Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
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Few decades in the entire history of the British monarchy can have begun more auspiciously than the 1980s. Or so it must have seemed at the time. The Queen had celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977, Prince Charles had married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and Prince William had been born a year later. Yet this was rapidly to establish itself as one of the most turbulent, painful, and bitterly difficult decades of Elizabeth’s reign. As riots and terrorist bombs exploded on to the streets of Britain, even Buckingham Palace discovered that it was not immune to attack, whether external, or, more worryingly, internal. The IRA brought its country’s war for independence to Elizabeth’s doorstep in the summer of 1982, when both the Queen’s Household Cavalry and the Royal Greenjackets fell victim to bomb blasts designed to prove just how long were the tentacles of terrorism.
Her Majesty was not slow in realising the dangers to herself, her family and her subjects, but it was not, nor had it ever been, British Royal policy to show fear in the face of intimidation, even on so mortal a scale. Besides, Elizabeth had more than enough to worry about at home. It had become abundantly clear that the “fairytale” marriage of Charles and Diana was tarnishing at an alarming rate. The Princess of Wales was beginning to reveal herself as a deeply unhappy young woman, whilst the Prince looked increasingly like a man who knew that he had made a dreadful mistake, yet was unable to find any remedy. As if this were not enough, Elizabeth found herself forced to fight for her most cherished and important position – that of Britain’s figurehead and ultimate ambassador – with Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, and a woman determined to make her mark on history.
The nation, in its most fragile state since the Second World War, looked once more to the Royal Family for guidance, and that family in turn looked to its matriarch. Her Majesty can rarely have felt so keenly the truth of Shakespeare’s observation: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Nevertheless, Elizabeth was determined that the Family would lead by example and prove, once and for all, that a truly modern and open monarchy was not only possible, but vital. If further proof of the Queen’s commitment to change and modernisation was needed, that proof came in the Christmas message of 1983. Still seen by many as a monumental turning-point in Commonwealth affairs, Elizabeth’s address, stressing the responsibilities of the “First World” to its “Third World” cousins and dwelling upon the importance of international co-operation and harmony, was evidence not of a Monarch earnestly striving to distract attention from a worried realm and a troubled Family, but an almost unprecedented Royal expression of duty and compassion. Her Majesty’s comments, particularly her suggestion that “the greatest problem in the world today remains the gap between rich and poor countries, and we shall not close this gap until we hear less about nationalism and more about interdependence”, are believed to have angered the Prime Minister, who was struggling to deal with rising unemployment and build a fiercely capitalist economy. Yet the remarks showed that Her Majesty was an individual of strongly humanitarian principles. Furthermore, she seemed to be reminding the world that, in the words of Walter Bagehot, “The Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn”, lest anyone should have any lingering doubts.
Yet regardless of Her Majesty’s tireless efforts to develop and promote a truly modern and socially aware monarchy, one matter was to eclipse each one of her significant endeavours for the next decade. That matter was, of course, the troubled marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Their relationship, suffocated from the very beginning by the ceaseless curiosity of both the press and the public, was a gift for the editors of Britain’s tabloid newspapers and a never-ending source of common tittle-tattle and idle gossip.
The union of the future King and the archetypal “English rose” seemed to belong to a bygone age of romance and innocence, and, to a great extent, it did. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that no single relationship in the history of the British Royal family has ever been reported, discussed, dissected, and analysed so exhaustively and so damagingly as the marriage of Charles and Diana. As press scrutiny increased and the couple grew estranged, Elizabeth could do little but watch, listen, and offer the benefit of her wisdom and experience. She had ensured that none of her children was sheltered from the realities of public life, and realised that Charles had to act according to what he believed was best for himself, his wife, his children, and the Monarchy. It cannot have been easy for a mother to look on, knowing that she could not intervene, but the Queen knew that sooner or later, Charles would assume the weight of sovereignty and that he would not then thank her for shielding him.
The marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson on July 23, 1986 looked for a while as though it might absorb some of the glare of publicity and provide Charles and Diana with a little breathing space. Within a few short years, however, it became clear that it had had the opposite effect. If anything, the marital difficulties of Andrew and Sarah began to echo those of Charles and Diana, thus perpetuating the image of the Royal Family as the dysfunctional, self-obsessed collective so beloved of tabloid newspaper editors. Her Majesty, it seemed, was all but forgotten as the nation focused its attention on the ups and downs (especially the latter) of the younger generation of Royals.
