After 50 years on the throne, the Queen remains committed to the continuation of the family firm
After 50 years on the throne, the Queen remains committed to the continuation of the family firm
Her majestys a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she changes from day to day.
I want to tell her that I love her a lot, but I gotta get a bellyful of wine.
Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl
some day I’m gonna make her mine,
oh yeah, some day I’m gonna make her mine.
-Beatles, Abbey Road
Queen Elizabeth II is the star of The Greatest Show On Earth, the still centre from which all the rest of the royal panoply radiates. But as she approaches her Golden Jubilee on Feb. 6, the 50th anniversary of her accession to the throne, Elizabeth remains the same enigma Paul McCartney sang about 33 years ago. The same successful enigma. Over the course of Elizabeths lengthy reign—only four of her 39 predecessors since William the Conqueror in 1066 ruled longer— Britain and its former empire have changed almost beyond recognition, not least in deference toward royalty. And on every side, from her politically incorrect husband Philip to her pot-smoking grandson Harry, family members have sparked a series of crises, large and small. But Elizabeth herself, with her iron self-discipline and shrewdly timed accommodations with modernity, has brought the monarchy safely into the 21 st century.
The most photographed woman in the
world has never granted a media interview; never, in public act or word, done anything remotely controversial—even when it seemed her children and their spouses were doing little else. Nor does the Queen merely endure her troubles. When public dissatisfaction with the tabloid-fodder antics of her children reached a new peak in 1992, Elizabeth’s self-described personal annus horribilis, she acted to defuse much of the anger by agreeing to pay income tax. Both the Queen’s stiff upper lip and her willingness to compromise when her back is to the wall flow from her lifelong devotion to two causes. Elizabeth is dedicated to her role as constitutional monarch— famously defined as someone who would sign his or her own death warrant should it be lawfully presented—and to the continuation of the Windsor family firm.
It’s likely the Queen does not distinguish between the two. Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary entered the rarefied world of British royalty on April 21, 1926, third in line to the throne behind her uncle Edward, Prince of Wales, and her father. But there was no reason to view her as a future monarch. Edward, after all, was
expected to marry and have his own family. Failing that, Elizabeth’s 25-year-old mother—then the Duchess of York, now the Queen Mother—would surely give birth to a son next time around. Still, interest in King George V’s eldest granddaughter was intense. Girls around the world immediately copied anything worn by Elizabeth and her younger sister, Margaret, who was born in 1930. The attention left its mark. Even as a toddler, she was serious and reserved. After meeting the 2V2year-old Elizabeth, Winston Churchill told his wife that she “has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.”
Elizabeth was just 9 when the death of George V in January, 1936, plunged the monarchy as a whole into an annus horribilis. The new king, Edward VIII, may have worried his father—“After I am gone, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months,” George V once remarked. But Edward’s subjects adored him, at least at first. Young, handsome and seemingly sympathetic to the plight of Depression-era Britain, he came to the throne in a burst of popular enthusiasm. (His Canadian subjects, too, were delighted with him on his first royal trip abroad, to France to dedicate the Vimy Ridge monument to Canada’s Great War dead.) Approval cooled, however.
Edward was in love with an American, Wallis Simpson, soon to be divorced from her second husband. He was determined to marry her, but political leaders were firmly opposed to the idea of a divorcee as queen. In the end, King George was only a month ofFin his prediction. On Dec. 11,
putting his personal happiness above his royal duty, Edward abdicated. The crown fell on the unprepared head of his brother, George VI. A nervous man afflicted with a terrible stammer, and a heavy smoker prone to ill health, the new king did have one powerful asset. His sense of responsibility to the damaged monarchy was absolute, a devotion to duty he also instilled in Princess Elizabeth, now heir presumptive to the greatest empire in the world.
It was the formative event in Elizabeths life. She witnessed what happened when a monarch put his own desires ahead of his duty to country and empire. She saw how hard her parents worked to restore the crowns reputation during her fathers 15year reign. Royal visits to France, Canada and the United States in the late 1930s helped shore up desperately needed support for the looming war with Germany. When the bombs started dropping on London, the children were sent to the relative safety of Windsor Castle—where the princess learned how to strip and service truck engines in the Auxiliary Transport Service—but the king and queen stayed behind. Elizabeth II has never wavered from her fathers example. “I declare that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” she promised in her 21st birthday radio message to the Commonwealth.
