Queen Elizabeth II, who has died aged 96, became through the course of her long reign not only the oldest sovereign in the country’s history but also its longest serving.
The 42nd of a line of kings and queens of first England, then Britain, then the United Kingdom, since William the Conqueror, she was also the sixth queen-sovereign of England and the fourth of the UK. In addition, she was queen and head of state of 15 other countries, stretching from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand to the Bahamas and Canada, all once part of the former British empire. She was for seven decades head of the Commonwealth, whose 54 countries comprise 2.1 billion people, a third of the globe’s population.
In accordance with the precedent established by Henry VIII, the Queen was also Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a role she took much more seriously in both her private and public lives than many of her predecessors.
Her reign encompassed a period that saw some of the greatest changes in technological development, industrial, economic and social life across the world of any era, yet it is hard to see her name being bestowed, as her predecessor Queen Victoria’s was, as the defining symbol of an age. Instead she played, largely impeccably, the part of a modern constitutional monarch, a symbolic figurehead with a right to be consulted and to advise and warn political leaders privately and to show herself publicly as a focus of national life, celebration and commemoration.
While the world altered dramatically during the course of her reign, the monarchy did too, though rather more imperceptibly: the walkabouts that increasingly characterised royal appearances, the pop concerts at Buckingham Palace, the throwing open of the royal palaces to visitors – even the paying of income tax, and royal podcasts – would have been inconceivable as innovations at the time Elizabeth came to the throne. She acquiesced in many of these changes, however, rather than initiating them.
As Queen, she was an integral part of the country and its institutions: one of the best-known women and national leaders in the world, photographed, painted, filmed, depicted, lauded – and occasionally ridiculed – from the time she became heir to the throne, at the age of 10, in 1936, to the end of her life. The nation – and the world – watched her change from being a callow princess to a glamorous young queen, a mother and grandmother, from a blonde, curly-haired child to a diminutive white-haired old lady, over many decades during which her role scarcely changed. Born a fortnight before the 1926 general strike, she lived well into the age of the internet.
Only those themselves now elderly can remember living under any other head of state. During the course of her reign she was served by 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss. She met more than a quarter of all the American presidents who have ever lived, five popes, hundreds of national leaders, from the saintly, such as Nelson Mandela, to the tyrannical, including Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceausescu, as well as thousands of celebrities and – it is calculated – more than 2 million more “ordinary” people. She was easily the most travelled monarch in British, indeed world, history: criss-crossing the globe regularly to visit the Commonwealth and just about every other significant country in the world, into her 90th year, and touring Britain year in and year out even longer.
Yet through all this exposure, renown and public fascination, she never engaged in partisan politics, uttered a truly controversial remark, scarcely expressed an opinion and only rarely showed emotion: exasperation occasionally, but never temper. Her great personal enthusiasm was for dogs – particularly corgis – and horses, and she was interested in the breeding of both.
She never gave a contentious interview and restricted what she said in public, or to the public, largely to generalities or platitudes, though significantly her Christmas broadcasts, the only occasions when she spoke unmediated to the public, dwelt increasingly on matters of religious faith. In private she was said to be witty and sharp, even a mimic, but these traits were not on public display. Even devoted monarchists knew of her only at second hand, as a cipher, a still, small, largely silent, smiling figure, bound by her sense of duty and service, surrounded by turmoil and hubbub.
Although very distant from the lives of her subjects – she never went to school and had only the most fleeting experiences of being on equal terms with anyone – she grew into a much respected figure, admired for her stoicism and diligence; one who was well aware of the condition of the country and the state of the world, more experienced in diplomacy than virtually any other world leader, because she had been at it longer than anyone else. Yet despite all the exposure, she remained largely unknown – and unknowable. It was perhaps her most remarkable feat.
Like her grandfather George V and her father, George VI, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was not expected to ascend to the throne. Although she was third in line of succession at her birth, it could reasonably have been anticipated that her uncle, the Prince of Wales, would soon marry and have heirs. She would then have been destined for the sort of life she might well have loved, married to a senior member of the aristocracy and living out a life of worthy obscurity on his landed estates.
The princess was born by caesarean section – in the coy wording of the time “a certain line of treatment” – at the London home of her maternal grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair. She was the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York, the king’s second son and his aristocratic Scottish wife, the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. The home secretary of the day, the bumptious Sir William Joynson-Hicks, took it upon himself to attend the house, a formality dating from the 17th century to ensure no impostors were substituted, ostensibly to ensure all was well, and he proclaimed the news publicly, even though the government was then in mid-crisis over the forthcoming general strike.
