesn’t really eat lunch. He has a big dinner in the evening, but he’s at his desk most of the time.”
Vickers notes that the job of monarch is time-consuming. “It’s a bit like being the CEO of a company. The trouble is, as you know, when you get to the top, you spend your time administering rather than doing what you necessarily want to do. You have to deal with so many problems,” he said. “He’s taken on a lot at this age. Suddenly the boxes are coming and he’s got to get through them, and he does it.”
But along with the busywork comes a lot of responsibility. Vickers cited one event as an example of the power a monarch must possess in order to do their job. Days after a tragic fire in Grenfell Tower killed 72 people in June 2017, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William traveled to visit the survivors. “When she went to [visit the victims], in a sense what she did was to bring with her all the other places that she’d been to where there’d been great tragedies, like Aberfan and Dunblane,” he said. “She wasn’t doing it for political purposes, she was comforting her people, her nation, if you like.”
The queen’s presence was a marker of social inclusion and appreciation for all that the community had lost—and proof that the tragedy would be remembered. “As time went on, she had this enormous portfolio of such things,” Vickers added. “So the fact that she spent a few minutes with the suffering was incredibly valuable and much appreciated, I think. It had an aura of magic about it to be quite honest.” He cited the speech Charles gave the day after the death of his mother as an example of his burgeoning ability to adopt the same role.
As for Queen Camilla, he has appreciated her lighthearted approach. “Gradually she’s adopted various causes and again, it must be quite difficult because it’s quite hard work and she’s a certain age,” he said. “She has this sort of slightly blasé streak in her character, which is actually very helpful because she’s not at all vindictive. She’s not taken revenge against any of the people who were nasty to her before. She’s just let all that just slide off her, which is very admirable. She just gets on with it.”
Having experienced so much negative press before taking the throne really differentiates the new king and queen from his parents. It’s a reflection of how life has changed for everyone in the royal orbit. “In the past, I suppose, people were able to lead a private life behind the scenes, which people on the whole didn’t really know about,” he said. Most of Vickers’s work has focused on uncovering the secrets long after most people involved had passed away. “Now everybody knows everything, so that makes it difficult. It is more difficult to respect people if you know they’ve done something really stupid, isn’t it?”
In our conversation, I noted that his concerns were slightly reminiscent of the scathing response to Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, Vickers wrote earlier this year. Though he mostly focused on the factual flubs that likely wouldn’t have evaded a committed royal historian, his main complaint was what he saw as Harry’s disrespect to the system that had given him so much privilege.
“It’s much better when the royal family are supporting the monarch and doing things for the nation than doing things for themselves, which always seems to go wrong somehow,” he explained of his frustration with the prodigal prince and his exit to America. He still thinks that Harry and Meghan Markle will regret leaving a life of service. “Within that framework, it works very well. Once you go out on a limb, it doesn’t seem to work so well in my experience.”
That said, he thinks the suggestion that the monarchy might be at risk is greatly exaggerated. “There’s quite a lot of interest,” he said. “I give talks in school sometimes. The kids that I’m talking to are probably halfway there, but it seems to be very positive. I don’t think there’s any fear for them—I’m not particularly worried about it.”
Ultimately, the fate of the institution is already in the hands of Prince William and Princess Kate. Vickers said he hoped the couple would take on a bigger role traveling the Commonwealth in the future and was disappointed that William wasn’t on hand for the Women’s World Cup final earlier this year. But he cited an April 2020 Instagram video of Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis honoring essential workers during the pandemic as evidence that the couple is going to try to follow the example of past generations of royals in introducing their families to service.
“I very often use that picture of the little three little kids, and I say it’s their first real engagement with public life. They’ve done quite a lot since then, but they will remember it and that they came out and did their bit. I mean, that’s such a great family,” he said. It was also a sign that their mother was expanding her role too. “I thought that all Catherine had to do was be a good mother and be seen in pretty clothes taking her children to school—that kind of thing. But she suddenly started to talk to us, and we listened.”
Vickers sees plenty of promise in one of the children specifically. “One to keep an eye on is Princess Charlotte—she’s amazing. It’s like a grown-up masquerading as an eight-year-old, I’ve watched her very carefully,” he said. “When Princess Charlotte was leaving St. George’s Chapel after the committal service for the queen’s funeral, you could see her thinking, Well, here’s another prelate I have to say goodbye to, goodbye. She shook the hand of the dean and then she got into the car and she sort of brushed her coat down, like ladies do.”
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