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Christmas with the (Royal) In-Laws

December 25, 2009

Sandringham House

"The place I love better than anywhere in the world," King George V called Sandringham House, Norfolk, the royal family's private retreat and hunting lodge.

“Crackers and much laughter,” was the bubbly assessment of Christmas with the new in-laws at Sandringham House. That those in-laws happened to be King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, failed to dim the enthusiasm of the writer:  the 23-year-old Elizabeth, Duchess of York, had recently married the king’s younger son, Albert — the future King George VI, though no one expected it at the time.

George V and his queen abhorred tardiness.

Their holiday dinners may have been luxe and gay, and included the traditional explosive party favors. But, to Albert and his elder brother, Edward, the heir, their parents were cold and intimidating. Shy Albert, known as Bertie,” was a stammerer who endured poor health as a child and ulcers in adulthood. Hunting (he was a crack shot) a rare way for him to connect with his father, who was known to be genial with children and the public but hard on his family , recounts William Shawcross in the newly published The Queen Mother: The Official Biography.

The bubbly new Duchess, having come up in an also aristocratic — but far more relaxed and loving — environment, might have been expected to crash against this austere front. For the young Elizabeth, a commoner, “Entry into the Royal Family, with its rituals and orderliness, really was a sort of golden incarceration. The young Duchess could no longer go shopping alone; she could not travel on trains alone, or on buses at all… All in all, the Duchess was isolated and restricted in a way she had never been before. Her own family had been so relaxed that the rules of the Palace, the Court and the King himself cannot have been easy to assimilate.”

Take dinnertime. In Elizabeth’s childhood home, her father, Lord Glamis, the 14th Earl of Strathmore, was known to skid in late to dinner on occasion, her mother tossing him a biscuit across the table. Dinner in the royal household by contrast, followed rigid routines. Formal dress and, above all, punctuality, were requisite. “The King wore white tie and tails and the Queen wore full evening dress with tiara,” writes Shawcross, “even when they were dining alone.” All present awaited the king’s arrival in an anteroom before settling in at a table invariably set with fine china and silver gilt flatware. After dinner, women curtsied to the monarch as they retreated for gender-segregated socializing.

Elizabeth, Duchess of York, at 25, in a portrait by de Laszlo, 1925.

Timeliness itself had a different meaning in George V’s household. “One was late if the clock sounded when one was on the stairs,” one courtier lamented.

Elizabeth, unfortunately, took after her father in a tendency to be late. “Remarkably, that did not seem to matter” to the royals, Shawcross remarks. “It was soon part of Court lore that on one occasion early in her marriage she and the Duke arrived two minutes late for lunch and she apologized. To the delighted amazement of the others at the table, the King replied, ‘You are not late, my dear, I think we must have sat down two minutes too early.'”

This emphasis on punctuality lasted into the modern era, but Elizabeth’s successor as Duchess of York, tom-boyish commoner Sarah Ferguson, was less fortunate in her reception. Fergie, now ex-wife of Prince Andrew, was mystified as by palace protocol as a newlywed. “If dinner was set for 8:30, you’d be expected down for drinks at eight o’clock,” Ferguson recalled. “You absolutely had to be there by 8:15 sharp, when the Queen would promptly enter. You never let the Queen beat you down to dinner, end of story – to come in any later would be unimaginably disrespectful.
“I was not,” she continued, “by track record or temperament, a religiously punctual person… [M]any were the times at Windsor or Sandringham that the Queen would be coming in one door and I would be flying through another in a sweat, tripping over the carpet and pretending that I’d already been there.”

Unpunctual Fergie, errant member of "The Firm."

When she wasn’t skidding late to supper, Ferguson’s exuberant bumblings also provoked pursed lips and frowns from the Royal household and an even less tolerant press. Early on in her marriage, the Duchess and her famous sister-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales, of course were caught by the cameras when they playfully poked a friend’s rump with their umbrellas at Ascot, provoking a furor. Public rectitude, formal dinners and an endless stream of greetings and and ribbon-cuttings wore on a young bride more accustomed to practical jokes and public displays of affection and hilarity. Meanwhile, her husband was away in the Navy for months at a time. Even dressing became a chore, as her duties required frequent and elaborate wardrobe changes. (“Tiaras are heavier than they look and tend to slip when one takes leave of a carriage or car,” Fergie frankly complained in her memoir.)

Despite her overall sportiness – Fergie was a terrific equestrienne – traditional hunts confounded her, too. The custom at such outings is for each “gun” to sit mutely with his or her retriever while beaters flush game from the moors, avoiding any noise that might startle the quarry. But “my dog had the timing of a drunken polka dancer,” Ferguson lamented. “He would run at the woods, and the pheasants would scatter in the opposite direction …”

“Can’t you keep your bloody dog under control?” barked her father-in-law, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

If the Queen Mother, grandmother to Diana’s and Sarah’s husbands, harbored sympathies for these young women hamstrung by the mysteries and strictures of palace life (as she once had been), she never let on publicly. Her daughter, the Queen, was at least not unkind, even if mystified by the young wives’ behavior, Fergie says. But the only person she could turn to for actual empathy was the equally embattled Diana. “Wide-eyed and bounding up the stairs, full of energy,” the Duchess would breeze into Kensington Palace to visit the Princess, Diana’s butler reminisced. “They’d huddle in the sitting room, deep in serious conversation or laughing, comparing the knife wounds left in their backs by the Royal Household,” which they referred to, only half-jokingly, as The Firm.

Diana, for her part, loved Christmas, writes the butler, Paul Burrell, and continued to visit her husband’s family for the holiday even after her marriage ended. Still, it was Burrell and not she who trimmed her apartments’ 18-foot Norwegian spruce every year in white lights and crystal. Burrell also bought and wrapped Diana’s gifts for her in-laws:

“Practical gifts” for the Queen, he recalled, like “a cashmere cardigan, a Hermès scarf, or a tartan rug; for the Duke of Edinburgh, a cartridge case, a shooting stick flask. I spent hours wrapping the presents, leaving the princess to write a personal note for each before she left for Sandringham. Privately, she loved the buildup to Christmas even if the actual day was, by her own admission, ‘a bit grim.'”

AngloFiles’s struggles with punctuality problems are one of many reason to give thanks for her own English mother-in-law’s unfailing charm and indulgence. But even those who love tiaras and shooting parties, or anticipate the worst from their kin amid the giftwrap and eggnog, can take comfort today that their celebrations are not with The Firm.

Sandringham House, Norfolk photographed by RXUYDC on June 6, 2005Fergie phtotographed by Klem.

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