As Elizabeth II’s representative for the last 25 years, Lord Brookeborough has met everyone from Obama to Trump and Putin. Here he talks about the monarch’s kindness, relief that the Prince Andrew drama is resolved ‘to some extent’ – and what’s next for the monarchy
‘The Queen is boss, but I do also see her as a friend,” Lord Brookeborough says with a smile. The 69-year-old, also known as Alan Brooke, has been the monarch’s personal lord-in-waiting since 1997, in which guise he has to regularly come face-to-face with kings, queens and presidents.
Dressed casually today in a jumper and shirt, he is sitting in the library of Colebrooke House, his family’s ancestral Georgian home in Co Fermanagh, and reflects on a life spent serving the Crown. The room is packed with books on horses, portraits of family and framed photographs of the royals he has met over the years. It has barely changed since the 1800s; even the wallpaper is the same. In one corner is a tiny television. There is an open fire, which Brookeborough fills up with sticks.
His wife Janet, who he married 42 years ago, is in another room with the couple’s two black labradors, Merlin and Raven, and a corgi called Puffin. Lord Brookeborough has a dry sense of humour. As he pours the tea, I ask if he doesn’t have someone to do that kind of thing for him. “I made this tea myself,” he replies.
“You don’t expect me to feed you as well, do you?” he says.
Every so often as he answers questions, he giggles softly and nervously, admitting he was “terrified” of being interviewed.
He is very matter-of-fact; knows dates and detail and is careful with his language, possibly fearing he could be misinterpreted or, worse still, that people would get the wrong impression of him. I have known him for years as a lovely and generous man who, despite his upbringing and lofty status, is down-to-earth and very funny.
At one point he shows me a ‘framed tweet’ that someone has printed out – it shows him and the Queen of Spain in a black carriage in 2017 and reads: “Snapped a pretty good photo of the Queen of Spain earlier this week. Anyone know who the guy on the right is?” He’s clearly very tickled by this. “It’s on Twitter – whatever that is,” he says.
His wife, Lady Brookeborough, is the softly spoken daughter of a linen manufacturer from Ballyclare, who trained as an art historian and worked for Sotheby’s in London. She inherited her mother’s gifts for sewing and cooking and was chopping a cooking apple as I walked through their kitchen. The couple have no children. Brookeborough’s younger brother, Christopher Brooke, who has four sons, is therefore heir presumptive to the title.
The day we talk, it has just been announced that the 95-year-old Queen Elizabeth has been diagnosed with Covid – but according to Buckingham Palace is “still carrying out light duties”.
“I look forward to seeing her out and about again,” Lord Brookeborough says. He beams with real enthusiasm when he speaks of the Queen, and shoots down any questions he does not like about her.
It has been a turbulent time for Britain’s royals: the week before, Prince Andrew settled a civil sexual assault case brought in the US by Virginia Giuffre who claimed the Duke of York had sexually assaulted her on three occasions when she was 17, allegations Andrew denied.
Lord Brookeborough knows the prince’s work, so what does he make of the controversy? “It has obviously been very sad, but I think everybody is delighted it has been resolved to some extent – at the moment.”
The British royal family has dealt with much upheaval in recent years, not least Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who left the “firm” for a life in America. “I don’t think there is anybody who does not think it is sad,” says the 3rd Viscount Brookeborough. “When some people say to me, ‘Oh, my goodness, what is happening in the royal family?’ There are very few families that haven’t had glitches. Even in this generation,if everything is wonderful it may not have been a few generations ago. They have the life, they have to run with it.”
He could hardly have imagined that Elizabeth II would go on to mark 70 years on the throne, as she did this month, way back when he was asked if he would take on the role – one of only two within the UK – of representing her.
“It all happened by chance. Somebody I knew in the palace rang me up and I was asked to be lord-in-waiting. I thought, ‘what on earth is that?’ A lord-in-waiting is not a lady-in-waiting in drag – we do an entirely different thing. When you are doing that job, you are the Queen.”
His elegant home stands on the banks of the Colebrooke River; the oldest part of the house was built after 1641, with the front of the house and the large rooms added in 1824. There are riverside and shrub-garden walks and opportunities to watch wildlife including deer, otters, buzzards, kingfishers, mink and many others.
