The Daily Telegraph
HM Queen Elizabeth II 1926 –2022
HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II, by the Grace of God Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Defender of the Faith, who has died aged 96, was the longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom; during a period of remarkable change throughout her realms and the world at large, she proved herself one of the most effective and best-loved sovereigns the nation has known.
From the moment of her accession to the throne, comparisons were made with her Tudor namesake; particularly in the assumption that the country’s fortunes were, as in 1558, at a low ebb and that its one hope lay in the character of the new Queen. But few could have dared to believe Richard Dimbleby’s declaration at the time of the Coronation – that “no more devoted or courageous person could carry on the monarchy, which is the lasting strength of Britain and the wonder and envy of a large part of the world” – would prove so accurate. She lived well into the 21st century: alert and well informed until the end, with only minor concessions to old age, and then only when she was in her 90s. She remained a calm presence: steadfast, with a clear vision of her role as Britain’s monarch and as Head of the Commonwealth, to both of which roles she was wholly committed.
As Queen she knew how to represent Britain; as a woman she was self-effacing, asking little for herself on a personal level. Duty was her watchword, and at the end of a long life of duty fulfilled, her achievements were remarkable.
A hallmark of her reign were the many acts of conciliation and reconciliation, evidenced in her receiving President Theodor Heuss of Germany in 1958 and her important three-week visit to West Germany in 1965. There were conciliatory state visits between Britain and Japan (in 1971 and 1975, and in 1998, some not without controversy), and the Queen was able to mark political changes by visiting China in 1986, and Russia in 1994.
Fresher in the public memory was her ground-breaking visit to Ireland in 2011 and the return state visit (of the Irish president Michael Higgins) to Windsor in 2014. In all these endeavours, she and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, sought to put aside the differences of the past and took steps to ensure an easier climate for the future.
Against many predictions, the nation (and even, eventually, the Labour government) responded to the Silver Jubilee in 1977 with enthusiasm, staging events and bunting-festooned street parties. And by the time of her Golden Jubilee year in 2002, the widespread demonstrations of affection and loyalty from her subjects were as strong as those of half a century before. The celebrations which then marked her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 – a year crowned, most memorably, by her triumphant “arrival” by parachute at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics – showed a nation united in its affection for its monarch and at ease with the centuries-old institution she embodied. That she lived to celebrate the unique milestone of a Platinum Jubilee was nothing short of remarkable.
The very nature of those celebrations, and the warmth and good humour that underpinned them, made the point that this had been an enormously successful reign by a devoted and popular monarch.
Throughout, the Queen was nobly supported by Prince Philip, ever at her side until he stepped down from public duties in 2017 at the age of 96. He lived on until 2021, dying shortly before his 100th birthday.
At moments such as the Diamond Jubilee (the Queen
resisted national celebrations for occasions such as her Sapphire Jubilee in 2017 and the 70th anniversary of her marriage in the same year), it was hard to remember that, from time to time during her reign, there had been debate over the role and future of the monarchy. Even during those difficult periods, however, there was no debate about the good fortune that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth had enjoyed under the reign of the Queen herself.
The most virulent republicans conceded that it was impossible to imagine any other figure who could have carried the burdens of the Head of State so effectively and graciously, or provided such a unifying presence.
She had made clear her dedication to the task on the occasion of her 21st birthday when, as Princess Elizabeth, she made a moving declaration from Cape Town that was broadcast across the Empire: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
It was the great blessing of Elizabeth II’S reign, and the great good fortune of her subjects, that she succeeded in this to a degree that could not have been expected or even hoped for.
Yet it was with no premonition of a second Elizabethan Age that the daughter born to the Duke and Duchess of York on April 21 1926 was given the name of her 16th-century forebear.
Only three lives, it is true, stood between the infant princess and the throne: those of her grandfather King George V and of his two eldest sons, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. However, there was no reason to suppose that the Prince of Wales, at 31 a much-pursued bachelor, would not marry and have children, the first of whom would instantly displace Princess Elizabeth in line of succession. So too would any son born to the Duchess of York; she was no more than 25 and, in spite of having had her daughter delivered by caesarean section, in robust health.
In the fashion of the day, the nation rejoiced at the royal birth. But it never doubted that in one way or another, Princess Elizabeth would be spared the gilded treadmill of a monarch. It was an illusion that, at least for the first 10 years of her life, protected her from many cares.
The future Queen Elizabeth II was born at 17 Bruton Street, off Berkeley Square, the five-storey London house of the Duchess of York’s parents, the 14th Earl of Strathmore and his wife. The child’s parents were then living at White Lodge, Richmond Park, a draughty, neglected royal residence without adequate heating or plumbing, too near London for privacy, too far for convenience. Nor was a maternity home thought suitable for the birth of a princess.
Even a generation later her father, who by then had succeeded to the throne as George VI, declined to undergo an operation on which his life depended except in the familiar but far from aseptic rooms of Buckingham Palace. Pressed by doctors and surgeons to change his mind, he declared: “I have never heard of a king going to a hospital before.”
The infant was given the names of three queens: Elizabeth after her mother, Alexandra after her greatgrandmother, Mary after her grandmother. Escaping from White Lodge, the Duke and Duchess of York were soon installed at 145 Piccadilly, an imposing mansion (destroyed during the war) within sight of Buckingham Palace.
The King later gave them the use of the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park, originally a cottage of George IV, and Birkhall, near Balmoral in Scotland. The little princess was thus much in the company of her grandparents, who melted at her demure charm. It was the King’s imitation of how Elizabeth spoke her name that led her to be called Lilibet in the family.
“There is no one here at all,” Winston Churchill wrote to his wife from Balmoral in the autumn of 1928, “except the family, the household and Princess Elizabeth – aged two. The latter is a character. She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.” The Duke of York perceptively saw her cast in Victorian rather than Elizabethan mould. “From the first moment of talking,” he told Osbert Sitwell, “she showed so much character that it was impossible not to wonder that history would repeat itself.”
Even in the nursery she brought poise to royal duties. One morning at Windsor Castle, the officer commanding the guard strode across to where a pram stood, containing Princess Elizabeth: “Permission to march off, please, Ma’am.” There was an inclination of a small bonneted head and a wave of a tiny paw.
Nearly a hundred years earlier, the young Queen Victoria had emerged less well from just such an encounter. She wrote in her diary: “Lord M. told me that he heard it had been remarked that I didn’t bow to the Officer when the Escort changed; I thanked Lord Melbourne for telling me so, and I said I would take care and do so.”
Princess Elizabeth had a traditional upbringing. Her nanny was Mrs Knight, known as Alla, the daughter of a tenant farmer on Lord Strathmore’s estate in Hertfordshire. She displayed the old-fashioned virtues of her breed: starchy discipline tempered by infinite kindness. There was a nursemaid, too: Margaret Macdonald, known as Bobo, daughter of a domestic coachman, who was to continue in the Princess’s service as dresser and devoted friend.
They were joined in 1932, two years after the birth of a younger daughter to the Duchess of York, Princess Margaret Rose, by a nursery governess. Marion Crawford was a tall, forthright Scots girl, not much older than 20, who remained with the family for the next 17 years. “Crawfie”, as she was known, gave the children their first lessons. It was not an exacting education.
At the age of 10, the elder princess was spending only seven and a half hours a week in the schoolroom, although further periods were set aside for music, dancing and drawing. Queen Mary was disturbed to hear that subjects such as poetry, Bible reading and literature merited no more than half an hour each; she also urged more history and geography. But her granddaughter’s education was not confined to what Crawfie taught her. She startled the prime minister one day with her greeting: “I saw you in Punch this morning, Mr Macdonald, leading a flock of geese.”
Crawfie also noted Lilibet’s passion for order, system and design. She wrote of her charges: “The two little girls had their own way of dealing with their barley sugar. Margaret kept the whole lot in her small, hot hand and pushed it into her mouth. Lilibet, however, carefully sorted hers out on the table, large and small pieces together, and then ate them very daintily and methodically.” The elder Princess’s obsession with tidiness at one time led her to hop out of bed several times a night to make sure that her shoes were quite straight, her clothes arranged just so. She was laughed out of the habit, but that early regard for routine proved of lasting value to a constitutional monarch.
During a carefree childhood she acquired the first of an unbroken line of irascible but devoted corgis and her first pony: the beginnings of a lifelong love and understanding of dogs and horses. In 1936, however, the weight of responsibility suddenly intruded on this blissful period, as a sequence of events brought her to the very steps of the throne. King George V died in January, and in December there was the abdication of her then favourite uncle David, King Edward VIII, and the accession of her father as King George VI. Princess Elizabeth was now Heir Presumptive. Only the birth of a son to her 36-year-old mother, the Queen, could deprive the child of her ultimate destiny.
Such an event was far from improbable; Queen Elizabeth II was to give birth to her own youngest child when nearly 38. But it was too speculative to interfere with the 10-yearold Lilibet’s preparation for an enhanced role.
Crawfie later wrote that when the Princess was told of her new status, she declared: “I will be good.” Those were, as it happened, the precise words used by the future Queen Victoria when, at the same age as Elizabeth, she was shown a chart of the line of succession. Who shall deny a governess her tender memory?
That Albert, Duke of York, chose to be known as King George VI on his elder brother’s abdication proclaimed that he was in every sense his father’s son; that fickle brilliance had given way to tradition; that the winter of discontent was to be followed, if not by glorious summer, at least by the glow of domestic virtue. “Fort Belvedere was an operetta,” Lady Diana Cooper observed after staying at Windsor for the first time in the new reign, comparing it with the former King’s retreat near Virginia Water. “This is an institution.” But responsibility casts a shadow; and after the move to Buckingham Palace, that most reluctant monarch and his family – “The Firm”, as the King liked to call it – never quite recaptured the happiness of their former seclusion. On the outbreak of war in 1939 the two sisters were first isolated in Scotland, then immured in a blacked-out Windsor Castle. The pace of Elizabeth’s education quickened. Henry Marten, Provost of Eton, was summoned to introduce her to constitutional history (from which Princess Margaret was excluded, to her lifelong resentment). She acquired another tutor in the Vicomtesse de Bellaigue, who gave her a valuable asset in spoken French, also teaching history and literature in the same language. (Mme de Bellaigue’s son, Geoffrey, later became Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art.)
