The King and I! The Jewish envoy at heart of palace life

Robert Voss, the second-ever Jewish Lord Lieutenant in England (after Lord Rothschild in the 19th century), gives his insight into the mind of King Charles III


“I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I must share a problem with you. I bought some mint from Highgrove a few years ago and it has spread like wildfire.”

“Well, you must control it, man! You must brick it in. If you don’t, of course it will grow everywhere.”

Lord Lieutenant Robert Voss didn’t ask our green-fingered monarch if he personally “bricks in” the fast-growing mint in the gardens of Highgrove, his private residence near Tetbury in Gloucestershire. But had he posed the question, the new King would have answered happily, he says.

Since Mr Voss became the personal representative of the monarch in the county of Hertfordshire, in 2017, he has met his now new boss on several occasions and says he “loves to just stand and chat, which is a bit of a problem for his equerry, who often have to hurry him along. But he is genuinely interested in what people have to say, in what they do.”

Before he became the second-ever Jewish Lord Lieutenant in England (Lord Rothschild was the first in the 19th century) Mr Voss did something very different.

He was a metal trader. In fact, when the head of the Privy Council asked him if he could put his name forward for the voluntary role, Mr Voss says, “I laughed my head off. Before me, they’d all been aristocrats. I told him: not only is my blood not blue, I am a businessman and I am Jewish.”

That was just over five years ago. Last Thursday, Mr Voss turned 70, which means he is now halfway through his tenure: Lord Lieutenants serve until their 75th birthday.

As he takes stock at this mid-point, the long-standing Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue member says his business background has actually proved an asset for the role, which involves arranging royal visits to the county, presenting medals and awards on the King’s behalf and acting as a liaison with local units of the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force.

“I’ve structured things differently from my predecessor, a countess. I’ve created business panels, hold regular meetings and have set up proper reporting systems. Last year, my deputies and I had 650 invitations — we attended 420 of them.”

He has also established the Lord Lieutenant’s Young Entrepreneurs’ Challenge, “a sort of Dragons’ Den for youngsters, and I’m trying to set up the county’s first film and television academy.

"My time in business also made me a bit of a facilitator. I’ve brought charities and businesses together and have introduced the county’s faith leaders to each other.”

Meanwhile, his faith has never been an issue for the Palace, he says. “When I told the head of the Privy Council that I was a Jewish businessman, he just looked at me, smiled and said: well that’s perfect then.

"And while I might feel a certain weight on my shoulders, you know, that if I put a foot wrong, it won’t be the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire who is out of step, but the Jewish Lord Lieutenant. But when it comes to the Palace, I have never encountered anything other than respect for our religion.

“King Charles is leading a diverse nation, and is also the head of the Commonwealth, which comprises a third of the world’s population. In the nicest possible way, people’s ethnicity, their religion, don’t mean much to him.”

This is something Mr Voss always makes a point of conveying when he is presents citizen certificates to the residents of Hertfordshire. “I tell them they can achieve big things in this inclusive and diverse country. And I also tell them I am son of two refugees. When they hear that, their mouths fall open.”

His parents, who escaped Nazi Germany just before the Second World War, never got to see their son in his Lord Lieutenant uniform, “and that still gets to me”, he says.

As well as being immensely proud, they would also be surprised that their son now spends more time in church than in synagogue.

“Hertfordshire has a magnificent Norman cathedral and my role means I am there often, performing duties with the bishop and dean. And because I represent the monarch, I have the luxury of sitting on the only padded seat in the building.”

In complete contrast, the wife of his new boss, the Queen Consort, is more than happy to assume humble positions, he says.

“In 2020, she attended a lunch at Mill End community centre in Rickmansworth where she served a plate of food to a very elderly lady who promptly insisted she cut it up for her. Camilla did so immediately. That’s her to a T. Whenever she’s on royal duty, she takes off her jacket, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with it.”

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