Who was Lord Altrincham and what was his problem with the Queen?
John Grigg, also known as Lord Altrincham, was a British writer and politician who will go down in history as the man who called Queen Elizabeth II a “priggish schoolgirl”.
His father was The Times journalist Edward Grigg (later Baron Altrincham), who owned and edited a little-known publication called the National Review. After graduating from Oxford, Grigg Jr took it over and made it his own. He also stood for Parliament, but his political ambitions were unsuccessful – so he turned his attentions towards editing the Review.
After his father’s death in 1955, Grigg became the new Lord Altrincham, renamed his publication the National and English Review, and published articles attacking the Conservative government for its handling of the Suez Crisis. He called for the abolition of the House of Lords and was an outspoken critic of hereditary peerages.
However, what really caught people’s attention was an August 1957 article in which he criticised the Queen.
Altrincham’s article attacked the Queen’s style of speaking as a “pain in the neck” and blamed those around her for the content of her speeches: “The personality conveyed by the utterances which are put into her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a a recent candidate for Confirmation.”
According to the article, the Queen’s court was too upper-class and British – it no longer reflected 20th century society and it damaged the monarchy.
Did people agree with Lord Altrincham?
Yes and no.
The article caused a furore and was attacked by the majority of the press. The Daily Mail was outraged, and so was the Archbishop of Canterbury. The BBC dropped him from Any Questions and the Duke of Argyll said that he should be hanged, drawn and quartered. Despite being a liberal Tory, he was denounced as a crypto-republican and a subversive revolutionary.
But there was cautious support for some of Altrincham’s remarks, which hit home – especially after his interview with Robin Day on ITV. He told the interviewer he hadn’t meant to hurt the feelings of the royal family, but, “You have no choice but to criticise the boss. Only the boss can get rid of bad servants. She hires them and she alone can fire them. It’s her responsibility.”
On opposite sides of the political spectrum, the New Statesman and The Spectator agreed with some of his opinions about the monarchy in the modern age.
Many years later in a Channel 4 documentary, he looked back on the incident, and how by the 1950s the idea had crept in “that you couldn’t say a word against the royal family, let alone the Queen.” In fact, he was a strong believer in constitutional monarchy and never saw his criticisms as disloyal.
Did Lord Altrincham get slapped in the face?
In The Crown, we see Altrincham take a punch to the face as he leaves Television House – and this is based on a real-life incident.
A 64-year-old ex-soldier called Philip Kinghorn Burbidge jumped forward and slapped his face. Burbidge was a member of the League of Empire Loyalists, a hardline nationalist group. At the Criminal Court, he told the judge: “Due to the scurrilous attack by Lord Altrincham, I felt it was up to decent Britons to show some resentment.”
He was fined £1. Outside court, he told reporters: “I did what Prince Philip wanted to do, but couldn’t.”
Was the Queen upset by Lord Altrincham’s comments?
We may never know. This would be a private matter between the Queen and her advisors.
But what we do know is that changes did take place following Lord Altrincham’s article. The Queen made her first televised Christmas Message that year, telling her subjects that she wanted them to feel closer to her as their sovereign.
She also sought to change the image of royalty: for example, the traditional “presentation parties” for young upper-class debutantes at court were replaced by more accessible “garden parties” which included a broader range of people.
Did Lord Altrincham meet the Queen?
That’s another thing we can never know for sure.
In The Crown he turns up at Buckingham Palace to meet the Private Secretary Martin Charteris (Harry Hadden-Paton), only to be ambushed by the monarch herself. She hears him out, gives him a bit of a dressing down on certain points, and then vanishes – telling him never to reveal they met.
So it’s possible he did meet her and never told anyone, but this is probably The Crown using a bit of dramatic licence…
What happened to Lord Altrincham after the scandal?
The year after the whole incident, Altrincham married Marian Patricia Campbell, an employee at the National and English Review. They later adopted two boys.
The Review closed in 1960. Instead, Altrincham tried (unsuccessfully) to stand as an MP after renouncing his title and peerage in the House of Lords, and wrote a critically acclaimed multi-volume biography of David Lloyd George. He died in 2001 at the age of 77.