Obituary: Lord Charteris of Amisfield

Richard Tomlinson
Monday 27 December 1999 01:02 GMT

AS THE Queen's Private Secretary from 1972 to 1977, Martin Charteris seemed to break most of the rules in the courtier's handbook. He cared little about his dress, trailing snuff down his shirt-front with an insouciance that dismayed more strait-laced household members. Unlike his ultra-discreet predecessor, Sir Michael Adeane, Charteris was a born gossip who found it hard to take the pomposities of court life seriously. He even inserted the occasional joke into the Queen's previously humourless speeches, and was the first to laugh at her deadpan delivery.

Yet, while Charteris was unconventional, he was by some distance the Queen's favourite Private Secretary. The secret of his success was that he knew just how far to treat her as a fellow human being, without overstepping the boundaries of royal deference. In retirement he remained fiercely attached to her, remarking pointedly just after the annus horribilis of 1992 that "she never bloody lets you down". By contrast, he thought her children and their spouses had let the Queen down badly, reserving particular scorn for the Duchess of York, whom he described in an unguarded moment as "vulgar, vulgar, vulgar, and that is it". Charteris was never vulgar. Beneath the irreverent facade he was a courtier of the old school - honourable, loyal and, in his maverick way, a class act.

Charteris did not plan to become a courtier, despite coming from a family with a long tradition of royal service. His father, Lord Elcho, eldest son of the ninth Earl of Wemyss, was killed in action in 1916; his mother, Lady Violet Manners, was the eldest sister of Lady Diana Cooper. Charteris's elder brother, David, succeeded as 10th Earl in 1937, while Charteris - in the tradition of aristocratic younger sons - decided to pursue a military career.

After graduating from Sandhurst, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, serving in the Middle East during the Second World War. By 1944, he was an instructor at the staff college in Haifa, where he rapidly decided that the best way to hold the attention of his easily bored students was to rewrite his lectures as a series of "How to" dramas. Revealing latent thespian talents, Charteris devised one especially memorable role for himself as the Mexican general (complete with sombrero hat) who arrived unexpectedly at brigade headquarters.

After Haifa, Charteris was assigned to the Intelligence Branch in Jerusalem, a job which involved counter-terrorism work against the Stern gang. But by 1949 he was back in England, where he soon became thoroughly bored with life in barracks. An escape route was provided by John Colville, with whom he had once been in friendly competition for the hand of Viscount Margesson's daughter Gay (Charteris won, but there were no hard feelings). Colville was due to resign as Princess Elizabeth's Private Secretary, and wondered if Charteris might be interested in the job. No, Charteris replied - only to relent after he was interviewed by the Princess. As he later admitted, Charteris was dazzled by the young Elizabeth, and, when she became Queen in 1952, he moved with her from Clarence House to Buckingham Palace as an Assistant Private Secretary.

The Royal Household in the 1950s was not a congenial place for a live wire like Charteris. Sir Michael Adeane, Private Secretary from 1953 to 1972, was "quite a stuffy sort of person", Charteris later recalled; and, although he respected Adeane, Charteris gradually reached the same conclusion as critics of the monarchy like the second Lord Altrincham (John Grigg), who argued in 1957 that the court was out of tune with the times. "We had to change because we were getting so boring," Charteris later explained. "So as a deliberate policy we let the light in on the mystery with the film Royal Family. Some people may say, "Hence we inherit" - I mean with pictures of Fergie topless and so on. But were we wrong to encourage the press to look inside the gilded cage? I don't think we had any choice. It was a sort of no-win situation."

Yet in 1972, when Charteris finally succeeded Adeane, it was still possible to believe that the monarchy's modernisation had been an unqualified triumph. The next five years proved to be the high point of the reign, culminating in the Silver Jubilee in 1977. It was Charteris who helped persuade an initially reluctant monarch to celebrate the Jubilee, an episode which epitomised the dynamics of their relationship. "She's very good at spotting anything that's wrong," he recalled in a 1993 interview. "In that sense she's got superb negative judgement. But she's weak at initiating policy, so others have to plant the ideas in her head."

One idea that Charteris always denied planting was the Queen's famous warning about the risks of devolution, made in her Jubilee speech to the assembled Lords and Commons in May 1977. The speech was delivered at the height of the controversy over proposed referendums in Scotland and Wales on this question. Anxious to defend her inheritance, the Queen told her captive audience of politicians: "Perhaps the Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred . . . on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom." Charteris insisted that he hadn't written these words, but he "made sure they got written" - an allusion to his battle with Downing Street about the speech's political content.

After retiring as Private Secretary, Charteris spent a happy 13 years as Provost of Eton. Naturally gregarious, he always claimed that the most productive time of his week was Saturday mornings, when he would walk to the Eton post office to collect his state pension. His promenade would often take two hours, as he was waylaid by masters, their wives, college servants and pupils. During the week, he would spend two or three days at the National Heritage Memorial Fund, where he was Chairman of Trustees. A veteran at dealing with obdurate Whitehall mandarins, he was able to extract far more money for the reconstituted fund than the Treasury had originally promised.

In his spare time, Charteris was an excellent shot. He was also an accomplished amateur sculptor; a bust by him of Percy Herbert, Bishop of Norwich, is displayed in Norwich Cathedral. More surprisingly, he was an enthusiastic disco dancer, choosing "Rock Around the Clock" as one of his records on Desert Island Discs. In old age, he found it hard to conceal his disdain for the antics of the younger royals, but he never lost his faith in the monarchy. "Our monarchy is the best in the world," he remarked in 1993, when the reign was at its lowest ebb. "It's better run than the others, does a better job, and it's a lot more fun."

Martin Michael Charles Charteris, soldier and courtier: born London 7 September 1913; OBE 1946; Private Secretary to Princess Elizabeth 1950- 52, Assistant Private Secretary to the Queen 1952-72, Private Secretary and Keeper of Her Majesty's Archives 1972-77; MVO 1953, KCVO 1962, GCVO 1976; CB 1958, KCB 1972, GCB 1977; PC 1972; a permanent Lord-in-Waiting to the Queen 1978-99; QSO 1978; Provost of Eton 1978-91; created 1978 Baron Charteris of Amisfield; Chairman of Trustees, National Heritage Memorial Fund 1980-92; President, Prayer Book Society 1982-99; married 1944 The Hon Gay Margesson (two sons, one daughter); died Wood Stanway, Gloucestershire 23 December 1999.

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