Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
See Part 1 | Part 3
The kingdom that Queen Elizabeth II inherited from her father, King George VI, was a confident one – war had ended nearly a decade earlier, and 1953 proved to be a golden year that imbued Britain with a sense of optimism unprecedented in recent years. The austere days of rationing were finally over, the British Commonwealth had claimed Everest for its own, and, most importantly of all, the nation had great hope for its new, young Queen. Following the Coronation on June 2nd, the men and women of Great Britain were looking forward to a new age, a second Elizabethan era in which the spectre of war would become a distant memory and the normal rhythms of life would be resumed. One cannot easily imagine just how great a responsibility this must have appeared to Her Majesty at the dawn of her reign; yet, from the outset, she proved herself to be the very model of a modern Monarch and bore the immense burden of public expectation both gracefully and willingly.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were the successors to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth not only by right of birth, but also, to informed commentators, in a spiritual and emotional sense. The zeitgeist of 1950s Britain was remarkably reminiscent of that of the nation some twenty years previously – the energy, dynamism and sheer personality of the Royal couple were reflected in the contemporary press. One periodical commented on the different but complementary natures of the Queen and her husband, noticing how her “quick common sense” and his “shrewd modernity” combined to make them the perfect parents for Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
But the high esteem and affection in which the new Monarch was held was not confined merely to the United Kingdom; during a series of high-profile Royal visits to Australia, New Zealand and Canada in 1954, the Queen was able to gauge for herself her extreme popularity throughout the Commonwealth. Ever conscious of the changing role of the Sovereign in the post-war world, the rapturous reception she received left her in no doubt as to her subjects’ feelings for her. In May 1954, Queen Elizabeth pronounced that: “The structure and framework of Monarchy could easily stand as an archaic and meaningless survival, [but] we have received visible and audible truth that it is living in the hearts of our people.” For a Monarch, there can be no more deserved nor more welcome an assurance than this.
But trouble was around the corner. As the 1950s yielded to the socially turbulent sixties, the Royal honeymoon period appeared to be drawing to a somewhat abrupt end. In spite of the efforts of the new Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to shore up the Monarchy’s central position in British society, the Suez Crisis opened up a wider debate as to the validity of the Monarchy as an institution, not least among ambitious politicians in capital cities across the Empire. With the Commonwealth on the verge of fragmentation, the British press could not resist the opportunity of questioning the relevance of the Royal Family in the second half of the twentieth century. This debate, however, vastly underestimated the loyalty and love of the British people. In the summer of 1959, when Her Majesty took the world by surprise by announcing that she was once again pregnant, the newspapers and popular magazines reflected the delight of her subjects, and no amount of republican whispering could conceal that fact.
Prince Andrew, the first child born to an enthroned Monarch since Princes Beatrice in 1857, was also the first to be born with the new, “de-royalised” surname of Windsor. Five years later, on 10th March 1964, the birth of Prince Edward Antony Richard Louis completed the Royal Family unit. Queen Elizabeth II soon demonstrated that she was every inch her mother’s daughter; insisting that her children should lead lives that were as normal as was possible, she stressed the importance of education and was adamant that they should have the academic advantages that had always been denied her. Accordingly, all the Royal children came to be educated at schools that were traditionally perceived to be upper-middle and upper-class institutions. Charles set the precedent by attending Gordonstoun, a prestigious if austere private school in Scotland where he was free to mingle with boys from backgrounds very different from his own.
Not only a devoted mother, the Queen proved that she was also blessed with an impressive degree of social acuity – she had long known that if the Monarchy was to survive into the next century, then its next generation would have to be more grounded and aware of the different strands of British society than any of its recent predecessors.
Evidence of the Monarchy’s drive towards “normalisation” was provided by the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle (the historical seat of the Welsh princes) on 1st July 1969. At the Queen’s wish, it was not to be an exclusive “in camera” affair. Instead, Her Majesty was determined that it should serve as an example of her commitment to a “People’s Monarchy”, decidedly aware of its duties, responsibilities and, to a certain extent, its audience. As a television documentary, Royal Family, made the previous year, had shown, Her Majesty was keen to stress that whilst her Family was indeed Royal, it was, first and foremost, just a family.
