Sir Robert has possibly just had the worst week of his life, although nowadays most of his weeks must feel like that. The Duchess of York is seen canoodling with her self-styled 'financial adviser' by a pool near St Tropez; an intercepted telephone call between 'Squidgy' and a male friend may or may not be a cri de coeur from the Princess of Wales. This is not, to use the words of Sir Robert's highly regarded predecessor Sir William Heseltine, 'the art of subtle revelation'.
Everyone also agrees that Sir Robert must be feeling especially uncomfortable because he carries a double burden. He is not only the Queen's most important counsellor, required to give her disinterested advice, but also one of the family. His wife, Lady Jane, is the elder sister of the Princess of Wales. No one has ever suggested that Sir Robert would allow this connection to cloud his judgement. Even so, he must dread the prospect of the heir to the throne divorcing his sister-in-law, not least because he would have to advise the Queen on the constitutional implications. He may be the nicest of men, but is he really suited to such a delicate job?
The Sovereign's Private Secretary, according to one encyclopaedia, 'is the person whose activities are likely to make the greatest impact on the way in which public and posterity view the reign of an individual Sovereign, and on the future course of the monarchy'. He (there has never been a she) has three main responsibilities: to act as the channel of communication between the head of state and the government, not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the 17 commonwealth countries where the Queen is Sovereign; to organise her official programme, both at home and abroad, including the drafting of speeches; and to deal with her official correspondence.
Sir Robert performs all these tasks, and much more. One predecessor remembers sorting out the guest list for an 'informal' family picnic, in between fine- tuning the details of a state visit. Some attempt may be made to impose order on the arbitrary nature of the work, but a good private secretary - or one who wants to keep his job - has to be ready for new instructions at any moment.
At Buckingham Palace, a typical day in Sir Robert's ground-floor office might begin at eight and not finish till 12 hours later. The Private Secretary - who has two assistant private secretaries to help him - will start by sifting through the morning's correspondence, selecting the items the Queen should see. Towards 11am a call comes from the Queen and, putting the papers in a wicker basket, he goes up to her office. Sir Robert, by all accounts, is very good at this side of the job: not as amusing as Sir Martin (now Lord) Charteris, Private Secretary from 1972 to 1977, who used to smooth things along with the odd joke; but not as tiresome as Sir Philip (now Lord) Moore (1977-86), a career civil servant seconded from Whitehall, who gave the Queen too much to read and consequently bored her.
After this meeting, any pretence at order in the Private Secretary's day seems to collapse. He might be required to accompany the Queen on a visit. He might be preoccupied with the forthcoming arrival of the President of Poland. On Tuesdays he needs to be available to see the Prime Minister after the weekly audience with the Queen. And if he is with the Queen overseas, as he usually is, he can be required to liaise with Maori dancers, vet the guest list for an Italian state banquet, or brief her on political unrest in Venezuela. Only at Balmoral and Sandringham - the Queen's private residences - does the pace let up. He may have the chance of a little shooting in the afternoon, before returning in time to welcome, say, the Home Secretary and his wife, who are guests for the weekend.
Private secretaries have generally come from a tightly knit group of courtier families. In its modern form the job was invented by Sir Henry Ponsonby (Private Secretary 1870-95), who established what the historian David Cannadine describes as the pre-eminent courtly dynasty before the Second World War. The only real breaks with tradition were Sir Robert's immediate predecessors, the unfortunate Sir Philip Moore - described by one critic as 'definitely middle-class' - and Sir William Heseltine (1986-90), an Australian who had previously worked as the Queen's press secretary.
Sir Robert is a reversion to type. His father was the Sandringham land agent from 1936 to 1964, and Robert was born on the 20,000-acre estate in 1941. He has a younger brother, Thomas, who works in the City. After prep school, Robert was sent to Eton, where a contemporary, the cricket writer Henry Blofeld, remembers him as having 'a rather bashful air, sheltering behind his glasses and slightly stooping. I think this made him seem more diffident than he really was.'
