Count Leven, the Russian Ambassador, is obliged to threaten resignation before Katherine backs off; although she doesn’t pay up or cut down. With Wales shoved from the front of her mind to some cobwebbed nook or cranny at the back of it, or in its cellar, she now concentrates on another obscenely ill-advised project aimed at the only thing in Wales’ hellish parody of a life that he probably treasures more than himself. She embarks on a studied crusade of charm designed to befriend the young Princess Royal, Charlotte, whose treatment she has found disgraceful, and will now decide is even more disgraceful than she’d originally found it to be. Indeed, she finds everything in which the Regent has a hand, interest, or even a passing fancy thoroughly obnoxious. She soon finds everything about young Charlotte thoroughly entrancing, though; and she wants the entire world to know it, so Wales will be unable to avoid knowing it too. She writes to her brother, the czar, that the Princess Royal’s looks are ‘enticing and seductive’. Are these precisely the mots juste to describe a charming and very young lady? It occurs to several reasonably cognitive people, including Lady Ilchester, a new governess, that Katherine is promoting Charlotte’s virtues as a potential bride for one of Russia’s innumerable grand dukes. No matter how grand these dukes are, it is absolutely certain they won’t be grand enough for Charlotte’s father – and no one at all doubts this, not even the Grand Duchess Katherine.
So beset is the Regent by, to put it mildly, problems, decisions and vast responsibilities that he even continues to invite that despised, egg-pated toady, the Duke of Kent, to assist him, and – it never rains but, in England at least, it always pours — to participate in the countless gala events Wales is allegedly planning to fill every waking hour in every day that his stellar guests are blessed by heaven with for a whole month. Kent, as Edward now becomes to the Regent, is after all the only royal brother with a gift for organization – with a gift for anything useful at all, if we’re to be honest. York, Clarence, Ernest, Augustus, the ever-absent Adolphus, Octavius and the other dead baby, even Wales himself: Any gifts? Not really. No wonder they resent and hate Edward.
The first of these megalopolitan jumbo galas is, believe it or not, a celebration of Louis XVIII’s return to his throne. You wonder, as you might well do, how Louis squeezed himself back into this picture. Much of the surviving French royal family have been living very quietly and extremely inexpensively at Hartwell, in Buckinghamshire, since the Corsican usurper made most European states no longer the safe havens they’d been after the Revolution – which even back then wasn’t very safe. These exiled Bourbons are soon to pass through London on their triumphal return journey home. It was understandably assumed that they’d stay a few days in our storied capital, enjoying the Regent’s fabled hospitality, including the usual grand honorary banquet, before heading off to war-torn Paris, which is now nothing like the place they remember. But unpredictability even afflicts assumptions made about a future the French royals are trundling towards.
Along with Augie, Duke of Sussex, Kent is asked to escort the new French King and old Comte de Provence to his waiting ship at Dover – which, as anyone in the navy will know, is in fact a yacht, not a ship. First, however – and this is an event in which the pudgy hand of Wales is impossible to miss – the brothers have to assist their Regent during a ceremony of notary antiquity to induct Louis into the Noble Order of the Garter – our highest accolade. Edward, when he was still a mere prince, had received this honour before accomplishing anything at all – except an impressive debt — as had his brothers, who would never accomplish anything at all. And this cavalier doling-out of our highest honour, Kent now believes, surely lowers the height of that highest honour, and devalues the accolade as an honour to anyone else. It ought to cease; but no one is about to hand the highest honour back to restore its former height; so it remains a dubious honour that no Englishman really wants, values or gets. We need, thinks Kent, a new highest honour that is truly difficult to obtain and thus genuinely valued. You might say that he has mixed feelings about the amount of time he will have to spend, waste really, handing out something not worth having to some creaking old restored monarch who probably couldn’t care less about receiving it. There are a few garter knights still staggering around in their eighties or nineties who did something no one is old enough to remember now that merited the honour. How do they feel about tottering about in medieval regalia with teenaged garter knights who aren’t old enough to have done anything meritorious? Kent has no idea, since he’s never attended a garter event in his life and has sometimes even forgotten he is a knight. Wales had to remind him of this, and now he knows why.