For diversion there were tea parties given by the officers on guard and home-produced pantomimes, with Princess Elizabeth as a Prince Charming in tights; the King, however, insisted that the heir to the throne should wear nothing too short or unseemly.
On her 16th birthday the Princess succeeded her great-great-uncle and godfather the Duke of Connaught, a son of Queen Victoria, as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards. In 1945 she assumed more active military duties as a second subaltern in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, learning to drive and maintain the heaviest military vehicles.
LOVE & MARRIAGE
Princess Elizabeth had fallen in love. A few weeks before the outbreak of war, on a visit with her parents to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, she met an officer of family background as turbulent as her own was secure. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born in 1921 at the royal summer house of Mon Repos, Corfu, the only son of Prince Andrew of Greece, a brother of King Constantine I. His mother was Princess Alice of Battenberg, whose brother Lord Louis Mountbatten had since 1917 borne the anglicised version of the family name.
When the Princess met her future husband at Dartmouth in 1939, she was then 13, he five years older. With the good looks of a Viking and a young man’s self-confident charm, he won her heart on sight. They corresponded and sometimes he was asked to stay at Windsor. As early as January 1941, the well-informed “Chips” Channon MP, met him at a cocktail party in Athens and wrote in his diary: “He is to be our Prince Consort and that is why he is serving in our Navy.”
The Mountbatten and Greek royal families encouraged the match. Princess Elizabeth’s parents, however, were more cautious. “We both think she is too young for that now,” the King wrote to Queen Mary in March 1944, “as she has never met any young men of her own age.”
So her vigil was prolonged. The war ended and with her sister she was swept off on a three-month tour of South Africa with the King and Queen in the hard winter of 1947. She spent her 21st birthday in Cape Town and broadcast her moving message of dedication to the Imperial Commonwealth. “There she goes,” the King said to Field Marshal Smuts, “alone as usual, an extraordinary girl.”
Her heart remained elsewhere, however. Prince Philip had meanwhile applied to become a naturalised British subject: essential if he were to qualify for a permanent commission in the Royal Navy, and desirable if he were to seek the hand of Princess Elizabeth in marriage. But there were difficulties. The future of the Greek monarchy hung in the balance and his change of nationality could be interpreted either as a provocative gesture of British support for the institution or as an equally unwelcome pointer to his own monarchy’s impending collapse.
Then there was the problem of the name by which he would be known. That of the Royal House of Greece and Denmark, Schleswig-holstein-sonderburg-glucksburg, clearly would not do. Eventually it was decided that, like his uncle, he should take the anglicised version of his mother’s name of Battenberg. In March 1947 the London Gazette at last announced the metamorphosis of HRH Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark into Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, Royal Navy. Even after Prince Philip’s naturalisation, he and the Princess had to wait another four months before the King consented to their betrothal. The King remained a possessive father. “Anyone would think that she had travelled down from Scotland by herself,” he said testily to a courtier one morning: the newspapers had not mentioned that the King, too, was on the train.
Lieutenant Mountbatten was required to change not only his nationality and his status but also his religion. In October 1947 he formally relinquished membership of the Greek Orthodox Church and was received into the Church of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher.
There were compensations, however. On the day before the wedding he was made a Royal Highness, a Knight of the Garter, Baron Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth and Duke of Edinburgh. “It is a great deal,” the King said, “to give a man all at once.” With the characteristic precision the King brought to such arcane matters, he had bestowed the Garter on his daughter a week earlier to establish the precedence of a future sovereign over her future consort. Nor was Prince Philip allowed to invite his three surviving sisters, each the wife of German princes, to his wedding. It was, the King insisted, too soon after the end of the war. (By the time of the Coronation, they were welcome guests.)
The pageantry and ceremonial of the royal marriage on November 20 briefly dispelled the post-war austerity that by 1947 had become part of the British way of life. The bride, to whom an indulgent Board of Trade had granted extra clothing coupons, enchanted the nation in white satin. Prince Philip – tall, handsome and fair-haired – wore a naval uniform that, like its owner, had seen active service.
The honeymoon was spent first at Broadlands, near Romsey, the home of Lord and Lady Mountbatten, then at Birkhall, close by Balmoral. “Your leaving has left a great blank in our lives,” the King wrote, “but do remember that your own home is still yours and do come back to it as much and as often as possible.” Until 1949 Princess Elizabeth had no option.
Without a London home of their own, she and her husband occupied a suite in Buckingham Palace, where their first child, Prince Charles, was born in November 1948. By August 1950, when she gave birth to Princess Anne, they had moved into Clarence House, a few hundred yards down the Mall.
Those first years of marriage were not spent only in Britain. Prince Philip resumed his naval career with the Mediterranean Fleet and Princess Elizabeth began to enjoy the carefree life of a naval officer’s wife in Malta.
Then the King’s health began to fail. He endured one dangerous operation in 1949 and another two years later. He seemed well enough for his daughter and her husband to undertake a tour of Canada and the United States in October 1951 and to leave for East Africa, Australia and New Zealand three months later. They got no further than Kenya. Early in the morning of February 6 1952, King George VI died in his sleep at Sandringham. His daughter, who had spent the night watching wild animals at Treetops, a game reserve in the Aberdare Forest, at once left for home with her husband.
It was as Queen Elizabeth II, a sad, slight figure in black, that she descended the aircraft steps at London Airport, as if symbolically claiming her kingdom.
The Empire mourned a brave and chivalrous King. But it was to the new reign that a nation, having endured five years of war and another six of austere peace, drably clad and plainly fed, looked for a symbol of youth and promise, of regeneration and hope. The Queen, not yet 26, her beauty touched by the ethereal, seemed to fulfil every need. And to guide her through the shoals of statesmanship, Winston Churchill was at hand: the saviour of his country in war had recently been restored to high office as the guardian of peace.
THE YOUNG QUEEN AS GLORIANA
Within a few hours of the King’s death the prime minister had established a legend: that Britain stood upon the threshold of a new Elizabethan Age as much in renown as in name. “Famous have been the reigns of our Queens,” Churchill told the nation in a BBC broadcast. “Some of the greatest periods in our history have unfolded under their sceptre. Now that we have the second Queen Elizabeth, also ascending the Throne in her 26th year, our thoughts are carried back nearly 400 years to the magnificent figure who presided over, and in many ways embodied and inspired, the grandeur and genius of the Elizabethan Age.”
The illusion was sustained by the Coronation on June 2 1953, a day of sacred ceremonial and medieval pageantry seen on television by 20 million of her subjects. Later that year she became the first reigning sovereign to circumnavigate the globe, scarcely ever needing to set foot outside her own territories. It seemed irresistible to cast the radiant young Queen as Gloriana and to proclaim her heritage the Second Elizabethan Age.
In retrospect the notion seems as insubstantial as the tinsel finery of the Festival of Britain that in 1951 had parodied the solid commercial enterprise of the Great Exhibition a century earlier. The Queen inherited a threadbare economy and an empire in dissolution; and in 1956 the Suez adventure left Britain isolated and condemned, not least by her paymaster, the United States.
The illusion of a Second Elizabethan Age seemed short-lived. Scots subjects resented that their Queen should be proclaimed Elizabeth II in a kingdom where no Elizabeth I had ever reigned, and blew up pillar-boxes bearing the unhistoric cipher. Even the loyal Scottish establishment gathered in St Giles’ Cathedral in all their finery to present her with the Honours of Scotland – Crown, Sceptre and Sword – were dismayed that she appeared in day clothes, a rare error of judgment by her English private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles.
The supposed Sassenach snub was barely redeemed by removing her handbag from the official painting of the ceremony that hangs in the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Republicans called for an end to the monarchy: “a gold filling in the mouth of decay”, as the playwright John Osborne put it; radicals for a curb on royal expenditure; Tory reformers for a monarch less identified with aristocratic conventions and a hidebound court.
Of these three classes of critic, the last can claim most progress. Their standard bearer was the 2nd Lord Altrincham, who later renounced his peerage and was known as John Grigg. Reviled both for what he said and what he was wrongly supposed to have said, he lived to see the abolition of presentation parties for debutantes and other quaint ceremonies confined to the rich and the well-born. Even when well-meant, much of that early criticism was cast in churlish language that cannot have failed to wound a woman doing her best in a role she had not sought. But she showed no sign of being upset. Although the Queen smiled in public less easily than her mother, she continued for 70 years to go about her duties with disarming self-confidence.
In an age of ever-growing specialisation, no other person in the world was required to play so many roles or to display such diversity of talent under perpetual public scrutiny. She was the anointed Sovereign, protagonist of a drama that stretched back to the dawn of history. She was the head of state, the embodiment of the nation both at home and abroad, the focus of its pride and endeavour. She was her country’s senior and most permanent civil servant, intimately concerned with every aspect of policy. She was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She was head of the Commonwealth, perhaps the most challenging yet satisfying of all her responsibilities. She was an alert custodian of untold treasure and great works of art and landed estates. She was a wife and a mother.
Anyone less level-headed than the Queen might have suffered a confusion of purpose, even of identity. But Henry Marten had taught her to recognise that the modern sovereign reigns but does not rule; that between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II autocracy had surrendered to parliamentary democracy; that a republic, as the constitutional historian Walter Bagehot put it, had insinuated itself beneath the folds of a monarchy. And with a swipe at what later were known as bicycling monarchs, Bagehot continued: “There are arguments for not having a court, and there are arguments for having a splendid court; but there are no arguments for having a mean court.”
