Book Review: Courtiers by Valentine Low

Arts Reviewer, Dr Diana Carroll, reviews Courtiers, a vivid and engaging new book by leading UK royal reporter Valentine Low.
Dr Diana Carroll

Valentine Low has been a respected royal reporter for over 25 years with numerous front-page exclusives in Britain’s respected Times and Sunday Times. He’s been on many royal tours and been up close at many dramatic moments in recent royal history.

Over the years, he’s built trusted relationships with some of the royal family’s closest advisers and many have contributed to this fascinating book, both on and off the record.

Low gently pulls back the heavy velvet drapes at the Palace windows and throws some light on the reality of royal life. He offers a knowing glimpse into the lives of these people who very often shape history whilst standing in the shadows.

It is this focus on the ‘men in grey suits’ (as Princess Diana famously called them) that makes Courtiers a little different from most royal books. And until relatively recently they were indeed almost exclusively men, usually from Eton and the Guards – always very posh but not always terribly clever.

Throughout history, courtiers have always been part of palace life – think Shakespeare’s Henry lV or even Blackadder. They oil the wheels of the monarchy, look after the money, manage the diary, and do their best to keep the boss – usually known as ‘the principal’ – out of trouble. You might say they haven’t done such a good job in recent years, but maybe things would have been worse without them!

It would be easy to think of this book as tabloid tittle-tattle, but Low is far above all that. This is a serious look at how ‘The Firm’ really works. And whilst it does go back to the early days of the Queen’s reign, it is the chapters about Charles and Camilla, Andrew, William and Kate, and Harry and Meghan, that inevitably make the most riveting reading. It’s telling that some of Harry’s closest advisers feel they were treated so shabbily that they now call themselves the ‘Sussex Survivors’ Club’. Low’s extensive experience on the royal rota shines through on every page as he reveals the intricate web of relationships, emotions, and power dynamics within the court.

It’s clear that working for the royal family takes an enormous toll on the individuals who often sacrifice their personal lives to the job. There may be enviable perks, including lots of overseas travel, but the salary is modest and the principal can be impossible to please. Reading this, it’s clear that Charles is not someone you want to cross too often! Low attributes this, in part, to having “a ferocious work ethic” and expecting everyone around him to be the same. He’s also prone to “falling under the spell” of outside advisers which makes life challenging for his own staff.

The last few chapters look at the fall-out from the ‘Megxit’ saga and consider the likely changes for the royal family under Charles as King – a note on the cover explains that the book was already in print when Queen Elizabeth died. (An updated edition has now been released with a new chapter on King Charles lll and the Coronation.)

Valentine Low is a considered and insightful writer, not given to sensationalism or hyperbole. Nor does he shy away from a quotable quote: Prince Andrew is “rude, gauche, insensitive, and wholly unaware of other people,” as we all saw in that disastrous television interview.

Courtiers: The hidden power behind the Crown is a great read and a remarkably good summation of how the royal family arrived at its current predicament. It asks how they can move the monarchy forward at this pivotal moment in its evolution. Highly recommended for monarchists and republicans alike!

Courtiers, Valentine Low, RRP $32.99 Hachette

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