SUCH IS THE celebrity society in which we now live that, no sooner had the world learned that James Hewitt had put the Princess of Wales’ love letters to him up for sale, than he was offered the post of war correspondent by a major US TV channel as conflict over Iraq looms. But the worldwide disgust at the former cavalry officer’s behaviour saw Fox News lose its nerve. Hewitt may have been an active participant in the 1991 Gulf Conflict, but he wouldn’t be there this time round, all expenses paid.
The asking price for Diana’s handwritten letters is said to be $10 million dollars and, doubtless, some “collector” will come up with the cash some day. But the fear of embarrassment, scandal or outrage over what is contained in Royal correspondence is nothing new. In 1905, King Edward VII set the hounds in motion to retrieve letters written to Alexander Profeit, Queen Victoria’s factor at Balmoral whose job was to run the estate – and responsibility for the estate’s servants . . . and among them had been the Highland ghillie, John Brown, Victoria’s personal servant and probably her closest friend and confidant in the long years of widowhood after the death of Prince Albert.
As shown in the film ‘Mrs Brown’ – where Dame Judi Dench portrayed Victoria and Billy Connolly played John Brown – the Highlander spoke frankly and bluntly to the Queen – more than her children could ever manage – and his distaste for the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII, was manifest and, within Royal circles, public. Indeed, when Victoria died he went through the royal homes destroying everything that had memories of the servant he considered an upstart.
But Edward must have feared there was more to the “Mrs Brown” jibes and gossip. In fact, there had been a rumour that Victoria and Brown had secretly married!
Whatever smoking guns there were, Edward was determined that they would never be found. So, when Alexander Profeit’s son contacted the King in1904 with an interesting “proposition,” saying he had found some 300 letters written to his father by Victoria, which mentioned John Brown.
The King reacted promptly, calling in Sir James Reid, a trusted courtier of many years standing. Reid was, however, a doctor who had attended the Queen, nursed her in her last days and was now physician to her son. Hardly the qualifications for a cloak-and-dagger project. But he was trusted totally and secrecy was everything.
There were several meetings with Profeit’s son before the deal was done on May 8, 1905. In his diary. Sir James recorded: “George Profeit came and delivered over to me a tin box full of the late Queen’s letters to his father about John Brown for which he has blackmailed the King.” Sir James then went personally to see the King who must have been mightily relieved to get his hands on them, especially as the doctor later admitted that he had taken a peek at the letters before handing them over. He thought many of them “most compromising”. There is no record of what Edward VII did with the letters or of how much he paid for them. It’s safe to assume that they were confined to a Royal bonfire.
If there is a Royal paranoia about correspondence, it stems from Queen Victoria who wrote scores of letters every day to all and sundry, while keeping an extensive and outspoken personal diary. It has been estimated that Victoria may have written some 60 million words in her lifetime, but only two million have survived. The first signs of the paranoia saw Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, scour her mother’s correspondence, rewriting the sections that she thought were fit to be seen by the rest of the world. Since Victoria, her successors have shunned such prodigious letter writing and diaries. But when there has been the danger of someone in the Royal Family having been indiscreet, they have lost no time in covering their tracks.
Diana broke the Royal mould in many ways, not least in the notorious Panoroma interview when she admitted her adultery and passion for Hewitt. Perhaps, some fear, the Hewitt letters will reveal her true thoughts about her husband, her mother-in-law, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother. The paranoia lingers on – especially where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are concerned. Details of more than 100 abdication files have been unearthed in a Treasury document held by the Public Record Office and have just been released. Was there a “feud” involving Wallis Simpson and the Queen Mother? And if there was, what was at the heart of it? Many files from that period are still embargoed, but historians have shown that the House of Windsor has gone to great lengths to ferret out correspondence that may have existed between the Duke and his German cousins after Hitler came to power. When the Duke died in 1972, there were stories that Earl Mountbatten despatched a lorry to his Paris home in the middle of the night to gather all the ex-King’s files and papers and bring them back to Britain where Mountbatten could ensure they were safe from prying eyes. The Duke of Windsor was seen by the Royals as his generation’s equivalent of Diana the “loose cannon”. Over and above the allegations of Nazi sympathies, Edward himself was involved in a blackmail attempt by a woman in the 1920s and there were rumours that he had paid off an architect in Paris to suppress compromising love letters.
Hewitt’s desire – or need – for cash rather than a place in posterity as one of the men a much-loved royal like Diana loved seems to be overwhelming. We have already had his version of the affair and there seems no limit to his ability to compound his betrayal of the relationship that obviously meant so much to her. Perhaps the Daily Mirror got it right when they dubbed the former Cavalry officer the “Desert Rat”. Certainly, no officer nor a gentleman.
(First published in Royalty Magazine Volume 18-04.)