“The Queens’ Knight” is historian Martyn Downer’s account of the life of Sir Howard Elphinstone, soldier and courtier to Queen Victoria, and trusted advisor and functionary to her children, especially to her younger sons Arthur and Leopold.

The volume is blurbed by another historian as “a riveting page-turner”… which suggests that the standard definition of page-turning-riveting may be more on the generously inclusive side, but it is a fascinating window into the Victoria’s long reign, and the proud tower of the European political establishment during the 19th century. There are no scandalous revelations; Sir Howard was not a man to whom scandal attached.

From the evidence of his own voluminous correspondence, and that of his many friends, he was a quiet spoken, observant, industriously reliable sort of man, a career soldier trained as an engineer, fluent in languages, an amateur artist of considerable skill, and rather fond of amateur theatrics. He might have seemed utterly conventional, a sort of stock Victorian character out of a novel of the time… except for three things. He was the descendent of a family which had served in the Russian Imperial Navy over several generations and in various capacities, and his mother was the daughter of a Baltic-German merchant family from Riga. He and his sisters and brothers had been raised all over Europe before their parents brought them to England in the mid 1840s. He died very suddenly and freakishly in 1890, falling overboard from the deck of a steamship in a rough sea, twenty-two miles from the Ushant Light. Between those two bookends of a life, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallant service in the siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War, and came to the notice of the Prince Consort, Albert.

In 1858 Prince Albert was discretely searching for a reliable young officer to serve as governor, to oversee the education and upbringing of the then-seven year old Prince Arthur. Besides being a little spoiled, Arthur was very much the favorite child of Queen Victoria. Whoever took on the job would have to cope with a very doting mother with an imperial temper. Howard Elphinstone seems to have had his own doubts and discomforts as regards his own fitness for the duty, but he grew into the job assisted by his own not-inconsiderable efforts. He had the friendship of the Prince Consort, as they had many tastes and qualities in common; fluency in German being the least of it. Upon the Prince Consorts’ death three years later, the Queen was almost unbalanced by her grief. Over the following years she relied to an increasing degree upon those who had been her husbands’ closest friends among her court. Howard Elphinstone had her complete trust, and so did her children, beyond Arthur, his original charge. Over the following thirty years he would variously be their confidant, advisor, bodyguard and diplomatic messenger. He would manage to stay neutral in feuds and above scandal, utterly trustworthy and sympathetic to the end.

A large portion of interest in his life, as related in this biography, is that he seems to have known practically everyone and been on the best of terms with them all: from the various noble persons perched on the entwined branches of Europe’s royal families, to soldier-comrades like Charles “Chinese” Gordon, the hero of the Sudan and Sir Garnet Wolesley. He dealt with personalities as different… and as difficult as Ulysses S. Grant, then President of the US, and Otto van Bismarck, Germany’s ‘grey eminence’. As well as quoting lavishly from many of Elphinstone’s letters (much of which has never been published), this volume is also illustrated generously with many of his own paintings, and photographs of Elphinstone’s friends, family, fellow officers and courtiers, and members of the various royal families whom he served.

“The Queen’s Knight” is available through Amazon, here.

Several years ago, I wrote an essay about Victoria and her times, here.

“Sgt. Mom” is a free-lance writer who lives in San Antonio, who blogs at “The Daily Brief“. Her own books are avaible at her website, www.celiahayes.com.

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