The Queen tenaciously ensured that those medieval trappings outshone reality. She drove to the State Opening of Parliament in a gilded coach and wore a diamond crown to enunciate the egalitarian measures of her ministers. At Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle she entertained presidents in blue suits with a splendour worthy of Versailles. Until 1997 she carried her court with her to distant places in a Royal Yacht that symbolised both majestic hospitality and maritime tradition.
Only when she was 60 did she cease to celebrate her “official” birthday by riding through the capital at the head of her Household Troops – a dazzling panoply of scarlet, blue and gold, of bearskins and plumes and cuirasses. Whatever economies Parliament imposed on her, she retained at her command a Master of the Horse and a Mistress of the Robes, a Clerk of the Closet and a Yeoman Bed Hanger, a Lord High Almoner and a Poet Laureate, two Gold Sticks, a Serjeant Surgeon, several apothecaries, chaplains galore and a coroner.
The arcane language of a medieval monarchy persisted into a democratic society without strain. After the tumult of a general election, the Court Circular, surmounted by the Royal Arms, would announce that the Queen had been “graciously pleased” to accept the resignation of a defeated prime minister; and that his successor had “kissed hands” on appointment – as if he were a 16th-century Cecil paying homage to an earlier Elizabeth – though the phrase was metaphorical. Ministers dependent on the ballot box still began their letters to the Sovereign, “With humble duty...”
More mundane responsibilities awaited the Queen. As the permanent head of a government department she was highly respected, spaciously housed and adequately paid, yet never wholly off duty and denied the peaceful retirement of a Whitehall mandarin. Ministers came and went, civil servants came and went, her own private secretaries came and went. At the beginning of her reign she was advised by men from the Victorian era. In later years she took advice from people younger than some of her grandchildren.
Yet the Queen remained perpetually at her post, an essential instrument of government, even in the 21st century. Without her assent, Parliament could not be summoned nor its statutes become law. Taxes could not be levied. No minister, judge, magistrate, bishop, ambassador or officer of the Armed Forces could take office. No honour or promotion in the public service was valid. The Queen of course transacted the nation’s business on ministerial advice, whatever her private beliefs or reservations; not since 1707 has a monarch vetoed an Act of Parliament. Yet her role was neither as mechanical nor as frustrating as it sounded. The Sovereign also retains certain personal rights, or prerogatives.
After little more than 10 years on the throne, the Queen effectively lost the most important of them, the choice of a new prime minister whenever the need arose – the Conservative leadership contest of 1963, after Harold Macmillan’s resignation, ushered in a new more democratic era. There remained, however, the right to be consulted, and so the right to encourage and to warn. Those elastic terms enabled her when confronted by any new legislation to sound a note of doubt or caution – or even disapproval. But to do so with confidence and effectiveness required her to be formidably well-informed.
Never throughout the reign was there the faintest whisper that the Queen had neglected this duty. Whatever her public engagements or private recreation, she spent some hours each day on memoranda from ministers, minutes of Cabinet meetings, Hansard reports of debates in both Houses of Parliament, Foreign Office telegrams to and from ambassadors overseas, reports of the governorsgeneral of Commonwealth countries (for she was also Queen of Canada, Australia and more than a dozen other independent states, the number varying throughout her reign), and reading newspapers and letters. And whenever she went on tour, her red boxes followed her.
Compared with her immediate predecessors, the Queen used her influence sparingly and without either personal or political bias: Queen Victoria had been relentless in obstructing Liberal measures and scarcely less alert when the Tories were in office; King Edward VII was an irascible inquisitor on military and diplomatic questions; King George V tireless in keeping ministers of all parties on their toes, even in matters of dress and deportment. King George VI, overshadowed throughout the Second World War by Winston Churchill, was left scarcely any exercise of the prerogative except in the habitual royal playground of uniforms, medals and decorations; nor, when a Labour administration took office in 1945, could he always conceal the prejudices of a Tory country gentleman.
The Queen’s relationship with her prime ministers, except in her role as Head of the Commonwealth, was less agitated. By temperament she was disinclined to make nagging challenges to this or that aspect of political belief, more attracted by personalities than by policies, by what the historian FS Oliver called “the endless adventure of governing men”.
Even here she acted with caution. A Dean of St Paul’s was bold enough to ask what she would do if a prime minister submitted a name for an ecclesiastical appointment with which she was not happy. “Nothing constitutionally,” she replied. “But I can always say that I should like more information. That is an indication which the prime minister will not miss.” Indeed, it was always salutary for a prime minister to be made to explain himself face to face with his sovereign and without recourse to parliamentary ambiguity and evasion.
She was also inclined to ask questions rather than make statements. “What makes you think that will work, prime minister?”
AFFAIRS OF STATE
Fifteen prime ministers held office during the Queen’s reign. They were Winston Churchill (1952-55); Anthony Eden (1955-57); Harold Macmillan (1957-63); Alec Douglashome (1963-64); Harold Wilson (1964-70 and 1974-76); Edward Heath (1970-1974); James Callaghan (1976-79); Margaret Thatcher (1979-90); John Major (1990-97); Tony Blair (1997-2007); Gordon Brown (2007-2010); David Cameron (2010-16); Theresa May (2016-19); Boris Johnson (2019-22); and Liz Truss from 2022. The first four were aristocrats, by birth or marriage; the remainder were of humbler origin (though Blair was educated at a Scottish public school; Cameron and Johnson at Eton).
Those who supposed that the Queen was more at ease with one stratum of society than another, however, were mistaken. From the elevation of her throne, perhaps even its isolation, all politicians were socially much of a muchness. Nor did she smile more readily on one political party than on another. Some prime ministers, Wilson in particular, liked to boast of an exceptional intimacy. They deluded themselves. What all received in equal measure was not friendship but friendliness.
For all the courtly deference with which Churchill treated a young Queen whom he had known since the nursery, she was abruptly reminded of her limited role during the first days of the supposed second Elizabethan Age. It was reported to Queen Mary at the time of King George VI’S funeral that Lord Mountbatten, as tactless as he was ambitious, had boasted that the name of the Royal family was no longer Windsor but Mountbatten, the name assumed on marriage by the new Sovereign’s husband.
The ageing matriarch, outraged at this attempt to supersede the name Windsor, established in perpetuity by her husband King George V in 1917, complained to the prime minister. Churchill, an unforgiving critic of Mountbatten’s then recent role in negotiating Indian independence, bristled at this new blow to imperial pride. After consulting the Cabinet he formally advised the Queen to put the matter beyond doubt with the following
statement: “The Queen today declared in Council her Will and Pleasure that She and Her Children shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that Her descendants other than female descendants who marry and their descendants shall bear the name of Windsor.”
In reaffirming that the name of the Royal family remained Windsor, it departed controversially from the ancient English practice by which children bear the name of their father. Prince Philip found to his dismay that he was fathering a brood not of Mountbattens but of Windsors (though he would have preferred the family name to be Edinburgh rather than Windsor or Mountbatten).
In 1960, however, after “further consideration”, and with the approval of a more pliable prime minister, Harold Macmillan, the Queen issued a second declaration replacing the family name of Windsor by that of Mountbatten-windsor. While removing the slur of the past eight years from Prince Philip, it otherwise served no practical purpose. The new name was to be borne only by those descendants of the Queen “who will enjoy neither the style, title or attributes of Royal Highness, nor the titular dignity of Prince, and for whom a surname will be necessary.” The name first materialised with Prince Edward’s daughter, Lady Louise Mountbatten-windsor.
The Queen was again torn between family affection and constitutional duty when in 1953 the 22-year-old Princess Margaret told her sister that she wished to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, a handsome equerry with a gallant war record, appointed to the royal household by George VI. However much the Queen cared for Princess Margaret’s happiness, there was an obstacle. Townsend had been through the divorce courts, albeit as an “innocent party”. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 still required members of the Royal family to seek the Sovereign’s consent before marriage; and Churchill’s Cabinet refused to advise the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to sanction a match that flouted the doctrine on divorce and remarriage she had sworn to uphold. That the Princess was third in line of succession to the throne added weight to the decision. Princess Margaret, wrongly advised that if she waited until her 25th birthday she could marry at will, discovered in the summer of 1955 that such a match would still require Cabinet permission.
By then Anthony Eden had succeeded Churchill in No 10. He let it be known that if the Princess persisted in her plan, the government would ask Parliament to pass a Bill depriving her of her right of succession to the throne and her Civil List income. On October 31 1955, amid frenzied publicity, the Princess announced that she had decided not to marry the group captain, “mindful of the Church’s teachings that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth”.
It did not escape notice that Churchill had championed King Edward VIII’S marriage to Mrs Simpson in 1936 or that Eden himself had divorced and remarried, as had other members of both Cabinets. The Queen was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to shield her sister from constitutional pressures. Such was the custom of the day. Nearly 40 years later, her only daughter was to divorce and remarry, leaving scarcely a ripple – and more marital splits would follow.
Throughout Churchill’s last ministry he and the Queen nevertheless established a firm and affectionate accord. Before her Coronation she persuaded him to accept the Order of the Garter, which he had declined on his defeat in 1945, shared with him the joys of owning racehorses and commissioned a bust of him by Oscar Nemon for Windsor Castle. On his reluctant retirement she offered him a dukedom, which he declined. Ten years later she attended his state funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral: an extraordinary tribute of a sovereign to a subject (she attended that of Baroness Thatcher in 2013).