The baby was named after her mother and two queens: her father believing that Elizabeth of York would be a good title for her to carry through life, though the names still had to be submitted for the king’s approval. George V decided the addition of Victoria would not be necessary, since the little girl was not in direct line of succession. The king and queen declared themselves delighted: “Such a relief and joy,” wrote Queen Mary, “a little darling with lovely complexion and pretty fair hair.” The duke wrote to them: “We always wanted a child to make our happiness complete. I do hope that you and Papa are as delighted as we are to have a granddaughter, or would you sooner have another grandson.”
Although it was a standard upper-class upbringing of the time, the little girl’s mother and father were more relaxed in child-rearing than previous royal parents, forming a close and affectionate bond with Elizabeth – known as Lilibet to the family – and later with her younger sister, Margaret, born in 1930, that lasted throughout their lives. But they were nevertheless royal parents, so that Elizabeth was parted from them for six of the first 14 months of her life, while they undertook a tour of Australia – just as would happen to her oldest child, Charles, a quarter of a century later.
Crowds gathered in the street outside when she was born and there was considerable newspaper interest – the Australian press called her Betty and described her as “the world’s best-known baby” – but it was then still just possible to have a relatively normal life at the family’s 25-bedroom mansion at 145 Piccadilly, from where the baby was taken for a two-hour constitutional in her pram to Hyde Park and back every day by her governess.
She was brought up by governesses, and her grandparents on both sides took a close interest. Stern George V – “Grandpa England” – was particularly besotted: the archbishop of Canterbury once came upon the king on all fours, pretending to be a horse, being pulled along by the beard by his granddaughter. Some care was taken that she should be taught politeness and not be spoiled from an early age. “I don’t think any child could be more sensibly brought up,” said Queen Mary, who ensured weekly museum and gallery educational visits – being sent to school was not considered a possibility.
Even then, there were signs that the old king’s thoughts were already dwelling on the succession, as he memorably remarked that the Prince of Wales would ruin himself in a year. “I pray to God,” the king is alleged to have said, “that my eldest son will never marry and have children and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”
And so it came to pass, in 1936 after the old king’s death, when Edward VIII, the princess’s favourite uncle, precipitated the monarchy’s most severe constitutional crisis of the 20th century by abdicating the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, the twice divorced American regarded as unsuitable on all counts. The 10-year-old princess learned of the crisis while having a swimming lesson for a life-saving certificate.
Her shy, stammering father was pushed, much against his will, on to the throne. One consideration was said to be that he feared the burden that would inevitably fall on his daughter now that she was heir to the throne, though more pertinently he was by no means alone in worrying that he himself was not up to the job. “I thought it all very, very wonderful and I expect the abbey did too,” Elizabeth wrote in a note to her parents about her father’s coronation in May 1937. “The arches and beams at the top were covered with a sort of haze of wonder as papa was crowned, at least I thought so.”
From then on, she saw less of her parents as their duties took them abroad and to public events. On learning the family would be moving to Buckingham Palace, she is said to have replied: “What – for ever?” But when her sister Margaret asked Elizabeth whether she would be queen one day, she replied matter of factly: “Yes, I suppose so.” If she thought about it much at all, she probably assumed that it would not come to pass for many decades.
The princess, already a serious and diligent child, was given lessons on constitutional matters by Sir Henry Marten, the provost of Eton, and became aware even then that she should not show emotion and must maintain a certain reserve. A palace Girl Guides group was set up, though it consisted only of other aristocratic children. The outbreak of the second world war isolated the princesses further as they were evacuated to Windsor Castle, sheltering from air raids in the cellars. Elizabeth was said to be slow to mature, but she and her sister did their bit by digging vegetable plots and knitting garments for the troops.
Against her father’s wishes, at the age of 18 Elizabeth registered at a labour exchange and undertook a vehicle maintenance course at Aldershot, Hampshire, learning how to strip an engine. On VE night in London, the princesses, chaperoned by Guards officers and a police sergeant, were allowed to slip out of Buckingham Palace and join the revellers in Piccadilly and Park Lane – almost the solitary occasion in her life when Elizabeth mingled unnoticed with ordinary people.
“Poor darlings,” the king wrote of his daughters in his diary. “They have never had any fun yet.” Elizabeth herself said: “I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes … all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.”
