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Vintage Reader's Digest 1992: The Queen wins over her people: Part 1

BY Tim Heald

21st Jun 2023 Life

Vintage Reader's Digest 1992: The Queen wins over her people: Part 1

In February 1992, we published a piece exploring the challenges Elizabeth II had faced in her reign so far, and the strength with which she rose above them. Read Part 2 here

She never forgets she is the Queen. For all her warmth and friendliness, this small, matter-of-fact woman remains at all times the anointed sovereign, a monarch caught in a web of romantic mysticism.

"You're always very aware exactly who she is," says Edward Mirzoeff, producer of the new BBC documentary about the Queen's working life, "Elizabeth R," being shown early this month to mark the fortieth anniversary of her accession to the throne.

"There's inevitably a certain remoteness about her. She never gives interviews, and you can't film her eating or drinking. Throughout our year of filming, I saw over and over again how all kinds of people are completely overwhelmed by her."

Mirzoeff, an award-winning television man more worldly wise than most, himself suffered the same experience when he was summoned to Buckingham Palace before filming began. Full briefings from two Palace officials, both concluding with admonitions not to be nervous, did little to allay his butterflies.

Then, ushered in to meet the Queen for the first time, he was "bowled a googly" when the Queen was told that he would give a short exposition of how he envisaged the film.

"I hadn't even formed a plan of how to make the film, and I had no idea what to say," recalls Mirzoeff. "I felt as though I was gibbering and talking a load of codswallop. She was charming, but it gave me an insight into how terribly difficult it must be for her to cope with the effect she has on people."

But cope she does. To Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, being The Queen at breakfast, painted by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh; in conversation with George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Windsor Castle; work must go on even at Balmoral—John Major flew to Scotland for an audience with the Queen.

Queen is much, much more than just a job. Her sense of duty and of service, consecrated by solemn oath and the anointing with holy oil at her Coronation service in 1953, is crucial to understanding Elizabeth II.

Despite being in some ways the most unpretentious person, the Queen has a real sense of being called to fulfil an almost mystical task with a strong religious dimension.

Since she succeeded to the throne, Great Britain's place in the world has changed beyond recognition.

Former colonies have become independent members of The Commonwealth, in which Britain is just one equal member—though the Queen remains entrenched as head of this disparate collection of countries, from Australia to Zambia.

And every year sees the country's sovereignty further subsumed into the European Community.

Yet the Queen's sense of dedication remains as strong as it was almost 45 years ago when, on her twenty-first birthday, the then Princess Elizabeth broadcast to her future subjects: "My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial Commonwealth to which we all belong."

Queen Elizabeth II in crownCredit: Donald McKague. Round the clock, night and day for her whole life, Elizabeth II remained on-duty as Queen

A royal day

The Queen's life is not like other people's. Every morning she is serenaded by bagpipes—a tradition dating back to the reign of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.

If you happen to be walking down Constitution Hill from Hyde Park Corner between 9 and about 9.15am on a day when she is at Buckingham Palace, you can hear the skirl of the pipes behind the high wall of the Palace garden.

It is an indication of the Queen's Scottishness as much as of her musical taste.

On her paternal side that Scottishness is the ersatz "Balmorality" of Queen Victoria, who came to Scotland as a stranger, fell in love with the country and became almost more Scottish than the Scots.

On her mother's side, however, it is very real. The Queen Mother, after all, is a Bowes-Lyon of Glamis Castle, a Scot to her fingertips.

Whenever possible, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh take breakfast together. In the Duke's private collection there is one charming oil he painted himself, which shows the Queen sitting at a table in their private dining room at Windsor Castle, a radio alongside a pot of marmalade on the white tablecloth.

Theirs is unlikely to be a silent breakfast. Although the press office prepares a summary of the day's newspapers so that the Queen can see at a glance what is going on in the world, the morning papers and radio news programmes are part of the breakfast routine.

The Duke, a talkative and opinionated man, is accustomed to reading news items out loud and then subjecting them to pithy comment.

Elizabeth II and Philip, Duke of EdinburghCredit: Harry Sagers / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons. Elizabeth II and Prince Philip remained a tight unit for their whole lives

After 44 years of marriage and widely publicised rumours of "royal rifts" in earlier years, the Edinburghs, as they were once called, remain a close-knit team.

They are often apart and habitually sleep in separate bedrooms but, as all those who observe them at close quarters tell you, they are the best of friends and it is impossible to imagine either of them taking a really important decision without consulting the other.

