Readers Digest
Magazine subscription Podcast

Vintage Reader's Digest 1992: The Queen wins over her people: Part 2

BY Tim Heald

21st Jun 2023 Life

Vintage Reader's Digest 1992: The Queen wins over her people: Part 2

The second part of our vintage piece exploring the challenges Elizabeth II had faced in her reign so far, and the strength with which she rose above them. Read Part 1 here

In the Beginning

Princess Elizabeth as a young womanYousuf Karsh, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. HRH as a young Princess Elizabeth, before she acceded to the throne

In February 1952, when Elizabeth became Queen, it took three and a half days to fly to Sydney—most people went by boat still. A new Austin A40 "Somerset" car cost £467, with an extra £260 inpurchase tax. The hot new film was Quo Vadis, an epic drama set in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero.

There were anti-British riots in Cairo, a cockatoo called Old Bill celebrated his hundredth birthday at London Zoo, and comedian Jimmy Edwards was elected Rector of Aberdeen University.

In this half-forgotten yesterday's world, the young Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh flew out of London Airport on January 31 to undertake a tour of Kenya, Ceylon and "The Great Dominion" of Australia.

In the photographs of the airport farewell, King George VI looks gaunt and painfully ill. A heavy smoker, he had had a lung removed the previous September because of cancer.

But Mike Parker, the young Australian who was Equerry-in-Waiting to their Royal Highnesses, says that to those actually present the King seemed buoyant and well. "Otherwise we wouldn't have gone," he says. "It's as simple as that."

A week later the King was dead. It took some time to contact the remote Sagana Lodge in Kenya, where the new Queen and her consort were sleeping after a night watching wild animals from the nearby Treetops Hotel, but eventually Parker was officially informed of the King's death.

He woke the Duke, told him the news and left him to tell his wife. Philip, he recalls, was deeply shocked, looking as if the world had dropped on his shoulders.

Hours later on that fateful February 6, after a logistic scramble to find suitable aeroplanes and rearrange their plans, the royal party left for London Airport.

The Queen, "pale and regal," was a sad-eyed lonely figure as she came down the aircraftsteps to be greeted by her prime minister, Winston Churchill, and her leader of the opposition, Clement Attlee, both wearing the black top hats convention required.

The King was dead. Long live the Queen.

The next day the heralds at St James's Palace, in Whitehall, at Temple Bar and at the Royal Exchange read out the solemn proclamation of her accession. The second Elizabethan Age had begun.

For a few years there was a honeymoon period with the public; the Coronation in June 1953 touched powerful chords. But the early years were not always easy. The royal couple were young and inexperienced, as they themselves are now the first to admit.

Until recently they had spent time as an almost normal naval couple in Malta, where Prince Philip commanded HMS Magpie, a frigate in the Mediterranean Fleet.

Had the king survived, Prince Philip, a highly proficient officer, could have continued to serve and, says his contemporary, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin, would have risen to the top. It is one of the few regrets to which Philip now admits.

Prince Philip and Elizabeth II boarding a planeCredit: Queensland State Archives. Despite rumours of a "royal rift", Prince Philip and Elizabeth II made each other laugh long into old age

The Queen was still only in her mid-twenties and until her marriage in 1947 had spent her whole life at home with her family, educated by nannies and governesses. But, as so often with the monarchy, appearances were deceptive.

"She was always very grown-up for her age," says Lord Charteris, her Private Secretary from 1950 to 1977, "very mature and very strong." In no way did she seem overwhelmed by the role she had inherited.

"She was a shy girl to begin with," says one former courtier and ardent admirer. "But she soon managed to use her charm and, dare I say it, sexuality, to win over the most unlikely people."

In addition, she unquestionably drew strength from her indomitable mother and her charismatic and resolute husband.

Her children, Charles and Anne, were only three and a half and 18 months old. She had just set up the first real home of her own, at Clarence House, now the home of the Queen Mother. To have to leave these newly decorated, comfortable surroundings for the bleak office block that is Buckingham Palace was a blow.