By then she had already met her future husband. She had first encountered Prince Philip of Greece, the impoverished nephew of the deposed king of Greece, in 1939, when he was a cadet at Dartmouth Naval College. Five years older than Elizabeth, handsome and of royal birth, Philip was not in the list of the top dozen eligible suitors and there were attempts by her parents to put her off him. Even palace servants sneered at him when he turned up to stay at weekends because of the holes in his shoes, his lack of spare clothes and unsavoury relatives – his older sisters had married German Nazis, though Philip himself had served with distinction in the Royal Navy. But there is no indication that Elizabeth ever had another serious boyfriend and she accepted his proposal in the summer of 1946, although the news was not made public until the following year.
The princess had made occasional wartime radio broadcasts, her piping, stilted voice, speaking in cut-glass tones to the children of the empire, but it was at the time of her 21st birthday in 1947 that she made perhaps the most significant radio address of her career, at the end of a royal tour of South Africa, laying out the guidelines that would govern her throughout her reign: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it shall be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the great imperial family to which we all belong … I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share it.”
The speech was actually written by the king’s private secretary, Sir Tommy Lascelles, but was, as he wrote to his wife, “a tremendous success” as a manifesto for the future. The highly political tone, intended to bind the empire together, delivered in the princess’s formal voice, it was said, brought a lump to millions of throats.
The royal wedding – once Philip had been naturalised as a British subject – finally took place in November 1947, at Westminster Abbey, amid ostentatious assertions that it would be an austere occasion, in keeping with prevailing rationing. There were clothing coupons for the dress, thousands gave nylon stockings, the government of Queensland supplied tins of pineapples and Mahatma Gandhi sent a hand-woven table doily, said to have been mistaken by a horrified Queen Mary for his loincloth.
Philip, who was made Duke of Edinburgh on the couple’s wedding, introduced a new, less stuffy, though as the years went on occasionally astringent, tone to the royal family. Above all, he gave the Queen unwavering support in her public duties, however frustrating he found it as an intelligent man to sublimate his activities and position to the life the couple entered.
Initially, Philip’s naval career continued. The couple spent time in a service quarter on Malta and the princess gave birth to their first two children: Charles was born a year after the wedding and Anne two years later in 1950. Two more sons would follow after a long gap: Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964, the first children born to a reigning sovereign in a century.
The handsome young royal couple and their babies were the subject of intense – though in those days still deferential – media scrutiny: informal photographs of the young family were much publicised; though when the princess’s former nanny Marion Crawford, “Crawfie”, published an entirely anodyne and sycophantic memoir in 1950, she was cast into outer darkness by the family. The palace’s press officer, Commander Richard Colville, known as the Abominable No Man for his disdain and reluctance to impart any information whatever, would remain in post for 20 years and in doing so unwittingly contributed to a long-term distrust and antagonism between newspapers and royalty.
It was evident by the early 1950s that King George VI, though still in his 50s, was gravely ill with lung cancer, and this thrust the young couple increasingly into the limelight of public duties. Despite the official fiction that all was well, they carried mourning clothes and accession papers when they left for an official tour of Australia in early 1952.
The king saw them off at London airport, but a few days later, in the early morning of 6 February 1952, he died in his sleep at Sandringham, the royal retreat in Norfolk. Newspapers carried reports bordered in black, cinemas and theatres – and parliament – closed in respect, people wept in the streets and drivers stopped their cars as the news was broadcast, getting out to stand in silent salute.
The news was broken to Elizabeth by her husband at a game reserve in Kenya, where they had been sightseeing. They immediately flew home to London, the 25-year-old princess to be greeted by cabinet ministers, led by Churchill, as well as Clement Attlee, the leader of the opposition, all in morning suits and top hats. The Manchester Guardian that day spoke of the throne being as secure “in the love of all who acknowledge allegiance to it as it has ever been in history. It is a great inheritance – and a heavy burden – that now falls to the girl who becomes Queen. All may have confidence that she will wear the Crown nobly.”
There was much talk of a new Elizabethan age, and the prospect of an undeniably glamorous young queen was enthusiastically greeted as Britain emerged from the years of postwar austerity. She was, in the words of the historian Sir Charles Petrie, “the subject of adulation unparalleled since the days of Louis XIV”.
Crowds flocked to London to watch the coronation, in the rain, in June 1953 and, a sign of changing times, the ceremony was broadcast live on television, despite the objections of some palace advisers, dramatically boosting the sale of sets. The coronation inaugurated a new media age in which events could be watched from the comfort of an armchair. The Times described the Queen as willingly sacrificing herself to the Almighty and the nation: “She has the reward of the selfless in the pure joy of duty, amply, generously done.”