"She is 500 per cent loyal to him," one former Palace courtier told me effusively, "and he to her."

Every morning there are papers to be worked on. The private secretaries' office sends up a box of documents ranging from suggestions for the appointment of bishops or ambassadors to requests for visits, speeches or openings. All are sorted, checked and minuted with comments and recommendations.

At about 11 o'clock, unless the Queen has a public engagement, she usually sees one of her Private Secretaries.The Private Secretaries are vital to the Queen, and the best of them become close and valued advisers and friends.

In the whole of her reign the Queen has only employed six principal Private Secretaries. The first four were older than her, while the last two have been younger. Comments one expert: "An excellent thing." It has kept the Queen in touch with generations above and below her in age.

Since 1990 the principal Private Secretary has been Sir Robert Fellowes, a courtier's son and former banker who is married to Lady Jane Spencer, sister of the Princess of Wales.

He is assisted by Sir Kenneth Scott, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Yugoslavia, and byvice-admiral's son Robin Janvrin, also formerly of the Foreign Office.

"Impatient with shilly-shallying and equivocation, she wants to know what people think"

All three are urbane, charming, self-assured and comfortable in royal circles. Polite without being obsequious, efficient without seeming bureaucratic, they are very much the Queen's men.

She likes men with whom she can feel at ease, and expects firm recommendations from them. Impatient with shilly-shallying and equivocation, she wants to know what people think.

Her husband and her eldest son maintain private "think-tanks" to advise them on the various subjects—the environment, architecture, equestrianism, technology—in which they like to stick an oar.

The Queen, says one of her ex-advisers, "might have tried out a few thoughts on friends or relations, but there has never been anything like Prince Philip's little network of thinkers."

The official view is that Her Majesty can call on her Ministers, her bishops, her generals and others whenever she wishes. A think-tank which by-passed the usual channels would be thought highly irregular, if not unconstitutional.

A typical day for the Queen includes much "kissing hands," a reminder of the ancient and solemn forms of court behaviour that are still maintained.

Just after midday on June 4, 1991, for example, Robert Cormack, who had just been appointed Her Majesty's Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary at Stockholm "was received in audience by the Queen and kissed hands."

As he left Buckingham Palace at 12.40, the King of Swaziland arrived and stayed until almost 1pm. Immediately afterwards, the Queen received Major-General Sir Christopher Airy, who was "relinquishing his appointment as Private Secretary and Treasurer to the Prince and Princess of Wales."

For each meeting the Queen will have been carefully briefed by one of her Private Secretaries.

Later that afternoon the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh went to the Design Council in London's Haymarket to visit "A Hundred Years of British Invention," the centenary exhibition of the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents.

Queen Elizabeth and her prime ministers at Golden JubileeUK Government, OGL 3, via Wikimedia Commons. The Queen worked closely with several prime ministers, although she and Thatcher harboured a mutual frostiness

By 6.30 she was back at the Palace in order to receive her Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, John Major. This weekly chat with the Prime Minister has taken place throughout her reign, though its contents are never divulged.

At the time of the first, with Sir Winston Churchill, the present Prime Minister was a mere eight years old. Then it was Churchill who could call on a lifetime of experience to advise a novice. Today, with John Major 17 years the Queen's junior and a Member of Parliament only since 1979, the roles are reversed.

It is a totally private, one-to-one meeting. There are no secretaries or footmen present. Not even Prince Charles, who does see government papers and enjoys access to the Prime Minister and Cabinet whenever he wishes, sits in on these tete-a-tetes.

Relations with all nine Prime Ministers of the Queen's reign have been perfectly correct, though it is said that Her Majesty found Sir Anthony Eden difficult. Both her Labour Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, were bowled over by her. Says one old Palace hand: "Harold fell for her in a big way."

In contrast, the frostiness between her and Mrs Thatcher was a subject of widespread comment, public and private. "A model of propriety," says one man in a position to know. "Respect for all the conventions on Mrs Thatcher's hand, combined with an almost exaggerated degree of deference.

"And on the Queen's part, the acknowledgement that it is the Prime Minister's prerogative to govern, and the Sovereign's role to support her Government in fair weather and foul."

This extreme punctiliousness may well have disguised a certain instinctive mutual lack of empathy. The Queen finds it much easier to deal professionally with men. It is no coincidence that she has never had a female Private Secretary.

Sometimes in the evening the Queen and the Duke will go out together, though he is more of a night owl than she is. But often they perform official duties apart.