The Duke of Edinburgh even suggested to Churchill that as the two buildings were only a few hundred yards apart, the royal couple could go on living at Clarence House and merely treat the Palace as an office.

But Churchill was having none of it and slapped Philip down quite brusquely. Survivors of this era agree that while Churchill doted on the young Queen, he was less sure about her progressive husband.

Philip was determined, in his own words, "to adapt to changing attitudes." Somehow the monarchy had to "feel our way into appropriate circumstances."

One favourite example is the abolition of the old court presentations for debutantes, regarded as an integral and crucial part of their "coming out" season.

Instead, the Queen and her husband transformed the Palace garden parties so that now, three times a year, as many as 8,000 people converge on the lawns behind Buckingham Palace for tea or iced coffee, sandwiches and a chance of meeting or at least spotting a member of the Royal Family.

"The Queen's sense of humour and fun, honed over many years of after-dinner charades, had produced a perfect practical joke"

One concession, however, remains to the old presentations: guests are allowed to bring along their unmarried daughters over the age of 18.

It is difficult now to tell how far the modernisation of the monarchy was an independent initiative and how far a response to outside pressures.

But in 1957, shortly before the presentations were abolished, the honeymoon between crown and people ceased abruptly when a widely quoted magazine article by old Etonian peer Lord Altrincham attacked many aspects of the royal family.

Among his criticisms, Altrincham maintained that the royal family's entourage was "tweedy." This still rankles, but even today it is not altogether unjust. "People sometimes feel there are an awful lot of retired admirals and generals around the Crown," says Sir Hugh Casson. "But at least they always turn up ontime!"

The Coronation had induced a mood which was superficial and impermanent, said Altrincham, who disclaimed his title in 1963 to become plain John Grigg.

Later, he described the ceremony as "an interlude of solemn pretence, an orgy of make-believe, in which the mass media were in league with the most blindly conservative forces in our society."

What caused the greatest uproar—and obscured more serious points he was making—was Altrincham's criticism of the Queen's speeches. Subsequently he explained that when he described the Queen's speaking style as a "pain in the neck," he meant only that she should strive for a greater degree of spontaneity.

He also said that his references to "a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for Confirmation" did not mean that Her Majesty was any of these things, only that she sounded like it because "her real character  was being hidden behind a mask of synthetic regality and sacerdotal pomposity."

The row was enormous. Altrincham received more than 2,000 letters of protest in the first week, was slapped in the face by a member of the League of Empire Loyalists, and was challenged to a duel by an Italian monarchist.

Before long, however, it became clear that the outrage was not universal. The Daily Mirror reported that its postbag was running four to one in favour of Altrincham's strictures. The Daily Mail published a National Opinion Poll which showed 35 per cent of those questioned were in general support of Altrincham, with 52 per cent against.

Significantly, among the Queen and Prince Philip's contemporaries in the 16 to 34 age group, the figures were almost reversed, with 47 per cent for Altrincham and 39 against.

Today, some of those close to the Royal Family agree that he did the monarchy a service.

The royal honeymoon was over in another sense, too. Back in 1948 there had been a Press story about the Duke of Edinburgh and the actress Pat Kirkwood, at the time the girlfriend of the society photographer Baron, who had been observed dancing together in a London nightclub in the small hours.

In fact Baron was present, as was an upright naval officer called Captain "Basher" Watkin. Nothing improper occurred, but it set tongues wagging.

Then in 1956 the Duke embarked on a lengthy world cruise in the Royal Yacht, showing the flag in the remotest parts of the Commonwealth.

It was an entirely proper thing for him to do, but it meant he was away for the state opening of Parliament, and that the royal couple were apart at Christmas. "Royal rift" became a murmur in the popular press.

In February 1957, the couple were reunited at Lisbon for a state visit to Portugal.

During the tour the Duke had grown a much-photographed ginger beard. When he entered the aircraft which had brought his wife to Lisbon, he was disconcerted to find that every single person on board, from the Queen to the most junior member of the Household, was wearing a false beard.