The national mood, heightened by the conquest of Everest by the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay – news held back until the morning of the coronation – was undoubtedly enthused by the young monarch. She was welcomed too across the Commonwealth as she undertook lengthy tours to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, greeted by adulatory crowds.
In 1964 a public opinion survey would still show that a third of those questioned believed the Queen had been chosen by God rather than familial succession. In such an atmosphere, even muted criticism was condemned. The Tory historian John Grigg (Lord Altrincham) found himself assaulted in the street in 1957 when he asked in a magazine article: “It says much for the Queen that she has not been incapacitated for her job by … woefully inadequate training. She has dignity, a sense of duty and (as far as one can judge) goodness of heart – all precious assets. But will she have the wisdom to give her children an education very different from her own? These are crucial questions.” Admittedly, he also described her as being like “a priggish schoolgirl” with a voice that was a pain in the neck, though these were remarks he later retracted.
There was considerable stuffiness about the court as well as the country in the 50s. Royal mingling with the people, at home or abroad, was not encouraged, and well-bred girls who became debutantes were still presented at court to curtsey to the Queen until the ceremony was abolished in 1958.
When, in the early 50s, Princess Margaret wanted to marry a handsome equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend, she was warned off by her sister in no uncertain terms and threatened with the loss of her royal income because he was divorced. This was an era when divorced people were not allowed to enter the royal enclosure at Ascot (a ban not lifted until 1955). The princess, in a statement drafted by Townsend, stated that she was “mindful of the church’s teachings … and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth”.
Gradually, though, the deferential mood changed, with more questioning of the monarchy’s place in modern society from a generation that in the 50s produced the angry young men, then in the early 60s the age of satire. The Queen was diligent enough and serious in her work but the royal rituals and the annual round of horse racing, hunting, shooting and fishing, not to mention the luxury of the Royal Yacht Britannia, became harder to defend – and easier to mock – in the more meritocratic society of the period. The institution appeared increasingly both fusty and remote and the Queen herself, no longer the sparkling princess, more dutiful than inspiring.
This change in atmosphere was accompanied by a reassessment of Britain’s place in the world in the light of its reduced economic circumstances and in particular a retreat from empire. Gradually, but largely without a struggle, the colonies in Africa and the Caribbean became independent. In this, the Queen was a spectator, though on the misguided advice of Harold Wilson she was persuaded to write to Ian Smith, the prime minister of Rhodesia, when he threatened unilateral independence in 1965. Her plea that a solution should be found backfired when it was flourished by Smith to claim that she was really on the side of his government as it sought to break away from Britain.
Ten years later, the Queen would haplessly be drawn into an Australian constitutional crisis too when Sir John Kerr, the governor general, who was her local representative, sacked Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in an attempt to resolve a budget deadlock, a move that inflamed republican sentiments in the country and created a rumbling discontent with a Pommie-provided head of state ever since.
In this period too, she was also swept up twice into Conservative domestic politics, persuaded in 1957 that she ought to call Harold Macmillan to the palace to become prime minister following the resignation of Anthony Eden after the Suez debacle and again, six years later, when the same “customary processes of consultation” within the higher echelons of the Tory party resulted in her being advised that Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who had recently renounced his Scottish earldom, was the man to replace Macmillan, rather than a figure who might have been more publicly acceptable, RA Butler.
Much later in her reign she would be used by more callow prime ministers too: by David Cameron to warn obliquely against Scottish independence during the 2014 referendum campaign and more shamelessly by Johnson during the parliamentary Brexit debates of 2019 to prorogue parliament, a manoeuvre condemned as unlawful by the supreme court. In neither of these decisions was the Queen culpable, being required to act on advice from prime ministers, and the obloquy ultimately fell on them.
In response to changes of society, the family firm – as the duke took to calling it – did lighten up. The children were sent to school instead of being taught by tutors – albeit to private schools and, in the boys’ case, Gordonstoun, the rugged establishment in the Scottish Highlands where their father had been educated, and which Charles hated. The heir to the throne’s relationship with his parents remained at best spiky for many years.
The Queen was also persuaded by her husband – following Colville’s departure – to authorise a BBC behind-the-scenes documentary about the royal family’s life, showing the royals watching television, meeting visitors, holding a lochside barbecue while on holiday at Balmoral and even buying sweets in a local shop.