Even today, Sir Robert retains a bookish appearance, but while he was more of a swot than his brother, he was also a good enough cricketer to get into the Eton first XI - which, as Blofeld says, is not the sort of thing that swots generally do. In 1959 he played a couple of games for Norfolk under the captaincy of the former Test batsman Bill Edrich. Since then he has been very much a country-house cricketer, that diminishing breed who still wear I Zingari blazers and cream flannels, and play at grounds like Arundel and the Hurlingham Club.
In 1960, after leaving Eton, Robert Fellowes took a short-term commission as a lieutenant in the Scots Guards, serving in Germany and Kenya. Officers in the Scots Guards, according to one description, are the kind of people who might otherwise have got a reasonable second and a blue. If so, Fellowes would have fitted in very well.
After the Guards, he spent 14 years in the City, rising to become a director of the discount brokers and bankers Allen Harvey and Ross; by all accounts, he was a very good broker, yet even as a getter and spender he was to some extent on the inside track. The discount houses are used by the Bank of England as a buffer against the big commercial banks. As befits their privileged position, senior bill brokers are the last group in the City to wear top hats; and during Sir Robert's time the discount houses were still regarded as gentlemanly establishments.
In 1977, Sir Robert resigned from the bank to become the Queen's Assistant Private Secretary. He may have felt royal service was his destiny, soldiering and banking mere interludes: whatever his reasons, he has been at the palace ever since. The following year, when he was 36, he married Lady Jane Spencer, then in her early twenties. Unlike her younger sister, who also married an older man, the age difference has not affected the marriage, which is a happy one. They have three children, and when Sir Robert is not in attendance, they divide their time between an old rectory near Ipswich and a grace-and-favour apartment in Kensington Palace. Each July they go on holiday to Devon, where they rent a group of houses by the River Erme with Jane's older sister, Sarah, and her children. Less often these days, the Princess of Wales and her sons also join the family party.
Sir Robert's life has been, at least until his present problems, agreeable; but it has also been rarefied, which makes him and his kind an easy target for criticism. The case against court families such as the Fellowes and the Spencers is that they do not represent wider society. The Queen's failure to understand why she should pay income tax, perhaps the most glaring example of her remoteness, is one instance of how these upper-class courtiers have supposedly let her down. It is a familiar charge, having first been made publicly in 1957 by the then Lord Altrincham, when he described the Queen's entourage as being 'almost without exception people of the 'tweedy' sort'.
To which the courtiers have two well- rehearsed answers. The first is that since the Queen feels most at ease with them, why should she not choose them as her advisers? The second is the toff's defence in a classless age: as a former senior advisor to the Queen says, 'just because you've been to public school and don't speak with a common accent doesn't mean you're out of touch'.
A more pointed criticism is currently being made against Sir Robert. How can he be disinterested, it is asked, when the authors of the Royal Family's present disasters are also his relatives? Yet the question should be put the other way: how can the Queen expect to receive sound advice when she persists in associating her family's private conduct with the public functions of the monarchy?
It is not Sir Robert's fault that he must concern himself with telephone interceptions and zoom photography. The fault lies with the idea that one cannot have a Sovereign without a Royal Family. The cult of the Royal Family began as an understandable reaction against the debaucheries of George III's sons. William IV had 10 illegitimate children and once boasted that he liked to make love 'with a lady of the town against a wall, or in the middle of a parade ground'. Victoria, his successor, had nine children, but it was not until the present reign that the idea of an extended family performing public 'royal' duties, for which they received money from the Civil List, really took root. This, too, was an attempt to bury the memory of a catastrophe that did nothing for 'family values', Edward VIII's infatuation with an American divorcee.
What the Queen needs in the present mess, according to one former member of the Household, is advice from a social worker. Sir Robert is not that, but he may be the next best thing: a master of tact and discretion, able to weather the worst embarrassment his employer can visit on him. His misfortune is that she was unable to school her family in the same courtly virtues.Reuse content