The Queen's sense of humour and fun, honed over many years of after-dinner charades, had produced a perfect practical joke.

When the couple emerged to face the photographers, they presented not only a united but a laughing front—an excellent riposte to rumour.

Queen Elizabeth II as baby with Queen MotherCredit: Richard N. Speaight. HRH was fiercely close to her mother, the Duchess of York

In those days the "Family Firm," as George VI used to call it, was a very small unit. For the first 15 years of the reign the only mature adults capable of undertaking royal duties were the Queen and Prince Philip, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, the then Princess Royal (Mary), the Duchess of Kent (Princess Marina) and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

The core of the royal family was what Michael Mann, former Dean of Windsor, refers to as "the inner circle": the Queen Mother and her daughters, strong-willed characters all. As royal watchers put it, "If you crossed one, you crossed them all."

They were, and remain, very close to each other. "I always find it very affecting at Royal Lodge, after church on Sundays, to see how solicitous the Queen Mother is about the Queen," says one acquaintance. "Frightfully anxious to see that she has her favourite drink, mixed just right, and all that kind of thing."

By the late 1960s, however, the situation of the Royal Family had changed. Late blooming parentage had come to the Queen with the birth of Prince Andrew in 1960, a decade after his sister Anne, and Prince Edward in 1964.

On the family fringe the young Kents, notably the Duke and Princess Alexandra, had grown up and were able to take some of the strain off their elders.

More important, Prince Charles was coming of age, an event marked by his Investiture at Caernarfon Castle. It was the most spectacular royal jamboree since the Coronation, unashamedly geared to the needs of Press and television, a lavish piece of pageantry which signalled his emergence as a public figure in his ownright.

Not only was there a huge media circus to coincide with the Investiture, there was also a special television film.

This, for the first time, went behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace and Balmoral to show the royals as real people, enjoying a family barbecue (Prince Philip is particularly proud of his skills over the charcoal), shopping in Ballater, rewarding the horses with sugar and carrots.

Five years earlier, such revelations would have been unthinkable. That inveterate but constructive critic John Grigg believed the film had a great effect on the Queen herself.

Looking back in 1970, he wrote: "The universal appreciation shown for the Queen's natural self, at last revealed, must have proved to her that the magic of her office did not depend on mystification, but was at its most potent when allied to spontaneity and truth.

"There is already evidence that she is more confident…and more willing, as it were, to depart from her script. In Australia this year [1970] she was unprecedentedly relaxed in crowds, initiating the practice of walking among them casually."

Since then, of course, the royal walkabout has become commonplace. Much of the initiative for the film came from the newly appointed Press Secretary, Bill Heseltine, a breezy Australian who has been one of the most influential courtiers of the reign.

John Grigg attributes his success to the fact that he was so unlike the conventional Palace official.

"But unfortunately one has to regard it as a one-off," he adds, "since the Household hasn't evolved to the point of being remotely representative of the Commonwealth as a whole."

Behind the Mask

"If asked what I thought about the Queen," says James Orr, former private secretary to Prince Philip, "my immediate answer would be that she is a thoroughly human, natural person who puts her country, her family, her Household and friends before herself."

Bill Heseltine, who retired in 1990 and now lives in Australia, refers to her as "that most straightforward of persons, my former boss."

Behind the often austere, unsmiling public image lies an amusing, relaxed private one.

Someone on the fringes of the royal circle told me how at Windsor one afternoon a page came into the drawing room and said that there was a telephone call for the Queen. Her Majesty excused herself and left the room, only to return seconds later. "Sorry," she said, smiling. "Wrong Queen!"

She can laugh at herself—it's just that she doesn't think it's always a proper thing for the monarch to do.

At a 1972 luncheon in London's Guildhall to mark her Silver Wedding, she lightheartedly recognised what had become a national joke when she started her speech: "I think that everyone will concede that today, of all occasions, I should begin my speech with 'My husband and I.'"

Robin Woods remembers how the ice gradually seemed to break after he moved into the Windsor Deanery in 1962. His young family were very much of an age with the Queen's own children, which helped to break down barriers.