This was certainly, in the 19th-century constitutionalist Walter Bagehot’s warning phrase, letting daylight in on the magic and was not viewed, particularly at court, as an unalloyed success, even though the supposedly natural encounters were both stilted and anodyne. The court adviser Lord Charteris told the royal biographer Ben Pimlott: “There was a view that the Queen needed to sell herself a bit. She did not initiate it. However Prince Philip initiated quite a lot. He took the view: ‘We are fighting an election every day of the week.’ The Queen took the view: ‘I am the Queen. I’ll do what I have to do.’” A former courtier said: “It was an attempt to buy popularity.” It was watched by an estimated 68% of the population.
The programme has never been shown in its entirety again and subsequent documentaries about the Queen have always been kept at a respectful distance, even when they eavesdrop on her conversations. There is an argument also that, by letting cameras in, the royals themselves initiated the media intrusiveness that they have endured ever since.
If the documentary was one attempt to update the royal image, the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon castle in 1969 was, surprisingly, another. The ceremony, taking place under a Perspex canopy, and using a crown of the latest 60s design, happened against a backdrop of Welsh extremist bomb threats, but was a success. As the first major domestic royal event since the coronation 16 years earlier, it showed the rise to adulthood of the next generation and steered the monarchy towards further spectacular public shows at increasingly regular intervals in future.
There followed the marriage of Princess Anne to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, then the silver jubilee celebrations in 1977, at which the first royal walkabouts took place, with the Queen and family members actually addressing the crowds lining their route, graciously receiving their flowers and little gifts and even briefly engaging them in conversation. This innovation, of members of the royal family meeting, however perfunctorily, members of the public, proved both hugely popular and significant all over the world. They helped to persuade crowds to attend royal events, knowing that they might gain more than a fleeting, distant sight of a passing celebrity and even get the chance to speak to them.
The jubilee proved much more successful than anyone had predicted. Many streets held parties and, at a time of economic decline, high inflation, industrial unrest and national uncertainty, the celebrations had a cathartic and unifying effect. Four years later, those parties would be revived and magnified during a summer of riots and strikes with the wedding at St Paul’s Cathedral of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. The relief that the heir to the throne had finally found a young bride after years on the quest was only tainted subsequently by the realisation that their supposed love-match had been a sham, as the marriage fell apart in a spectacularly public, long-drawn-out and acrimonious fashion.
Through all this, the Queen increasingly appeared a serene and unifying figure, no longer publicly ridiculed as out of touch. When she woke up one morning in July 1982 to find the intruder Michael Fagan, who had shinned up a drainpipe to get into the palace and sat chatting to her until help belatedly arrived, the incident was treated more as a national joke, indicative of the country’s haplessness, than a shocking lapse in national security.
By contrast, Her Majesty’s sang-froid was widely admired. She told friends: “I got out of bed, put on my dressing gown and slippers, drew myself up to my full regal height, pointed to the door and said: ‘Get out!’ and he didn’t … He just talked the usual sort of bilge that people talk to me on walkabouts. I can handle that.” Not entirely calm: a footman reported: “I have never heard the Queen so angry,” as she spoke to the police. The home secretary, Willie Whitelaw, offered his resignation but it was waved aside by the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Although no word has ever really emerged of what the Queen has really thought of her prime ministers, there has always been a sense that she did not get on terribly well with Thatcher. Some of this is doubtless wishful thinking, but there were sufficient straws in the wind to give it some credence, such as the story that the prime minister asked what the sovereign intended to wear to an event so as to avoid a clash, only to be told frostily that Her Majesty did not pay any attention to what other people wore.
There was also the letter sent by her private secretary during the miners’ strike in 1984 to a pensioner who had written to ask the Queen to intervene, in which it was said: “Her Majesty hopes profoundly that a way to settle this dispute will soon be found,” a remark widely interpreted in those febrile and divisive times to indicate a certain lack of sympathy with her ministers’ intransigence.
At the end of the Falklands war two years earlier too, the Queen, whose second son, Andrew, had served as a helicopter pilot with the task force, was singularly untriumphalist and showed no inclination to follow her prime minister’s injunction to rejoice at victory. Her sympathies were probably closer to those of the archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who had won a Military Cross for bravery during the second world war and thus had more experience of what conflict was like than those who criticised him for praying for the dead of both sides at the service commemorating the victory.
