Authors: Robert Hardman
QUEEN ELIZABETH II
AND HER COURT
FOR MY WIFE, DIANA
Simply magnificent. This gripping, fascinating and authoritative tour de force – covering the Queen herself, the power and the celebrity of Britain’s royalty with equal panache – gleams with a unique combination of insider anecdotes, deep knowledge, personal experience and superb storytelling by Britain’s outstanding royal observer
– Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of
At long last we have the definitive portrait of Queen Elizabeth II’s world today. Robert Hardman knows the true story and tells it superbly
– Andrew Roberts, author of
The Royal House of Windsor
It’s amazing that she didn’t crack
When the world comes to look back on the early twenty-first century, two events in Britain – just weeks apart – will be lodged in the collective memory. One will be the 2012 London Olympics, a spectacular fortnight of international sporting endeavour. The other will be a celebration of a woman who has become so firmly established on the world stage that, in the words of one Commonwealth leader, she is no longer seen as merely British or, indeed, as merely human. She is the living incarnation of a set of values and a period of history. In Britain, she is Tower Bridge and a red double-decker bus on two legs, not to mention Big Ben, afternoon tea, village fêtes and sheep-flecked hills in the pouring rain. In the wider world, she is the newsreel figure who just has carried on going into digital high definition. More than one hundred nations – that’s more than half the countries on earth – did not even exist in their present form when she was crowned. While her presence is taken entirely for granted at home, to millions of people around the planet she represents continuity on a scale bordering on the incomprehensible.
‘She’s incredible,’ says Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, during a poignant and thoughtful first interview on someone he describes as ‘my grandmother first – and then she’s the Queen’. No one, surely, is better placed to imagine what it must have been like to succeed to the throne, as the Queen did, at twenty-five. Sitting in his office in St James’s Palace a few days before his own twenty-ninth birthday, the Prince ponders the enormity of her task: ‘Back then, there was a very different attitude to women. Being a young lady at twenty-five – and stepping in to a job which many men thought they could probably do better – it must have been very daunting. And I think there was extra pressure for her to perform.’ He remains in awe of the way she managed it: ‘You see the pictures of her and she looks so incredibly natural in the role. She’s calm, she’s poised, she’s elegant, she’s graceful and she’s all the things she needs to be at twenty-five. And you think how loads of twenty-five-year-olds – myself, my brother and lots of people included – didn’t have
anything like that. And we didn’t have that extra pressure put on us at that age. It’s amazing that she didn’t crack. She just carried on and kept going. And that’s the thing about her. You present a challenge in front of her and she’ll climb it. And I think that to be doing that for sixty years – it’s incredible.’
Only one other monarch has marked sixty years on the throne. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, however, was a celebration of imperial might featuring a rare and somewhat valedictory appearance by a reclusive Britannia figure. The Queen Empress was too lame to make it up the steps into St Paul’s Cathedral for her own service of thanksgiving. The clergy processed outside to her carriage instead. After sixty years of Queen Elizabeth II, the mood is entirely different. There is no triumphalism. Instead, the dominant emotion is one of pride in those quiet virtues of service, duty, stability. And the Monarch herself has no trouble with steps of any sort, whether they lead up to cathedrals or aircraft. In 2010, her list of engagements actually rose by almost 20 per cent. The schedule for 2011 – including the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the momentous inaugural state visit to the Republic of Ireland and the state visit by President Barack Obama of the United States all within days of each other – would prove busier still.
A jubilee, by definition, is a retrospective occasion. It is an invitation for everyone to view today’s world through a sepia-tinted lens. ‘If you compare life now, everything is incomparably better today than when the Queen came to the throne,’ says former Prime Minister Sir John Major. ‘I hope that will be a theme throughout the celebrations.’
But in looking backwards, we run the risk of ignoring the most remarkable aspect of this reign – namely the monarchy today. Historians and psychiatrists talk about ‘Queen Victoria syndrome’, a capacity to shield oneself away from reality and live in the past. Queen Elizabeth II syndrome is the exact opposite.
The more I have followed the monarchy professionally over two decades, the more I have seen it running counter to all conventional wisdom about family businesses and ancient institutions. This operation has emphatically not become more set in its ways as the management grows older. It has actually changed more in the last twenty-five years than in the previous one hundred and twenty-five. At times through necessity, at times through choice, it has adapted and repositioned itself again and again while the rest of us have barely noticed. ‘The great challenge of this organisation is management of change,’ says the Duke of York. ‘And that’s where the Queen has been so successful. This institution, under her leadership and guidance, has been able to change in a
way and at a pace which reflects what is required by society’ The Queen herself is an extraordinary double act – the never changing, ever changing Monarch who happens to be the oldest in history, entering her jubilee year at the age of eighty-five. Yet no one thinks of her as a little old lady in a black dress harrumphing that she is not amused.
We see Queen Victoria in Highland seclusion and set in aspic. We see Queen Elizabeth II walking dogs or watching a dancing display somewhere in the South Seas. She is a ‘now’ person, not a ‘then’ person.