On one typical day in 1991 the Duke had lunch at Trinity House and later dined with The British Heart Foundation at St James's Palace. The Queen was not involved in either of these occasions, any more than the Duke was at her various audiences.

When the Duke is out to dinner the Queen often eats alone in her private apartments, sometimes watching television, nearly always late. She drinks very little alcohol and follows a sensible, straightforward diet, though she avoids shellfish—as much a precaution against stomach upsets as a matter of taste.

Those solitary evening meals are sacrosanct. Even close family do not intrude without telephoning to arrange it first.

"The royal family are all remarkably independent," says former Private Secretary Sir William Heseltine. It can make life difficult for the Palace officials. Individual members of the family have a disconcerting habit of not telling each other what they are up to.

It is therefore imperative that the different households regularly compare notes. Otherwise they can find themselves in "awful messes."

For the Queen, the evening invariably brings more paperwork. As well as the afternoon box from the Private Secretaries, there are other government papers. When the House of Commons is in session, she receives a daily report on proceedings from the Vice-Chamberlain.

Every year, too, the Queen receives thousands of letters—49,023 in 1990—from members of the public. Each one is answered, usually by a lady-in-waiting or Private Secretary.

The Palace rule is that "anything addressed to the Queen goes to the Queen's desk." So she always has plenty to read.

Being the sovereign is not a nine-to-five job, but the Queen's stamina is remarkable. She has never been known to complain about the tedium of long parades, banquets or state ceremonies. Work and leisure are inextricably entwined.

On one occasion in the 1960s, the Private Secretary of the day, Sir Michael Adeane, baulked at showing the Queen a memorandum prepared for her by a prominent public figure, saying it was too short on detail.

On hearing of this the Lord Chathberlain, the altogether breezier Earl of Scarbrough, asked to see the memo. "Perfectly all right," he said. "I'll show it to Her Majesty myself."

Next day he called the author of the memo to say he had shown it to the Queen, who had approved it. "But when and where did you manage to do it?" asked the puzzled memo-writer.

The answer was simple. It had been the first day of the Royal Ascot race meeting when, before the first race, the Queen processes up the course in the state landau, accompanied by the Lord Chamberlain.

Scarbrough had taken the controversial memo with him and produced it from the pocket of his morning suit as the procession set out. At the same time as he and the Queen smiled and waved at thecrowd, they were discussing the document, kept well out of sight below the side of the carriage.

Even at parties, the Queen is not off-duty. At a Palace ball she was dancing with one of her bishops—as head of the Church of England, she always talks about "my bishops." "Tell me," she said as they waltzed round the floor, "what do you know about 'X'?"—the preferred candidate for a vacant bishopric, who was due to see the Queen next morning.

Later, still at the party, the bishop gave the Queen a considered confidential report on the man. "I really thought," he said later, "that she was going to get a pencil and paper there and then and write it down."

Defender of the Faith

Coronation of Queen Elizabeth IICredit: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives from Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Elizabeth II took seriously her role as head of the church

Time and again when you talk to those who have worked closely with the Queen over the years, you are reminded: "She was anointed at her Coronation." For some, the symbolism of that Christian ceremony may be empty pageantry, but for her it represents an absolute truth.

Noted Dermot Morrah, Arundel Herald Extraordinary—a member of the College of Arms whose ancient duties involve working on grants of coats of arms and helping to organise major state ceremonies: "The sense of spiritual exaltation that radiated from her was almost tangible to those of us who stood near her in the Abbey."

Since then, as one of her admirers puts it: "Her every decision is informed by her faith."

The Right Reverend Robin Woods, who served her as Dean of Windsor and Domestic Chaplain from 1962 to 1970, describes her as "a praying and believing woman," and recalls one telling example of how seriously she takes her role as Head of the Church.

In 1966, the Church of England proposed an alternative prayer book, which had remained unchanged since the reign of James I, and the new version was sent for the Queen's signature.

One night she telephoned Woods from Windsor Castle. "I don't think I should sign something which will change the liturgy," she said, "until we've at least prayed it through."

Since it was hardly appropriate to do this in a public service in St George's Chapel, the Dean agreed that first thing on Sunday morning he would conduct Holy Communion according to the proposed Alternative Prayer Book in his private Deanery chapel.

And so, before breakfast, the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Anne made their way from the Castle to the tiny chapel for the first "Family Communion" service according to the new rite. Only when they had "prayed it through" did the Queen sign the order approving it.

