Sunday, 5 September 2010

New books: Edward VII and his times

Although best known as the former palace employee whose opinions on nearly everything the royal family do have caused Ari Behn to declare a personal vendetta against him, Carl-Erik Grimstad is also a political scientist and as such one of the few academics to take a scholarly interest in the Norwegian monarchy. I therefore had great expectations for his book Dronning Mauds arv when it was published in April, but the book sadly failed to live up to the expectations.
The book’s title can be translated as both “Queen Maud’s inheritance” and “Queen Maud’s heritage” and both meanings of the Norwegian word “arv” are relevant to this book. Grimstad’s incentive for writing it was that the journalist Ståle de Kofoed Lange found a stack of documents about a conflict between the British royal family and King Haakon on behalf of his wife over the interpretation of their marriage contract and Queen Maud’s inheritance from her father, King Edward VII of Britain.
Grimstad has not succeeded in finding out how the quarrel ended, but he shows how Appleton House in the grounds of Sandringham was redefined by King George V from being a wedding present from Edward VII, as Maud understood it, to being a lifetime loan which was expected to return to the British king upon Maud’s death. Grimstad adds some thoughts about how this conflict might have influenced relations between the two royal families in general, particularly around the time of the negotiations which led to the Integrity Treaty of 1907.
This conflict takes up the pages 258-282 and could have made for an interesting article. But as Grimstad chooses to make a book out of it he is left with the question of how to fill the remaining 325 pages. His solution is to fill those pages with something about this and a little about that, much of which read as a summary of what academics have written about the British monarchy in recent decades, coupled with an attempt to apply this to the Norwegian monarchy.
In the introduction Grimstad tells us how Maud’s husband’s gradual loss of prestige in the eyes of the British establishment is “a main theme of this book”, but we hear little more about this. Maud herself plays only a minor role in the book which has her name in the title, while the real main person is her father. Grimstad dedicates most of the book to accounts of Edward VII’s social circle, eating habits, holidays, sex life, political influence, constitutional role, standing in the public opinion etc., complete with biographical details of a number of British diplomats, politicians and courtiers who make appearances along the way.
The author wants us to see this in context with the development of magnificent royal ceremonies in Britain and he states his intention to look at how this has influenced “state ritual” in Norway. But this is another thing which he fails to follow up. The only Norwegian ceremony he chooses to look at is the coronation of 1906, while for instance the State Opening of Parliament (virtually unchanged since 1814) goes entirely unmentioned.
Concerning the 1906 coronation Grimstad declares his disagreement with King Haakon’s biographer Tim Greve, who wrote that King Haakon and Queen Maud had collected information on ceremonial from both Denmark and Britain. Grimstad argues that as Denmark had abolished this tradition the ideals can have come only from Britain. But he forgets that the coronation of 1906 was no invention as kings (and queens) had been crowned in Norway in 1818, 1860 and 1873. Those coronations were to a great extent based on Swedish examples and the coronation of 1906 was not radically different from the earlier ones.
Grimstad is obviously well-informed about the British monarchy and the academic literature about it. But in this book he stares himself blind at the British monarchy and forgets that the Norwegian monarchy has strong roots also in Swedish and Danish traditions, while at the same time displaying a lack of deeper knowledge of other monarchies than the British and the Norwegian.
When speculating where the current King’s fortune comes from, Grimstad points towards Britain, as the fortune of King Haakon’s father “has never been considered significant”. That is true, but Grimstad is obviously unaware of the well-known fact that King Haakon’s mother was very rich by way of inheritance from her maternal grandfather, Prince Frederik of the Netherlands, who had received a huge financial compensation for giving up his secundogeniture to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Concerning a possible inheritance from Sweden through Crown Princess Märtha, the author states that “we know nothing about” that. One may be tempted to say “speak for yourself”, as it is hardly a secret that Crown Princess Märtha’s parents lost most of their money no less than three times so that there can hardly have been any significant fortune left.
The author’s knowledge about Danish history seems to be particularly weak. He tells us that Denmark abolished the coronation by “a constitutional amendment in 1849”, but, unlike Norway, Denmark never had any constitutional requirement for a coronation. And Denmark could nevertheless hardly amend is constitution in 1849 as the country did not have any constitution before that year – it was the introduction of a constitution and the end of absolute monarchy which made coronations seem superfluous in Denmark.