The induction of Louis is to take place in St. James’ Palace’s Presence Chamber, a place that still makes Edward clutch his seat in dread, even though its Minotaur is now barely a substantial ghost, and locked away in his mad cell by the rivers of Babylon, or Hanover. The Garter ceremony usually occurs in the Windsor Throne Room,- with services held prior to it in St. George’s Chapel. Windsor is not on King Louis’ route, however, so Wales has had to reorganize everything to suit his honoured guest’s itinerary. As Kent told the Regent, Windsor would only add twenty minutes at the most to Louis’ bloody route, so this massive inconvenience is just the usual French arrogance and obstreperousness.
‘He’s the king of France, for Christ’s sake,’ Wales had said. ‘I can’t tell him to fuck off and get his damn honour where he was told to get it, can I?’
‘Why not?’ Kent asked him. ‘Did they change their route to Boston when Papa told them to keep out of the American war? Louis’ lucky we don’t hand him a bill for his decade of holiday here sponging on us. He didn’t even pay for his time at the spa in Bath.”
‘How the hell would you know that, Kent?’
‘Because I had to pay for it?’
‘Ask Captain Smollett..’
Hundreds of their conversations sound much like this one in their speciousness and inanity.
Edward arrives at the venerable palace, on time of course, and in his own garter regalia. This, you may not know, and might not believe, consists of a heavy ermine-trimmed cloak, a velvet Tudor bonnet sprouting ostrich and heron feathers, a silk doublet and stockings, and shoes of a style unfashionable even two hundred years ago, so it’s little wonder the setting and his costume give the impression that it’s still the 13th century. But King Louis is late, very late, and the Regent paces up and down irritably, looking even more ridiculous than the Duke of Kent. How much longer can this nod to the distant past go on? Edward wonders. When will the august nature of its rigmarole and outfits become risible, or even more risible than it is now?
“Lord,” says Wales, as Kent enters the dark wood-panelled room, “you look preposterous, a fucking huge jester…’
“Quips and quiddities notwithstanding,’ says Kent, who mysteriously reverts to being Edward again, and decides against other retorts. Instead he says, ‘There must surely come a time when these antiquated costumes are abandoned, mustn’t there?”
“Tradition,” says Wales, as if expecting the question. “Meddling with tradition is like… je ne sais quoi…” You wonder if he’s drunk before noon. He probably wonders too.
Wales perhaps should have said that Charles I had altered the Garter costume a little, and look what happened to his nobly feathered head! But Wales prefers to know nothing of history – unless it’s his own biography — and in fact the head of King Charles I is now one of his many possessions; he currently has it in a box. The coffin of King Charles had been discovered during recent renovations to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor and, naturally enough, Wales requested that the severed head found inside it be delivered to him in a bag. He then had a section of spine removed so he could show his sisters incision marks made in the bone by an axe. But when the moment of revelation arrived, unsurprisingly, his sisters had no desire to see Charles I’s head.
“Fuck the French!” Wales now grumbles. “They’re always late. Is it another fucking fad or fashion with them?”
“I’m not aware of its being so,” says Edward tactfully.
“Bah! Well, I suppose they’ve had a rough time of it, haven’t they?’ A pause, as he thinks he hears the Regent-hating mob jeering nearby. It proves to be a portly yellow cat purring under a bookshelf nearby, so he continues: ‘What was I saying? Hmm. Yes. Frenchies. They haven’t done well with rulers for about six hundred years now, have they? Then the Corsican usurper, and now this crapulous old bugger. God almighty! What’s the matter with ‘em? I mean, we’ve chopped off a regal head, bur you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, haven’t you? Yes. I’ve got that stubborn old Stewart’s head in a bag somewhere. Chop!’ A pause, as past and present reunite, and then he rambles on: ‘What really, really infuriates me,” he confides, “is this fucking czar claiming the victory all for himself. Not to mention that intolerable bitch of a sister costing me a fortune for the privilege of tolerating her fucking insults and incessant interference. Don’t I deserve some credit for saving Europe from the Corsican fucking Ogre?”
Edward thinks of many things he could say to this, but why bother?
‘How long does it take you to think of a response, Eddie?’ Wales snaps, tapping a foot frenetically on the ancient boards. ‘I’ve been waiting so long I’ve forgotten what the bloody question was. Fuck the French!’
Of course, Edward now agrees that it is an outrageous act of hubris on Alexander’s part.