Hers has always been a very conventional Anglican approach to religion—devout, but neither mystical like Prince Charles with his ideas inspired by Laurens van der Post, nor questioning like Prince Philip, who has published several slim volumes of theological debate.

She attends church regularly, and takes her religious role very seriously; she was conspicuously upset by the failure of her sister's marriage to Lord Snowdon and her  daughter's to Captain Mark Phillips.

Probably one of the most upsetting incidents of her entire reign, however, was Princess Margaret's ill-starred attachment to divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend.

Public opinion was divided about whether the Queen's sister should be allowed to marry a divorced man, but such a marriage was clearly against the wishes of both the Church of England and the Government.

The Queen was, as always, unflinching in her awareness that in a conflict between personal happiness and doing what was "right," there could be only one answer.

In 1955 Princess Margaret announced that, "mindful of the Church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth," she would not marry Townsend.

Pomp and Circumstance

The Royal Yacht BritanniaCredit: East Riding Archives. The royal family's enduring majesty is visible in opulent property like the Royal Yacht Britannia

The Queen's personal, private style is unostentatious almost to the point of austerity. But the public side of her monarchy, though in some respects less formal than in its early days, retains the grand trappings of majesty.

This is very deliberate and conscious. She does not believe in a cut-price, bicycling monarchy.

Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the great country estates of Balmoral and Sandringham continue to flourish, though Sandringham House was reduced by about 90 rooms during extensive refurbishment in 1974.

There is the Queen's Flight with its scarlet Wessex helicopters and the new, specially adapted British Aerospace 146 jet-aircraft, and the custom-built royal trains, recently overhauled by British Rail.

The Royal Mews still houses a host of state coaches, Rolls-Royces and other vehicles, including an ecologically sound electric-powered mini-van for the Duke of Edinburgh, who for years has been a passionate conservationist.

Perhaps grandest of all, there is the Royal Yacht Britannia, a 5,769-ton ocean-going liner. Since she was first commissioned in 1954, she has sailed more than 920,000 miles, showing the flag from the Arctic to the Antipodes.

A Buckingham Palace of the waves, she has a dining hall big enough to accommodate a state banquet and a 26-strong Royal Marine band to impress foreigners.

On June 26, 1959, US President Dwight Eisenhower and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, along with Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, opened the St Lawrence Seaway, the great international canal which links the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

James Orr, then the Duke of Edinburgh's Private Secretary, was with the American party as they watched Britannia steaming majestically from Montreal towards Lake Ontario.

After a few minutes, a bystander turned to Orr and said, in awestruck tones: "Thank God you haven't seen the President's yacht!" That vessel was a modest 64-footcabin cruiser.

Completely refitted in 1987, Britannia has become a roving trade centre hosting a regular series of "Sea Days" which have generated millions of pounds worth of exports. During last year's royal visit to the United States, she was the scene of "Sea Day Symposiums" on behalf of British motor and aerospace manufacturers.

In a very real sense, Britannia still rules the waves, a symbol of the Royal Family's fundamental attitude to their role.

Says Sir Hugh Casson, who helped with the yacht's interior design and has long associations with the royals: "I think one thing the Royal Family have learnt from that amazing woman, the Queen Mother, is that if you are going to do something you should do it with style. She above all is a great one for royals being royal."

"One thing the Royal Family have learnt from the Queen Mother is that if you are going to do something you should do it with style"

Certain fixed points in the royal calendar remain sacrosanct and immutable: Remembrance Sunday in November, when the Queen leads the nation in honouring its warrior dead by laying a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph in London's Whitehall; the Royal Maundy Service on the Thursday before Easter, a traditional religious alms giving to the poor, with purses of specially minted Maundy Money; Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards Parade to mark her official birthday in June, when she takes the salute from her Foot Guards and Household Cavalry; the State Opening of Parliament, when she reads a speech to members of both Houses, outlining her Government's intentions for the new session.

These great state occasions, at which the Queen effectively embodies the whole national spirit, are an opportunity to demonstrate that she is a vital part of the nation, dedicated to serving her subjects as much as reigning over them.

Throughout her reign they have remained the same in essence. Says Sir William Heseltine: "I am sure there was always a clear idea in the Queen's mind of the proper way for her to conduct herself as head of state. The role is pretty well defined for her."

The years have brought some minor changes, however. The Royal Maundy service always used to take place at Westminster Abbey. Now it moves to a different cathedral each year—an innovation suggested by the Queen, who from the beginning has felt it important to be seen by people outside the capital and the favoured south-east of England.

