Elizabeth II in history

Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning sovereign, was a leader of exceptional skill. As a young queen she was cautious and conservative. Her deft handling of the crises that assailed the monarchy in the 1990s strengthened the Crown and her leadership ensured that it remained at the center of national life.

As the daughter of the Duke of York, the second son of George V, Elizabeth was not expected to be queen. She only became “heiress presumptive” at the age of ten, when the abdication of Edward VIII brought her stammering father reluctantly to the throne. Until then she and her younger sister, Margaret, lived in the Neverland of 145 Piccadilly with their doting and domestic parents. By royal standards Elizabeth’s childhood was exceptionally harmonious and secure. But though her parents provided emotional stability, they neglected her education, which was if anything worse than that of Queen Victoria (who was a far better linguist).

The death of George VI at the early age of fifty-six catapulted the twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth onto a throne for which she was neither prepared nor eager, cutting short her brief spell of “normal” life as the wife of a naval officer. The abdication still shadowed the monarchy, and she modeled her rule on that of her father, who had restored confidence through observing tradition and convention. This was a cipher monarchy, strictly non-partisan and politically neutered. It was ringed by a code of silence and secrecy.

At Cape Town on her twenty-first birthday Elizabeth pledged: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.” The speech combined the trumpet blast of Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech with the simplicity of Queen Victoria’s “I will be good” – both themes that chimed with the wartime ethos of unquestioning duty and uncomplaining obedience.

Conscientious and disciplined, Elizabeth found the routine of the job congenial. She worked for three hours on her papers and red boxes almost every morning of her reign. The audience with each of her prime ministers – the substance of which still remains secret – took place at 6.30pm every Tuesday. “Extraordinary thing”, she wrote shortly after her accession, “I no longer feel anxious or worried. I don’t know what it is – but I have lost all my timidity.” She enjoyed being queen.

One pillar of Elizabeth’s monarchy was her husband, Philip. Like Queen Victoria she married a foreign prince to whom she was related. Elizabeth and Philip were third cousins ​​through their descent from Victoria, and second cousins ​​once removed through Christian IX of Denmark. Philip was actually more royal than Elizabeth, who was morganatic – her mother was a Scottish Aristocrat.

There were other echoes of Victoria and Albert. Philip’s Uncle Dickie Mountbatten played the role that Albert’s Uncle Leopold had done in grooming the penniless prince for the hand of the British queen. Albert had been stigmatised as a “German beggar”, and Philip was nicknamed the “Hun” on account of his family’s Nazi connections. Like Albert, Philip was a modernizer, impatient with fuddy-duddy courtiers, who in turn thought him “offhand” and “vulgar”. But there the similarities ended. Philip complained that his children were not allowed to take his surname, Mountbatten; but he made no attempt, as Albert had done, to take over his wife’s powers. On the contrary, he played the role of consort to perfection – always two steps behind, famed for his direct remarks and gaffes, acting as a foil to the bland and glassy Queen.

In 1955 Annigoni painted a swagger portrait of the twenty-nine-year-old Elizabeth wearing her Garter robes – a glamorous but lonely sovereign. The reality fell short of the ideal. John Grigg touched a sore spot in 1957 when he described the Queen as a “priggish schoolgirl”, surrounded by tweedy aristocrats who put platitudes into her mouth. To frustrated reformers at the Palace such as Philip, this came as a welcome wake-up call. Modest reforms ensued. Debs ceased to be presented at Court; the speeches improved and the Queen tempered her cut-glass accent. Elizabeth was persuaded to make the first of her Christmas broadcasts on television. Encouraged by Philip, television cameras followed the Queen for a year, making the BBC film Royal Family (1969). Showing the royals off duty as ordinary people made for popular viewing, but the film came to be seen as a mistake because it appeared to sanction media invasions of royal privacy.

Elizabeth’s temperamental conservatism was reinforced by Michael Adeane, her private secretary from 1953 until 1972. A grandson of George V’s great private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, Adeane was a constitutionalist who clung to precedent, following the cipher monarchy of George VI. He was not always right. Historians will question his wisdom in allowing the Queen to walk into the trap laid by the sick Harold Macmillan, who lured her into giving an audience at the side of his hospital bed, thus involving the monarch in his intrigues to prevent the succession as prime minister of Rab Butler.

The change in style came with Martin Charteris, Adeane’s successor as private secretary. A romantic and an innovator, he was a personal friend of the Queen – indeed, his worship of his sovereign harked back to an earlier era of chivalry. The Palace became more outward-looking and less defensive; and the Queen’s speeches became unexpectedly funny. “The only thing I want to do is to show the public what she is really like”, he remarked. His triumph was the Silver Jubilee in 1977.

Elizabeth surrounded herself with a strong supporting team. Patrick Plunket, Deputy Master of the Household and an inspired impresario, organized spectacular court entertainments. Bobo MacDonald, her dresser, called Elizabeth each morning at 7.30 with earl gray tea, providing a motherly presence even if her choice of royal handbags was dire. There was a daily telephone call to her mother: “Good morning, Your Majesty, Her Majesty is on the line for Your Majesty.”