‘Who? I’m talking about that scabrous old toad, Louis the Umpteenth – how many fucking Louis’ do they need? – not that pompous Russian prick…’’
Edward wants to ask how many Georges we’re planning to have; but at this point — you might say mercifully — the door flies open and an equerry announces His Majesty, King Louis XVIII of France, along with the royal brother, Comte d’Artois, the aged Duchesse d’Engheim, and several other vinous old spongers from the inexpensive little Hartwell court. The former Comte de Provence looks plumper and less frayed at the edges than he had in the dingy baths at Bath; indeed, he may even be fatter than the Regent. But no, that’s not possible, is it? Louis recognizes the Duke of Kent, despite his own rheumy eyes and Edward’s unlikely garments, and he claims, with ridiculous insincerity, that he’s glad to see him again – which is not what the Regent wants to hear – no, not at all.
“These are better circumstances,” Louis says unnecessarily, extending the ham of a hand, “but we told you the usurper would be gone, did we not?’ A pause to let his uncanny percipience sink in and impress everyone – which it doesn’t. So, he proceeds on another omniscient tack: “This time tomorrow we shall be back on our throne…” He’s quickly adjusted to the royal plural, hasn’t he? Yet he now makes all the travel, crowds, speeches and unimaginably tedious ceremonies awaiting him sound rather wearying, rather irksome. When you’ve done nothing whatsoever in your life, anything seems too much.
Then the Regent voices his own concerns: “I trust you will not forget our humble role in all of this, Louis…’ Wales doesn’t do ‘humble’ very well.
“As we told your dear brother back there in the overpriced mud at Bath,” says Louis, “our two nations shall forever be one family from now on. Only amity… and trade. No more war…” Some secretary back in Hartwell must have scripted this noble thought for him.
‘I thought we paid for your bathing at Bath?’ says Wales, trying to make it sound genial.
‘Oui,’ admits Louis — or was it “we”? — ‘but it was still overpriced. We wouldn’t have paid such an outrageous bill were we to be offered it…’
‘No doubt,’ Wales tells him, ‘but we value honour more than money…’
‘That, brother, is not what we hear,’ says Louis.
How long before Wales bundles him into a sack and kicks him down Duke Street, and on into the Thames? From the looks on their faces, you can tell that Edward and his brother do not find Louis’ ‘family’ analogy as apt or conducive as France’s new monarch evidently does. The trade in familial amity amongst Hanovers is not exactly thriving.
“That’s also my dearest wish,” lies Wales. “If any good can come out of all the bloodshed and strife, it’ll be that sort of thing – the amity, I mean – and that alone, won’t it?” He seems to have forgotten what he’s banging on about, but you’re still inclined to believe he’s sincere in whatever it was. Yet the idea of peace with France is too much of a novelty in our history for this to be the case on any other day than this one. We don’t trust the French; and you can’t like a people you don’t trust.
“I agree, dear brother,” Louis says – though no one can remember now what he’s agreeing to — kissing the Regent on both cheeks twice, an action Wales obviously detests, immediately wiping his florid face with a lace kerchief.
The ceremony of investiture now begins, with the Regent reading from behind a monstrous oak lectern its archaic phrases of obscure obligations and incomprehensible honours. But he must have mixed up the sheets of this document, since an effusive paragraph of greeting is followed by a list of arcane privileges which the inductee will be accorded; and a declaration that the coveted star and insignia will forthwith be presented comes before cautionary tales of Garter Knights who betrayed their companions, suffering dreadful punishments as a consequence, such punishments now described in unnecessarily vivid detail.
Christ, thinks Edward, what malicious medieval goblin dreamt this up?
“Enough of this,” the Regent scoffs, as if agreeing with Edward’s thought, tossing pages to the floor. “Let us get down to the honours. Bring the Garter Star and insignia!” he booms out to three distant men, who stand to one side, holding tasselled velvet cushions upon which lie the various insignia required.
These officials are known as the Garter King of Arms, Usher Black Rod, and the current Secretary of the Noble Order, who has no other lofty title. The Garter is traditionally affixed first to the new Companion’s left calf; and the Regent now groans as he bends his crackling knees to reach Louis’ ankle. Only a sovereign or a Prince of Wales can perform this task, but they’re traditionally assisted in it by two other companions of the Noble Order. Since Edward is the only other companion present – where the hell is Sussex? — he crouches, ready to assist. In an unexpectedly deft move, however, Louis snatches up the blue garter, with its gold lettering, and examines it intently.