But for three years, whenever he was received by the Queen he always changed into his formal Dean's garb of frock coat and gaiters.

Then one Saturday while he was gardening, the Queen's page telephoned to say that Her Majesty wished to see him as soon as was convenient. The Dean replied that he must change first. The page repeated his message, the Dean insisted.

Finally the page went off to consult his mistress and came back with an order that the Dean was to come at once, and was not to bother with what he was wearing. When he arrived, he found his sovereign still in her jodhpurs after riding.

From then on, the Dean never dressed up for such informal encounters. Although the matter was never mentioned, he felt it represented a definite thaw in their relations.

In private or semi-private, the Queen can be exceedingly relaxed about dress. On one occasion when reviewing the Fleet from Britannia, she was in ceremonial kit above the waist but below it, visible only to members of her immediate entourage, she wore sensible warm trousers to protect her from the brisk breezes of the English Channel.

This relaxed monarch is one the public rarely if ever glimpses. "I spent much of my time trying to let the public see the Queen that I knew and loved," says one faithful old servant wistfully. "I'm not sure I really succeeded. She's a much nicer, funnier person than is often realised. And she has this golden honesty."

"She's a much nicer, funnier person than is often realised. And she has this golden honesty"

One day recently, she and half a dozen friends were picnicking in a secluded corner of the Balmoral estate. Traditional Scottish rights of access mean that, as one member of the little party remarked, "there is nothing very private about private property in Scotland."

And as the royal group were "lolling about replete after a delicious picnic," a group of hikers marched past. Suddenly the boldest of them turned back and confronted Her Majesty. "They say you're the Queen." "Yes," she replied. "So I am." "What are you doing here, then?" asked the hiker. "I live here," the Queen said simply.

Her friends were taken aback by the confrontation. But not the Queen. Says one of the party: "Her response was unforced and precise, without artifice or prevarication. And that is her most notable characteristic—a dazzling truthfulness and unpretentiousness."

Richard Crossman, when Lord President of the Council, was critical of the apparatus and formality of royal life but, like so many others, was personally impressed by the Queen.

"She laughs with her whole face," he wrote, "and she just can't assume a mere smile because she's really a very spontaneous person."

Unfortunately, as Crossman put it, "When she is deeply moved and tries to control it, she looks like an angry thundercloud. So, very often when she's been deeply touched by the plaudits of the crowd, she merely looks terribly bad-tempered."

Sir Edward Bridges, who was Permanent Secretary to the Treasury during the first years of the Queen's reign, recalled one Privy Council meeting when four Privy Councillors, kneeling loyally before their monarch, became confused and scurried hither and yon on their, knees.

They knocked a book off a table, which the Queen caught. She looked bleakly furious. Afterwards Sir Edward apologised for the chaos. "You know," replied the Queen, "I nearly laughed."

The problem is that she always has to be wary about maintaining a distance between herself and her subjects, however intimate they may be.

Sir Hugh Casson recalls an encounter at Windsor Castle when he was summoned to advise on some aspect of refurbishment. The Queen came into the room wearing a particularly fetching outfit.

Sir Hugh complimented her on it and then, without thinking, found himself grasping the lapel of the Queen's jacket between finger and thumb. He knew, as he did it, that he had overstepped the mark. Nothing was said. "But," says Sir Hugh, "I could feel the tinkling of ice."

In a very English way, these demarcations are never formally laid out. "No one ever tells you anything," says one old hand. You are expected to learn the rules by a mysterious process of osmosis.

One Balmoral guest told me how he had been present at a small house party. After tea the company adjourned to the drawing room and the Queen went to a card table and began to play patience.

The guest was faced with a dilemma: sit too far away from the monarch and he would seem stand-offish, sit too close and he would look presumptuous.

Choosing a chair which seemed to be an appropriate compromise he sat down, and was soon aware that the Queen was looking at him. Presently she beckoned him over and proceeded to explain the rules of patience.

That evening, before dinner, the Private Secretary spoke to the guest. "That chair you were sitting on this afternoon was Queen Victoria's favourite," he said. "No one else sits on it."

