Lord Nicholas Windsor tells Peter Stanford that the Abortion Act was ‘defeatist, unjust and doomed to fail horribly in the long run’ There are different ways of taking a stand. Some campaigners seem born to it, confidently stepping up to every invitation to engage the public on their chosen issue, dealing robustly with those who hold opposite views, apparently never anything other than 100 per cent sure of themselves. And then there are those who back hesitantlyinto the limelight, pick their words with great care, listen to those who disagree and in the process appear utterly without ego. Lord Nicholas Windsor undoubtedly belongs in this second category. The youngest son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, the first cousin-once-removed ofthe Queen, and the greatgrandson of George V,he has been making quite a name for himself lately as a pro-life advocate, hitting the headlines by promoting the “San Jos€ Articles”, a set of nine arguments set out to counter the case, currently being pushed by some at the UN, that abortion should be deemed a human right under international law.
Yet, when I mention this raised profile, and his apparent willingness to do battle, Lord Nicholas reacts with a grimace.
“Abortion is, and always will be, an uncomfortable subject to consider,” he concedes, “but what’s the alternative if one sees it for what it is? No, I didn’t imagine myself wading in to such territory – being part of ‘that world of controversy’.” He says these last words as if describing an alien planet. “Then I was invited to give a speech and..” Lord Nicholas sometimes doesn’t finish his sentences. And he confesses that he has been avoiding interview requests since his name made such a splash in the papers in relation to the prolife position. “I thought a pause might be wise,” he explains.
It has therefore taken several months of email exchanges with this diffident campaigner to set up our meeting (albeit in part as he lives abroad).
We are in the former orangery of Kensington Palace, nowadays a caf€, next to his parents’ home. He is staying with them while over in Britain from Italy, where he lives, near Rome, with his wife, the Italian/Croatian aristocrat Paola de Frankopan, and their two young sons, Albert and Leopold.
Dressed casually in an open-necked shirt, V-neck jumper and jacket, you might at a casual glance have Lord Nicholas down as an academic. There is something scholarly and gentle about his long face, its receding hairline counter-balanced by a full beard. He laughs at the very suggestion. “I couldn’t call myself one of those, though I’d like to have been, to have been properly formed as a student and teacher of the subjects that fascinate me, such as this one.” The caf€ manager who brings our coffee is more eagle-eyed than most, however, and immediately spots Lord Nicholas as a member of the royal family. It probably goes with the territory when you work next door to Kensington Palace. “We haven’t seen you here for a long time,” he greets him, which seems only to add to Lord Nicholas’s discomfort.
Away from here, though, only ardent royalists would be able to pick his face out of any family line-up of the Queen and her extended clan. Yet 41-year-old Lord Nicholas certainly now enjoys more name recognition than many other junior royals, not least as a result of his decision in 2001 to convert to Catholicism. He was the first male blood member of the royal family to come over to Rome since Charles II on his deathbed in 1685 (ifindeed he did – it is disputed by historians), and the first ever to marry in the Vatican with his 2006 wedding to Paola at the Church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini.
Such a break with tradition inevitably attracts attention. His active involvement with the pro-life cause began, he recalls, when he was invited to the United States in 2008 by papal biographer George Weigel to be a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC. That in turn led to a speech and an article in the American religious magazine First Things in which he described abortion as a bigger threat to Europe than al-Qaeda. Cue more headlines.