Eden’s succession in April 1955 was the first of the three occasions on which the Queen was required to exercise her prerogative of choosing a new prime minister; and since Eden had long been Churchill’s unchallenged heir apparent, the least difficult. His premiership of less than two years is largely remembered for the Suez adventure that ended in humiliation. The extent of the Queen’s concern has never been revealed, nor whether at any stage of the preparations for the invasion of Egypt she counselled caution. It has been alleged that Lord Mountbatten, the then First Sea Lord, used his privileged access to the Palace to warn her of the perils of Eden’s policy. There is more solid evidence of a division of opinion among her three private secretaries. The senior, Sir Michael Adeane, approved of Eden’s enterprise; Sir Edward Ford and Sir Martin Charteris, both of whom had experience of the Middle East, were opposed to it.
Whatever anguish the Queen may have suffered to see Britain isolated and the unity of the Commonwealth shattered, she received Eden’s resignation on the grounds of ill health in January 1957 with regret and compassion. The duty of finding a new prime minister proved more testing than in 1955 and the outcome took the nation by surprise. Two candidates dominated the field: RA Butler, chancellor of the exchequer, and Harold Macmillan, the foreign secretary. On Eden’s recommendation, the Queen asked Lord Salisbury, Lord Privy Seal, leader of the Lords and at 63 already an elder statesman, to take soundings in Cabinet. His interrogation has passed into political history as, with a much-imitated impediment of speech, he inquired: “Well”, which is it, Wab or Hawold?”
It produced an overwhelming majority in favour of Macmillan; Butler secured at best three votes, perhaps only one. Churchill and one or two other Tory grandees who were consulted also endorsed Macmillan.
The Queen’s decision to invite Macmillan to form an administration nevertheless took the nation by surprise and evoked a measure of resentment. It is probable that a majority of backbenchers and party members would have preferred Butler, in spite of his advocacy of appeasement in the 1930s and his lack of robustness during Suez. But they had been given no opportunity to say so. Had not Butler displayed exceptional loyalty to his more cunning rival by accepting a place in the new government – which was not even that of foreign secretary, the post he craved – Macmillan’s hour of triumph could have been short-lived. As it was, the prime minister remained “at the top of the greasy pole” for the next six years. The Queen was not to be allowed so easy a passage when next she exercised her prerogative on his resignation in 1963.
Throughout his premiership, Macmillan took pains to keep the Queen informed, preparing an elaborate agenda for their weekly meetings. He corresponded copiously, leavening affairs of state with historical anecdote and drollery. The Queen responded as fully as was required, writing letters and envelopes in her own hand. There were many exchanges about the Commonwealth, including the prime minister’s portentous warning to the South African government that “the wind of change is blowing through this continent”. The Queen is thought to have been equally appreciative of his home policy in pursuit of “the middle way”, a consistent theme of his long political life. Himself a devout high churchman, he acknowledged the Queen’s mastery of ecclesiastical niceties.
It was perhaps hidden from him that the Queen found quiet amusement in his readiness to instruct her in the manner of Lord Melbourne, or to persuade with Disraelian flattery. She also possessed the gift of mimicry. A few hours after he had left Balmoral one summer, the entire house party appeared for dinner wearing a comical version of his drooping moustache.
The sudden collapse of Macmillan’s health and his impending retirement required the Queen to exercise her prerogative for the third time in October 1963. The task of seeking a successor was more onerous than in either 1955 or 1957, for now there were six contestants: Butler, Hailsham, Heath, Home, Macleod and Maudling. Rather than herself inquire into the degree of support each could command at every level of the Conservative Party, the Queen entrusted those consultations to Macmillan, who had not yet resigned: and seems to have done so at Macmillan’s suggestion. Although barely convalescent from an operation on his prostate gland, he relished obeying what he could present as the personal command of his sovereign to handle these proceedings.
In fact, it presented him with an opportunity for Trollopian intrigue on a grand scale, and allowed him, effectively, to choose his successor while dressing up the procedure in what would soon come to be highly questionable constitutional practice. Elaborate inquiries carried out at his behest by senior colleagues, supported by statistics that have been the subject of controversy ever since, persuaded him that the foreign secretary, the 14th Earl of Home, was the party’s “preponderant first choice”. The Queen came to see him in hospital, where he read to her his conclusions and formally resigned office.
A few hours later she invited Lord Home to form a government. Having succeeded in uniting some but not all the contestants, he kissed hands as prime minister, divested himself of his peerage under a recent and exceptionally convenient Act of Parliament and some weeks afterwards was elected to an equally convenient seat in the Commons. In choosing a new prime minister able to command a majority in the Commons, the Queen had fulfilled her constitutional duty. There the matter might have ended.
But there were complaints that in preferring Home to Butler, who was thought to enjoy wider support in the constituencies, Macmillan’s advice to the Queen had been tainted by personal animus. As a result, the argument continued, the Queen had selected as prime minister a party leader less well qualified than Butler to win the next general election. One respected historian of the Left, Ben Pimlott, wrote in his life of the Queen (1996) that “it was the biggest political misjudgment of her reign”.
Yet the only alternative for the Queen would have been to descend into the political arena as a partisan; to weigh Butler’s experience against his irresolution, Hailsham’s intellect against his volatile temperament, Home’s antipathy to economics against his skill as a diplomatist.
In any case, the Queen’s acceptance of Macmillan as her sole source of advice need not have been the end of the matter. Had Butler refused to serve under Home, he might well have displaced him at No 10. But he chose not to fight and lost the day.
What seems to have outraged Pimlott was not so much the Queen’s entire dependence on Macmillan for advice as the advice itself. Had he recommended Butler rather than a 14th earl, not a dog would have barked. As it was, secrecy and intrigue discredited the system itself. In future the Queen would dispense with her royal prerogative (though keeping it in reserve for use on such rare occasions as a hung parliament). Instead, Conservatives and Labour alike openly elected a new leader, to whom the Queen entrusted the formation of a new government.
Traditionalists deplored this further erosion of royal power; realists recognised that by relieving the sovereign of a controversial decision, it strengthened the monarchy. One myth which pursued the Queen was that she had accepted Macmillan’s advice with enthusiasm because she felt a personal affinity with Sir Alec Douglas-home (as he was known after divesting himself of his earldom). It is true that they were both Scottish landowners of ancient lineage with a shared interest in country pursuits and that personal thrift which so often affects the very rich.
But the Queen was scarcely aware of the social gradations that teased and tormented her subjects. The birth and background of any prime minister were, to her mind, irrelevant. What did commend him to her were his dignity, modesty and simplicity, and the sincerity he had brought to his former office of foreign secretary.
HER FIRST LABOUR GOVERNMENT
Douglas-home’s loss of the general election of 1964, albeit by a whisker, brought to power the first Labour government of the reign and the Queen’s first prime minister who had been educated at neither Eton nor Harrow. Politically impartial and free from classconsciousness, she rapidly established a comfortable
relationship with Wilson that continued throughout his years at No 10. Like many of those from a working- or lower-middle-class background, he displayed a robust loyalty to the Crown that contrasted with the cool detachment of the ancient aristocracy.
At the first weekly audience, the Queen caught him out on a detail of some state paper that she had read and he had not. Thereafter he never ceased to recognise the value of her judgment, the depth of her experience in public policy and what Bagehot called the sovereign’s “well-considered inaction”. He also admitted that the Queen was the only working colleague to whom he could take his problems without feeling that she might be sharpening a knife for his back – such was the brotherly love he encountered in Cabinet.
Claiming an intimacy denied to her other prime ministers, he used the Queen’s name and beliefs in ways that strained convention. During the protracted struggle with Ian Smith, Wilson caused the Queen to write a letter to the Rhodesian prime minister in her own hand reminding him of his binding allegiance to the Crown. That was constitutionally permissible. But Wilson went further. He declared that his government’s policy reflected “the specific authority and approval of Her Majesty herself ”. To reveal what purported to be the Queen’s personal opinions was dangerous, undermining as it did her political neutrality.
Wilson again invoked the Queen’s name when, a few days after his 60th birthday in March 1976, he surprised the nation by announcing his retirement long before his second ministry had run its course. To dispel rumours of some sudden impropriety in his life, he disclosed that he had warned the Queen of his intention six months earlier, not in formal audience but during a picnic at Balmoral.
Between Wilson’s two terms at No 10, 1964-70 and 1974-76, the prime minister was Edward Heath. Having led the Conservatives to an unexpected victory at the general election of 1970, he fell from power four years later after a bitter dispute with the miners. Springing from the same social class as Wilson, he failed to establish anything like the same rapport with his Sovereign. Always reserved with women, he was respectful but cool; and the Queen for her part resented his near contempt for the Commonwealth and most of its African leaders.
In 1973 he attempted to deflect her from attending the Commonwealth conference in Ottawa; but as Head of the Commonwealth she felt able to disregard his advice. The Speaker of the Commons, Selwyn Lloyd, wrote in his diary that at a diplomatic reception at Buckingham Palace the Queen told him how much she disliked the government’s restrictions on immigration that had affected a member of her staff. “I told the prime minister just what I thought,” she confided. Nor did the Queen warm to Heath’s pursuit of European union or his clumsy handling of trade union disputes.
On Wilson’s retirement, it was the ballot box of the Parliamentary Labour Party rather than the Queen’s prerogative that propelled James Callaghan to Downing Street. Elected leader by 176 votes to Michael Foot’s 133, he required no more than her formal endorsement before taking up office.
Callaghan, the only man to have held the four great posts of chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, foreign secretary and prime minister, could touch a more sentimental chord in the Queen’s heart. He had held a wartime commission in the Navy, and his father had served for 10 years as an able seaman in the old Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert.
On the death of Sir Robert Menzies in 1978, the Queen offered him the honorific appointment of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, with Walmer Castle as his official residence. But he feared it could be a financial burden and suggested it should go to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother; she accepted with enthusiasm, and for the rest of her life wore it as stylishly as a feather in her hat.
