Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma was the most honored Englishman of his generation. By the time the IRA assassinated him in August 1979, he had amassed a collection of titles and decorations, orders and medals, so extensive that when he wore them on full-dress, ceremonial occasions, he looked more like a Ruritanian relic than a man who had done the state some service well into the age of the atomic bomb and the Polaris submarine. To most foreign observers, and even to some natives, the British honors system is an ancien régime anachronism of incomprehensible complexity and questionable worth. But to Mountbatten, it was the stuff of life. While most British politicans, civil servants, and military men reluctantly settle for an occasional decoration, Mountbatten collected his titles and orders as a philatelist collects stamps—remorselessly, single-mindedly, and voraciously. “In honor bound” was not just his family motto: it was also the direction of his life’s ambition, and the summation of his life’s achievements.
To Mountbatten’s many admirers—who ranged from Barbara Cartland and Noel Coward to Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan, and of whom the most ardent was, undoubtedly, himself—these honors were both deserved and appropriate. In the first place, he was very royal: Queen Victoria was his great-grandmother, the last czar was his uncle, the future King Edward VIII was his best man, Prince Philip was his nephew, and Prince Charles his “honorary grandson.” Secondly, he had glamour: he was exceptionally goodlooking, married to the richest and most beautiful heiress of her generation, a brilliant leader, and a formidable operator and committee man. And thirdly, he seemed very successful: in peace and war, as a military man and as a proconsul, he held a series of important appointments, which he was held to have discharged with brilliance and aplomb. Seen in this light, Mountbatten was an authentic twentieth-century hero, the last warrior prince, whose entry was, with the exception of Winston Churchill’s, the longest in Britain’s Who’s Who.
Yet to his critics—and there were many, and they grew in number with the Years—these honors were ill-gotten, concealing failures of judgment and shortcomings of character more than they rewarded real achievement. For all his charm and style, Mountbatten’s marriage was never particularly happy, and since his death Private Eye has alleged that he was a practicing homosexual. To many Americans like General Stilwell, his wartime deputy in Southeast Asia, he was a posturing playboy, a gingerbread admiral, who was inordinately vain and insufferably self-obsessed. To conservative imperialists like Lord Beaverbrook, he was completely untrustworthy: an implausible poseur who espoused socialist principles despite his rank and riches, and who went to India as viceroy only to throw away the Raj. To military men like Admiral Cunningham and Field Marshals Alanbrooke and Hull, he was an unscrupulous and irresponsible opportunist, whose own ideas were rarely good, and whose good ideas were rarely his own. Even the royal family occasionally resented his high- and heavy-handed interference: Prince Philip and Prince…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.