At her Birthday Parade, she used until recently to ride side-saddle in a splendid scarlet and dark blue uniform with a tricorn hat. This Guards uniform is her only uniform—unlike the male members of her family, who have different ones for each of the services or regiments with which they are associated.

It was, however, discreetly altered every year so that the jacket buttons and hat plume were those of whichever regiment's colours were being trooped.

It was only when her favourite steed, Burmese, grew too old that she switched to wearing "civilian" clothes and travelling by carriage to Horse Guards Parade.

The decision had nothing—apparently—to do with the alarming occasion on June 13,1981, when a 17-year-old youth fired some blank cartridges from a replica pistol at the Queen as she rode in procession down the Mall.

Part of the routine of monarchy is entertaining foreign heads of state. There are normally two state visits a year; when President Mubarak of Egypt came last July, it was the sixty-sixth state visit of the reign.

Other heads of state call on a less formal basis. Last year they included the presidents of Bulgaria, Chile, Hungary, Malawi and the USSR—then still in full-blown existence.

These visits require less pomp and circumstance—no flags in the Mall, no state banquet or horse-drawn procession—but still the necessity, for the Queen, of ensuring she is at least well enough briefed to engage her guest in informed conversation.

Critics who suggest she never reads a book, not even from the holiday reading submitted every summer by the Book Trust, fail to consider the prodigious quantity of papers she has to plough through in order to give a consistent impression of being thoroughly well informed.

Queen Elizabeth II waving from car in CanadaLibrary and Archives Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Canada was one of the Queen's favourite places to visit

In addition, the Queen is an indefatigable traveller. Soon after her Coronation in 1953, she toured the Commonwealth, visiting ten countries from Bermuda to Uganda. In her Jubilee Year, 1977, she and the Duke of Edinburgh covered an estimated 56,000 miles.

Her first state visit, in 1955, was to Norway; her most recent, last October, was to Zimbabwe for the Commonwealth Conference.

She has always attached almost as much significance to her role as head of the Commonwealth as she has to her position as Queen of the United Kingdom. But while she and her husband enormously value their links with the Commonwealth, they are both quite clear that they will only maintain them as long as people want them.

Both Australia or Canada have, in some quarters at least, exhibited an irritation with monarchy. The largely francophone Canadian province of Quebec is almost the only part of the Commonwealth where she has not been received with popular enthusiasm; during her 1964 visit there were even serious assassination threats.

If republican feeling gets out of hand in either country, then the Queen will withdraw gracefully.

She is as well briefed on her Commonwealth countries as on Britain itself. After all, she has had a regular first-hand acquaintance with many of them for more than 40 years of her reign; for instance, she first visited Canada in 1951. And she understands why Canada is unique.

"To become a Canadian citizen," she once said, "implies a commitment to share the particular gifts of personality and culture, which the newcomer brings with him, with the rest of the family of Canadians."

If the frequency of her visits is an indicator, Canada is one of her favourite destinations. She has been there 17 times as Queen, compared to 11 visits to Australia.

At every Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, she receives each country's delegate for a 20-minute audience. She relishes the opportunity to see old friends, as well as forging fresh relationships with newly elected prime ministers.

They, in their turn, "adore her," as one courtier says with both admiration and astonishment.

Royal Riches

Queen Elizabeth II with President Bush at American White HouseWhite House Photographic Collection. Some claim it was the British Royal Family's pomp that ensured Queen Elizabeth II's frequent invitations to the White House

Running a stylish monarchy does not come cheap. The 1990 estimate for royal garden parties, for instance, was £213,650; for flowers, £37,950; and for the upkeep of horses and carriages, £149,025.

The Royal Yacht cost the taxpayer more than £9 million, the Queen's Flight almost £7 million and the Royal Train just over £2 million.

It would of course be possible to cut back on these, but if you did, say royalty's defenders, you would have a cut-price monarchy like the Swedes or the Danes.

It is partly because the British royal family conducts its affairs with such style that the Queen is, for example, invited to address both houses of Congress or accorded the privilege of a White House state banquet.

Yet the question of the royal finances has been an irritant throughout the reign. Critics resent the fact that the Queen is alleged to be the richest woman in the world, and take particular exception to the fact that she pays no tax.

As Willie Hamilton, then Labour MP for West Fife, wrote in 1969: "In the context of millions of our people existing on less than £10 a week, and at least half a million children suffering the direst poverty, the crown seems to many to be a vulgar extravagance."

After four decades of this sort of criticism, the Royal Family and their advisers respond with increasing weariness. So much of their presumed wealth, from the great art collection to the Crown Jewels and the palaces themselves, is not disposable but is kept in trust for the nation.