“Honi soi qui mal y pense,” he reads. “This is the old French! Why should an English honour still have an old French motto? We’ve never been told of this order’s origins, have we? You ought to explain these things beforehand, before you pass them out. People should know; we should know…’ You’d think he was being insulted rather than inducted.
The Regent looks mortified. Edward gathers from his expression that Wales has no idea how the Noble Order originated. Fortunately, he knows; indeed, Edward knows several different versions of the origin, one of which he immediately rules out, since it involves those ancient English claims to the French throne.
“It goes all the way back to the twelfth century, Majesty,” he informs Louis, who does seem genuinely interested. “The Countess of Salisbury was dancing at a ball in Calais thrown by the French king…” He finds the fact that he knows this depressingly reprehensible. Knowledge should be more selective.
“We know Salisbury,” Louis barks, as if this will amaze everyone. “Circle of great big stones built there by giants,’ he wants us to believe. ‘But we have much better examples of this in France…”
“No doubt you do,” says Edward, continuing. “Well, it seems that, while she was dancing, the Countess’s garter slipped off onto the floor, which made all the knights present snigger; which shamed and infuriated the King, who gallantly retrieved the garter himself, holding it up and saying, Honi soi qui mal y pense, before handing it back to the Countess…” What are we with all this rigmarole, he thinks, children? By contrast, his masonic rituals have gravitas and depth to them.
“The meaning is ‘Shame be upon anyone who thinks badly of this’,” says Louis, presumably proud to find our highest honour is so very French. “But did he not put the lady’s garter back on himself?”
“I thought it meant ‘Evil to him who thinks evil’,” grumbles the Regent, prodding the air with his forefinger.
“We’re not told what happened after this point,” Edward admits.
“Incroyable,’ says Louis in falsetto amazement. ‘And your highest honour is based on such an idiotic yarn!” he cries, laughing or coughing – it’s not clear which. “A real French king would have replaced her garter personally… and high up on the lady’s thigh too…” He makes an odd clucking sound, which has his retinue cackling away in their corner. The old Duchesse d’Engheim titters and then sneezes violently, doubling over from the recoil.
The Regent now snatches the Garter back, struggling with laboured breath and creaking bones to attach it around Louis’ left calf. “Let’s get the bloody thing on!” he growls sotto voce at his brother. “For Christ’s sake, Eddie, you’re supposed to assist me…”
“I am assisting,” Edward whispers back, nearer than Wales thinks he is, “but I can’t help it if his calf is an inch too wide for the damned thing to go around, can I?”
“Move it up a bit,” Wales hisses. “I don’t care whether he has to wear it around his prick. Whew!” He straightens up for a few seconds, simply in order to breathe.
Eventually they find a spot just below Louis’ knee where, the two of them pulling with both hands, they manage to fasten the garter’s hooks.
“We shall soon have no blood flowing to our leg,” Louis complains, tentatively bending the leg in question. “Is it supposed to impede ambulation?”
“Yes, it is,” says the Regent, impatient now, rising from his knees, wheezing, sweating, his face an ulcerous scarlet. “It keeps you in step with your brother companions. Give me the riband,” he now orders Usher Black Rod, who hands him the gold chain. “I said ‘riband’ not ‘chain’,” Wales splutters, quite out of sorts.
Usher Black Rod discreetly shakes his head, so the Regent hangs the chain around Louis’ neck.
“My God!” groans the new King of France. “How much gold is in this thing?” You’d think it was a slab of granite he had to wear on his head.
“Thirty ounces, I believe,” says Edward, distressed that he knows even this, but still wanting to add that the weight could be drastically reduced if Louis wishes.
The Garter King of Arms now hands the Regent the blue riband, which he then drapes over Louis’ left shoulder — after checking which shoulder Edward’s sash is on. Lastly, the Noble Order’s secretary passes him the Garter Star, which is a cross of St. George set within an eight-pointed star. Normally, such stars are made of silver, or even just enamelled tin. If you want a diamond-and-saphire-encrusted one like Edward’s or the Regent’s, you have to pay for it yourself – or with Haligonian money. We’re more generous with foreign monarchs, though. What Wales pins over King Louis’ heart – after an exploratory attempt which nearly pins it through his heart – is a star of platinum studded with 150 diamonds, surrounding a core of white gold in which the St. George cross is set with 50 rubies. The motto is emblazoned in reddish gold.
