Monday, October 22, 2012

Entertaining Royalty in Belle Époque Britain

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.
Read the rest here.

A note of caution; if you are an animal lover you may want to just skip this post.

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