Towards the end of 2010 Lord Nicholas was invited to attend a conference in Costa Rica – “they were mostly lawyers” – which produced the San Jos€ Articles, of which he is a co-signatory. He has subsequently become involved in pro-life work in Italy and has been made a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
The San Jos€ Articles are directed primarily at the nearly two thirds of the countries in the world that do not permit abortion, but might they also, I wonder, have an impact in Britain where some 190,000 pregnancies each year end in abortion? Lord Nicholas thinks carefully before answering this, and every question. “What I think will have an impact is the emergence and repetition of facts about the beginnings of human life. That is what the Articles were about: scientific consensus and facts, not ideology. That the ‘product’ of conception is a human being in its earliest stage among other stages has to be a self-evident matter to the honest observer. That this is so often unrecognised is, to my mind, due to a heavy dose of self-deception.” There is a note of sadness in his voice at this state of affairs, but no hint of retreat. “The point for me, and why I want to be involved in this debate, is that it is so perverse for the state to withdraw fundamental protection for those who are owed it most of all [ie, unborn children]. What were those Parliamentarians thinking in 1967 [when they first legalised abortion]? “Whatever it was, I think, it wasn’t about providing the mostjust solution, but rather, frankly, one that was defeatist, unjust and doomed to fail horribly in the long run.” However much he may be “squeamish” about speaking in public, such strong convictions have left him with no choice but to act. “The death of so many unborn children, a good part of my generation, is the great elephant in the room in our culture. It is no good us going on thinking we are a compassionate, caring society when we accept what is really a tyranny, the abortion licence, thinking it’s a settled question and frowning on any questioning of it.” And so, he says, he cannot remain silent, though he plans to choose his moments sparingly. “I know I am sailing more than mildly close to the wind..” he begins, but then is either distracted or discreet. “I don’t want to be seen as using my name inappropriately to gain a platform, but it is my name after all, and I think why not let it be used in this good cause as it has in many others?” It feels rude to press him any further, but I can’t help asking if there is some kind of vetting process that he has to go through with Buckingham Palace before making public pronouncements? I am expecting him to dismiss any such suggestion as nonsense. He is, after all, far removed from the inner circle of royalty – “small fry” in his own words. But his response is much more considered. “No. I assume I’ll get to hear about it if I’ve gone too far”. Unspoken, but nevertheless clear, is his wish to avoid embarrassing his cousin, the Queen.
As her own immediate family circle has grown, with the arrival of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Kents are no longer at the very centre of Windsor family life, he says. As a child, he can recall Christmases at Windsor Castle, and later his parents lived close to Sandringham. Another part of his Norfolk upbringing (when not at school at Westminster and Harrow) was a “Prayer Book Mattins, beautifully, simply done” style of Anglicanism at the local Sandringham parish church. But when studying at Oxford University he changed wings in the Church of England and attended Mass at Pusey House, “the jewel ofAngloCatholic worship”.
Back in London and working at one stage as a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children, he carried on attending “High” services. “I was sure at the time that this was my corner of the universal church, that we were all in it together, and that this was what being a Catholic should be like in the special circumstances of England.” So what changed? Lord Nicholas’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, converted to Catholicism in 1994. Though she stressed that her decision was a private matter, and Cardinal Basil Hume was at pains to receive her in the same low-key spirit, it was reported everywhere since she was the first senior royal to become a Catholic publicly since the passing in 1701 of the Act of Settlement, which bars anyone who marries a Catholic from the succession. “My mother’s decision, of course, had an impact,” Lord Nicholas acknowledges. “It made converting seem like a possibility, but even then I still thought I had everything I needed in the Church of England.”
It was “hearing noises off”, as he puts it, which prompted him to revisit that position. He is referring in particular to the voice of Pope John Paul II. “He was my entry point. Obviously there was something extraordinary about him. The way he spoke to young people, above all, with such clarity, such provocation! It was challenging, excitingly challenging. It opened great new dimensions for me as to what Christianity might be about.”
He describes himself now as “part what’s been called the John Paul II generation”, a striking phrase but one that has, he stresses, a practical imperative, especially when it comes to “life issues”. “My generation, I think, feels it can’t just goon being business as usual for Christians when there is this rank skeleton in the closet. Yes, the debate surrounding abortion is a bitter thing to participate in, but we just cannot accept such an injustice lying down. He has in the past likened the movement to repeal the Abortion Act as akin to the campaign to end the slave trade, and slavery itself.
Lord Nicholas admits that he still had a feeling, when he contemplated converting, that to be a Catholic in England “might not somehow be properly loyal”. It may again be that very particular loyalty and respect he feels for his cousin, the monarch, but much has been said of late about residual anti-Catholic prejudice in Britain today. The only discriminatory piece of legislation still on the statue book is the Act of Succession, and because of it Lord Nicholas lost in place in the line of succession to the throne when he converted. So he is, as it were, at the coalface of prejudice. “On the whole I think people are reluctant to voice anti-Catholic prejudice about Catholics per se,” he muses. “But it certainly it exists in the form of horror at our moral positions, which are thought antediluvian, and dangerous, at least by our friends at the Guardian.” For those fighting for a cause they believe in passionately, the one fate worse than being mocked is being ignored. But there is no chance of that happening to Lord Nicholas. He may have taken on this role reluctantly, but it will make him all the more effective in changing hearts and minds.