“Very pretty,” Louis remarks, like a man who has chests full of such gewgaws – which he probably will have by this time tomorrow.
“Now the collar and hat?” the Regent hastily asks his garter officials, who now hold three empty cushions.
“Oh no, we’re not going to wear a perfectly preposterous hat like you two, no,” says Louis firmly, again flexing his gartered leg. “The star is very nice, but we think we’ve had quite enough symbolism for one day. And,” he points down, “this thing has to come off before our gout erupts in protest…”
“You take it off,” the Regent tells the Comte d’Artois grumpily. “My job is only attaching the damned thing…”
Kneeling, the comte, Louis’ brother, goes to work, soon summoning help. It still takes ten minutes before two of them can detach the garter, and then offer it to Louis, who waves it away, telling d’Artois to store it safely somewhere. “Now we must be on our way,” Louis says, “with many regrets and much gratitude. Ah-ah!” he sighs, trying out the freed leg. “What joy it is to feel our toes again…”
“But the ceremonial banquet awaits us upstairs,” protests the Regent. “It’s a key part of the tradition…”
“But the tradition is so very silly,” Louis tells him good-naturedly. “Christmas and Easter, we understand…But some foolish woman losing her garter…Please, please do not ask us to respect anything so absurd. In France there is the Order of St. Louis, commemorating a saint, not a garter. We have not seen our homeland for a quarter-century – surely you can understand that we’re eager to see her… and take our rightful place on her throne?”
“Perfectly understandable,” admits the Regent sincerely. “Shall I have some food and wine packed for your journey?”
“We have all we need,” says Louis, “except the road beneath our wheels…”
Yes, the brothers think simultaneously. The road. The Regent pulls Edward aside and mutters under his breath, “Delay these bastards here as long as you’re able to, so I can take a regiment ahead and make sure every town and village has a proper farewell, a hearty bon voyage ready for when this old bugger passes through. Do not fail me in this. I need fifteen minutes’ start at least.” You wonder at this friendly concern: it seems genuine – but what does he want from it?
“You’re riding a horse!” says Edward, the thought impossible.
“Hardly, Eddie. The last one died beneath me. My carriage is here. Now just do what I asked you to do, eh?” He always has a way of implying you’ll fail at whatever he’s asked of you.
“I’ll do whatever I can, but I can’t imprison them, can I?”
Eighteen minutes later, when the Duke of Sussex has finally shown up, Edward says, “Come, let’s escort our French guests from this green and pleasant land…” He’s looking forward to fresh air, as he often is these days. His lungs are no longer what they used to be – but what is?
Then Augie and he lead a troop of horse through the city, ahead of King Louis’ cortege of six carriages across the river, and out onto the Dover road.
In every town and village through which they all pass, wild cheering and applause greet Louis, banners bless his restoration, and nearly everyone wears the white Bourbon cockade in their cap or hat. The Regent has done his work exceedingly well; he has a talent for arranging celebrations, and thoroughly enjoys the work – when there’s not so much of it.
At Dover the scene is even more magnificent. Wales has planned a splendid military farewell, and now, belted into into his impressively upholstered and fortified field-farshal’s uniform, he stands before a regimental band on the quayside. Unfortunately, however, Louis dashes on board the royal yacht, which is swathed in Coalition flags, and disappears down into his cabin before the Regent’s men can even strike up a march, less still fire off honourific rifle volleys and cannonades.
“Thank Jesus Papa didn’t have to see this,” says Wales, as the yacht weighs anchor. “He wanted every Bourbon dangling from a gibbet, not laden down with honours and cheered by English crowds. He never forgave them for America – now they’re Knights of the Garter…Christ! It’s….” But whatever it is vanishes into unexpected emotion. A huge tear appears and rolls slowly down the pink acreage of his cheek.
‘I was thinking the same thing,’ says Edward, as always amazed at his eldest brother’s dramatic shifts of sentiment.
The French tribute has, alas, been noticeable enough for the pseudonymous ‘Peter Pindar’ to compose one of his wretched satirical verses in the press, one guaranteed to further torment the already over-tormented Regent:
In France’s hope and Britain’s heir
Were i’ truth a most congenial pair:
Two round, tun-bellied, thriving rakes,
Like oxen fed on linseed cakes…
Reading it, Edward wonders if oxen are in fact fed on linseed cakes, wonders it to avoid wondering what sort of day awaits him at Carlton House.