(The Guardian, 24 March 1999)
He was born in Belgium, he sold shortbread in an Edinburgh gift shop, his book was a bestseller. Oh, and he claims to be the rightful heir to the Scottish throne. Richard Askwith unravels the tangled web of a man called Prince Michael
There comes a time in the affairs of every nation when the need for leadership becomes irresistibly apparent: not necessarily to those to be led, but to those who might do the leading. Take Scotland, elections for whose long-awaited Parliament are now only weeks away. After decades on the margins of British politics, Scotland is heading for centre stage. And, with a referendum on full independence now surely only a matter of time, no one knows how the country will perform.
The situation is fraught with opportunity: for SNP leader Alex Salmond; for Sir David Steel (a potential president); for the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal (both of whom are rumoured to have had special Scottish roles sought for them). And, not least, for a polite but persistent little Edinburgh man, currently addressing public meetings up and down Scotland, who claims to be the rightful King of Scots.
Perhaps you know of him. He goes by the name of HRH Prince Michael James Alexander Stewart, 7th Count of Albany, and has made frequent media appearances over the years. The publication of his book, The Forgotten Monarchy Of Scotland, created a brief burst of public interest last year.
Once the Scottish parliament has opened, however, he too is heading for centre stage – and no one really knows how he’ll fit into an already volatile cast. If an independence movement gathers momentum and needs a figurehead, a king, untainted by the (acquired) Englishness of the Windsors, could come in handy.
According to his book, which reached No 2 in the Scottish bestseller lists, and to the extensive website of The Royal House of Stewart (the family’s preferred spelling), Prince Michael’s claim to the throne is based on his being the true heir to James II (James VII of Scots), wrongfully deposed from the British throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The book, website and media interviews also establish that Prince Michael is president of the European Council of Princes (‘an EU advisory body on constitutional matters’ with members from 33 European royal houses), and that he is or has been patron or president of many other bodies, charities and chivalric orders.
More pertinently, they reveal a Prince whose ideas of a monarch’s role could not be further removed from the pomp of the English monarchy. ‘Only in England is the monarchy associated with conservatism,’ he said last year. ‘I’m a socialist.’
God forbid that the House of Stewart’s differences with the House of Windsor should ever degenerate into a physical brawl; but, were they to do so, one hopes that Prince Michael would be matched against Prince Edward, rather than, say, Prince Philip. The 41-year-old prince is a delicate slip of a man.
His voice is soft, too, with a Belgian accent that is disconcerting only if you forget that all significant descendants of James II have lived in continental exile. Yet there is a poised charm to his conversation that suggests a born statesman.
‘I became head of my house when I was five, when my great-uncle, the 6th Count of Albany, died,’ he explained over tea in an Edinburgh hotel. His parents waived whatever claims they had to the Stewart titles in order to give Michael what the Daily Telegraph has called ‘an unanswerable claim’ to them. Michael grew up thinking of himself as an uncrowned king.
‘In my early years I had what you call a silver spoon in my mouth. But not for long.’ When he was 10, bankruptcy forced his parents to sell the family castle in the Ardennes. ‘I screamed my head off – and vowed that when I was 18 I would go to Scotland to live and die there.’ His adolescence was divided between a Brussels flat and a Jesuit boarding school. Then, in 1976, after a year working as an insurance broker, he gathered up his savings and boarded a train for Edinburgh.
The nation that had risen up in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie when he set foot on Scottish soil in 1745 showed little inclination to repeat the exercise. With limited funds and English, Prince Michael was forced to get to know Scotland from the bottom. He found a bedsit, got a job ‘in the tourist industry’ (at the shortbread counter of a tartan gift shop), wrote a letter to the Scotsman and waited for his luck to turn. Materially speaking, he’s still waiting.
Yet bit by bit he has established himself as a figure on the Edinburgh scene. He claims today to have a team of a dozen people working for him in Scotland as well as a small network of overseas ‘ambassadors’. ‘I’ve no interest in politicians,’ he says (although he admits to voting SNP). ‘I’ve no interest in the Establishment. I’m interested in the grass roots. If Scotland is to have a monarchy, it must be the people’s choice.”
He says that he aspires to imitate the ‘cycling monarchs’ of Scandinavia and the Netherlands rather than the pomp-obsessed Windsors. ‘When the Queen comes to Scotland, she brings a retinue of 250 people. I think that’s obscene.’ A monarch’s chief function, he believes, should be to protect the people against the encroachments of the state. In these days of over-mighty party oligarchs and unaccountable Eurocrats, it’s an approach that might appeal even to hardened republicans.