Even the most innocuous remarks could cause controversy. When the Queen said, during the course of her 1983 Christmas broadcast: “The greatest problem in the world today remains the gap between rich and poor countries and we shall not begin to close this gap until we hear less about nationalism and more about interdependence. What we want to see is still more modern technology being used by poor countries to provide employment and to produce primary products and components, which will in turn be bought by the richer countries at competitive prices,” she was criticised by Tory triumphalists for apparently suggesting the sharing of wealth and resources with the uppity countries of the developing world.
Enoch Powell, no longer strictly a Tory but close to the Thatcherites, criticised the speech for suggesting the Queen had “the interests and affairs of other countries in other continents as much or more at heart than those of her own people”. The Thatcherites had little sympathy for the Commonwealth, a cause which to them remained inexplicably close to the Queen’s heart. They discounted the fact that she had travelled more and seen more countries over many years than they ever had.
The Guardian quoted a former courtier saying: “She’s learned long ago to look past the temporary banners and the whitewashed rockeries and what she sees in a lot of places is stark, staring poverty … She’s been at this job for three decades and you get a person determined to use her influence to get action, at least in the part of the third world she knows so well.”
Such thoughts were clearly unwelcome to the Thatcher government and were not repeated. The government did not make a fuss when US forces without consultation invaded Grenada, of which she was head of state.
The Queen, now well into late middle age, might have hoped, with three of her four children married, to have moved serenely towards the end of her reign, but the 90s were to pose the most serious challenges to the reputation of the monarchy since the abdication crisis. The marriages of the royal offspring, which had once seemed so propitious, even marginally egalitarian since Anne, Andrew and eventually Edward all married commoners, began to fall apart.
After earlier years when the family had been accused of being stuffy and hidebound, members now started behaving as though they were in a never-ending soap opera. They even acted as if they were in a reality game show – indeed some of them even took part in a charity fundraising comedy television show, It’s a Royal Knockout, which was regarded as unseemly and tasteless, notable mainly for its organiser Prince Edward’s display of petulance towards journalists who were less supportive of the occasion than he thought they should have been.
Then the marriages failed one by one: first Anne’s, then Andrew’s after his separated but not yet divorced spouse Sarah Ferguson was photographed topless, having her toes sucked by her American lover during a Mediterranean holiday. And finally, publicly, gruesomely, bad-temperedly and with all the inevitability of a slow train derailment, the marriage of the heir himself broke down.
This final running sore through several years did not leave the Queen unscathed, since it was clear that the palace had neglected its duty, either to persuade Charles to give up his long-running affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, or to protect and advise Diana how to cope with the international celebrity that had suddenly been thrust upon her. It had given her little support or sympathy, which meant that when the marriage collapsed it did so in the most public and indiscreet fashion. The princess spilled her discontents to favoured journalists, one of whom, Andrew Morton, divulged most of the sordid tale in a bestselling book, Diana: Her True Story (1992): “I just felt really sad and empty and thought: ‘Bloody hell, after all I’ve done for this fucking family’,” Diana told him.
Media intrusiveness was much blamed, but few could deny it was an important and extraordinary story, or that the press had not had more than enough evidence to go on. Rupert Murdoch had little time for deference and his tabloids pursued the royals with raucous glee, as did rival papers. Intimate tapes from both sides in the war of the Waleses, Diana’s “Squidgy” taped discussion with her lover James Gilbey and Charles’s ruminations to Camilla on how he would like to be her tampon, were somehow leaked – perhaps by the secret service – and ruthlessly deployed by newspapers fighting a vicious circulation war.
On top of all this, in December 1992, Windsor castle was severely damaged by a fire that had been accidentally started by workmen. No wonder the Queen referred in a subsequent speech to her annus horribilis. The building was uninsured. But what was most instructive was the public reaction to the Major government’s bland assumption that the taxpayer would simply cough up for the repairs. The response was conditioned by the revelation that the Queen had not been paying income tax, thanks to a deal reached nearly a century earlier between the monarchy and the government of the day, and that burgeoning royal expenditure had been negligently nodded through by a complacent government and a compliant parliament at a time of renewed austerity and unemployment.
Within days ministers were announcing that the Queen and Prince Charles would be paying income tax on their private incomes in future and that £900,000 in civil list payments to various peripheral members of the family would stop. It was said, unconvincingly, that the initiative had come from the Queen and had been discussed since the previous summer.
