The Daily Telegraph

Her Majesty was loved because, for more than 70 years, she did what she had promised

Queen Elizabeth II was perhaps the most faithful person ever to sit as head of state of a nation. She was faithful in deed, in word, in thought, and in prayer

- Charles Moore

‘We listened to Lilibet speaking on the wireless. She was very good and my heart went out to her.” So wrote Alathea Fitzalan Howard in her diary for Oct 13, 1940. She was a young girl who was living close to Princess Elizabeth at Windsor during the Second World War. Alathea was describing the first broadcast the future Queen ever made. It was addressed to evacuee children in Britain and beyond.

“We know, every one of us,” said the 14-year-old Princess on air, “that in the end all will be well, for God will care for us, and give us victory and peace.”

Eighty years later, Queen Elizabeth II spoke to a world afflicted by Covid-19, also from Windsor Castle. She was by now the most experience­d broadcaste­r in history.

“Better days will return,” she said, “we will be with friends again.” Echoing the wartime song, she promised, “We will meet again.”

She was the only person in the world with the authority to say those things, in that way.

“In the end, all will be well.”

She was the most down-to-earth and unsentimen­tal person, yet she dared to make that bold claim to a stricken world. Her long, long reign proved her right.

From the age of 10, in 1936, when King Edward VIII – her uncle – abdicated without having produced an heir, the Princess knew her likely destiny. There is no evidence that she wanted it, but there is a lifetime of proof that she accepted it. From the first, she intuitivel­y understood that the throne is something you must neither desire nor detest.

You sit on it by accident of birth, not by personal merit. Your task is to subordinat­e yourself to the role so carefully that the two become almost indistingu­ishable. You are the most eminent, most looked-after, most flattered person in the realm, and yet you must forsake almost all individual rights and freedoms, forever.

To this complicate­d task, Elizabeth II brought simplicity of heart and lack of vanity. In preparing for it, she drew on two examples in whom her faith never wavered, her father – the King – and her Father in heaven.

George VI was not a clever man or an outgoing one. His stammer was the outward expression of inner diffidence. He had never expected or desired the throne. His elder daughter, who was always close to him, felt for him as he took on the unwelcome responsibi­lities, to which was soon added the need to lead his country in war.

She saw how this heavy burden (and his constant smoking) shortened his life. But she gained confidence from the confidence he had in her.

Alathea noticed in the early Forties how “Lilibet” did not really need the company of friends, being “always happy in her own family”.

By the time she became Queen, aged 26, she had already absorbed her father’s example and was determined to reign in the light of it.

Because of her constituti­onal role, the young Elizabeth lacked executive power, so she showed this determinat­ion through public moments and ceremonies, particular­ly by public promises. In 1947, for her 21st birthday, she travelled with her parents and her sister, Margaret, around South Africa and the then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) – both part of the British Empire. From Cape Town, she made her vow to “the great imperial family to which we all belong”, invoking the “knightly dedication” of her ancestors coming to manhood when they said, “I serve”.

As a woman, she explained, “I cannot quite do what they did”, but, through broadcasti­ng, she could do what they could not. She could make her dedication with millions listening: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”

Although the life was the longest any monarchy has ever known, the vow was kept.

As he surveyed the plans for Elizabeth II’S Coronation in 1953, her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, looked once more at the official photograph of the Queen on his desk. “Lovely, inspiring,” he said to his doctor. “All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part.”

And then the old man began to sing the hymn Forever with the Lord, about pitching “my moving tent a day’s march nearer home”. He meant that he felt safe to die now that this young woman was on the throne.

Queen Elizabeth II’S Coronation was the first mighty public event in British television history. Its long-drawn-out ceremonies – part-biblical, part-medieval, part-victorian – must have been hard for viewers to follow, especially in the grainy small-screen black-and-white of those days, yet the audience was rapt. The innate drama of a young woman promising something so solemn sustained their interest and inspired awed respect.

The crown was literally heavy on her head, yet she bore it with such dignity. In her oath, she said: “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.”

If we can judge by her performanc­e in the ensuing decades, the Almighty gave the assistance she sought.

More than 60 years later, “the film people” began to take a great interest in Queen Elizabeth II, whose skills, Churchill believed, outmatched theirs. Through the medium of The Crown, Netflix glamourise­d this undemonstr­ative, un-thespian woman for a global audience of millions. It was melodramat­ic, often inaccurate, sometimes unkind, but it was also a compliment. It recognised that Her Majesty had become archetypal. She had turned her initial “disadvanta­ge” of being a woman in a royal line that put men first to good account. She had become the great global matriarch, the unalterabl­e mother/grandmothe­r/ great-grandmothe­r you couldn’t fully know but could always trust.

Because she acquired this status, the Queen was able to ride out even the most turbulent moments of royal family life. Three of her four children divorced, and perhaps their mother’s commitment to her public duties throughout their childhoods had made their lives more difficult.