Persuading the hardened royalists might prove trickier. Conventional historians insist that the last of the Stuart line was Cardinal Henry Stuart, Duke of York, brother of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and grandson of James II; and that any residual Stuart claim was then transferred to the House of Savoy, ending up with what is now the Royal House of Bavaria. Prince Michael says that a secret second marriage by Bonnie Prince Charlie – to Marguerite de Lussan, Comtesse de Massillan – produced a male line from which he is descended.
Conventional historians insist that there is no evidence either of this marriage or of the divorce (from Princess Louise of Stolberg) that would have had to precede it. Prince Michael – to simplify a mind-numbingly elaborate position – insists that there is, although the key documents are not readily available.
However, people who ought to know about such things side firmly with the conventional historians. Prince Michael appears in none of the standard nobs’ directories. David Williamson, co-editor of Debrett’s Peerage, calls his claim ‘completely bogus’. ‘He says that the evidence is there,’ remarks the Lyon Clerk at the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh (the official arbiter of such matters), ‘but he doesn’t produce it.’
More damaging are the other question marks over Prince Michael’s bona fides. Why, for example, does he base himself in a PO Box? Why do weeks of correspondence fail to produce a telephone number even for his Private Secretary? He has a nice explanation for the fact that he cannot prove his identity with his passport – his was seized, he says, as a result of a pro-Windsor conspiracy, and the Home Office refuses to issue him with a new one. But why did he not sue the Scottish newspaper which eight years ago published what it claimed was his birth certificate, identifying him as plain Michael Lafosse?
More damningly, why can I find no one at the EC or the EU who has even heard of the European Council of Princes? Why has Prince Michael’s alleged predecessor as president of the Council, ‘the head of the Imperial house of Austria’ (which must mean Archduke Otto von Hapsburg) never heard of it either? And why, when I asked Prince Michael for more information about the Council, did it dissolve like mist in sunlight? ‘We never meet. Can you imagine the security nightmare of 33 royals in a single room? But we have teams of international lawyers pointing things out to us, and if some legislation coming out of Strasbourg goes against this or that clause in a country’s constitution, we point this out.’
It’s a nice idea, but under even moderately close examination the whole edifice of the Royal House of Stewart falls apart. Prince Michael’s subsidiary titles ‘Duke of Kendal & Kintyre, Count of Albany’ are to all intents and purposes meaningless. So are the titles of the various distinguished people in the Stewart ‘court’. Read Prince Michael’s book, or visit his website, and you’ll see a number of endorsements from luminaries with titles that turn out to have been awarded by Prince Michael himself.
The case of Sir Laurence Gardner illustrates well what everyone gets out of it. He’s the author of The Bloodline Of The Holy Grail and Genesis Of The Grail Kings, best-selling pseudo-historical works that claim, in the usual way, that Jesus married and had children and has living descendants. Gardner’s novel twist is to identify Prince Michael of Albany as Jesus’s direct heir. Visitors to the Royal House of Stewart website are quickly directed to links through which they may purchase ‘Sir’ Laurence’s books – or official Stewart paintings by Prince Michael’s ambassador in Canada, ‘Sir’ Peter Robson; and so on.
The patent preposterousness of this web of imposture has not deterred all sorts of respectable people and organisations from going along with it. The Bloodline Of The Holy Grail, which drew credibility from its foreword by Prince Michael, was serialised at length in a national tabloid, while ‘Prince Michael’ and ‘Sir Laurence’ have both been commissioned to write follow-up books.
Curiously, none of these criticisms necessarily invalidates Prince Michael’s claim to the Scottish crown. Giving someone a throne on the basis of a bogus genealogy is really no more absurd that doing so on the basis of a bona fide one. And what could be less appropriate to the spirit of empathetic post-Diana royalty than to insist on the cold details of pedigree? What matters is how royal you feel – and Prince Michael feels very royal indeed.
Generally, nations need monarchs like fish need bicycles, but a newly independent Scotland – anxious to establish its identity as a sovereign nation every bit as complete as England – could gain huge symbolic value from having its own king. And if it had to choose a king whose character and style mirrored its own, a cussed, egalitarian outsider and chancer – a Sancho McPanza for our times – seems more appropriate than the kind of landed toff that real royal families usually produce. If a few stuck-up members of the English Establishment cast doubt on his claims, so much the better.
OK, perhaps he’s not ideal king material. But in a world in which Jeffrey Archer is being touted as London’s mayor, anything is possible.