"After all," said the Queen Mother to me once, "it's not as if one could buy a hat with Hampton Court."

On tax, three separate issues can be identified. The first. is that at the beginning of her reign, the Queen surrendered the Crown Estates to the Government in return for a Civil List to cover the Crown's expenses, 70 per cent of them wages and salaries.

In 1990 this Civil List was set at an annual £7.9 million (with adjustments for inflation) for a ten-year period. The royal servants paid from the Civil List are taxed just like everyone else. Therefore, runs the argument, taxing the Civil List at source would mean submitting it to double taxation.

You might just as well ask individual ministries to pay tax on their annual budgets.

Incidentally, the Queen's Civil List is less than the money allotted to the Prime Minister's office every year.

The second major source of income is the revenue from the Duchy of Lancaster, supervised by the Chancellor of the Duchy—currently Tory party chairman Chris Patten.

In the year ended on September 29, 1990, the total Duchy income was £4,088,767, of which £3 million was paid to the Privy Purse.

This money is used to cover "the sovereign's personal expenses," including the maintenance of Balmoral and Sandringham; to pay junior royal family members for any royal duties they perform; and to reimburse the Civil List for the allowance made to Princess Alexandra, the Duke of Kent and the Duke of Gloucester.

While the money could in theory be taxed, such a high proportion of it—possibly as much as £1 million a year—goes to maintaining Balmoral Castle that, say royal advisers, taxation would make it impossible to keep the castle in the royal family. This, it is presumed, would be very unpopular in Scotland.

St Edward's Crown, and the sovereign's orb, sceptres and ringThe Crown Jewels form one part of the royal family's fortune

Third, there is the Queen's personal income, which is undisclosed as well as being untaxed. Last March, Buckingham Palace was stung when Harpers & Queen magazine alleged that the Queen's personal wealth was £6.6 billion, yielding £1.8 million a day. 

Lord Wyatt sprang to Her Majesty's defence. He quoted the evidence of Lord Cobbold, a former Governor of the Bank of England who, as Lord Chamberlain, told a House of Commons committee in 1971: "Her Majesty has been much concerned by the astronomical figures which have been bandied about…suggesting that the value of these funds may now run into £50 million to £100 million…She wishes me to assure the committee that these suggestions are wildly exaggerated."

Wyatt suggests the figure was more likely to have been £20 million and that, however well invested, this would now be worth no more than £120 million, yielding about £6 million a year in income.

The same magazine article also suggested that the Queen owns property worth £3 billion in Europe and North America. Palace officials say quite categorically that the Queen does not own "a single centimetre" of land outside the United Kingdom.

Most of the Queen's "wealth," according to the Palace, generates no income. There is no revenue from jewellery or pictures, excluding the Queen's Gallery where takings are devoted entirely to maintenance.

This leaves the riches the Queen inherited from her father. King George VI was not, protest his descendants, as rich as is supposed, largely because he had to buy Balmoral and Sandringham from his brother Edward VIII, who needed the cash to finance his very comfortable exile after his abdication.

"Start hacking away at that mystery, and you run the risk of damaging the monarchy beyond repair"

More recently, George VI's fortune has been used to support his widow, the Queen Mother, and younger daughter, Princess Margaret.

The Queen banks at Coutts and is always said not to carry money, although in the last royal film it did look as if she was shopping with her own petty cash. If money is ever needed, her lady-in-waiting will usually handle it.

If anyone doubts that the royal fortune is much exaggerated, they should consider how the Queen is cutting back on her racing interests. Early last year she had 35 flat-racers in training; by 1993 the number will probably be down to 25.

In 1990, according to her racing manager, the Earl of Carnarvon, the Queen's horses won £212,000 in prize money. But, says Lord Wyatt, who as Chairman of the Horserace Totalisator Board since 1976 is presumably in a position to judge: "With apologies to Her Majesty, I suspect she makes substantial losses at racing."

It would, nevertheless, be perfectly possible for the Queen to pay tax on her private income, although to do so would court all sorts of problems.

The royal investment portfolio would be subject to relentless scrutiny. If it revealed that, for example, she had shares in foreign arms or tobacco companies, her opponents would have a field day.

While Her Majesty is not financially accountable in the way her subjects are, monarchists insist that the whole essence of the institution is that an element of mystery should be preserved.

Start hacking away at that mystery, and you run the risk of damaging the monarchy beyond repair.

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