In subsequent years, the royal household would attempt to make a virtue both of its economy, slashing spending on running costs, and proclaiming its alleged value for money, and both the Queen and Charles took to publishing glossy annual brochures reporting on their activities and expenditure, though not their private incomes from investments and personal property. Even normally loyal newspapers were critical of the family’s extravagant travel expenses, in a manner that would have been unthinkable even a few years before. The pretence of the royal fairytale could no longer be sustained.
Perhaps the most remarkable economy was the decision, decided by the Major government but implemented by the Blair administration following the 1997 landslide election, to scrap the Royal Yacht Britannia, one of the Queen’s most relished perks: she was observed to be in tears for the only time in her public life as she watched the ship being decommissioned.
The worst crisis of the reign came, however, following Diana’s sudden death in a car accident in Paris on 31 August 1997. The shock caused an extraordinary wave of public grief and a tide of recrimination against the royal family, particularly the Queen, who did not leave Balmoral for several days, until forced to do so by tabloid pressure, following Sun headlines such as “Do they care?” and “Where is the Queen when the country needs her?”
The palace’s reaction to the tragedy, exemplified by the initial refusal to fly a flag on the roof of Buckingham Palace at half mast on the grounds that Her Majesty was not in residence and that it would not be flown in her absence, was widely perceived to be cold-hearted and uncaring – precisely the things for which the family had been criticised in Diana’s lifetime.
There was even a question as to whether the Queen would attend her former daughter-in-law’s funeral. In the end she did return to London the day before it was to take place, in some trepidation at the possible reaction of the grieving and possibly mutinous masses in the Mall, and made a live broadcast which went some way to mollify the mob.
It was a personal statement, made with the crowd seething around the Victoria monument, seen through a window behind her, and it was of a sort that would have been impossible to imagine beforehand from such an emotionless and impassive figure: “We have all been trying in our different ways to cope. It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings – disbelief, incomprehension, anger and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days. So what I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart.” There followed a warm tribute to Diana as an “exceptional and gifted human being”. Lessons would be drawn, she said.
In the event, the words were enough to avoid the royal family being booed in the streets – the Queen even bowed her head as the coffin passed, something protocol suggested only happened when the monarch stood before the Cenotaph – and the mutinous moment passed as Diana’s memory faded. Perhaps the Queen’s position in those febrile days grew more appreciated with time: she was even to be depicted sympathetically in an Oscar-winning performance by Helen Mirren in the film The Queen (2006). More remarkably, the Queen herself appeared in a sketch shown during the opening of the London Olympics in 2012, apparently parachuting into the stadium.
Diana’s death did not, however, end the royal scandals. In 2002, accusations were made that her former butler, Paul Burrell, had helped himself to her clothing and effects and that another butler, Harold Brown, had even made off with royal wedding presents, which he was alleged to have sold in Bond Street. It made the royals appear like some effete, broken-down aristocratic family out of a Dickens novel, not even able to control their own servants – an impression emphasised when Charles’s steward was accused of manipulating his master.
Burrell even went on trial at the Old Bailey, but was saved when the Queen suddenly and fortuitously remembered a conversation he had claimed to have had with her in which she had apparently acquiesced to his looking after the property. The trial collapsed, Burrell was forthwith acquitted and the subsequent trial of his fellow butler Brown was aborted before it even started, with him also being cleared.
In the same year, the Queen celebrated her golden jubilee, a prospect regarded with some nervousness following the events of the previous decade. The year did not start propitiously with the deaths in rapid succession of her sister Margaret and then her mother at the age of 101, but the public respect for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother – long queues at her lying in state in Westminster Hall – at least reassured palace advisers that residual respect remained. In the event, the celebrations, which included extensive royal tours across Britain and a pop concert in the back garden at Buckingham Palace, were exuberant and whole-hearted. Ten years later, the diamond jubilee was also a huge success, despite the weather, culminating in a royal flotilla sailing down the Thames, lashed by gales and persistent summer rain.
As she passed through her 80s and into her 90s, the Queen appeared more relaxed and smiling than she had been for decades. Prince Charles married his long-term partner, Camilla, in 2005 and appeared himself more settled and content. In 2011, the Queen even had a new diplomatic triumph when she paid an official visit to the Irish Republic for the first time and was met with enthusiasm and very little dissent. The Queen bowed her head in the national garden of remembrance in Dublin, commemorating those killed fighting the British for independence, deftly inserted an Irish phrase into her speech at the formal banquet and even visited Croke Park, a sports ground full of the resonances of an ancient British atrocity during the war of independence. It was a high profile, sensitive and even risky visit to undertake – but then, she had done similar things before, not least in regularly visiting Northern Ireland during several decades of the Troubles.