Unable to curb the trade unions on whom he had depended for his political muscle or to mitigate the “winter of discontent” they imposed on the nation, Callaghan was defeated at the general election of 1979 by Margaret Thatcher, who four years earlier had succeeded Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party.
Baroness Thatcher wrote in her memoirs of the Queen’s “grasp of current issues and breadth of experience”. Her encomium continued: “Although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, especially on Commonwealth affairs, I always found the Queen’s attitude towards the work of the government absolutely correct.”
The new prime minister, for her part, was equally punctilious: indeed, in contrast to her brusqueness at the negotiating table, deferential to a degree.
No subject ever curtsied more deeply to her sovereign or was more assiduous in showing respect. At one public ceremony Mrs Thatcher was embarrassed because her outfit closely resembled that of the Queen. Afterwards No 10 discreetly inquired of the Palace whether there was any way in which the prime minister could be advised of the Queen’s choice of clothes. The reply was both reassuring and dismissive: “Do not worry. The Queen does not notice what other people are wearing.”
But with all its formality, their relationship was the least comfortable of the reign. Some put it down to an inevitable tension between two able, strong-minded women; others to a Gladstonian earnestness that provoked a Victorian antipathy. There is also evidence that the Queen, like other rich landowners with a tender conscience – what in the Conservative Party came to be called the “Wets” – was dismayed by the perceived harshness of Mrs Thatcher’s reforming zeal. Above all, the Queen was affronted by the prime minister’s unconcealed dislike of the Commonwealth.
A voluntary association of some 50 independent states, almost all of which had once been part of the British Empire, it was an ingenious device to exorcise the ghost of imperialism. As Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen remained sovereign of 17 overseas territories, including Canada and Australia, and a welcome visitor to all, monarchies and republics alike. Naturally enough she cherished her role. At home she was a hard-worked constitutional monarch; abroad she was Gloriana, hung with garlands, saluted with spears, fed on suckling pig.
As long as Commonwealth conferences remained no more than family reunions, the nation marvelled at the respect and affection she inspired around the globe. But constitutional purists like Enoch Powell deplored the ambiguity in which she was placed: obliged to accept the advice of her responsible ministers yet under pressure from a cabal of Commonwealth republics to act otherwise.
Margaret Thatcher shared his misgivings. She minded that the Queen of the United Kingdom, whom she held in genuine reverence, should head an unconstitutional and sometimes hostile world bloc; that its self-assured secretary-general should be housed in a former royal residence a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace; that its economic demands should complicate Britain’s foreign policy, not least on entry into Europe.
She had been in Downing Street for no more than six months when she weakened a cultural link with Commonwealth countries by imposing higher fees on overseas students than those paid by British undergraduates. More violent collisions followed, none of which can have failed to dismay the Head of the Commonwealth.
In 1979 the Thatcher government opposed economic sanctions against Ian Smith’s illegal government in Rhodesia; and in 1986 again provoked widespread Commonwealth condemnation by its reluctance to impose sanctions on South Africa, still under the rule of apartheid. Both Queen and prime minister kept their counsel, but their supposed differences were common knowledge.
Only once was the Queen thought to have shown an excess of enthusiasm for her Commonwealth role, and that inadvertently. In 1983 she devoted her annual Christmas Day broadcast (for which she neither sought nor was expected to seek ministerial advice) to the economic role of the Commonwealth and the need for more technology. Many of her British subjects thought it an inadequate substitute for the familiar story of Christ’s birth and its tidings of comfort and joy.
The broadcast also caused dismay by including several minutes of her filmed conversation with perhaps the most controversial of Commonwealth prime ministers, Indira Gandhi, who had once resorted to ruling India by martial law yet was shortly to fight a general election endorsed, it seemed, by the Head of the Commonwealth herself.
The remaining years of the reign were punctuated by Commonwealth tremors: occasional demands for a republic in Australia, though a referendum to establish one was defeated in 1999; brutality by the rulers of Nigeria that outraged even the undemanding standards of other African states; and ill-judged attempts by Britain to prompt a settlement of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.
Never again, however, after Margaret Thatcher’s enforced retirement in 1990 was the Head of the Commonwealth to feel a chill wind blowing from Downing Street. There was an irony in the fact that the Queen’s finances came under increasing public scrutiny during John Major’s premiership – chiefly notable for the ignominious financial crisis when he had to ring the Palace to announce that Britain was leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism, declaring that not to do so “would be like King Canute”.
The fire at Windsor Castle and the subsequent announcement that the Queen would begin to pay tax, as well as the announcements of the separation, and subsequently the divorce, of the Prince and Princess of Wales added to the difficulties of the period. More happily, it was during his government that the VE-DAY celebrations led to the largest gathering of foreign leaders in London since the war.
According to his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair found his weekly meeting with the Queen “the one regular thing that he does that he really looks forward to”, though he conceded that he had no idea of what happened during their encounters.
This did not prevent speculation, expanded in 2006 to the length of a feature film for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the Queen. It focused on the relationship between the Palace and Downing Street during the days immediately after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, at the beginning of Blair’s time in office.
Though many of the details in the film were wrong, and some of the actors miscast, it showed the Queen coming to terms with the death of the Princess of Wales, and the strange change in the mood of the country that had occurred following Blair’s rise to power.
In reality, the Queen agreed to address the nation and conceded that the Union flag could be flown at half-mast on Buckingham Palace – just as, at the time of the Coronation, her advisers had insisted that the ceremony not be televised, but were eventually persuaded that the public would expect it.
Meanwhile, the New Labour government’s unpopularity with the rural population, particularly over the banning of hunting, also caused some concern at the Palace. But there was one indication of where the power in the relationship continued to lie. In 2001 the Downing Street briefing room heard that the prime minister had spoken to the Queen about “the Golden Jubilee”, to be rebuked with the correction: “My Golden Jubilee”.
Further prime ministers followed – the taciturn Gordon Brown taking over from Blair in 2007 and surviving until 2010. Then came David Cameron, at first in coalition with the Liberals and then on his own with a sweeping majority only to be felled by the Brexit referendum in 2016. Theresa May struggled gamely to deliver Brexit between 2016 and 2019, and ultimately conceded defeat.
In came Boris Johnson, with his controversial political past and unconventional private life. The Queen was even obliged to entertain Johnson’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds – before his divorce had been settled – on his 2019 visit to Balmoral, on the grounds that she might appear oldfashioned if she did not.
PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIVES
The Queen, happiest when at Windsor or her private residences of Sandringham and Balmoral, was not wedded to a life of luxury. But she was proud of her historic possessions at Buckingham Palace and Windsor, of which she regarded herself as a trustee, and entertained with a panache worthy of the first Queen Elizabeth. When a household official apologised on the morning after a state banquet that it was difficult to keep the food hot when using gold plates, the Queen replied: “My guests come here not for hot food but to eat off gold plate.”
As the host to overseas visitors, the Queen won intense admiration from Whitehall as an instrument of foreign policy, gifted with exceptional diplomatic talents. She and the government were deemed ahead of the public mood when she received President Heuss in 1958, the first German head of state to be welcomed since the Kaiser in 1907. There was the Japanese Emperor Hirohito in 1971, whom Mountbatten refused to meet at the Queen’s state banquet; and the tyrant President Ceausescu of Romania in 1978 (convinced that his rooms in Buckingham Palace were bugged, he led his entourage into the garden each morning for a secret conclave). Idi Amin of Uganda was entertained to lunch in 1971.
Abroad, the Queen was welcomed with something approaching ecstasy, particularly in countries that had dispensed with their own monarchies. During one state visit to France, she happened to mention to her hosts in the Louvre that she had never seen the Mona Lisa. Within minutes, two attendants staggered in with the picture, which they exhibited on bended knees. Rarely did she meet with discourtesy. The King of Morocco kept her waiting for an hour in a torrid desert while he lounged in his airconditioned caravan; and even India forgot good manners in retaliation for inept remarks on Kashmir by a British foreign secretary who accompanied Her Majesty. The Queen, professional that she was, took it in her stride.
In all her public engagements, whether at home or abroad, the Queen was dignified yet friendly, serious yet, as her Olympic adventure in 2012 would show, not lacking in humour. This last quality could sometimes be elusive, however, for in repose her face could seem severe, even glum. But those who met her face to face never forgot either the beauty of her complexion or the crinkling of the eyes that heralded a dry little joke. “Hooray!” she minuted a private secretary on being told that a foreign statesman would not now be coming to lunch. On the eve of the state visit of the King of Thailand, she ordered: “Not a note of The King and I to be played.” And as she stood beside Queen Frederica of the Hellenes while a Communist mob bayed at her outside Covent Garden, she murmured to her guest: “I thought this sort of thing only happened in the Balkans.”
The Queen could be mildly eccentric. She saw no incongruity in simultaneously wearing the Crown and a pair of reading spectacles or holding an emergency meeting of the Privy Council at Windsor clad in jodhpurs. The spectre of assassination that stalks all crowned heads she met with courage and composure. In Australia the Queen was hit with an egg. “I saw it coming,” she confessed, “and I was grateful it was only an egg.”
When a spectator at Trooping the Colour in 1981 pointed a pistol at her and fired six times, the Queen controlled her horse and rode on. She was not to know they were blank cartridges. Even when her appearances were free from the unexpected, they imposed a discipline. Her private secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, told a House of Commons select committee: “All these engagements are enjoyable
– and there are many who would welcome the opportunity of attending them. But for the Queen, who can never enjoy them with the freedom of a holiday maker, the pleasure of attending them is bound to be tempered by the strain imposed on her as a public figure and by the knowledge that somebody is looking at her all the time and that she is being continually photographed, filmed and televised as well.”
Patriotic demands of the Second World War had shattered the convention that the Sovereign should be as closely protected from the common touch in public as in private, meeting only local grandees and a carefully rehearsed artisan or two. By the time of her Silver Jubilee in 1977, it had become common practice for the Queen to abandon the traditional red carpet and to go on foot through the crowds, with here and there a little chat over the shopping-basket. She had come to Coronation Street and affability had displaced some of the magic of monarchy.