By 1990, the Queen was back in the spotlight. Predictably, though, it was for the wrong reason. Momentarily bored with the emotional lives of her children, and feeling the full force of a particularly brutal recession, several sections of British society rounded enviously on a familiar target: Her Majesty’s wealth. Bitter at the very thought of the fifty-per-cent-plus increase in the Queen’s Civil List income, as well as her numerous properties, many British newspapers began calling for the Monarch to be taxed in a similar fashion to her subjects. Two years later, in what Her Majesty has referred to as “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure”, she decided to accept the necessary but shudderingly high taxation of her wealth in order to demonstrate, yet again, that she would no longer automatically embrace all the archaic traditions of her noble forerunners.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a more succinct phrase with which to sum up the calamitous 12 months of 1992 than Her Majesty’s famous “annus horribilis”. It is equally difficult to know just how anyone could have weathered so tempestuous a year with such patience, dignity and equanimity. Things did not begin well. In January, the tabloids splashed on their front pages pictures of the Duchess of York on holiday with her friend Steve Wyatt. The next month saw further photographic evidence of the immense gap between the Princess of Wales and her husband, thanks to the picture of a painfully miserable and solitary Diana taken in India. By March, Andrew and Sarah sadly felt compelled to announce their marital separation; and by the end of April, the marriage of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips was also over. The worst was to come, for 1992 was the year in which Princess Diana finally admitted that she could no longer endure the savage criticism of the press, nor the constant strain of being so prominent a Royal figure. It serves little purpose to list, once again, the deeply personal revelations contained in Andrew Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Story.
Although it must then have seemed impossible that anything else could possibly go awry for the Windsors, the events of November 20th ensured that 1992 went down in Royal history as the personal and social nadir of nearly every member of the clan. Few watching television that fateful evening will ever forget the image of Windsor Castle enveloped in layer upon layer of fierce orange flames. When, through Prince Andrew, Her Majesty confessed that she was “shocked and devastated” by the fire, the nation may not have been surprised, but it was at least truly sympathetic. The accident seemed imbued with an extraordinarily potent symbolism. The Queen, however, had other ideas. In a speech made at London’s Guildhall on November 24th, she faced her critics, stating that “No institution – City, Monarchy, whatever – should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don’t.” The Queen was not ignorant as to the fickle nature of public affection, nor as to the sinister machinations of the press, but she clearly felt a need to make her feelings known. The speech underlined just how desperately it needed a little privacy and understanding. The announcement, on December 9th, of the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales was the final sad chapter in the sad year.
The fortieth anniversary of the Coronation in 1993, although a somewhat muted affair in comparison to the event it was celebrating, demonstrated that the public still retained a great affection for the Windsors, as did the grand festivities to mark Victory in Europe Day and Victory in Japan Day in summer 1995. Something deeply atavistic stirred in the nation’s soul as it gazed at the elderly stateswoman giving solemn thanks for the end, half a century before, of the most terrible war in history. It was strangely comforting to consider that Her Majesty had been a young Princess when the defeat of Germany and Japan was announced, and that the same elegant figure had ruled for 42 years.
Elizabeth’s seventieth birthday fell on April 21st, 1996. The Family celebrated quietly at Windsor, but the next day a special dinner was organised for her at Syon House in London by Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenants. Entering her eighth decade did little to dampen the Queen’s optimistic spirit, although it has been suggested that Her Majesty has become increasingly fond of the little pleasures in life, such as walking her beloved dogs in the country and spending more private moments with her Family. Yet Elizabeth has not had too much time in which to relax; public engagements and the vicissitudes of fate ensure that a Monarch is always occupied.
Fate intruded tragically upon the Family once more at the end of August 1997. When the news reached Her Majesty of the death of Diana, her first thoughts were for her grandsons, William and Harry. Elizabeth knew, first hand, just how difficult it was to be a Royal child, and was devastated at the grief and suffering that the loss of their mother would add to the burden of being a Windsor. Although fiercely attacked in some newspapers for allegedly isolating the Princess of Wales, the Queen showed the world that her primary concern had always been her Family, by counselling her eldest son and the young Princes throughout their mourning.
In a perverse way, Diana’s death served to bring the Family closer together. Perhaps such a stark demonstration of the terrifyingly fragile nature of life can only ever strengthen the bonds between the living. Whatever the reason, the Royal Family appears to be more intimate and contented than at any time for almost an entire generation. Not even the failed challenge to Elizabeth’s status in Australia – the referendum held on November 6, 1999 – could dampen Her Majesty’s quiet optimism. Nowadays the Queen is as likely to be found taking tea in the home of one of her subjects as she is in a horse-drawn State Coach. As her presence in the Millennium Dome, Britain’s symbol of hope for the next thousand years, demonstrated, Queen Elizabeth II is that rarest of Royals: a truly modern Monarch of her own design.
This is Part 3 of a 3 part profile
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