The Mountbattens by Anthony Lambton - review by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd

Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd

Barbara Cartland’s Greatest Fan

The Mountbattens


Constable 272pp £12.95

Say what you like about Dickie Mountbottom but, for my part, I could not help liking the old fraud. This feeling of exasperated affection was remarkably well caught in Philip Ziegler’s magisterial, and surprisingly frank, biography: ‘His vanity, though child-like, was monstrous, his ambition unbridled. The truth, in his hands, was swiftly converted from what it was to what it should have been. He sought to rewrite history with cavalier indifference to the facts . . .’

When reviewing Ziegler’s Mountbatten in the Courtauldian Field four years ago I observed that the old sailor’s obsession with his lineage and royal connections stemmed from his wish to cover up the insecure morganatic reality of his background — a classic case of what we genealogists call the pedigree chum over-compensation syndrome. Now Antony Lambton has chosen to develop this point into a book — or rather two books, as this oddly ‘slim volume only discusses Mountbatten’s antecedents; the man himself is to be dealt with in a second volume. The result is a little like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: you hear Dickie clattering about in the wings, doubtless trying to interefere with the stage management, but the inveterate ham is not allowed on to the stage.

To those who might wonder what Mr Lambton (I refuse to style someone ‘Lord’ who has disclaimed all his peerages) could find to write about in the wake of Ziegler’s nigh-on 800 pages nearly 10 years after the atrocious murder at Mullaghmore, the author points out that the official biography ‘devoted only a few paragraphs to its subject’s ancestors’. Mr Lambton convincingly argues that this was a mistake as Mountbatten’s ancestors influenced his character and his life to an unusual degree and indeed explained many characteristics for which this outstandingly inspiring wartime leader has been mocked and blamed.

I was mildly puzzled as to why Lambton should wish to devote so much time and trouble to such an exercise until I came across a passage towards the end of the book about the fierce naval rivalry between Captain Hedworth Lambton (the author’s great-uncle, later Admiral of the Fleet Sir Hedworth Meux) and Prince Louis of Battenberg (Mountbatten’s father). In Richard Hough’s book about Mountbatten’s parents, Louis and Victoria, Hedworth Lambton is described as ‘a spoilt, handsome lazy patrician’ with ‘a slurred, fruity voice’. His aggrieved great-nephew says that this passage can only have been dictated by Mountbatten, ‘whose hatred of this rival was the measure of his love for his father.

Lambton, however, is admirably restrained in any acts of counter-revenge and writes sympathetically about Mountbatten’s passionate ambition to avenge the wrong done to his father who was sacked as First Sea Lord in 1914 because of his Germanic associations. This traumatic event, which occurred when the young Dickie was a cadet at Osborne, is shown to be the key incident in Mountbatten’s life. From henceforward, as Mr Lambton says, he was dedicated to the pursuit of his own holy grail: ‘No mistake could be admitted, every failure should be concealed, and if events of the past conflicted with the tablets of his belief, it was his business to contradict or destroy the evidence’.

Genealogy, so often the life-raft of the lost, lonely or loopy (not to mention homosexualists, but that is another question), was to provide a blessed escape. The Mountbatten pedigree in Burke’s Peerage (which the President of the Society of Genealogists viewed with undue respect) noted obligingly that ‘the Mountbattens are a branch of one of the oldest traceable families in Christendom . . . As the mist of the Dark Ages clears away their ancestors in the direct male line are already found as soldier-statesmen . . .’

How very reassuring. In reality it might be more accurate to say that the origins of the Mountbattens are lost in the mists of the 19th century. The cold facts, as laid bare by Lambton’s clinical examination, are as follows. Mountbatten’s grandfather, Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine (1823-88), ostensibly the youngest son of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, was almost certainly fathered by his wife’s chamberlain, Baron Augustus Senarclens von Grancy — as was Prince Alexander’s sister, Empress Marie of Russia. And Prince Alexander himself was forced to leave Russia, where he had a promising career in the Imperial service, because he wished to marry the six-months pregnant Julie Hauke, the daughter of a soldier of mixed ancestry, son of a one-time private who had settled in Poland.