It is part of a 1,000-acre estate, with its primary businesses farming and tourism. Colebooke, Ashbrooke (his nearby childhood home), and the luxury self-catering cottages on site are rented out to people from across Ireland and the UK by arrangement. Lord and Lady Brookeborough moved into what was a dilapidated Colebrooke in July 1980. By September they found themselves welcoming their first paying guests, who were hunting, shooting and fishing enthusiasts. It was the beginning of a business venture designed to save the house from ruin. “We have people staying in the house and we look after them,” he says.
These days he can often be spotted driving his quad bike about the estate, but it was at the family home 60 years ago that he had his first encounter with royalty, when the Queen Mother visited in 1962. She arrived by helicopter, and schoolchildren, including a young Alan Brooke, had the day off.
“My mother said go get Popeye, my horse, to show the Queen Mother. So, I trotted him up and turned him around, but I hadn’t looked at the other side. In between times he had rolled and there was a big green mark on him, and everybody roared with laughter.”
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that he first met the Queen, during a dinner party in Scotland. “Of course, we were nervous, he recalls, “but she has an ability to put people at ease. I won’t say that I was totally at ease, but the way she can relax people is just extraordinary.”
He recalls a lunch at Buckingham Palace some years ago, where a doctor who had served in a war theatre was sitting next to the Queen when he became “totally tongue-tied” and was unable to have a conversation with her. “So, she called the corgis over and fed them a biscuit and he talked to the corgis and all of a sudden he was able to talk to her again.
“The Queen is always smiling and always so funny – that is one of her ways of communicating.”
On his first public engagement after receiving treatment in 2015 for throat cancer, which has left his voice strained, the Queen asked how he was doing. “She saw me and, at the first opportunity, she stopped doing what she was doing and came over to ask how I was. She did not do that just for me – she would do that even if you were the person raking the gravel because she really cares.”
He was also fond of the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, who died last year at the age of 99. Philip was well-known for his off-the-cuff remarks, which often got him into trouble. “They were talked about as being clangers, but they didn’t remain clangers for long. He had a way of relaxing people.”
The sight of the Queen sitting alone during her husband’s funeral at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle due to Covid restrictions is a memory that has stayed with him. “It was terribly sad, of course. I think everyone was moved by that image, I know I was. It has been difficult for her to lose her husband of 73 years.”
Among his fondest memories of the couple who married in 1947 was attending one of the Queen’s family barbecues on her Balmoral estate in Scotland where Philip, also known as the “king of the grill” according to Prince Harry, cooked the food.
“There is no staff there. You arrive and there is the bare table, the Duke of Edinburgh would have gone on ahead with the food, and he would start the cooking.
“Then we would arrive with the Queen and the tables have to be laid out, the dishes have to be out, candles lit. She has a very special way of lighting the candles in the right order and it was always amusing when it didn’t work. Then she would go ahead and make the salad.”
What’s in the Queen’s salad, I ask.
“Don’t ask silly questions like that,” he replies, with a smile.
Lord Brookeborough gets to see a different side to a very public face and recalls a conversation with the Queen about a BBC show called Coast, which showcased the western isles in Scotland. “She does watch television but she hadn’t seen it and wanted to see it, so I got the DVDs for her.”
Away from pomp and ceremony, he has attended horse racing at Ascot with the Queen, sitting with her in the “number one carriage” and can still remember listening to the roar of the crowds. “They are not cheering for you, they are cheering for the royals. You have got the bands playing, you have got everybody waving and it’s like magic. You have to pinch yourself to believe that you are there but every moment with the Queen is like that.”
On another occasion, he joined Prince Charles where they “went through the arch into the racecourse and somebody shouted ‘Up Fermanagh’. The Prince of Wales turned to me and said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘Well, I have to bring one or two supporters with me’.”
In 2011, he was asked to greet Barack Obama, then US president, and his wife Michelle when they landed at Stansted Airport after their schedule was moved ahead because of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud. “It was meant to be the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall but it was left to me. I was asked if I could be ready to go in half an hour, so I said, ‘Of course’.”
A suited Lord Brookeborough was moving towards the steps of Air Force One when an FBI agent ran towards him thinking he was a reporter.
“Go over to the press area,” he was instructed.