Shordy afterwards, George VI gave his permission for Elizabeth to marry Prince Philip of Greece. Elizabeth had been in love with Philip, her third cousin and five years her senior, since they first met when she was 13. Through letters and occasional visits, their relationship grew throughout the war. George VI wasn’t enamoured with the young British naval officer—too foreign and too poor for his beloved daughter. But Elizabeth, as stubborn as her parents, stood her ground. When some questioned the princess’s youth, her grandmother, Queen Mary, retorted that Elizabeth “would always know her own mind. There’s something very steadfast and determined in her.”
The wedding, on Nov. 20, 1947, in Westminster Abbey, was a splash of colour for bleak post-war Britain. The bride wore a silk gown embroidered with York roses and star flowers. The groom, now the Duke of Edinburgh, wore his naval uniform. Prince Charles was born a year later, and Princess Anne arrived in 1950. But
domestic life outside the royal epicentre was brief. In 1951, the king was diagnosed with lung cancer. That fall, on a wildly successful tour of Canada, Elizabeth carried a draft Accession Declaration in her luggage. On Jan. 31, 1952, the entire royal family went to the airport to see Elizabeth and Philip leave for another extensive journey. Bareheaded in the cold, biting wind, George waved a final goodbye to his daughter. A week later, on Feb. 6, he died in his sleep at the royal palace of Sandringham. The new monarch was, at the time, on the platform of a giant fig tree in Kenya watching the wild animals below. She was just 25 years old.
Elizabeth II wept for her father, but it was Philip who “looked as if you’d drop-
ped half the world on him,” according to his private secretary Michael Parker. His naval career was over. Elizabeth, usually accompanied by her husband, began her tireless rounds of state visits, walkabouts, tree plantings, hospital openings and speeches around the world. Last year, a decade past normal retirement age, she undertook 407 engagements. The Queen still spends hours every day, except Christmas and Easter, working on the official documents from Commonwealth nations that follow her everywhere stuffed in redleather boxes. And every Tuesday, the British prime minister visits her. Former Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan spoke of Elizabeth’s encyclopedic knowledge of government, and her interest in the latest political gossip. Macmillan was the third of the Queen’s 10 British prime ministers—the latest, Tony Blair, was born while the first, Winston Churchill, was in office. (Nine Canadians, from Louis St. Laurent to Jean Chrétien, have served her.)
Something had to give in such a life and, in the traditional upper-class fashion, it turned out to be the children. When Elizabeth came to the throne, they were left largely in the hands of nannies and their grandmother. Page after page of Charles’s authorized 1994 biography, The Prince of Wales, opens a window on a troubled life, including his confession that he did not love Diana Spencer when he married her in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1981 as a dazzled television audience of millions watched. That fairy-tale match ended in divorce, of course—a year before Diana’s 1997 death in a Paris tunnel brought an unprecedented worldwide tide of grief.
Charles is not alone. While Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones have been married for 2lh years, the princes’ sister, Anne, is now in her second marriage. And the match of their brother, Andrew, with Sarah Ferguson crashed spectacularly. But private happiness clearly sits well below duty on the Queen’s list of values. Whatever sympathy or anguish she may have felt during her children’s I embarrassingly public marital disasters, it t was only after they began to threaten the f monarchy’s continuing existence that § Elizabeth acted—finally writing both I Charles and Diana in 1995 that it was I time to divorce.
What the world at large sees is not a cold or distressed mother or even a savvy political player, but a five-foot, three-inch senior citizen performing her ceremonial duties in the royal uniform. The style was set in the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign and has changed little. During the day her clothes are bright—often print dresses under plainer coats. Hats match the outfits and never obscure her face. There is always a handbag much too big for the eyeglasses and lipstick inside. Gloves are usually white. And then there is the jewellery. A pearl necklace, most likely the threestrander from her grandfather, George V. Brooches include an eye-catching array of family heirlooms, including “Granny’s Chips,” a 94.4-carat diamond hanging from a square-cut stone of 64 carats.
Much of that will be on display more than usual this year, during a spectacular round of Golden Jubilee parades, pageants and royal tours throughout the Commonwealth, including a 12-day visit to Canada in October. Through it all Her Majesty, as always, will be working hard. EHJ
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