In the case of the Prince of Wales, the matter threatened to have constituti­onal implicatio­ns, because the estranged and then divorced Diana wanted Charles to be passed over in favour of her son, William. She privately told me, and others, that Charles did not want to be king, which was not the case. Deceived by Martin Bashir and his BBC bosses, she gave her incendiary 1995 television interview about how badly she had been treated.

After Diana died in that tragic car crash in Paris less than two years later, the Queen made one of the few serious misjudgmen­ts of her reign. It arose not, as some alleged, from callousnes­s, but from her natural reserve and good feeling. She was concerned for Princes William and Harry, aged 14 and 11. She wanted them to spend quiet and peaceful days with their father, her and the Duke of Edinburgh at Balmoral. The family’s refusal to appear in public in the period of mourning led to calls of “Show us you care” and fanned the story of a beautiful young mother cruelly treated by a chilly establishm­ent. It was a bad time.

It lasted only days, however. Diana had died on a Sunday. The funeral was the following Saturday. Seeing the difficulty, Her Majesty came back to London from Balmoral earlier than planned. On the Friday, she broadcast live from Buckingham Palace. Speaking “as your Queen and as a grandmothe­r”, she paid tribute to Diana, who had “made many, many people happy”. She asked everyone “to show to the whole world the British nation united in grief and respect”.

At the funeral the next day, thanks to her words, that is what happened.

A deeper grief and respect, and a spontaneou­s unity, are what the nation, and indeed the world, is showing for Elizabeth II today.

I mention the world because no head of state ever knew so many places so well for so long or reached such a universal audience. If you go to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, you see the picture of Princess Elizabeth, three years her senior, which she pinned to the wall of her bedroom. Anne put it there in 1944, her generation’s symbol of hope under persecutio­n. Sixtyseven years later, in Dublin, the same woman moved the people of Ireland by coming to mark reconcilia­tion.

In between those two dates were countless examples where Queen Elizabeth II made a difference for good. If I said that President Reagan sided with Britain over the Argentinia­n invasion of the Falkland Islands because he was so determined not to miss his ride with Her Majesty in Windsor Great Park, I would be exaggerati­ng, but not much.

She was the first British monarch to receive a Pope in Britain, and the only one to visit Russia, China and her own realm of Australia. In Lusaka in 1979, she held the Commonweal­th together over Rhodesia. She was the particular favourite of Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and – which shows her flexibilit­y – Donald Trump.

By the time of her death, she was recognised, almost always favourably, by more people than the entire population of the world when she came to the throne. In a way, her globalisat­ion of the British monarchy was more complete than that of Queen Victoria at the height of Empire.

What mattered most, however, was here at home. Queen Elizabeth II paid most formal attention to the basic elements of the British state – Parliament, the law, the Church of England, the Armed Forces, which last she dramatised so gallantly by riding side-saddle on her horse Burmese for Trooping the Colour. But the key to her reign was its even distributi­on of favour. Her approach resembled the descriptio­n of Heaven by John Donne, the poet: she made sure there was “no noise nor silence, but one equal music”.

This made a great difference to the preservati­on of the Union (almost the only subject on which she hinted at a political preference), but it mattered across her kingdom. She wished to be encouragin­g, never to be ecstatic. One day, Her Majesty was presented with a draft speech for a northern city. “I am very pleased to be in X”, said the draft. She crossed out the word “very”. She knew there are scores of other British cities, all equally her responsibi­lity. She knew she must treat them all with the same restrained, lifelong courtesy.

If ever there were preference­s in her treatment of others, they had to be subtly and rarely indicated. It was her general rule, for example, not to attend the funerals of her prime ministers, of whom she had 15. The only exceptions she made were for Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. These were careful choices and the right ones.

In her manner of life, the Queen combined the seasons of the Edwardian era with the austerity of the wartime generation. There was the Derby and Ascot; late summer and early autumn at Balmoral, reached – until the Royal Yacht, Britannia, was decommissi­oned in 1997 – via a cruise through the Western Isles; Christmas at Sandringha­m (from which she broadcast her annual message) and weekends at Windsor which, in her late widowhood, were elongated to most weeks. There were dogs and horses, one-bar electric fires, and church every Sunday.

She could have had any luxury she wanted, but what she liked was well-organised routine. In that sense, she came to like reigning. As an adult, she knew almost nothing else. Although she would never have said so, she knew she did it well. The Duke of Edinburgh once observed that his wife was idolised in her youth and then inspired less interest in her middle age. As she grew old, he predicted, she would be deeply loved. So it proved.

Why? Because she did what she promised, for more than 70 years. She was perhaps the most faithful person ever to be placed at the head of a nation – faithful in thought, word and deed, and in daily prayer. She never asked for thanks. As a result, she received them. She ended where she began. She was the same from that broadcast in 1940 to her appointmen­t of her last prime minister this week: she was very good and our hearts went out to her.

‘All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part’

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 ?? ?? Queen Elizabeth II laughs as she walks past her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in his uniform and bearskin cap at Buckingham Palace in 2005
Queen Elizabeth II laughs as she walks past her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in his uniform and bearskin cap at Buckingham Palace in 2005
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