The Queen accepted with equanimity the fact that some of her realms overseas might wish to become republics. Australia nearly did so in 1999, but hesitated amid wrangles about how a replacement presidency would be substituted. When she and the duke paid a visit in 2011 the crowds that turned out were as huge as ever.
Devolution within the United Kingdom was another matter. Although she accepted the political will that created both the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly, and attended their inaugural sessions, she was not above reminding nationalists, as she did in 1977: “I can never forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom.” At the referendum in 2016 on whether or not the UK should stay in the European Union, she was reported in the Sun to have been in favour of leaving – though a Buckingham Palace complaint to the press regulator that the report was misleading was upheld. The likelihood of her making such a contentious remark even in private was indeed remote.
The final years of the Queen’s reign were not entirely serene, as the royal soap opera continued to throw up opportunities for the media’s continuing fascination. Most seriously, her second son, Andrew, usually regarded as her favourite, was forced to relinquish public duties as a result of his maladroit friendship with the convicted American paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and abuse allegations concerning the prince himself. In February 2022 he reached a multimillion-pound settlement with Virginia Giuffre, the woman who claimed he had sexually abused her as a teenager.
Andrew’s denial of the claims, notably in a spectacularly misjudged television interview, and his long delayed decision to settle rather than endure a humiliating court case only made matters worse, and he retreated into a querulous seclusion, reliant on his mother’s financial support. The Queen contributed millions to the settlement and her son’s legal costs but accepted, apparently on the insistence of Princes Charles and William, that Andrew must relinquish all public duties and honours. He was banned from attending royal events, apparently much against his will, though she did allow him to accompany her to the memorial service for his father at Westminster Abbey in March 2022.
Almost as damaging for different reasons was the withdrawal of the Queen’s second grandson, Prince Harry, and his estrangement from the family following his marriage to the American actor Meghan Markle, with the couple claiming subsequently from their California estate that they had been psychologically damaged and racially abused by members of the royal household. Although the couple exempted the Queen from criticism, their highly publicised claims in an American television interview formed a sad coda to what only two years previously had seemed to presage a new royal fairytale: a prince of the blood royal marrying a bride of mixed race. Harry’s popularity plummeted in Britain even as the couple carved out a lucrative media career in the US.
The Queen spent the Covid-19 pandemic in isolation at Windsor with her husband, emerging only to summon the wartime spirit in a broadcast: “We will meet again.” In the spring of 2021, shortly after another spell in hospital, Prince Philip died a few weeks short of his 100th birthday. He had given up public duties a few years earlier, but the death of such a resilient public figure still came as a shock.
Stoically the Queen carried on, but TV images of her sitting isolated at his funeral in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, were a poignant reminder of her loss. She nevertheless showed every sign of continuing into the eighth decade of her reign, as her platinum jubilee loomed in February 2022, still diligent in public service as she had promised in the broadcast on her 21st birthday three-quarters of a century earlier.
Age was by then taking its toll and the Queen was unable to take part in many of the regular public engagements that had formed a regular part of her reign: the Royal Maundy service, the state opening of parliament, even attendance at the Epsom Derby. During the celebrations for her platinum jubilee in June 2022 what were described officially as “mobility issues” allowed her only two brief appearances on the Buckingham Palace balcony, surrounded by a much truncated core of the “working royals” of her family members during the four days of events. She watched most of the rest on television, if not present in person, pervading the long weekend – which showed no sign of diminution of her popularity with the public – in spirit. She even managed a spoof broadcast appearance with a CGI version of the popular children’s character Paddington Bear, supposedly taking tea with him and exchanging gentle repartee about their alleged joint fondness for marmalade sandwiches.
Two days before her death, Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister and Truss was appointed to succeed him. Each had to go to Balmoral for the purpose, rather than to Buckingham Palace, for what proved to be the last constitutional acts the Queen performed.
By the end of her reign, Britain’s people had vastly changed in outlook and circumstances. Despite all the monarchy’s vicissitudes, however, Queen Elizabeth II, a figure from another age, who was stiff and formal and not noticeably particularly warm and empathetic, had won and retained the affection, loyalty and support of the overwhelming majority of the British public, who respected her for her diligence and sense of duty.
She is survived by their four children, the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
• Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, born 21 April 1926; died 8 September 2022