The Queen appeared to enjoy these encounters. They taught her a practical lesson, too. When in 1982 a mentally unbalanced intruder climbed into her bedroom at Buckingham Palace, she remained calm. After a scandalous breakdown in security, a chambermaid eventually arrived and the man was ejected. The Queen later said: “It was easier for me than it would have been for others. I am used to talking to strangers.”
Another link with her subjects which she valued was the annual Christmas broadcast. The simple message by which King George V had reached out into the hearts of “all my peoples throughout the Empire” gradually gave way to an elaborate television programme illustrated by film clips and presented by the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth. The first two private secretaries of the reign, Sir Alan Lascelles and Sir Michael Adeane, wished to discontinue the broadcasts: radio talks because they were becoming monotonous, TV because their intimacy destroyed the mystique of monarchy.
The Queen took time to learn the art and did not enjoy it. But she felt it her duty to continue, and that was the end of the matter. Publicity feeds upon itself. In 1969 Lord Mountbatten persuaded the Queen to authorise the making of the film Royal Family, which invited the world to peer through the keyholes of every royal residence, to eavesdrop on the small change of Royal family conversation. Other such productions followed. It was but a step from the licensed viewer to the unlicensed voyeur, from Cecil Beaton to the paparazzi. By the last decade of the century the Queen’s breakfast table proclaimed day by day the indiscretions of younger members of her family, sometimes with their own connivance.
Yet meeting her subjects was the aspect of her role which the Queen thought most important, above all at the investitures, before which she briefed herself thoroughly on the background and achievements of those upon whom she bestowed honours and awards.
The Queen occupied four substantial houses with enjoyment, migrating from one to another throughout the seasons with those snipe-like movements that PG Wodehouse attributed to an earlier Elizabeth. “It is impossible to move a cushion from one chair to another,” a courtier observed, “without her noticing it.” Her aesthetic tastes were limited, but to the incomparable royal collections she did add pictures by some of the safer of her near contemporaries: Graham Sutherland, LS Lowry, Roger de Grey, Ivon Hitchens. As Queen of Australia she hung paintings by William Dobell, Rex Battarbee, Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan. In all such enterprises the later disgraced Anthony Blunt offered expert guidance.
In 1962 the opening of the Queen’s Gallery, reconstructed out of the bomb-damaged private chapel at Buckingham Palace, enabled the public to view the royal treasures. It was later redesigned by the architect John Simpson and adorned with a Homeric frieze, and a remarkable bust of the Queen, both by the neo-classical sculptor Alexander Stoddart. At the beginning of her reign, the royal collections were cared for by five people, at the end by more than 700. Her custodianship and willingness to share these treasures with the world were greatly to her credit.
The Queen rarely had time to read a book and seemed positively to dislike commemorative concerts and gala performances of opera and ballet. A minister of the Crown who accompanied her on one such occasion and happened to be in attendance again a few nights later, jauntily expressed the hope that she had “got through it all right”. She replied sharply: “Not so loud.” He liked to think that Her Majesty was joking.
Instead, the Queen’s pleasures were those of a countrywoman. Having cleared her red boxes of papers, she was out on the hill at Balmoral or riding across the flatter landscape of Sandringham. Never gregarious, she delighted in the company of horses and dogs. Those pastimes were often misunderstood. Although she devoted a whole week of the year to Royal Ascot and annually attended the Epsom Derby, her interest lay more in the breeding and conformation of her racehorses and their performance on the gallop. These she could analyse with the authority and knowledge of any trainer. She looked to her stud to make a profit. Lord Carnarvon, her racing manager, was also one of her few intimate friends.
With the agility of a crossword addict, the Queen liked to name her yearlings. Thus a colt by Red Ransom out of Turn to Money she called Dick Turpin; one by Generous out of Starlet became Give and Take; another by Halo out of Joking Apart was named St Boniface (the patron saint of clowns). Throughout her reign, newspaper cartoonists had a field day with the Queen’s pack of corgis, ill-tempered and predatory. Scarcely ever mentioned was her success in breeding and training black Labrador gun dogs, to which she brought an affectionate rapport.
Some of those interests more than paid for themselves; certainly they were less expensive than her husband’s shooting and carriage driving or her eldest son’s polo and hunting. The Queen was frugal and her housekeeper’s eye hated to see waste. She checked her bills, item by item. Her Christmas presents to friends and courtiers were so modest as to become a household joke.
That the Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip radiated content for more than 70 years owed much to the restraint and insight of each: more perhaps to the Queen than to her sometimes impatient and irascible husband. He must have realised when he married the daughter of an ailing Sovereign that his own career in the Royal Navy could not continue for long. He was nevertheless resentful when obliged to retire in 1951, and not at all mollified by the rank of Admiral of the Fleet bestowed on him after his wife’s accession.
Nor at first did he take well to the role of royal consort that excluded him from all but ceremonial duties. Antipathy persisted between the Prince and senior courtiers; they thought him brash and un-cooperative, he thought them fossilised.
Although created a Prince of the United Kingdom, he did not become Prince Consort nor did he seek to do so. The Prince’s manner could make him seem ungracious and acerbic, particularly towards the press. Nor was the Queen herself spared reproof, even in the hearing of officials. She, however, seemed unmoved, recognising that at heart he was her rock and her strength – the most devoted of royal consorts. By the end of her reign the British people had taken him to their hearts rather in the manner of a defiantly politically incorrect but much-loved elderly relative. And after his death many were surprised to learn of the breadth of his endeavours and achievements.
The Queen’s family circle, meanwhile, fell well short of the ideals of Christian marriage she herself upheld. Two of her three sons, her only daughter and her only sister dissolved their marriages in the divorce courts, as did her cousin and childhood companion, the Earl of Harewood. Some of her older subjects wondered whether the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, who worshipped each Sunday wherever she happened to be, could not have instilled in her restless brood a stronger commitment to their marriage vows. Others, more worldly-wise, accepted that a national failure of one in three marriages could not reasonably exclude even the most privileged family in the kingdom.
In any case, the Queen had neither the time nor the interfering temperament to act as peacemaker. She could but prescribe patience and understanding: the aspirin, as it were, of marital guidance. It was not enough. The first of her children to marry was Princess Anne, later to become the Princess Royal, a woman of strong character who as president of Save the Children Fund earned acclaim for her tours of inspection in the poorer parts of Africa and Asia. She married in 1973 a fellow equestrian, the Olympic gold medallist Captain Mark Phillips, to whom she bore a son and a daughter. Some of his bride’s family affected not to find him as clever as themselves, though he became articulate on any matter equestrian. They were divorced without acrimony in 1992, when the Princess married Captain (now Vice-admiral Sir) Timothy Laurence RN, a former equerry to the Queen.
Prince Andrew, Duke of York, a naval officer who had served in the Falklands campaign, married in 1986 Sarah Ferguson, daughter of the Prince of Wales’s polo manager. She was well-enough born for a modern royal marriage, though too high-spirited and indiscreet for traditionalists. The victim of tabloid journalists and paparazzi, who more than once sneaked photographs of her in compromising situations, she separated from her husband in 1992 and they divorced in 1996. But they remained good friends. Prince Edward’s marriage in 1999 to the public relations executive Sophie Rhys-jones did, happily, prove lasting.
It was the marriage of the Prince of Wales to the arrestingly beautiful Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 that ultimately inflicted damage on the monarchy. “Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made,” the Archbishop of Canterbury declaimed at their wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral. The words were to haunt him to the end of his days.
Diana could not adjust to a life lived in a worldwide glare of publicity. She was also unsettled by the belief that her husband had never ceased to love Camilla Parker Bowles, the wife of an officer in the Household Cavalry. Misery gave way to despair and so to threats of suicide.
Prince Charles, bewildered by his wife’s emotional turmoil, could neither share her fondness for pop culture nor demonstrate the affection for which she yearned. He wrote to a friend from the Royal Yacht Britannia: “Diana dashes about chatting up all the sailors and the cooks while I remain hermit-like on the veranda deck, sunk with pure joy into one of Laurens van der Post’s books.” It was the second day of their honeymoon. After the birth of their two children, the marital dispute became public knowledge. Each resorted to the media with their grievances. With her connivance, the Princess’s friends fed Andrew Morton with disobliging tales about the Prince for his book Diana: Her True Story (1992). The Prince returned the compliment by co-operating all too openly with Jonathan Dimbleby, author of The Prince of Wales: a Portrait (1994).
Both the Prince and Princess also made separate arrangements to be interviewed on television, during which each confessed to having committed adultery. The humiliation at last stung the Queen to intervene. She ordered them to divorce. The formalities were completed in 1996.
That was far from the end of the tragic saga. In the following year Diana, Princess of Wales (as she was styled after divorce), died in a car crash in Paris, together with Dodi Fayed, son of Mohamed Fayed, the much disliked owner of Harrods. Her death evoked widespread, nearhysterical sorrow. Not all the mourners were content to lay flowers outside Kensington Palace in tribute to her beauty and compassion. They demanded a public demonstration of grief by the Queen.
In a funeral address from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey, the Princess’s brother, Earl Spencer, castigated the values of the Queen and her family before a television audience of many millions and contrasted “the imaginative and loving way” in which she was bringing up the two young princes with the “duty and tradition” – he made them sound more like vices than virtues – instilled into them by their father.
They were hurtful words from a godson of the Queen. They were nevertheless loudly applauded. It was much discussed during that traumatic week and after whether the Queen could have done more to save the marriage. Prince Philip certainly intervened sympathetically. Such an approach, however, demanded rational discussion, goodwill, an acceptance of advice. Neither party to the marriage was prepared to compromise.