It was for his bride — described by Mr Lambton as ‘a lower middle-class, German-Dutch-French-Swiss-Hungarian-Polish-Jewish goulash’ — that the morganatic title, Countess of Battenberg, was created in 1851.

Lambton paints Prince Alexander in a noble light: a young man who sacrificed high rank and a large fortune to save the honour of a lowly bred, pregnant girl. To hide the facts of his birth and his romance, as Mountbatten and his myth-makers have assiduously sought to do, is ‘bourgeois’ (the ultime Lambtonian epithet) and unnecessary.

Another of Lambton’s revelations is that the German Emperor Frederick (father of ‘the Kaiser’) died of syphilis, contracted from a Spanish girl in Cairo, ‘aptly named Dolores’. Studying the wedding photograph of Mountbatten’s Uncle Liko (Prince Henry of Battenberg) and Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, the author is reminded of a farmer with a prize pig.

The sow in question is vividly recalled by Mr Lambton (‘fat garrulous old Princess with her pendulous cheeks, guttural voice and cross expression’) whose great-aunt Miss Bulteel had her eyesight ruined by being obliged to read books to the old girl — shades of Mr Todd in A Handful of Dust. The book is constantly enlivened by the puncturing of Teutonic pomposity; sly digs at Dickie’s favourite author, Miss Cartland; and by such diverting anecdotes as the debagging of the editor of the Literary Review’s great-grand-uncle, Auberon Herbert, outside Apsley House during the Bulgarian brouhaha over Mountbatten’s erratic Uncle Sandro.

I think Mr Lambton is a little harsh to describe ‘Princess Peg’ of Hesse and by Rhine (née Geddes) as middle-class and then, a few lines later, lower middle-class. She is, after all, the daughter of a peer — even if he did begin his career as an Edinburgh anatomist. Some of Mr Lambton’s names and dates (including the death of Princess Peg’s husband) do not correspond with the stud-book I edited on the royal families of Europe some years ago but as I was reading an uncorrected publisher’s proof perhaps such slips have since been corrected.

He also has not quite managed to get right the extraordinarily complicated ramifications of the royal nomenclature (a particular obsession of Mountbatten) in his appendix on the subject, though he has made a considerably better stab at it than Mr Ziegler. It was on this issue that I happened to see the Mountbatten mythmaking and machinations at first hand.

Within a few minutes of walking in off the street to ask him if he would write the Foreword to a book which I was putting together on the royal family, I found myself being regaled with the most hair-raising stuff for a wet-behind-the-ears shaver. He told me how Churchill (under the financial sway of Beaverbrook) had so upset the Queen by refusing to allow her husband’s surname of Mountbatten to become the name of the royal dynasty that this had even had some bearing on the long gap between her two sets of children. And Prince Andrew, he raved on, was not born until a few days after a royal declaration mentioning – for the first time in highly ambiguous terms — the compromise surname of ‘Mountbatten-Windsor’.

I was enlisted as one of the pawns in Mountbatten’s campaign — a long saga in itself — which culminated in the appearance of ‘Mountbatten-Windsor’ on Princess Anne’s wedding certificate. I told the whole story of my experience to Philip Ziegler but he did not appear to find it of much interest; and, as Lambton says, he over-simplified the problem of the royal surname in the official biography.

Mr Lambton (with whom I would happily go into the nomenclature question in exhaustive detail if his second volume is not already finished) poses the question whether it is wise of the Queen’s children to contradict their mother’s assurances in Council that the name of the royal family should remain Windsor, by hyphenating it with Mountbatten. The latter, he points out, is an anglicised German name only assumed by Prince Philip in 1947, and only invented in 1851 to save the face of a six-month pregnant, unmarried girl.

The real beauty of genealogy, as Mountbatten never realised, is that it always has the last laugh because it is essentially about facts not fantasies; it is the enemy not the handmaiden of the folie de grandeur. While I was reading this book his great- nephew and the present head of the Mountbatten family, the Marquess of Milford Haven, married a daughter of the former Billingsgate fish-porter, professional pugilist and proprietor of Billy’s Baked Potato, Mr George Walker, currently described as a ‘leisure tycoon’. What price Charlemagne now?

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