Pity King Kigeli V, the last king of Rwanda, who died, aged 80, last year in Washington.
The former monarch had been living in greatly reduced circumstances after the market for honorary Rwandan knighthoods—his primary source of income since being deposed in 1961—dried up.
King Kigeli had traded the ancestral fortresses of his youth for a subsidized townhouse and subsisted largely on food stamps, but he was also, according to his obituary in the New York Times, supported by occasional stipends from a British organization known as the International Monarchist League (IML), of which the chancellor (and why should a Monarchist League have anything as democratically plebeian as a president?) is the celebrated British-born historian and writer of noble Russian heritage, Count Nikolai Tolstoy.
Count Nikolai, a distant cousin of the great author of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, has been chancellor of the IML since 1985, when he took over the job following the death of one of the League’s many ‘colorful’ characters in its history, Victor Hervey, the Sixth Marquess of Bristol, a celebrated upper-class rogue (and brilliant businessman).
When I spoke to the Count—he has asked me to call him on his ‘library telephone’ for the interview—I asked him how he got to know King Kigeli in the the first place.
“Well, I can’t say I knew him well,” Tolstoy airily replied, “but I think he came to one of our dinners, and I sat next to him.”
Are the rumors that the Monarchist League supplied him with financial support true?
“Well, it wouldn’t be normal because [the League] is not completely rolling in money, but it’s just a sort of thing that we like to get up to if we possibly can,” said Tolstoy, artfully ignoring my queries about how much the former king actually received.
Later he informed me via email, when I bluntly asked if it was closer to hundreds or thousands, that the King “could not conceivably have received anything remotely approaching thousands of pounds.”
Another longtime member of the league, Henry von Blumenthal, also declined to put a figure on the assistance rendered to the former King, but recalled that the first practical support the League provided to the King was to buy him a new suit—at a not inconsiderable cost because Kigeli stood a truly regal 7 feet 2 inches in his socks.
Of course, in the best traditions of all societies from the Famous Five to the Skull and Bones, there is a voluminous history of internal dissent in the league.
Indeed, even the subject of the occasional gifts to King Kigeli are contentious: one member, Don Foreman, who was secretary-general of the League from 1991 to 2001, told me confidently that nothing was done ‘officially’ by the league for King Kegali, although he speculates that an ‘American clergyman’ who was a member may have provided him with some financial help, but is careful to add, “The money didn’t come out of our account.”
Another life member, Gregory Lauder-Frost, a British author and well-known right-wing voice in the U.K., who was publications editor and secretary-general for the group for several years until 1993, was surprised when he heard of the alleged gifts to King Kigeli, and told me he would disapprove of the handing out of cash to ‘tribal chiefs’ on the basis that, when it came to deposed Kings, the society should remain focused on the established European families—the Habsburgs in Austria and the deposed Kings of Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, for example.
Foreman (Lauder-Frost’s successor as secretary-general) disagreed and argued that the strong tradition of monarchy in Africa was a powerful force for unity on the continent.
The League was founded long before the issue of whether or not to buy a suit for a deposed Rwandan monarch could have conceivably become a bone of contention.
It was established by a Church of England vicar, The Rev. John Edward Bazille-Corbin in 1943, primarily, according to Foreman, in the belief that preserving the monarchies of Eastern Europe and the Balkans would act as a bulwark against Communism.
The League followed the path pressure groups have trodden since the dawn of the media age; they wrote to newspapers espousing the royal cause and made themselves available to journalists writing on royal matters. They were moderately influential, especially when you consider, as Foreman noted, that they were essentially “a bunch of guys in a pub.”
But the League fell into abeyance in the ‘60s and became virtually dormant, until being revitalized by Victor Hervey, the 6th Marquess of Bristol, a millionaire tax exile who had spent time in jail in his youth for his part in the ‘Mayfair Boys’ jewel heist, and allegedly ran guns to Franco during the Spanish civil war.
“Victor was a sound as a bell,” said Lauder-Frost. “Everything written about him in the media was rubbish because the media is full of left-wingers. He ran guns to Franco and helped Franco defeat the communists, which is good enough for me.”
Hervey became chancellor of the League in 1975, and pumped money into its ailing structure.
As a hereditary peer, Hervey had access to an enviable list of establishment figures and was also entitled to book rooms in the House of Lords, where he organized lavish dinners to which he would invite a stellar collection of (mostly deposed) European royals: King Michael of Romania, Otto von Habsburg (the ‘rightful’ heir to the Austrian throne), and King Simeon of Bulgaria were among the invited guests.
“They were very convivial occasions,” said Lauder Frost. “Formal diners, white tie and we used to get a lot of publicity. We enjoyed it and there was also a sense that we were fighting for a cause.”
They were certainly high times for the League.
Hervey’s last appointment to the “Grand Council” (what less regal organizations would call a committee) before his death in 1985 was the aforementioned Henry von Blumenthal.
“Basically, Victor paid for the League,” said von Blumenthal. “He financed the whole thing, and that sounds like a good thing, but actually it wasn’t really, because it meant that the League didn’t concentrate so much on expanding its members, getting in subscriptions and all those sorts of things. And so when he died, it wasn’t financially stable. I then became the treasurer and I was the treasurer for about ten years and I had always held the view that the League was barking up the wrong tree.
“It had tended to be a sort of society of royalty watchers. And I was interested in the ideology of it. And I thought that if you want to do royalty watching, you can buy a copy of Hello! I thought that the League’s purpose, was not just to watch what royalties are doing, but to say why monarchy is a good system and should be supported.
“And so, I started to compile materials which were, if you like, of a more ideological nature. I wrote articles about why monarchy should be supported.”
Parties were part of the group’s DNA.
“You can’t run a pressure group without organizing events,” said von Blumenthal, but while Hervey favored “expensive banquets attended by members of royal families,” Blumenthal shifted the focus.
“I remember there being a drinks party in the House of Commons, [events] more along those sorts of lines. Fashionable, affordable events rather than what had happened in Bristol’s day. We tried to make the thing a bit more, I don’t know if the word is populist, but a bit more accessible to young and not necessarily rich people.”
Tolstoy took over as Chancellor when Hervey died. “Lord Bristol was delightfully eccentric,” Tolstoy recalled. “His heart was in the right place but I didn’t think the League was getting very far.”
Was Hervey as roguish as is made out? “He kept the Monarchist League going but he wasn’t the best advert,” said Tolstoy. “I liked him because he was, as you say, a real rogue.”
The League still cleaves to a certain grandeur, however. Tolstoy described a recent dinner in the Orangery at Kensington Palace as ‘very enjoyable’ and says that his most practical work for the League these days involves representing the ‘pro-monarchy’ side at University debates such as the Oxford Union.
The League is clearly a collection of eccentric and outspoken individuals, but on the central issue—that constitutional monarchy is a superior structure for a state than a republic with an elected head of state—they all agree.
Tolstoy witheringly dismisses the many achievements of the much-respected and praised Irish President Mary Robinson. “Everybody said she a latter-day saint. It seemed to me she was just a sort of pious non-entity that you get at the top of a republic.”
Foreman argues that the key thing about a Monarch is, “not the power that they have, it’s the power they deny others.”
Lauder-Frost says that Monarchs who claim “hundreds or thousands of years of history” have a ‘significance” that presidents who are for the most part ‘nobodies’ can never claim.
On this there appears unity—even if on the question of the advisability of buying King Kigeli a new suit, it seems, the International Monarchist League will remain forever divided.