The Princess shrank from a family she thought cold and unfeeling. The Prince, for his part, had grown apart from a preoccupied mother and an overbearing father who, his son maintained, had pushed him into marriage with Lady Diana against his better judgment.
The Prince harboured earlier resentments. A kind, gentle and polite child, he was deeply bruised by the bullying he had endured at Gordonstoun. In reply to his pleas for help, his father had simply told him to grin and bear it – the habitual reply to generations of small boys at public schools. Neither parent perhaps had responded with the creative sympathy required to intervene discreetly on his behalf while preserving the schoolboy code of honour.
The Prince would also suffer the traditional discontent of any king-in-waiting, with little prospect of assuming the role for which he had been trained until he was beyond pensionable age. With a large independent income from the Duchy of Cornwall, and strongly held, sometimes unorthodox, views on architecture, the environment and education, he became wilful and impatient of restraint from both his mother’s advisers and his own.
Co-operation between the households barely existed. Only by chance in 1985 did the Queen discover that her son, about to pay a visit to the Vatican, proposed to attend the Pope’s Mass in his private chapel (though not to take Communion). The Supreme Governor of the Church of England thought this gesture of ecumenism untimely. At her command the engagement was cancelled.
In 1998 she was horrified when it was reported that the Prince of Wales would be “privately delighted” if his mother were to abdicate; the Prince was telephoned in Bulgaria and required to apologise. This was typical of relations between Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace, the press offices of which seemed positively to delight in leaking stories to the discredit of the other.
On one issue, the Prince of Wales managed to have his way: public hostility towards Camilla Parker Bowles diminishing sufficiently for the couple to marry in 2005. Despite the Queen’s reservations – springing from her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England – about his remarriage, she attended the service of blessing (though not the civil ceremony that preceded it).
Nor, for her part, did the Queen confide in her son even on matters for which he would one day be responsible: a sad loss of inherited experience. It was another facet of the Queen’s inscrutable personality. Sir Martin Charteris confessed in old age that after 27 years in her service he still could not always be sure what she was thinking.
The marital difficulties of her children were not the only burden the Queen had to bear in the fourth decade of her reign. The cumulative misfortunes of 1992 led Her Majesty, prompted by a courtier with a command of Latin, to call it her annus horribilis: the most famous bon mot of the reign. In November a large part of Windsor Castle was destroyed by fire: a crushing enough disaster for any home owner, whether Queen or commoner. And when the government rashly promised to bear the entire cost of restoration, estimated at between £20 million and £40 million, there was an explosion of public anger against supposed royal extravagance.
Six days later the prime minister, John Major, said that from April 1993 the Queen would pay tax on her private income. The decision, he said, was that of the Queen herself and had been agreed in principle with the Inland Revenue several months earlier. But the statement sounded defensive and the government’s expression of gratitude lukewarm. A deplorable failure of public relations led even monarchists to accept that the Queen’s financial sacrifice was a gesture of appeasement to the press. Nor did the Conservative government adequately thank the Queen when she ensured that Windsor Castle be restored to its former glory at no additional cost to the taxpayer.
Some £26 million was raised by opening the state rooms of Buckingham Palace to the public each August and September, and to the precincts of Windsor throughout the year. The remaining £11 million came from savings within the annual Treasury grant for the upkeep of royal palaces.
Five years to the day after the fire, the Queen celebrated her golden wedding anniversary in the Castle to acclamation. In 2007, the diamond anniversary of her marriage was marked by a service in Westminster Abbey, after which the Queen and the Duke spent a night in Malta, where they had stayed after their wedding, on their way to a Commonwealth Conference in Kampala.
In truth, the Queen had never been free from an unfriendly scrutiny of her finances by Parliament and press, even from the moment of her marriage. The annual Civil List (or official income) voted on her accession was £475,000. In 1971, with inflation running at about five per cent a year, she was obliged to ask for it to be doubled. Four years later the amount necessary for her to maintain the trappings of monarchy had risen to £1.4 million; and so on throughout the reign. Other members of her family were voted lesser sums.
The Queen’s own secretariat, as small as it was efficient, continued to make household economies, but never enough to silence taunts of profligacy. Twenty years into the reign, a persistent Labour critic complained that the Queen Mother’s Civil List had just been raised by 35 per cent. He omitted to mention that during the same period his own parliamentary salary had more than quadrupled; or that a new car park for MPS at Westminster had cost more than twice the Queen’s then Civil List.
There were nevertheless brusque suggestions that to meet any deficit in her budget, the Queen should dip into her private investments on which (until 1993) she was required to pay neither income tax nor capital gains tax. This indeed she did, not least in supporting other members of the family who carried out royal engagements. She also gave the Duchess of Windsor a pension of £5,000 a year from the Duke’s death in 1972 until the Duchess died in 1986. Whatever the Queen spent was largely to enhance her royal role. That did not save her from groundless imputations of extravagance. Even after she had voluntarily agreed to pay tax on her private investments (with certain exemptions), a tabloid apostrophised her on its front page as: “HM THE TAX DODGER.”
Even moderate MPS declared, not unreasonably, that they would find it easier to decide the Queen’s official income if she revealed the size of her personal fortune, swollen as it was by increased dividends and tax exemptions over the years. The Queen, exercising the same right to privacy as her subjects, refused. Lacking the true figures, estimates in the popular press soared to billions of pounds by including the supposed value of the royal collections: pictures, books, furniture, silver, postage stamps and other works of art, not omitting the Crown Jewels.
In vain the Palace insisted that these were never hers to sell; and that when shown to the paying public, the Queen received not a penny; it was instead destined for the upkeep of the royal collections. It was debated again and again whether the Queen should retain, at taxpayers’ expense, her own yacht, her own aircraft, her own train. Compared with the astronomical expenditure of the state, they were minuscule sums. The ultimate target of so many critics, however, was not royal extravagance but the monarchy itself.
The year of the Golden Jubilee, 2002, was marred by the deaths of Princess Margaret and, seven weeks later, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, great personal blows for the Queen. Despite this, it represented a crucial turning point in the fortunes of the monarchy. The outpouring of popular sentiment which followed the Queen Mother’s death, and the enthusiasm for the Jubilee itself, served to confound those who felt that public support for the monarchy was waning.
That June, more than a million people gathered in the Mall for the celebrations; street parties were enthusiastically organised up and down the country, beacons were lit and over the course of the year, every corner of the country received a visit from the Sovereign.
One other effect was to establish the Queen, in her eighth decade, in an unchallenged position as the matriarch of her family, the nation, and the Commonwealth. The Palace’s accomplished handling of the events of that year demonstrated – as had the Queen’s immediate statements after the terrorist attacks on New York the previous year – that lessons had been learnt from the period after the Princess of Wales’s death.
It was, moreover, poignant that Westminster Abbey, which had witnessed that untimely funeral, should have seen the marriage of the Queen’s grandson Prince William to Catherine Middleton 14 years later. The cheering of the crowds on that spring day in 2011 expressed the people’s renewed optimism about the future of the monarchy, embodied in the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The birth of the Duke and Duchess’s children Prince George, in 2013, Princess Charlotte, in 2015, and Prince Louis in 2018, not only re-energised the monarchy but enabled the Queen to visualise its future into the 22nd century.
Even in her ninth decade the Queen was still accumulating historic firsts, notably in her state visit to Ireland in 2011 when she became the first reigning British monarch to visit the Republic for 100 years. After a century of tension, the Queen’s arrival in Dublin signified the normalisation of relations between the two countries.
In 2012 she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. An estimated one and a half million people gathered in the Mall for the celebrations. That part of the festivities should have consisted of a pop concert, with the ska band Madness performing Our House from the top of Buckingham Palace, was evidence enough of the monarchy’s adaptability. But if tradition and ceremonial had proved flexible, the Diamond Jubilee also maintained clear echoes of the past.
Some of the worst weather on record did not deter the Queen, nor did the alternative attraction of the Olympic Torch Relay make any impact on the huge crowds which turned out to greet her, as she criss-crossed the country in a royal progress which began in Leicester in March and came to a triumphant conclusion in the New Forest in July, connecting the monarch in a bond of warmth and affection with her nation – and continuing a tradition observed by her medieval forebears. People stood, often nine or 10 deep, to sing, wave Union flags, cheer and catch a glimpse of that characteristic, sometimes guarded smile, which seemed to suggest that the Queen could not quite believe that such an outpouring of affection and respect was really for her. For she never assumed that public support was hers by right.
During the central weekend of the celebrations in June, street parties – as had marked the Coronation, the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and the Golden Jubilee in 2002 – were enthusiastically held, while towns and villages erupted in a sea of flags, bunting and balloons. More than a million rain-soaked spectators lined the riverbank in London as 1,000 boats assembled from across Britain, the Commonwealth and around the world in a grand Diamond Jubilee Pageant which echoed the magnificent pageant held for King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza in 1692. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh travelled in the Royal Barge that formed the centrepiece of the flotilla, refusing to retreat below deck during the unseasonable cold.
The festivities were only slightly dampened by the news, two days later, that the Duke of Edinburgh had been taken to hospital with an infection, though one of the most moving moments of the pop concert held that evening at Buckingham Palace occurred when during an affectionate and humorous tribute to “Your Majesty, mummy”, the Prince of Wales asked the crowd to cheer loud enough for his father to hear from the King Edward VII Hospital, Marylebone; they spontaneously erupted into chants of “Philip! Philip!”
On the final day of the formal celebrations, as the Queen made her way to St Paul’s Cathedral for a thanksgiving service, thousands lined the route, breaking into an impromptu chorus of God Save the Queen as the royal motorcade drew up at the steps of the Cathedral.