That is why this book is not a life story but, instead, a portrait of our Queen today. It is not a chronology but a study of a thoroughly modern monarch. There have been many excellent biographies of the Queen, notably those by Sarah Bradford, Robert Lacey, Elizabeth Longford and Ben Pimlott. In recent years, the picture has also been enhanced by superb biographies of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother by William Shawcross and Hugo Vickers. Equally, Jonathan Dimbleby has produced the definitive work on the Prince of Wales while Basil Boothroyd and Tim Heald have both captured the oceanic contribution of the Duke of Edinburgh to both royal and public life. The volume of work devoted to the tragically short life and times of Diana, Princess of Wales, is a library in itself.
Naturally, I have explored the past to put the present in context and have unearthed old files and fresh material from throughout the Queen’s six decades on the throne. But what follows is a contemporary inside view of one of the most respected public figures in the modern world. The Queen has never granted an interview and, I dare say, never will. At some point, many years from now and in another reign, an official biographer will be granted access to the diary she writes dutifully every night. Until then, her thoughts will remain, for the most part, off-limits.
But I have been granted special access to those who really know her and those who work – and have worked – with her. I have spoken to members of the Royal Family, prime ministers, private secretaries, prelates, pages, footmen and friends. I have been able to follow her around the world, around the country and around her own palace at close quarters. The jubilee may be an occasion for all of us to look back over the last sixty years but the star turn will prefer to keep looking ahead. She accepts that her anniversary is a big deal for some. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office has already declared an amnesty on tat. ‘Normally, we don’t allow people to stick the Queen’s arms on things like mugs,’ says Deputy Comptroller Jonathan Spencer. ‘But for the jubilee, we are giving them a free-for-all and saying, “Go for it.”’ Even so, she will be mildly bemused and faintly
embarrassed by all the fuss. History is important to her but the present is rather
One day, in the midst of my research, I followed the Queen to a service in Westminster Abbey, the royal holy of holies – crowning place, marrying place, funeral place of sovereigns for almost a millennium. Several months later, billions would tune in to watch Prince William marry Catherine Middleton here inside Edward the Confessor’s mighty foundation. At the end of this particular service, the Queen was taken to a side chapel to meet a team of experts beginning a £200,000 renovation of the most sacred royal relic of the lot, St Edward’s Chair. It is also called the Coronation Chair although it is otherwise known, simply, as
Throne. It has sat in the Abbey for seven hundred years and has been used at every coronation since the fourteenth century. Scotland’s sacred Stone of Scone slots in beneath it. The Queen was sitting on this battered oak seat, six feet tall and etched with centuries-old graffiti, when she was crowned Monarch herself. What was striking about this moment, though, was the Queen’s reaction. She might have been viewing a moderately interesting new traffic control centre in the West Midlands. She listened politely to a short explanation about the restoration work. Then she admitted that, despite visiting the Abbey countless times throughout her reign, she had not actually seen the chair since 1953. It was nice to see it in one piece, she said, but time was pressing. And, with that, she was off. She then moved next door to the Abbey’s education centre where she spent twice as long watching children from a local primary school learning how to draw a Tudor rose.
She’s really determined to finish everything she started.
Judging by the internal memos, it’s surprising that the Queen was able to see her audience – or indeed breathe. This was to be her finest hour, a gathering of the mightiest in the land to salute the all-conquering heroine of the seven seas. Less than a year after her Coronation, the dizzyingly glamorous young Sovereign and her consort were to be welcomed home from what, to this day, remains the greatest royal tour of all time.
So there was to be no holding back on the vital ingredients as the Lord Mayor of London and his court started planning the grandest post-war feast the capital had seen. No less than £174 – more than 10 per cent of the entire food budget – was to be spent on tobacco. There were to be individual mixed boxes of cigars (two sizes) and cigarettes (both Turkish and Virginia) for each of the 401 Mansion House guests, plus red leather match cases and extra supplies of Punch cigars and Fribourg & Treyer cigarettes just in case anyone ran out. And why not? The Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, would expect nothing less.
The bill for musical entertainment, on the other hand, was not to stretch beyond £50 (only £11 more than the budget for ‘white gloves’). Fortunately, the Band of the Royal Artillery was happy to oblige for £47. The well-nourished members of the food-tasting committee were eventually able to agree on a menu and the invitations were finally dispatched. And thus began an ill-concealed scramble for the hottest ticket since the Coronation itself.
On 2 June 1953, Westminster Abbey had staged the first global television spectacular in history as the Queen was crowned. Five months later, she departed on a journey which would take her all the way around the world. Her purpose was to greet and be greeted by the newly rebranded ‘Commonwealth’, even if most people still insisted on calling it ‘the Empire’. To celebrate her return in May 1954, the City of London would stage this official state luncheon. As plans for the royal homecoming were being drawn up in the capital, the tour had reached its zenith in
Australia. That country had never seen a sovereign in the flesh before. The adoration and adulation were astonishing, even by the standards of Coronation-era Britain. On one Sydney evening, more than a quarter of a million people turned out just to watch the Queen return from the theatre. When the Lord Mayor of Sydney held a banquet, there were two thousand casualties on the streets at what became known as ‘sardine corners’. The entire rail network was shut down when thousands spilled on to the tracks to wave at the royal train.