Queen and President Reagan riding horsesCredit: White House Photographic Collection. Given how reserved she had to be from her public, it's no surprise that the Queen preferred the company of dogs and horses

The private secretaries and other members of the royal staff are as close to the Queen as all but the closest family and friends. Even "Crawfie," the one-time governess Marion Crawford who sold out by becoming one of the first purveyors of royal slush-and-gossip, was nevertheless a seminal influence on the young Princess.

An even greater and more enduring influence was Margaret "Bobo" Macdonald, who joined the family as an under-nurse when Elizabeth was still in her infancy, became her "dresser" and still in retirement—she was born in 1904—retains a private apartment in Buckingham Palace.

Douglas Keay, the latest and one of the best informed of royal biographers, claims that she enjoys "a closer personal friendship with the Queen than practically anyone else" and "is held in awe by even the most senior members of the Queen's Household."

Lord Carnarvon is an old and valued friend. So is Lady Susan Hussey, wife of Marmaduke Hussey, chairman of the BBC governors, who has been Lady of the Bedchamber—a sort of senior lady-in-waiting—since 1960.

When Prince William of Wales was born in 1982, Lady Hussey was asked to be godmother, an exceptional honour for a lady-in-waiting.

The Duke of Edinburgh's private secretary Lord Rupert Nevill, who died prematurely in 1982 while still in office, was a genuinely close friend of both the Queen and the Duke, and his widow remains a valued confidante.

There are other shadowy figures who come to stay and who are unknown even to close observers. "There was that man who always came to Windsor at Christmas," they will say mysteriously.

At such family gatherings, of course, there are also her six grandchildren, ranging in age from the Princess Royal's son Peter Phillips, who is 14, to the nearly two-year-old Princess Eugenie of York.

The Queen seems genuinely fond of them but, unlike her demonstrative daughters-in-law the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York, she is never seen cuddling or hugging them.

Given the inevitable isolation of her position, it is hardly surprising that the Queen sometimes seems to prefer the company of animals. All her life she has been close to dogs and horses.

Once during a transatlantic flight the Duke, an accomplished pilot, went forward to inspect the flight deck. Afterwards, the flight captain asked if Her Majesty would like to do the same. The Duke, so the story goes, replied, "Certainly not. If it doesn't have four legs and eat grass, she's not interested."

Throughout her reign she has been an enthusiastic racehorse owner, who would be thrilled to win the Derby, the only one of the five English classics that still eludes her. She loves riding—without a protective hat—which also helps her to keep fit. And she probably knows as much about the family trees of horses as she does about those of people.

"She's immensely knowledgeable on pedigree," says Lord Carnarvon, "and a very good judge of an animal. In fact, I'd say breeding interests her more than racing. For her it's a wonderful means of switching off from state duties."

Her corgis, dorgis (corgi-dachshunds) and Labradors are an even more passionate interest. At many informal occasions the corgis are present, sometimes all seven of them—Phoenix and Pharos, Fable and Myth, Spark and Diamond, and Kelpie.

Not only does the Queen like them for their unquestioning loyalty, they also serve as ice-breakers, a useful topic of conversation at difficult moments. When the Queen starts to show impatience by playing fretfully with the rings on her wedding finger or tapping a toe on the carpet, a comment on corgis may come in useful.

On one famous occasion she was quite badly bitten when trying to separate rival packs of her corgis. She has also been known to appear, in company, looking distinctly muddy after trying to coax the royal dorgis out of the earth when they went to ground.

If one of the dogs makes a mess on the carpet, she will clean up after it herself. After all, there are some things you can't ask the servants to do.

Into the Future

King Charles III greeting crowdsNew Zealand Defence Force from Wellington, New Zealand, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The question of whether the monarchy will survive now rests with Elizabeth II's son, King Charles III

Will the monarchy survive? Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, is one sage who tends to regard the monarchy as a symbol of what is wrong with Britain.

