The Queen's Knight by Martyn Downer

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The Queen's Knight by Martyn Downer

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Sir Howard Elphinstone, who fought and was wounded in the Crimean War, and later became one of the most trusted confidantes of Queen Victoria and her family.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Corgi
ISBN: 978-0552155083

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The title sounds more indicative of a novel by Dorothy Dunnett or Jean Plaidy than a biography. Then a brief prologue starts the story at the very end, when Queen Victoria receives the unexpected news of the death of Sir Howard Elphinstone. An equally short first chapter gives us a glimpse of the man some thirty years earlier in the thick of battle at the Crimea. Only after that do we 'reach' his birth in 1829. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken, and it's a good way of introducing this very interesting life. As the husband of his subject's great-great-granddaughter, the author is well qualified to write it.

Elphinstone was born into a military family, and fought valiantly in the Crimean war, for which he was awarded the VC. Severely wounded, at one stage he was almost left for dead on the battlefield, and rescued from underneath a heap of decomposing bodies of men who had fallen with him just in time. As a result of his wounds he lost the sight of his right eye.

Nevertheless, after a period of convalescence he was keen to resume his military career, and was promoted to the rank of Major. Before he could return to the army, he came to the notice of the royal family, and was appointed governor to Prince Arthur, the Queen's third and favourite son. Life in the royal household was not always easy; the Queen could be an exacting employer, particularly after the death of the Prince Consort in 1861 when there was nobody powerful enough to restrain her in her more autocratic moments. Anybody who proved too self-assertive, or reluctant to suffer the impertinence of her beloved and faithful but boorish and frequently drunken Highland servant John Brown in silence, was liable to find himself prematurely and forcibly demoted (the sack by any other name), and in his early days Elphinstone had one very lucky escape from such a fate.

Yet he became a trusted and well-respected servant, devoted to the sometimes headstrong young Arthur, though not afraid to exert firm discipline where necessary and remaining a close friend of the latter once he grew up. The future Duke of Connaught remained remarkably free from most of the vices which his elder brothers had acquired, perhaps due in no small part to his tutor's efforts.

The thirty-odd years of Elphinstone's service at court were an interesting, eventful and sometimes ultimately tragic time. Apart from the rivalries of members of the household, there were also issues such as royal security at the height of Fenian agitation (Queen Victoria's second son was almost the victim of an assassination attempt by a disaffected Irishman in 1868), the botched effort to rescue General Gordon during the Khartoum campaign, and the personal-cum-political problems of the Queen's eldest daughter at the court of Berlin. Quite apart from that, there was the matter of the man's own sudden death.

In recent years there have been countless biographies of the Victorian royal family and associated personalities, and I have read more than a few myself, but I learnt a good deal from this one.

For another title of related interest, why not try The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison.

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