Few then imagined that the Queen’s most memorable performance was yet to come. For the Olympics opening ceremony on the night of July 27 2012, billions around the world tuned in to see Britain’s 86-year-old monarch performing her first acting role – in a short James Bond adventure. The Queen was seen to leave the Palace with Bond (Daniel Craig), before boarding a helicopter and leaving behind her corgis. As a helicopter appeared above the Olympic Park, the film showed Bond and “the Queen” parachuting out, right on cue for the monarch’s entrance to the stadium a few moments later. None of the other
members of the Royal family had been told about her involvement in advance and as Lord Coe, the former head of London 2012, recalled, “when the sequence began, with the corgis racing up what were obviously very familiar stairs, Prince Charles looked at me and began laughing rather nervously, wondering where on earth this was going.”
When the film cut to the back of the Queen, the Prince of Wales had “exactly the same reaction” as the rest of the world, which was to assume it was an impersonator: “But the moment she turned around, and everyone realised, ‘My God! It really is the Queen!’ he began roaring with laughter. As for his sons, they were beside themselves. As she started her descent two voices shouted out in unison behind me, ‘Go, Granny!’”
A Diamond Jubilee often marks the last great event of a long reign, but the Queen passed that milestone and went on to further achievements. Another conciliatory trip came in 2015, when she made her first visit to the site of a former concentration camp, at Bergen-belsen in Germany. Like the Irish before them, the people of Berlin, where the Queen stayed during her visit, gave “Die Queen” a rapturous welcome.
On September 9, she surpassed Queen Victoria to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. In 2016, she marked her 90th birthday, undertaking a walkabout in Windsor and opening the Queen’s Walkway. As part of the festivities, in London on June 12 the Mall was transformed for its largest-ever street party, the Patron’s Lunch, celebrating her patronage of more than 600 charities.
From time to time the tabloids ran a variation on their staple themes of royal avarice and misbehaviour: that the Queen was considering abdication in favour of the Prince of Wales, or even of his elder son, Prince William.
Such rumours were misguided. When Elizabeth II swore her Coronation Oath in 1953 to uphold law, justice and the Protestant Church, it included no contract of employment guaranteeing her retirement at 60 – or at any other age – with pension, free medical care and bus pass. And, unlike European monarchs, she was an anointed Queen. She had dedicated herself for life.
Her faith was central. She took her role as Head of the Church of England seriously and did not question her beliefs in the way that Prince Philip did. Unlike Princess Margaret, who was High Anglican and liked early Holy Communion, the Queen preferred matins. She was keen that services should last no longer than 40 minutes, and listened to the sermon with the same interest she gave to all information presented to her. Her motto was “Do your best every day, and say your prayers at night.”
The Queen and her family were also subjected to something which would have been unthinkable in the early years of the reign: they appeared in 40 episodes of the Netflix series The Crown, where veracity gave way to drama.
The lavish production was so widely viewed that it made the Queen globally visible, her fictional persona entering the consciousness of many who might otherwise not have reflected on her story. Claire Foy caught the younger
Elizabeth’s personality with some sympathy; Olivia Colman played her in later life as glum, with downturned smile.
Subtle concessions were made to the advancing years. The Queen gave up international travel, she took fewer investitures. She drove to the Garter ceremony instead of walking, and latterly took to using a walking stick at engagements. It could have been hoped that these later years would have offered well-deserved serenity to a dutiful monarch.
But she had to face the divisive issue of Brexit, which caused Cameron and May to step down as prime minister. The health of Prince Philip was a recurring worry during these years. He gave up public duties in August 2017 and largely retired to Wood Farm on the Sandringham estate.
The marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, an American actress of mixed race, was welcomed by the Royal family, the Queen and Prince Philip attending the somewhat unconventional, but undoubtedly popular, wedding in St George’s Chapel in May 2018. The couple became the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the day.
Sadly, the bride proved unable to fit into royal life, despite the Queen giving the couple important roles in the Commonwealth, to which both had been independently drawn. By 2019, the pair had departed for Canada, soon decamping to Los Angeles, with their new-born child, to renounce their roles as working members of the Royal family and set themselves up independently.
The Queen generously gave them a year to try it out, but they did not return. In 2021 the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gave an interview in California, hinting at racism and a lack of sympathy among unnamed members of the Royal household. The Queen responded with a suitably conciliatory message, stating that the issues raised would be examined in private.
The Queen also witnessed the withdrawal from public life of the Duke of York in 2019. Long accused of an inappropriate association with the disgraced American financier Jeffrey Epstein – and worse – he unwisely submitted to an interview with Emily Maitlis on BBC’S Newsnight, as a result of which he was treated with derision. His charities deserted him and he announced that he would undertake no further royal engagements.
When in 2021 he was sued in the US by one of the sex offender Epstein’s alleged victims for sexual assault, the Queen remained supportive of Prince Andrew. He was, after all, her son, and often described as her favourite son. Though public opinion certainly judged him guilty, it was surely understandable that his mother should have been protective. In a year in which she turned 95, and lost her husband of 73 years, it was stressful to have to face these issues, though the Queen remained resilient.
At the beginning of 2022, however, when Prince Andrew looked likely to be called upon to justify himself in the American courts, the Queen removed his regiments and patronages, and instructed that he no longer use his “HRH”. Shortly afterwards he settled the civil law suit against him.
Just as the Brexit negotiations came to a conclusion, the nation had been plunged into lockdown on account of the alarming spread of Covid-19. The Queen and Prince Philip, both in their 90s, were isolated in what was called “HMS Bubble” at Windsor Castle, to which they retreated in March 2020.
At a grave time of national crisis, the Queen inspired the country with a moving and reassuring broadcast from the castle on April 5. She referred to a broadcast she had made 80 years before from the castle during the Second World War. She assured the nation: “We will meet again.” It was a convincing example of the irreplaceable value of a head of state, who had served the nation all her life.
In the summer of 2020 the Queen and Duke were able to visit Balmoral and spend some time at Sandringham, but by Christmas they were again locked down at Windsor Castle. Early the next year the Duke was admitted to hospital in London for what was initially described as precautionary tests. He underwent a procedure on his heart and returned to the castle, where he died peacefully on the morning of April 9.
The Duke’s death at 99 was not entirely unexpected. Owing to the continued rules dictated by the pandemic, the Queen accepted the 30 mourners rule for his revised funeral at St George’s Chapel and witnessed his descent into the Royal Vault – as she had seen her father, and Queen Mary, laid to rest in 1952 and 1953. She was generally considered to be a lonely figure seated by herself in the quire of the chapel.
A few days after Prince Philip’s death, the Queen marked her 95th birthday, issuing a thoughtful message expressing her gratitude for “the support and kindness shown” and how touched she had been to be reminded “that Philip had such an extraordinary impact on countless people throughout his life”. The Queen had to come to terms with life alone after a marriage of 73 years.
Nevertheless, she soon resumed public life with her habitual stoicism, opening Parliament in a scaled-down, Covid-secure ceremony. During that summer she appeared to flourish, but by the end of 2021 there were hints of mortality, a visit to hospital, and withdrawal from events such as Remembrance Sunday.
No one would have written the script for the Queen in the way it played out as she entered the year of her Platinum Jubilee. She reached that milestone on February 6 2022: 70 years on the throne. But the Duke of York was in trouble, and the Sussexes were pursuing their own path in California, with the first of five books in preparation, judged likely to do as much damage to the Royal family as possible.
The Cambridges paid a visit to several Caribbean islands where their welcome was not as warm as might normally have been expected. And the Queen’s health remained indifferent, though the main problem was one of mobility; she retained all her mental sharpness, continuing to work though rarely seen in public.
In March she attended Prince Philip’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey – escorted by Prince Andrew – but missed the Commonwealth Observance and the State Opening of Parliament.
Zoom proved a boon. Messages were issued, important figures received in private. The Queen appeared now to be tying up loose ends and making it easier for her successor. She had already, in 2018, assured his position as future Head of the Commonwealth. She appointed the Duchess of Cornwall to the Order of the Garter, and expressed the wish that Camilla should be Queen in the next reign.
Meanwhile the Queen paced herself to take part, so far as she was able, in the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
While the Prince of Wales took the Queen’s Birthday Parade on Horseguards, the Queen appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the Duke of Kent to take the salute when her guards marched back.
That evening she lit the first of more than 3,000 beacons in the quadrangle of Windsor Castle. She was then absent from the next celebrations – the service of thanksgiving, and the Derby – while making a stunning “virtual” appearance at the concert, taking tea with Paddington Bear, a light touch which proved abidingly popular.
Unwilling to disappoint, she made the journey to London from Windsor on June 5 to appear on the balcony with the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Cambridge family, winding up the proceedings by appearing alongside the next three kings to be.
As ever the Mall was packed from end to end, evidence of the high affection in which the Queen was held. In all this there was perhaps a tinge of sadness, the hint of a swan song, the realisation that the reign could not last indefinitely.
And yet, on she went, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston, up the great bare staircase of her duty, to the end. And what a journey it proved to be. Her first prime minister was born in 1874 and had charged at Omdurman in the reign of her great-great-grandmother; her last was born in 1975 – a span of more than 100 years. With each she worked in self-effacing harmony; though sometimes manipulated by politicians, yet she was always aloof from the arts and artifices of politics.
She proved the flywheel of our constitution, the guardian of democracy, the architect and inspiration of a Commonwealth that encircled the globe. A hereditary monarchy is a lottery, and in Elizabeth II it gave the nation a winning ticket.
Yet that should not be the last word on the Queen we mourn. She could have displayed all those practical skills while lacking a heart. As it was, her serenity concealed both tenderness and humility.
In a speech to mark her 40th year on the throne, she acknowledged that both people and institutions in public life should not resent criticism – though “that scrutiny, by one part or another, can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of gentleness, good humour and understanding”.
“But,” she emphasised, “we are all part of the same fabric of our national society.”
That was her lodestar in life. It may serve as one of what will be many memorials of her in death.