"All this 'ancien regimery' is looking pretty ropey," he says. "Institutions like the Church of England, the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, the House of Lords—they've all had a wonderful run, but they're in very poor condition now. I think the same applies to the monarchy. These establishments should keep up with the times or they risk becoming anachronisms."

Yet what constitutes an anachronism to an opponent like Norman Stone becomes the "essential mystery" to a protagonist like Bishop Woods, who believes, as befits a true Christian, that there are some things which simply cannot be "rational." Their schools of thought are probably irreconcilable.

Where even the Professor has to furrow his brow is over the question, "If no monarchy, what then?" 

A president would almost inevitably be a less lustrous figure than the sovereign. And there is nothing about foreign presidencies, such as those of the USA, France or Germany, to suggest that a president would cost less money or preside over a country which was, in any real sense, more democratic.

The royal family still comes in for its share of criticism. At the time of the Gulf War, The Sunday Times ran a shrill anti-monarchist leader, suggesting that some members of the family were shirking their duty by gadding about and not lending their support to the armed forces.

These strictures were deeply resented by the Palace—and also by the military, who remain conspicuously loyal to the crown.

The day after the article appeared, various members of the royal family did visit military units, but these engagements had been arranged some weeks before.

In a Gallup Poll published in The Daily Telegraph last July, 75 per cent of all those questioned, and 60 per cent of the under-25s, thought that the country needed a royal family. Only 12 per cent wanted to see the monarchy abolished by the turn of the century.

"The special relationship between the Queen and her peoples and the rest of the world is unquestionably mysterious"

In historical terms there is nothing very dramatic about these figures. As writer and historian Philip Ziegler points out, in the 50-odd years since opinion polls on the monarchy began, ten per cent or so have consistently expressed republican tendencies; in 1971, when there was a furore over the Queen's money, that figure went up to 19 per cent.

Nevertheless, says Ziegler, "the danger lights are flashing."

Given the Queen's essentially conservative temperament, it seems unlikely that the, institution will change dramatically while she continues to reign. She has never been prone to panic and has always listened carefully to good advice.

"She is too secure in her own judgement and in her position," as one old friend puts it, "to get fussed about the sillier campaigns run by the media."

As the years pass and the Prince of Wales moves restlessly into an apparently unfulfilled middle age, media pundits call on the Queen to make way for him, just as Queen Juliana of the Netherlands made way for her daughter Beatrix. But, as Lord Charteris told me: "Abdication is a dirty word."

The Queen Mother never forgave her brother-in-law, Edward VIII, for quitting his post, and the Queen's view is that once anointed with the holy oil at her Coronation she has a solemn obligation never to renounce her title or her role.

Abdication is a subject she has discussed informally with advisers, but any formal mention of it to the Palace elicits an official denial that the Queen is considering it.

The sovereign and the monarchy have lived through 40 years of almost constant change in every area, and they have managed to accommodate it while remaining beacons of constancy in an uncertain world.

"I wouldn't claim that the monarchy has prevented a Red revolution," says Lord Charteris. "But it has been a steadying influence on the nation. And despite everything, it has managed to retain enough of its mystery and its majesty."

Shortly after the 1991 royal visit to the USA, James Orr commented on the Queen's address to the American Congress: "The expressions on the faces of those hardbitten Congressmen and Senators were such that they might have been applauding a saint."

The special relationship between the Queen and her peoples and the rest of the world is unquestionably mysterious and ultimately inexplicable. But, against all odds, it remains intact. The achievement is undeniable.

Banner: Queensland State Archives from Runcorn, Queensland, Australia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...
Stories by email|Subscription
Readers Digest

Launched in 1922, Reader's Digest has built 100 years of trust with a loyal audience and has become the largest circulating magazine in the world

Readers Digest
Reader’s Digest is a member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (which regulates the UK’s magazine and newspaper industry). We abide by the Editors’ Code of Practice and are committed to upholding the highest standards of journalism. If you think that we have not met those standards, please contact 0203 289 0940. If we are unable to resolve your complaint, or if you would like more information about IPSO or the Editors’ Code, contact IPSO on 0300 123 2220 or visit