Elizabeth also spoke almost every day to her racing manager, Lord Porchester. He was the only man with whom her name was linked, probably wrongly, though it is tempting to see him as playing Essex to her Elizabeth I. Horses, according to Elizabeth II “the greatest levellers in the world”, brought her close to people outside the glass bubble of monarchy. She was impressively knowledgeable. Her trainer was probably not flattering her when he said that if she had been a normal person, she would have been a racehorse trainer.

When someone asked her which prime minister’s audiences she most enjoyed, she replied: “Winston of course, because it was always such fun”. People pointed to the parallels with Victoria’s first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who, like Churchill, adored his youthful sovereign, but used her to further his own political interests.

The most testing of her PMs was Margaret Thatcher. Her curtseys were lower than anyone’s and she was almost embarrassingly deferential. But she annoyed Elizabeth in the way that Gladstone, also a devoted monarchist, had irritated Victoria: by lecturing her. Thatcher’s visits to Balmoral wearing a tweed skirt and heels were not a success. “Does the PM like to walk in the hills?” asked someone. “The hills? She walks on the road”, said the Queen. But when, in 1986, the Sunday Times published a story about the rift between the Queen and her PM, claiming that Elizabeth found thatcher uncaring and confrontational, both women were upset and acted fast to repair the damage (caused by a leak from the royal press secretary). They had much in common. Both were successful leaders in a man’s world. Both surrounded themselves with men. Neither Thatcher nor Elizabeth was a feminist or saw the need to help other women.

Elizabeth was criticized for putting duty above her children. Her distant style of motherhood was encapsulated in a clip showing her returning from a six-month tour and rebuffing the five-year-old Prince Charles with the words “No, not you, dear”. In her seeming indifference to her small children and her inability to show affection in public, she resembled her grandmother Queen Mary – though it would be wrong to compare her with Victoria, whose relations with some of her children were brutal.

The worst threats to Elizabeth’s monarchy came not from without her own family, but from within. Princess Margaret’s proposed marriage to the divorced Peter Townsend threatened to cause a crisis until Margaret backed down. Far graver was the breakdown of the marriage of Charles and Diana, which seemed in some ways a replay of the abdication. Charles appeared to put private happiness above duty to his wife, and this led to questions about his fitness to rule. The Waleses (and the Yorks) were revealed to be living in a self-indulgent and decadent style funded by the taxpayer. The intrusiveness of the tabloid press made these scandals far more public than the Wallis Simpson affair had been.

No doubt, in retrospect, Elizabeth could have done more to protect her damaged and vulnerable daughter-in-law Diana. But she handled the fallout skillfully. After fire destroyed much of Windsor Castle in 1992, the year she called her “annus horribilis”, she mollified her critics by agreeing to pay taxes and by opening Buckingham Palace to the public to raise funds for the restoration of Windsor. A velvet revolution was quietly implemented at the Palace by her private secretary, Robert Fellowes, and Lord Chamberlain, Lord Airlie. But much worse was to come.

When Diana shared her pain with the nation on Panorama, Elizabeth at last intervened, and she wrote to Diana and Charles urging an early divorce. Unlike the Duke of Windsor, however, Diana refused to go away. After the divorce she maintained a parallel court at Kensington Palace, leaking against Charles and Elizabeth, wrongfooting and upstaging them. Seen by many as a scorned woman who refused to be broken by “the Firm”, she became the focus for feeling against the Queen.

Diana’s death plunged the monarchy into an existential crisis. But then in 1936 Edward VIII had been removed by the establishment and the monarchy greatly weakened, in 1997 the Crown emerged stronger under Elizabeth’s leadership. Amid extraordinary scenes of public grief in London, Elizabeth, so often criticized for neglecting her family, was for putting her first family and remaining at Balmoral with her grandsons. When at length she appeared in London, she skilfully defused the public anger by mixing with the grieving crowds. In an inspired gesture the Queen, who bows to no one, bowed to Diana’s coffin, seemingly recognizing the latter’s role as the “people’s princess”.

Monarchs become more popular in old age. Elizabeth, moreover, was willing to listen, and learned lessons from Diana. The last decades of her reign saw a more informal, human style of monarchy. Elizabeth, who had been drilled as a girl by her grandmother Queen Mary never to smile in public, and whose face in repose often looked unintentionally cross, now happily hugged Michelle Obama. The clothes improved under the direction of her cheery dresser, Angela Kelly. Unlike Victoria, who retreated into seclusion in old age and rarely showed herself in public, Elizabeth refused to retire, continuing to perform a package schedule into her nineties.

Alan Bennett’s Uncommon Reader (did she read it?) fantasized about a queen who developed a sudden and unlikely passion for literature. The gentle satire worked because it played to the public curiosity about what the Queen was really like. Lucian Freud’s unforgiving portrait gave one answer to that question: the Queen was shown as tough and shrewd, wearing a crown that seemed almost irrelevant, as if her authority depended not on royal iconography, but on her strength of character – the leader of her people .

Jane Ridley has written biographies of Queen Victoria and Edward VII

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