“So I said, ‘I’m not a member of the press, I’m representing the Queen.’ He turned around and said, ‘Hey, this guy says he is representing the Queen,’ in a disbelieving voice. I won in the end, avoiding arrest or worse. But I mean, it’s an extraordinary change from living here surrounded by fields of sheep to suddenly being there.”
Then there was Donald Trump’s state visit in 2019, which was largely regarded as a success because the then US president “didn’t tweet from the moment he entered British airspace. Everyone was worried, including the Americans, but he played his cards straight down the line. He was amusing and his family were charming.”
In 2003, Lord Brookeborough had to welcome to the UK the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last week invaded Ukraine. It was a time when relations were a lot more cordial between the two countries. During the trip, the Queen’s man travelled in Putin’s car, flew to Edinburgh with him and even toured a Russian warship on the Thames.
“I looked after Putin for three days, and at that stage he was on his charm offensive,” he says. “I’ve had to look after everyone from the Emperor of Japan to Nicolas Sarkozy, among others.”
Seventeen years before his elevation to viscount status, Alan Henry Brooke was commissioned into the 17th/21st Lancers in 1970. He later served in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment. He was Honorary Colonel of The 2nd Battalion (TA) and The Royal Irish Regiment between 1997 and 2008.
His family is steeped in military history – 23 members of the Brooke family went to the front line in both world wars and 18, including two of Lord Brookeborough’s uncles, died. His father, the 2nd Viscount, was wounded. His great-uncle, also called Alan, was one of the most important figures in World War II; the head of the British Army and the chairman of chiefs of staff committee, he was the lead military advisor to wartime prime minister Winston Churchill during the war.
There was constant friction between Field Marshal Brooke and Churchill, some of which was revealed in private letters Brooke sent to his wife back home every day. In a diary entry for September 10, 1944, Brooke wrote: “[Churchill] has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense”.
When the Queen visited Ireland in 2011, it was the first official visit by a British monarch in 100 years and she was widely praised for her gestures of reconciliation given the history. “The Queen loves Ireland, they all do,” he says, “Why? Because Ireland has been so much part of everybody’s lives and it was, up until her visit, a part that she couldn’t go to.
“She always asks how things are, she loves stories about Ireland and its horses. It’s no secret, anybody will tell you that if the horses are from Ireland then she has a special place for them.
“The Queen does not put up with being totally controlled, because she is a sociable person. When she gets talking to someone about horses she knows so much about everything she will just go off on a tangent.
“She will talk about their problems with a particular horse, she will talk about what she has learnt. Apart from being Queen, she is, in Irish terms, a horse-coper at the highest level.”
In 2012, she visited Co Fermanagh where she stepped inside St Michael’s Catholic Church following a service at the Anglican St Macartin’s Cathedral on the other side of the street. “It was very special, indeed. Previously, rather few Protestants went into the Catholic Church, and rather few Catholics went to the Protestant church. We all know that to be true. After that, for instance, everything changed and it contributed so much to cross-community relations.”
Another gesture, this time by Enda Kenny, then taoiseach, was laying a wreath on behalf of the Irish government on Remembrance Sunday in memory of those who died in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987, a gesture that has continued ever since. “Enda Kenny is not very different to people in Fermanagh. When he visited he would tell me that he had the whole day and that it was a pleasure to meet people.
“He stayed with us, too, which was fun and we had great craic. He is an amusing guy – we had some whiskey and we didn’t go to bed too early.”
He welcomed Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina to Co Fermanagh earlier this month and recalls a conversation with the President about his relative, Charlotte Brooke, who lived from 1740 to 1793 and was a Gaelic Scot. “Michael said to me, ‘Oh, Charlotte was the first person who put together Irish Gaelic poems.’ Straightaway he said she is up there in the Gaelic language and Irish culture.”
When the Queen dies, Lord Brookeborough’s role as lord-in-waiting ends. Once he reaches 75 he will be expected to retire, whichever comes first.
Where does he see the future of Britain’s monarchy going? “I think Prince Charles will be excellent as king. He is very charming. One of his very strong influences is the environment. I think he will be great.
“The royal family has lived through hundreds of years of all sorts of different adventures. You just have to get on with it.”
For more information visit www.ashbrookehouse.com and www.colebrookecottages.com