The uses and advantages of television as a communications tool were not lost on Buckingham Palace. Just as the Coronation had been filmed and attracted an enormous global audience, so Queen Elizabeth was convinced that a large, lavish investiture was the best way for her son to keep in touch with the British public. The ceremony itself was devoutly traditional and solemn in tone, but, largely due to the ardent desire of courtiers to bring the British people closer to their future King, it was a truly modern spectacle. Charles touchingly recorded its personal significance for him when he wrote in his diary that “by far the most moving and meaningful moment came when I put my hand between Mummy’s and swore to be her liege man of life and limb”. At the same time, the investiture propelled the twenty-one year old Prince on to the international stage.
By the time the Queen and Prince Philip came to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in November 1972, the British had grown so accustomed to seeing them on television that they had come to be seen as just another, albeit rather special, couple. The Times commented on how much the public perception of the Royal Family had altered, noting that the Windsors were a “large, close, and remarkably devoted family”. The Queen herself was in no small way responsible for the Windsors’ continuing popularity: her ideals had shaped her children as much as had their social status, and her deliberate decision to make the Royal Family as accessible as possible had been vindicated by the warm respect that infused newspaper letters columns and editorials.
Five years later, Elizabeth was celebrating both thirty years of marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh and the twenty-fifth anniversary of her accession. The Silver Jubilee was marked in the summer of 1977, amidst the largest and most vibrant street parties seen since the end of the Second World War. Her Majesty’s popularity had reached such heights that when, on 6th June, she ascended Snow Hill (in the environs of Windsor Castle) to light the first of a network of bonfires that would illuminate the length and breadth of the kingdom, courtiers remarked that her own warmth combined with the torch she held to set the country alight. A million people crammed into the Mall the next day to watch the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as they rode up to St Paul’s Cathedral.
There was further national rejoicing when, on 24th February 1981, the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer was announced. However, it soon became alarmingly obvious that not all subjects shared in the happiness of the Royal Family. On June 13th of that same year, during the Trooping the Colour ceremony, an obviously very disturbed adolescent boy loomed out of the crowd, brandishing a revolver. Six shots were fired at the Queen. To Palace security chiefs’ immense relief, it transpired that the weapon was loaded with blanks, and the feared “assassination attempt” had been nothing more than a pathetic and deranged publicity stunt. The most remarkable feature of the entire episode, however, was Her Majesty’s amazingly cool and dismissive reaction to what can only have been an utterly terrifying experience. Shrugging the incident off with the calm humour that has become one of her most endearing traits, she showed that, like another Queen Elizabeth some four centuries earlier, she was certainly not lacking in the sang froid so vital in a Commander-in-Chief of the British armed forces.
When Charles and Diana walked down the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral on 29th July 1981, Britain seemed to come to a standstill. The Queen was immensely proud as she watched her eldest son – and her heir – marry a beautiful young aristocrat. The wedding proved seductive to the public, but soon it became clear that this was not a happy union. It was not long before the Queen began to grow concerned about Charles, her son, and Charles, the future King of England.
To add to her parental anxieties, the Falklands War, provoked by the Argentine annexation of the Britain’s South Atlantic islands, meant that Prince Andrew, a gifted Royal Navy helicopter pilot, was called up to serve his country in spring 1982. Worrying about one’s children is an integral part of any parent’s life, but that process is unlikely to be made any less difficult by having to live under the constant scrutiny of both the press and the public. Still, Her Majesty steadfastly refused to let the strain show, knowing as she did that there were countless other mothers in the world in exactly the same predicament. And, like them, she knew that all she could really do was hope and pray and go about her business as usual. Mercifully, the conflict ended in June, but not without considerable loss of life on both sides; and Prince Andrew returned home, where he was hailed a war hero.
By the end of 1982, the Queen’s heir had, in turn, produced an heir, but pressure on the Family was growing. Charles and Diana were becoming increasingly estranged, the tabloid press appeared to have developed a fixation with Prince Andrew’s personal life, and two IRA bomb attacks had brought death and destruction to London and to the Queen’s Household Cavalry. This was the start of a 15-year period that would test the British Monarchy to its very limits.
The Queen steeled herself to face the greatest challenge to the Throne in more than three centuries. This was a Monarch who had stared down a gunman, and a mother who knew both her duty and her own mind. True to form, she would ensure the “modernisation” of the Monarchy while remaining the best and the most “normal” regent that she could.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part profile
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