An Unofficial but Onerous and Responsible Post - Qualities Essential for the Position - A Queen's Right Hand - How Miss Knollys Gained Her Post - Her Duties and Constant Solicitude A Supreme Token of Devotion
Only those intimate with Court life and the Royal Household have a correct idea of the onerous duties which the Queen's private secretary is called upon to fulfil.
Officially, her Majesty's private secretary is of the opposite sex. But there are also women behind the throne, women who not only deal with much of her Majesty's voluminous correspondence-as a matter of fact, that constitutes a comparatively small part of their responsibilities-but who are the Queen's intimate friends, advisers, and constant companions. When it is remembered how fierce is the light of publicity which beats upon the throne, how almost every act and word is chronicled, and how both the King and Queen must of necessity depend to a great extent upon the guidance of their advisers, in order to carry out the duties of their exalted station in a manner befitting the dignity and wisdom of the British throne, it will be evident that one on whom their Majesties place reliance must be indeed a person of consummate tact, diplomacy, discretion and resource.
In no position at Court are such qualities so imperative as that of private secretary to the King or Queen. That position is admirably summed up in an anecdote told of Lord Knollys, private secretary to the late King Edward, and who, in conjunction with Sir Arthur Bigge, acts in a similar capacity to King George-an anecdote which is probably the greatest possible tribute to the discretion and tact with which his lordship has carried out the onerous duties of his very responsible post. It refers to the period of the postponement of the Coronation of King Edward in 1902, owing to his Majesty's illness, when rumours of probable abdication were current. "There," said a distinguished journalist, indicating Lord Knollys, calm, suave, and imperturbable, "stands the secret history. What a wealth of good paragraphs there would be if we could only cut him up ! "
Strictly speaking, the private secretary to the King is also private secretary to the Queen. Many of Queen Mary's letters are officially signed by Sir Arthur Bigge, who became King George's private secretary in 1901, after the death of Queen Victoria, to whom he had acted in a similar capacity for six years, having succeeded Sir Henry Ponsonby in 1895. Then, again, Queen Alexandra's letters were often signed by Lord Knollys, who became the private secretary of the late King in 1870, and held this important post for forty years without interruption, or by the Hon. Sydney Robert Greville, who, in 1901, was officially appointed private secretary to Queen Alexandra.
At the same time, however, Queen Mary relies to no small extent upon the assistance and advice of at least one or two of her intimate lady friends, who, for instance, may be officially recognised as Ladies of the Bedchamber; or, as in the case of Lady Arthur Bigge, who, like her husband, is held in the highest esteem by King George and Queen Mary, may have no official connection with the Court. The Countess of Minto, Lady Ampthill, and Lady Desborough, the three Ladies of the Bedchamber appointed by Queen Mary, were chosen, not only because they rank among her Majesty's most intimate friends, but because they are ladies who, each in their own sphere, are recognised as possessing exceptional knowledge of the world-a fact which makes whatever advice they may be called upon to tender the Queen extremely valuable.
And for that advice they are frequently called upon, since, as Queen Mary once remarked, "A woman's point of view in many affairs is often more commendable than that of a man. Referring for a moment to the present Ladies of the Bedchamber, it it easy to see how invaluable to her Majesty may be the assistance of Lady Minto, a daughter of the late General the Hon. Charles Grey, at one time private secretary to Queen Victoria. For many years Lady Minto has enjoyed Queen Alexandra's friendship, and was formerly a member of her household. She is recognised also as an exceedingly clever diplomat. Witness how much she added to the success of her husband when he was Governor-general of Canada, and later Viceroy of India.
Lady Ampthill, too, materially assisted her husband in the discharge of his duties as Governor of Madras and acting. Viceroy; and Lady Desborough has been a leading London Royal hostess for several years.
It is, nevertheless, quite safe to affirm that, however high in Royal favour these ladies may stand, they will never achieve the unique distinction acquired by the Hon. Charlotte Knollys, who, while officially designated a Bedchamber Woman to Queen Alexandra, has for many years acted as her confidential secretary.
What her brother, Lord Knollys, was to King Edward, that Miss Knollys is to the widowed Queen Alexandra. "I should feel utterly helpless without Charlotte," her Majesty has often declared-a remark which may readily be credited, seeing that in her official capacity Miss Knollys has been in constant attendance on Queen Alexandra for twelve hours daily for considerably over forty years.. Indeed, with the single exception of one fortnight, she has during that period slept under the same roof as her Royal mistress. This recalls the fact that in 1907 her Majesty owed her life to the promptitude of Mass Knollys in warning the Queen of the outbreak of fire in her room at Sandringham, and thus enabling her Majesty to escape from the danger in time. For this service she was presented with a gold medal bearing the inscription:
To our dear Charlotte, in recognition of her presence of mind in warning us of our imminent peril by fire at Sandringham, 1907."
Though Queen Mary does not, of course, claim the services of Miss Knollys in the same degree as Queen Alexandra, she often avails herself of the firm friendship which exists between herself and "Auntie Knollys," as she is known to the Royal children, to enlist her counsel in perplexing problems.