We are told that towards the end of Christian IX’s reign (he died in 1906) there was a rapprochement between the King and the Social Democrats, but here Grimstad obviously confuses the Social Democrats (who did not come to power until 1924) with the Liberals, whom Christian IX after a prolonged constitutional struggle allowed to take the reins of government for the first time in 1901.
The book also suffers from a great lack of originality. The quarrel over Queen Maud’s British inheritance has already been described by Julia Gelardi in her Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe five years ago, a book which Grimstad claims to have been unaware of until he was in the final stages of writing his own book. It seems a bit desperate when Grimstad presents his use of well-known secondary sources, such as letters reproduced in the official biography of Queen Mary (and later quoted in several other books) or the published diaries of a Norwegian cabinet minister of 1905, as something innovative.
Sometimes what he presents as a quote is in fact a mix of several different quotes quite freely translated and the use of sources is occasionally questionable. The most disastrous example is when he claims that a “seemingly overlooked letter” from Queen Maud substantiates the idea that it was the Danish government rather than the then Prince Carl who demanded that Norway should hold a referendum before the Prince would be willing to accept the offer of the Norwegian throne. If the author had consulted the diaries of the then Danish prime minister, J. C. Christensen, published in 2006, he would easily have been able to conclude that this is pure nonsense.
The third major problem about this book is the huge number of factual mistakes. Titles, names, years, spelling of names and relationships are a complete mess and one may wonder how a respectable publisher like Aschehoug has allowed this to happen. To take just a few of many examples:
Grimstad states that the personal union between Britain and Hanover ended when Victoria became Queen of Britain and her uncle, “Prince Henry”, became King of Hanover. Following Henry’s death “in 1878 [...] his son Georg V was for political reasons forced to renounce the royal title”. But “Henry’s” name was in fact Ernest Augustus (Ernst August) and he died in 1851. His son, Georg V (who died in 1878), lost his kingdom when it was annexed by Prussia in 1866.
Most will have heard of the famous Mayerling drama in 1889, when Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary committed suicide together with his mistress Mary Vetsera, but according to Grimstad he did it, “according to the official version”, with “Crown Princess Marie”. The Crown Princess’s name happened to be Stéphanie, who during the remaining 56 years of her life also had time to make a visit to Britain, a visit which Grimstad has already mentioned without putting two and two together.
When Palmerston’s funeral takes place in Westminster Abbey the author tells us that he “thus joined the ranks of famous Britons after the Lords Newton, Nelson and Wellington”, even though only one of these gentlemen was actually a lord and two of them are in fact buried in St Paul’s Cathedral rather than in Westminster Abbey.
Grimstad happily writes British titles in English rather than in Norwegian, which seems even more unnecessary as it is obvious that he neither masters nor understands the complicated British title systems. He freely alternates between referring to the same man as “Lord Francis Knollys” and “Lord Knollys”, while someone else is styled both Baron and Sir. One of Edward VII’s mistresses is alternately referred to as “Lady Brooke” and “the Duchess” – she was at the time Viscountess Brooke and would later become Countess of Warwick, but she was never a duchess.
A reference to “the court of the Ottoman Grand Vizier” is apparently meant to refer to the Ottoman Sultan rather than his prime minister and a queen regnant like Queen Victoria was evidently not “the Queen Dowager” after her husband’s death. And there is much more like this, which in the end gets quite annoying as one reads on.
The book lacks a clear focus and suffers greatly from the absence of originality and the huge number of misunderstandings and factual mistakes. Carl-Erik Grimstad has shown in the past that he can do better than this, so I can only wish him better luck next time.


  1. Du skriver at Danmark ikke hadde noen grunnlov før 1849, men jeg synes nå absolutt at Kongeloven kan ansees som en grunnlov, den referer jo også til seg selv som en "GrundvoldsLow".

    Men det er riktig at der ikke var noe grunnlovskrav om kroning før 1849, Kongeloven påbød bare salving.

  2. Kongeloven lå naturligvis til grunn for eneveldet, men jeg oppfatter ikke Kongeloven som en konstitusjon i den betydning som ordet vanligvis brukes i dag (jfr. "konstitusjonelt monarki"). Og uansett var jo ikke det som skjedde i 1849 at man endret den eksisterende grunnloven, men man skrotet Kongeloven og dermed hele eneveldet til fordel for et konstitusjonelt monarki - og dermed bortfalt salvinga.

    For øvrig har det nettopp kommet en tilsynelatende interessant bok om det dansknorske eneveldet: "Magt og pragt - Kongemagt og enevælde 1660-1848" av Sebastian Olden-Jørgen, Søren Mentz og Thomas Lyngby.


Comments are welcome, but should be signed - preferably by a name, but an initial or a nick will also be accepted. Advertisements are not allowed. COMMENTS WHICH DO NOT COMPLY WITH THESE RULES WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED.