The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth IIby Andrew Marr
A surprising and very personal biography of a woman who may be the world's last great queen, published to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of her reign
Elizabeth II, one of England's longest-reigning monarchs, is an enigma. In public, she confines herself to optimistic pieties and guarded smiles; in private, she is wry, funny, and an excellent mimic./b>
A surprising and very personal biography of a woman who may be the world's last great queen, published to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of her reign
Elizabeth II, one of England's longest-reigning monarchs, is an enigma. In public, she confines herself to optimistic pieties and guarded smiles; in private, she is wry, funny, and an excellent mimic. Now, for the first time, one of Britain's leading journalists and historians gets behind the mask and tells us the fascinating story of the real Elizabeth.
Born shortly before the Depression, Elizabeth grew up during World War II and became queen because of the shocking abdication of her uncle and the early death of her father. Only twenty-five when she ascended to the throne, she has been at the apex of the British state for nearly six decades. She has entertained and known numerous world leaders, including every U.S. president since Harry Truman. Brought up to regard family values as sacred, she has seen all but one of her children divorce; her heir, Prince Charles, conduct an adulterous affair before Princess Diana's death; and a steady stream of family secrets poured into the open. Yet she has never failed to carry out her duties, and she has never said a word about any of the troubles she has endured.
Andrew Marr, who enjoys extraordinary access to senior figures at Buckingham Palace, has written a revealing and essential book about a woman who has managed to remain private to the point of mystery throughout her reign.
“An enjoyable book about the British monarchy as embodied by Queen Elizabeth II… Recommended for fans of today's British monarchy, who will come away further admiring the queen's mind for detail, her openness for enabling the royal household… to evolve, her nuanced relationship with 13 successive prime ministers, and her strong marriage.” Library Journal
“A comprehensive and lively history and analysis of the British monarchy as a political and social institution from the World War I to the present, more than half of which time has been taken up by Elizabeth's reign.” Kirkus Reviews
“British Royalty retains remarkable pulling power, but how much of this is due to the institution itself, and how much to the individuals involved? The answer is probably a mixture of both, but Andrew Marr's absorbing new book leaves no doubt about the pivotal role played by the Queen herself… He is particularly acute on the political aspects of constitutional monarchy, but he also writes perceptively about the individual members of the Royal Family.” The Mail on Sunday
“[The Real Elizabeth contains] a lot of information which will be new to any but the most dedicated student of the monarchy… [Marr writes] well and thoughtfully.” Spectator
“An overwhelmingly positive endorsement of the Queen's remarkable record… [The Real Elizabeth] offers plenty of reasons for repeating the old cry of ‘God save the Queen.'” Daily Express
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Read an Excerpt
THE REAL ELIZABETH
Dynasty Is Destiny: How the British Monarchy Remade Itself
The Queen is only the fourth head of a fairly new dynasty. If you put brackets around her uncle Edward VIII, who lasted less than a year, she is only the third of the Windsors. Yet the British monarchy itself is one of the world’s oldest: the Queen can trace tiny flecks of her bloodline back to bearded Anglo-Saxons and ancient Scottish warlords. More substantially, Hanoverian ancestry remains a strong influence. Both she and her eldest son have faces that recall monarchs of the eighteenth century, the solemn early Georges. But like other families, monarchies can reinvent themselves. Today’s House of Windsor created itself less than a century ago, leaping away from the Hanoverians and their German connections in 1917.
The old British monarchy—of Victoria, the fecund Queen-Empress, and her son Edward, the louche and shrewd King-Emperor—had been at the center of a golden web of royalty stretching across Europe and Russia. Monarchy was a family club, largely closed to outsiders. Britain’s segment of the web had particularly close connections with German royal houses, connections that went back to the eighteenth century and the Hanoverians. Kaisers came to tea and joined parades dressed in British military uniform. They raced their yachts against those of their British cousins at Cowes. There might be mutual suspicion, but it was family rivalry rather than political.
The closeness was symbolized by the last visit King George V and Queen Mary made to Germany before the Great War. Arriving in Berlin in May 1913 for the wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter to their cousin the Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, they were greeted by Queen Mary’s aunt the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz—a very old English-born lady who remained in her north German estate until 1916. They went on to meet the Kaiser, Tsar Nicholas II, endless other dynastic cousins and what the family called simply “the royal mob.” The mob noted the presence of film cameras, or what they called “those horrid Kino-men,” but felt themselves a family, whose connections remained essential to the future of the “civilized” world.
George V was particularly fond of his Austro-Hungarian fellow Royals, and of numerous princely German relatives. Sir Frederick Ponsonby, the King’s private secretary, noted of the visit, “whether any real good is done, I have my doubts. The feeling in the two countries is very strong” and George’s biographer rightly said that, in the coming of the Great War, “King George V was no more than an anguished and impotent spectator.” Others at the time took the opposite view, or diplomatically pretended to: the British ambassador to Berlin Sir Edward Goschen said he thought the visit would prove “of lasting good.” Either way, Queen Mary had a lovely time in Berlin. By contrast, she dreaded a visit to Paris the following year, primarily because France was to her above all an alien republic and there were no friendly family faces to welcome her.
By 1917, however, deep into the bloodied mud of total war, this royal web seemed likelier to strangle the British monarchy than protect it. Germans had become loathed in Britain, their shops destroyed, their brass bands expelled, even their characteristic dogs put down. To be a monarch with German connections was uncomfortable. Rising radical and revolutionary feeling across Europe had made monarchs unpopular too. King George was already well aware of the danger to him of revolutionary socialist feeling. During 1911–12 Britain had faced mass strikes and great unrest. At times it seemed that London would be starved of food by militant dockers, while radical Liberals had struck at the aristocratic principle when the House of Lords blocked their “People’s Budget.” In the streets, a more militant socialism was being taught, with the earliest Labour politicians often defining themselves as antimonarchists in a way few would today. Labour’s much loved early leader Keir Hardie was a lifelong republican who was particularly hated by the Palace. Though an MP, he had been banned from the Windsor Castle garden-party list for criticizing Edward VII’s visit to see his cousin Tsar Nicholas in 1908. Later, he described George V as “a street corner loafer … destitute of ordinary ability.” The King responded by calling him simply “that beast.” For monarchs, even before the war came, these were unsettling times.
George, however, was lucky in his advisers, one above all. Lord Stamfordham’s story began colorfully. As Arthur Bigge, the son of a Northumberland parson, he was an artillery officer who fought in the Zulu War of 1879. One of his friends was the son of France’s deposed emperor Napoleon III, and when this young man was killed by a Zulu, Bigge was chosen to show his bereaved mother where it had happened, and to visit Queen Victoria to tell her the story. Queen Victoria liked Bigge so much that she immediately appointed him her assistant private secretary, and he spent the rest of his life working for the monarchy. When Edward VII became king, Bigge served his son, first as Duke of Cornwall, then as Prince of Wales, then as King George V, at which point Bigge became Lord Stamfordham. He had enormous influence on George, who once said he could hardly write a letter without Bigge’s help.
At the start, though, Stamfordham did not get everything right. He and the King both had instinctively strong conservative views, and during the constitutional crisis of 1910–11, Stamfordham advised George to face down the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Asquith. The Liberals were confronted by the Tory-dominated House of Lords, which was blocking the radical “People’s Budget.” Asquith had secured a promise from Edward VII to allow a deluge of Liberal peers to be created as a last-resort way of swamping the upper house. George V instinctively hated the idea, which seemed an assault on the notion of aristocracy. Had the newly crowned George V gone with his instincts and backed the peerage rather than the elected government, he would have forced an immediate general election that would have been in part about the right of the monarch to interfere in politics—the very thing his granddaughter has spent her reign carefully avoiding.
Looking back nearly a century, what we now imagine as golden-hazed “Edwardian” Britain was in fact a confrontational and seething nation, rife with revolutionary thinking and physical opposition. The Liberals, though more moderate than the rising Labour and socialist parties, were convinced that Stamfordham was their implacable enemy, sitting at the center of the imperial state. Feelings ran high. The then Liberal chancellor, later prime minister Lloyd George, disliked him so much that when Stamfordham came for meetings in Downing Street during the war, he made him wait outside on a hard wooden chair.
Yet Stamfordham learned from his mistakes. Later King George said he was the man who had taught him how to be a king. He did it by telling truth to power, and by listening. Stamfordham was a dry and difficult man but he prided himself on his honesty, and in particular telling his king the facts, however alarming they might seem. In the years before World War I, he worked hard to turn the sea dog and countryman into a politically aware national leader. By the outbreak of war, and then through its first hard years, George V had become a vivid and popular rallying point.
In the spring of 1917, the truths brought to the King by his adviser seemed very alarming indeed. The war was going badly. There were strikes and growing complaints that the King was closer to his German cousin, the hated Kaiser, than to his own people. This was entirely untrue, but George V did make crucial mistakes. He had opposed stripping the Kaiser and his family of their honorary commands of British regiments and their British chivalric honors, not to mention their banners hanging at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Royal solidarity and ancient hierarchy apparently counted, even in the throes of an industrial war. Early in the war, King George had been furious at the campaign against Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, born German, but married to one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters and now British First Sea Lord. Battenberg had to quit, to the despair of his son, then a naval cadet himself, who wrote to his mother about the latest rumor “that Papa has turned out to be a German spy.… I got rather a rotten time of it.” (That boy grew up to be Lord Louis Mountbatten, and one of the most influential figures in the Queen’s life.)
These instinctive flinches against the rampant anti-German feelings of wartime Britain had allowed the King’s critics to paint him as not wholly patriotic. Lloyd George, summoned to Buckingham Palace in January 1915, wondered aloud “what my little German friend has got to say to me.” London hostesses mocked the court’s Hanoverian character. Street-corner agitators warned about “the Germans” in the Palace. In fact, George was an exemplary wartime monarch, carrying out hundreds of troop visits and cutting down heavily on the expenses and living standards of the monarchy while the country suffered. He even gave up alcohol when Lloyd George asked him to, in order to set an example to drunkards (not an example, it has to be said, that Lloyd George himself followed). But the whispering went on and then grew louder. On March 31, 1917, there was a mass meeting at the Albert Hall chaired by one of Labour’s great heroes, George Lansbury, to celebrate the fall of Tsar Nicholas II, with much cat-calling against monarchy in general. At the time, the government’s wartime censors kept news of this out of the papers, but George was given eyewitness reports of what was said.
Stamfordham made it his job to get as much information as possible and to pass it to the King. When Ramsay MacDonald, later Labour prime minister, called for a convention to be held in Leeds “to do for this country what the Russian revolution had accomplished in Russia,” or the trade union leader Robert Williams called for a “to let” sign to hang outside Buckingham Palace, George was told about it. Stamfordham said a few weeks later, “There is no socialist newspaper, no libellous rag, that is not read and marked and shown to the King if they contain any criticism, friendly or unfriendly to His Majesty and the Royal Family.”
In April 1917 the writer H. G. Wells wrote to The Times calling for the establishment of republican societies; he was also reported to have complained that England suffered from an alien and uninspiring court, to which George famously retorted: “I may be uninspiring, but I’m damned if I’m an alien.” Henry Hyndman, the eccentric, top-hatted editor of the Marxist newspaper Justice, argued that the royal family is “essentially German” and called for a British Republic. At the other end of the political scale, the editor of the Spectator magazine, John St. Loe Strachey, told Stamfordham that there was a spread of republican sentiment among coal miners who “feel kings will stand together” and that there was “a trade union of kings.” Lady Maud Warrender said that when George was told that it was whispered he must be pro-German because his family had German names, “he started and grew pale.” Wells returned to the attack, this time in the Penny Pictorial, calling for the monarchy to sever its destiny “from the inevitable collapse of the Teutonic dynastic system upon the continent of Europe … we do not want any German ex-monarchs here.” The file headed “Unrest in the Country” had begun to thicken at the Palace.
More than ninety years on, it might seem that all this was mere hysterical fluff, and that George and his advisers were wrong to take it seriously. Small magazines, reported conversations in the coalfields, publicity-seeking authors—did it really add up to the beginning of the end for the British monarchy? The truth is that in 1917, British society was stretched to breaking point. People were ready to believe the wildest claims about German plots and secret networks of sexual blackmail, stretching right up to the court itself. The armies in France faced defeat and the Atlantic seabed was a graveyard of supply ships. Russia had been engulfed, Germany was next and there was rising militancy in British factories. In Britain the key wartime leader was not the King, but the King-mocking Lloyd George, soon to be hailed as “the man who won the war.” Aristocracy, which has always buttressed monarchy, was on its knees, its sons dead or maimed and its estates facing financial ruin. The monarchy, it seemed, had few powerful friends. Finally, George V decided that if the monarchy was to survive in Britain, it must be radically reformed.
Advised by Stamfordham, King George made a series of changes which have had a huge influence on the current Queen’s reign. The first and most public was to change his name, and that of the dynasty. “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” was not only a mouthful but rather obviously German. It had to go. Tellingly, George did not know what his own original surname might be: it was lost in the tangled skeins of monarchical bloodlines and uncontrolled hyphenation. The Royal College of Heralds was consulted. They told the King his surname was not Stewart. It might be Guelph. More probably it was Wipper or Wettin, neither of which sounded helpfully British. So the search began for an invented surname. Tudor-Stewart, Plantagenet, York and Lancaster were all discussed but cast aside, as was the too-obvious “England,” which would hardly have pleased the Scots, Irish or Welsh. More obscure suggestions included D’Este and Fitzroy. Clever Lord Stamfordham went back to the place-name of the King’s favorite palace and suggested “Windsor.” Not only did it sound good, it later turned out that Edward III had once used the name too, so there was even a slender historical explanation.
Thus, on July 17, 1917, the Windsor dynasty was born. George V declared and announced “that We for Ourselves and for and on behalf of Our descendants … relinquish and enjoin the discontinuance of the use of the degrees, styles, dignities, titles and honours of Dukes and Duchesses of Saxony and Princes and Princesses of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and all other German degrees.” A cascade of further name changes followed which confuse many people even today about who was really who. There were the Tecks, for instance. George V’s wife, Queen Mary, or May, was the daughter of Francis, Duke of Teck, who had married one of George III’s granddaughters, the famously substantial Mary Adelaide, known in the family as “fat Mary” and memorably described as being “like a large purple plush pincushion.” George V’s in-laws therefore included a lot of Tecks, and for de-Tecking, mellifluous British place-names were at a premium. One of Queen Mary’s brothers became the Marquis of Cambridge and another, the Earl of Athlone. Similarly, the Battenbergs—descended from Queen Victoria and the Princes of Hesse, and connected to the Tsar’s family—became Mountbattens, one being renamed Marquis of Milford Haven and another Marquis of Carisbrooke. Anything Germanic was briskly rubbed out.
Less publicized but more important than the name changes was an announcement by George V and Queen Mary that, as noted by the King in his diary, they “had decided some time ago that our children would be allowed to marry into British families. It was quite an historical occasion.” As far back as the eighteenth century, politicians and much of the British public had not liked the Hanoverian habit of marrying German princesses and princelings, since it seemed to mean that British taxes subsidized foreign families. Queen Victoria herself had pointed out that her family’s dynastic marriage habits had caused “trouble and anxiety and are of no good” when European countries went to war with one another: “Every family feeling was rent asunder, and we were powerless.” Yet the habit had continued. Now Victoria’s instinct that “new” blood—by which she meant blood from non-royal British families—would strengthen the throne morally and physically, became a settled policy.
In effect, the British monarchy was being nationalized. The Bishop of Chelmsford, an influential figure, had told Stamfordham that “the stability of the throne would be strengthened if the Prince of Wales married an English lady … she must be intelligent and above all full of sympathy.” A little later, another churchman, Clifford Woodward, the Canon of Southwark, said to Stamfordham that the Prince of Wales should live for a year or two in some industrial city, perhaps Sheffield, and marry an Englishwoman, preferably “from a family which had been prominent in the war.” Though “David,” the Prince of Wales, would later follow a very different path, the King’s announcement in 1917 of this new policy paved the way for Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, a Scotswoman whose family had indeed been prominent in the war, to marry Albert, also known as “Bertie,” the Duke of York and later George VI. The policy also made it possible for Prince Charles to marry Diana, and later Camilla; and it meant that Prince William could marry Kate Middleton. It may seem almost commonplace now, but marrying their subjects had hardly occurred to the old House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
The King’s next move was more brutal, some say cowardly. George V cut off his “Cousin Nicky,” the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, and his entire family, leaving them to the tender mercies of Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution. The Tsar, unlike the Kaiser, had been a loyal ally of Britain’s until his empire collapsed. Though George cannot have known that the Romanovs would be assassinated in a cellar, he knew they were in serious danger, and that they hoped for refuge in Britain. Initially he agreed. But left-wing opinion was violently hostile to the Tsar and supportive of the revolution, and as Kenneth Rose, George V’s biographer, revealed, the King panicked. At his request Stamfordham bombarded Number Ten with notes making it clear that the Tsar was not welcome after all. Much was made of petty issues, such as the lack of suitably grand accommodation. In the end, however, it seems that George was at least willing to look the other way while Nicholas and his family were imprisoned, moved and finally killed. (The current Queen read the evidence and wrote with a flourish across a manuscript of Rose’s book: “Let him publish.”)
No action could more eloquently show the radical change brought about by the war. Before it, in 1905, King George’s father had refused the Tsar’s plea for Britain to restore normal relations with Serbia, after the particularly brutal assassination of its king. In words that sound like those of George Bernard Shaw or even Oscar Wilde, Edward VII explained that his trade was simply “being a king.… As you see, we belonged to the same guild, as labourers or professional men. I cannot be indifferent to the assassination of a member of my profession or, if you like, a member of my guild. We should be obliged to shut up our business if we, the Kings, were to consider the assassination of kings as of no consequence at all.” Now his son had calmly refused to come to the aid of Nicholas II, which later resulted in the assassination of the Tsar himself. A revolution can focus the mind of a monarch as effectively as a judicial death sentence for lesser mortals.
* * *
The next change was to the honors system. Most countries have some such system; Britain’s was both limited and tightly entwined with royal supporters. Of the ancient orders, the oldest is the Order of the Garter, established by Edward III probably in 1344 and limited to the monarch, the heir and up to twenty-four other members or “knights companions.” Membership is in the monarch’s gift. Today’s Knights and Ladies of the Garter, who parade each June at Windsor for a ceremony during Royal Ascot week, wearing Tudor caps with ostrich and heron feathers, blue velvet capes and blue garters, are a mix of aristocrats, former prime ministers and retired civil servants. There are also “Stranger Knights” of the Garter who are foreign monarchs: in 1915, both Kaiser Wilhelm and the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph were stripped of their memberships.
Other old orders include Scotland’s Order of the Thistle, which goes back to 1687 and is limited to sixteen knights and ladies, and the Irish Order of St. Patrick, now defunct. Aside from these, the grandest is the Order of the Bath, founded by the first of the Hanoverians, George I, in 1725. Though the name refers to the ancient medieval practice of requiring that new knights be bathed for purification, the order has a less elevated origin: it was created partly because the first and infamously corrupt British prime minister Robert Walpole wanted a new form of patronage. Extended after the Napoleonic wars, today it is also used by Britain to honor eminent foreigners, from overseas generals to leaders. Two of them, the tyrants Nicolae Ceauescu of Romania and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, were eventually stripped of the honor.
For most of its history the British monarchy has been criticized by artists and intellectuals for being insufficiently interested in the arts, writing or ideas generally. This was considered a problem even during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, when it was noticed that Britain had nothing like the Prussian Pour le Mérite decoration, or the French honors for cultural and scientific achievement. In 1902 Edward VII instituted the Order of Merit to mark his Coronation. Unlike most other honors, it carries no aristocratic handle and has no connection with the government; it is in the gift of the King or Queen alone, and is limited to twenty-four members. Perhaps as a result it is one of the few British systems of award with an almost faultless record. Of all the figures in science, the arts and politics during the twentieth century one might have expected and hoped to be represented, a surprising proportion actually have been. From figures of the Victorian Age still alive in the early days (such as Florence Nightingale and Thomas Hardy), through the great composers (Britten and Vaughan Williams), poets (T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes), artists (Henry Moore and Lucien Freud, writers (E. M. Forster and Henry James), and a wide range of scientists (Paul Dirac and Tim Berners-Lee), the roll call has been very impressive. There have been admirals aplenty and even the political choices, such as Attlee and Thatcher, have been well made.
In general, the Order of Merit is a club for people who need only their surname to describe them. They get the occasional lunch or dinner, all together with the Queen, and they get their portraits painted. But OM has nothing to do with pomp or pageantry. It is the nearest Britain has to a gathering of “the immortals”—though as one of them once put it to me, beaming happily, “There are, I think, rather more immortals than there are of us.”
Until 1917, these, plus a special order for diplomats and another for personal service to the monarch, the Royal Victorian Order, comprised the honors system. There were military honors too, of course, but nothing for all those ordinary Britons who served in other ways—giving money, providing extraordinary service, doing something “above and beyond.”
Up to George V’s reign it could be argued that being honored and having “an honor” were two different things. The approval of fellow citizens and private marks of respect, plus the occasional gong from a charity or civic organization, were the most anyone could expect. George changed that when he instituted the Order of the British Empire on June 4, 1917. It has five classes, running from the Knight Grand Cross to the more humble Member. The top two classes create Knights or Dames, and whereas the higher ones are limited in number, the simple OBEs and MBEs are not. The order is divided into military and civilian wings, and the latter in particular has substantially increased the influence of the monarchy. Many of the 404,500 honors that have been conferred by the Queen are OBEs and MBEs: the twice-yearly lists of celebrities, sports stars and others have become a staple for newspaper comment, congratulation and disappointment. The notion of such an honor was almost certainly the idea of Lord Esher, a onetime Liberal MP whose long service as a courtier had started in Victorian times (he installed a lift for Queen Victoria at Windsor, and pushed her wheelchair round Kensington Palace) and who was later heavily involved in Edward VII’s reign. Esher was sinuous, bisexual and a bit too much of a flatterer for George’s taste, but he was shrewd and saw the need for a more democratic honor.
The war had prompted the distribution of new military honors to vast numbers of frontline heroes, while at home the idea was that the OBE would go to people involved in the enormous voluntary efforts being made. Since it was impossible for the Palace to find and assign those to be honored, this became almost entirely in the gift of the government of the day. Among the first recipients were trade union officials, including the left-wing William Appleton of the General Federation of Trade Unions and Ben Turner of the textile workers. By the end of 1919, twenty-two thousand OBEs had been awarded, many to factory workers and charitable campaigners. The monarchy was putting down new roots in the very areas where it felt threatened. Unfortunately the postwar government of Lloyd George not only sold many peerages and knighthoods, but also treated the OBEs as a kind of bargain-basement offer; for a time they became as the Order of the Bad Egg. But in the decades since, the OBE has risen in status, rather than declined, and it is now at least as important to the British honors system as the Légion d’Honneur is in France.
* * *
The final founding act of the House of Windsor merely took a habit of earlier twentieth-century monarchy and pushed it further. Edward VII had understood the importance of being seen by his people and making regular visits to open hospitals, launch ships and inspect regiments. The Victorian royals had had their names appended to everything from children’s hospitals to major charities. But George and Mary were in a different league. During the industrial strife of the prewar period they visited industrial areas of England, Scotland and Wales. George even went down a coal mine and called on bereaved miners’ families. But war brought a far greater drive to get out and visit ordinary people. Wartime Britain depended on voluntary organizations in a way that is hard to appreciate today; from 1914 to 1918, about ten thousand new ones were formed. Having a royal patron or connection, or even a royal visit, helped raise money, and the renamed Windsors put themselves at the center of an endless flurry of fund-raising and morale boosting.
Recently George V has not had a good press. He is remembered as a philistine, obsessed by outdated rules of dress and etiquette, and criticized for being overenthusiastic about his world-class stamp collection. He was certainly a naval martinet, equally capable of intimidating visitors and his children. His time as Duke of York was particularly unimpressive; as his official biographer put it, “For seventeen years in fact he did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps.” But like others who waited long to become king, George greatly improved when he finally got the job. After his bumpy start, many of his later political interventions were well judged. Following a bad fall from his horse during the Great War, he was often in great pain and his already short temper became shorter still. But he coped well with a changed world in which socialist politicians arrived at Buckingham Palace and the aristocracy was losing its power.
When he first became king before the war, George V loathed having to side with the democratically elected radical Liberal government against the House of Lords. But he bit his tongue and grimly got on with it. He found young Winston Churchill an impudent puppy and never took to cocky Lloyd George, particularly when he began to debase the honors system by selling off titles. But there was no public protest: George sat them both out. Later, after the creation of the Irish Republic, he made a truly important intervention in Northern Ireland; his appeal for conciliation did much to soothe tempers when it seemed to many that a wider war in Ireland was unavoidable.
Later in life, remembering the Great War with horror, he was too soft on the subject of Hitler and too skeptical of Churchill’s warnings, but he was hardly alone in that. For this story, what matters most is how King George remade the monarchy itself. How the Queen reigns today, what she does, how she is seen and described—all have their origins in decisions taken by her grandfather when Europe was writhing in blood-soaked turmoil and Britain was facing starvation and defeat at the hands of U-boat captains. This is the first man who matters in Elizabeth’s life, the cigar-scented, bearded old naval officer whom she played with as a child and remembers well, George V really was the founder of “the Firm.”
Through it all, the King was greatly helped by his wife. In press photographs and formal pictures, Queen Mary looks about as grandly stony-faced as any Royal could be. She is a dominant figure in the story of the House of Windsor, born at Kensington Palace in the zenith of Queen Victoria’s reign, surviving both her husband and her son King George VI, and living, just, to see her granddaughter Elizabeth be crowned queen in 1953. Her birth had been communicated to the royals of Europe by letters written in German; she watched her son’s funeral on television. Queen Mary’s influence on today’s British monarchy was considerable, if mostly forgotten. Although she was imposing—she was rather like the frosted prow of some ancient warship—and overenthusiastic about being given presents by those she visited, Mary was a keen social reformer and dedicated good-doer. As her husband reshaped the monarchy, she formed a close alliance with a radical female trade union leader named Mary Macarthur who had led campaigns to raise the wages of the “sweated labor” of Edwardian women sewing blouses, working in jam factories or forging chains. A notorious firebrand, Macarthur was married to the Labour Party chairman Will Anderson. When Macarthur was invited by Queen Mary to Buckingham Palace, she, in Macarthur’s own words, “positively lectured the Queen on the inequality of the classes, the injustice of it.” She concluded, rightly or not, that “The Queen does understand and grasp the whole situation from a Trade Union point of view.”
The first “situation” was the profound effect of the war from its earliest days on trade and business, as large numbers of female workers lost their jobs. Queen Mary and her aristocratic friends had encouraged a great surge of knitting and needlework as war work, which only made life harder for female employees of the clothing industry. Macarthur begged one friend to do everything in her power “to stop these women knitting!” Queen Mary got the point and launched The Queen’s Work for Women Fund, which raised money to subsidize projects for unemployed women. An all-party committee was set up, and though the Queen herself did not join the MPs, she heckled them from the sidelines and interested herself in the problem, behavior that was new to royalty. As the war dragged on, more and more women were recruited to replace fighting men, and the challenges changed. Queen Mary, like the King, became an obsessive and relentless visitor to food centers and hospitals, always insisting on seeing the most seriously wounded. She worked to raise money for relief funds and Christmas boxes for troops, and was affectionately described as “a charitable bulldozer.” In her paperwork and replies to charitable requests, she was equally relentless. She was later said to have retorted to a tired princess complaining about yet another boring hospital visit, “We are the royal family—and we love hospitals.” And she noted in the margin of one biography of her, which claimed that she was easily bored, “As a matter of fact, The Queen is never bored.” It is an attitude, a doggedness, the current Queen shares.
After the war ended, all this activity became part of the early Windsors’ unending effort to demonstrate royal relevance. There was plenty of evidence of the need for change. In 1918, Lord Cromer, a kind of ancient crocodile of public service, warned that “the Monarchy is not so stable now.” That November, George V visited a rally of thirty-five thousand ex-servicemen in Hyde Park, and though he and other members of the royal family were duly cheered, afterward the men broke through to press round the King, complaining about their poor pensions, joblessness and lack of decent houses. He was mobbed, not in an entirely friendly way, and nearly pulled off his horse. Protest banners were raised and it was no easy thing for the police to get him safely out of the park. After silently riding back to Buckingham Palace with the Prince of Wales, the King dismounted and said: “Those men were in a funny temper,” before shaking his head and striding into the building.
As a consequence of this sort of political pressure, the charitable efforts and public visits by the Royals became the monarchy’s most notable aspects, arguably more important than its ceremonial state functions. The future king George VI was made president of the Boys Welfare Association, and the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, became patron of the National Council of Social Services. (The latter was sent on visits across the more depressed parts of Britain, during which he demonstrated the charisma he would become famous for.) George V began to compile a map showing the charitable public work being done by the family, almost like a military campaign, with flags to show where they had been; later he produced a chart that showed the productivity of its individual members, which would be brought to him each Christmas at Sandringham. One writer describes “the King poring over his charts like a sea captain over his log books.”
Not all the early reform ideas were immediately accepted. Clive Wigram, a former Bengal Lancer who became equerry to George and later his private secretary, argued shortly after the war that it was time to open up Buckingham Palace and its garden to “people of all classes,” including schoolteachers and civil servants, “on the lines of the White House receptions.” With that idea, Wigram was too early by about eighty years. But in all this we can see what was, effectively, the creation of a new kind of monarchy. The crisis of 1917 produced a “Britishized” royal family that cut itself off from its German origins and its Russian relatives, and made determined efforts to dig itself into the subsoil of British life more snugly than before. Lord Stamfordham, apart from choosing its name, gave the House of Windsor its founding principle when he wrote in the same year, “We must endeavour to induce the thinking working classes, socialist and others, to regard the Crown, not as a mere figurehead and an institution which, as they put it, ‘don’t count,’ but as a living power for good … affecting the interests and well-being of all classes.” That was the job George set out to do, and which his son and granddaughter then took on. It is the most important sentence a British courtier has ever written, and it remains the most influential.
Even as the House of Windsor changed, the royal family was still extremely rich, attended by aristocratic servants and most of the time physically remote in their castles and palaces. At Buckingham Palace during the 1920s, a brown Windsor silence descended, heavy curtains and country-life routines shutting out the febrile noise of the Jazz Age. After the war, George and Mary stayed in Britain, traveling abroad for just seven weeks during the sixteen years between the Armistice and the King’s death. He preferred the company of his immediate family to that of anyone else; living as a pious countryman, his day was run with clockwork precision, attended by a pet parrot and emotionally dependent on a daily phone call to his sister, Princess Victoria. (In one of the many good stories about George, she was once put through to Buckingham Palace and began the conversation: “Hello, you old fool,” only to be interrupted by the operator: “Beg pardon, your Royal Highness, His Majesty is not yet on the line.”) He was contemptuous of literary types and intellectuals generally, dismissing them as “eyebrows”—until he discovered the correct word was highbrow.
Yet politically, the man Princess Elizabeth came to know as “Grandpa England” had proved himself an astute operator, a master of the strategic retreat who was determined to win over working-class critics, if not eyebrows. When Britain’s first, short-lived Labour government arrived in 1924, George speculated privately on what his grandmother Queen Victoria would have made of it (not much), but then went on to do his best to make the new cabinet ministers—described by one as “MacDonald the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine-driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes the mill-hand” —feel welcome at Buckingham Palace, Windsor and Balmoral. He developed real friendships with several of them. Under George V, the imperial pomp of the nineteenth century and the angry confrontations of Edwardian Britain faded; despite all the dire predictions, the monarchy once again became a symbol of unity, easing itself away from the political fray.
Another monarch might not have pulled it off. Had George’s weak, noisy elder brother Eddy, Duke of Clarence, not died of flu in 1892, the story of the British monarchy might have been shorter. King George, who married the woman who had originally been betrothed to Eddy, displayed many traits which reappear in the current Queen’s reign. He was quietly pious and emotionally reserved, with an utter belief in duty and family. More than seventy years ago the fervently patriotic historian Sir Arthur Bryant said of George V that he and his Queen represented the secret convictions of every decent English person at a time when other more intellectual leaders of the nation were “preaching the gospel of disintegration and many of its social leaders were making bad manners and loose living a social fashion.”
Despite the florid language, Bryant’s judgment also applies to Queen Elizabeth. This is hardly surprising: for the first ten years of her life, Grandpa England was part of her life, waving at her from his window in Buckingham Palace, playing with her as he had not with his own children, and delighting in her company. After his death, which moved Elizabeth greatly, his widow, Queen Mary, was heavily involved in her education. If she is her parents’ child, she was her grandparents’ grandchild too.
When Elizabeth was born in 1926, she was joining not just a family, but a family campaign. A decade later, however, the campaign—and the House of Windsor—almost completely came apart.
UNCLE DAVID’S CRISIS
The Queen’s “Uncle David,” as King Edward VIII was known in the family, was the Bad King, the Windsor Who Got It Wrong. He was the vain, self-indulgent celebrity who demonstrated that charisma, while useful in politics or entertainment, is a flimsy material from which to build a constitutional monarch. Bored by duty, King Edward sought pleasure. And when a senior royal behaves truly badly, he (or she) wrecks everything.
The dreadful warning of Edward VIII is one of the foundations of the Queen’s worldview. Up until she was nine, she knew him quite well as the engaging, cheerful Uncle David who would romp into her parents’ home and play games. Then he stopped romping and vanished into newspaper headlines and exile.
The droll, immaculately dressed, yet always sad-eyed prince had for a long time been the hope of the British Empire. Trained by the navy, he struggled hard during the Great War to be allowed to fight in the trenches, getting near enough to the front line to be shelled. After the war, he had been sent on ritual tours of the Empire, touching that now-vanished world at its grandest moment before it began to crumple, meeting and greeting adoring crowds from the highlands of India to the snowy wastes of Canada. He read out the speeches written for him with fluency and grace. In the 1920s he was, for British newspaper readers, the beau ideal of the modern man. Though a demon rider to hounds, he also sought out the new world of nightclubs and golf links. He was taken at face value by the masses, in Britain and overseas, as an attractive man of energy, advanced views and great charisma. Yet “David” was, before Diana, the prime example of what can happen when a leading member of the royal family starts to behave like a starstruck celebrity. The little people’s rules did not apply to him; as well, he was privately contemptuous of the courtly world enclosing him.
Despite his bad behavior, one can sympathize. His autobiography, though self-serving and whiny, provides a convincing account of the stultifying life of George V’s interwar court, with its slow dinners, endless protocol and early nights. Edward was also tinged with the progressive ideas of the day. When his father, at the end of the Great War, called upon his eldest son to remember his position and who he was, Edward reflected: “But who exactly was I? The idea that my birth and title should somehow or other set me apart from and above other people struck me as wrong.… Without understanding why, I was in unconscious rebellion against my position. That is what comes, perhaps, of sending an impressionable Prince to school and war.” But Edward rebelled not by rethinking the role and rhythm of monarchy, or even declaring for its abolition, but by being selfish and wayward. He took married mistresses, then brutally dumped them. He danced into the small hours and infuriated his staff with his petulant demands. Behind the scenes, he caused despair to the people on whom he depended, and no senior member of the royal family can afford to do that. Unlike the rest of us, they are attended on, followed and guided by a small army of their own. And as in any army, if the chief loses the support of the soldiers, everything goes.
“Tommy” Lascelles, the decorated war veteran and intensely patriotic assistant private secretary to the Prince of Wales, was starstruck by Edward when he first met him. A passionate monarchist who later served George VI and, briefly, the present Queen, Lascelles was delighted by his new job. As time went on, though, he grew more and more alarmed by the capriciousness of his “Chief”; in the end, he became thoroughly disillusioned. During their 1927 tour of Canada, he took counsel from the then prime minister, who was part of the British group:
I felt such despair about him [the Prince of Wales] that I sought a secret colloquy with Stanley Baldwin one evening … I told him directly that, in my considered opinion, the Heir Apparent, in his unbridled pursuit of wine and women, and whatever selfish whim occupied him at the moment, was rapidly going to the devil, and unless he mended his ways, would soon become no fit wearer of the British Crown. I expected to get my head bitten off; but Baldwin heard me to the end, and, after a pause, said he agreed with every word I had said. I went on, “You know, sometimes when I sit in York House waiting to get the result of some point-to-point in which he is riding, I can’t help thinking that the best thing that could happen to him, and to the country, would be for him to break his neck.” “God forgive me,” said Stanley Baldwin, “I have often thought the same.”
That is quite a moment: the prime minister and a private secretary to the heir to the throne agreeing it would be better for Britain if the future king were killed in an accident. Lascelles considered resignation, but was short of money and long on patriotism. Encouraged by his wife, he soldiered on. Yet only a year later, writing to her during another tour, this ardent royalist was questioning whether monarchy was really such a “flawless and indispensable institution” after all. The thoughtless behavior of the Prince had made the life of any courtier with the slightest self-respect intolerable. Lascelles reflected: “It is like being the right-hand man of a busy millionaire, when one is not at all certain that capitalism is a good thing.… Why should I undo an hour’s work just because another man suddenly decides he wants to play golf at three instead of five? Why should I continually hang about on one foot or the other because another man can’t take the trouble to go and change his clothes in time?” For an explanation as to why the Queen places such emphasis on behaving well to her staff (never her “servants”), and expects her family to treat them with similar thoughtfulness and courtesy, look no further than Uncle David.
Lascelles—not the last senior courtier to grind his teeth about a Prince of Wales—finally exploded at Edward during their lion- and elephant-hunting expedition in East Africa in November 1928. When the King fell seriously ill, Baldwin cabled the Prince repeatedly, begging him to come home at once. Lascelles showed Edward the cables, but the Prince, who was having far too much fun to want to leave Africa, replied that he didn’t believe a word. It was, he said, “just some election dodge of old Baldwin’s. It doesn’t mean a thing.” Lascelles recounted that after this “incredibly callous behaviour, he lost his temper with the heir to the British Empire: ‘Sir,’ I said, ‘the King of England is dying; and if that means nothing to you, it means a great deal to us.’ He looked at me, went out without a word, and spent the remainder of the evening in the successful seduction of a Mrs. Barnes, wife of the local Commissioner. He told me so himself next morning.”
In January 1929, Lascelles wrote the Prince a blunt letter and later gave him a verbal dressing-down. As Lascelles described it, “I paced his room for the best part of an hour, telling him, as I might have told a younger brother, exactly what I thought of him and his whole scheme of life, and foretelling, with an accuracy that might have surprised me at the time, that he would lose the throne of England.” To their mutual credit the two men parted relatively affably. Lascelles returned to serve George V shortly before he died, and remained at Buckingham Palace through the next two reigns. He was not surprised by the abdication when it came, but he was appalled by what he saw as a dereliction of duty. Once exiled, the Duke of Windsor referred to Lascelles simply as “the evil snake.”
Some argue that the abdication crisis of 1936 was the defining moment of the Windsors; it was certainly their biggest shock. For seventy years, the crisis has been exhaustively described by historians, novelists and journalists: the wild rumors about the sexual hold Wallis Simpson had over the King; the brutal political battle between the King and Stanley Baldwin; the endless arguments about a morganatic marriage (in which he would have been King but Wallis would not have been Queen); and the fight over money and status when the King finally did abdicate. What matters in the Queen’s story is that without the abdication, Elizabeth would have led a quiet life, probably as a little-known royal countrywoman, enjoying her dogs and horses and supporting local charities. Her father would surely have lived longer since he would not have had to endure the heavy responsibilities of kingship during the world war to come. Her sister too would have led a happier and more private life. In the event, Elizabeth seems to have observed which paths “David” chose and invariably moved in the opposite direction—as evidenced most especially by her careful negotiation of that other great embarrassment for the Windsor dynasty, Diana’s separation from Prince Charles.
During the abdication crisis, the new dynasty looked into the abyss. Had Edward fought to stay on as King and succeeded, it might well have meant the breakup of the British Empire, with very great consequences for the war to follow. As it was, the institution of monarchy was exposed and sniggered at around the world. The House of Windsor felt itself wobble. These things are not forgotten in the family.
Almost as soon as Edward VIII abdicated and became the Duke of Windsor, going abroad to marry without the support of his brother or parents, he was vigorously erased from the story. The monarchy’s solid virtues were reinstated, and the British court swiftly reverted to the style of the old king George V. Once again, the royal family embraced the values it had so long embodied: convention, family, duty.
GOOD KING GEORGE
Anyone looking for a way to better understand King George VI’s service to his country should not turn first to the recent film about his struggle with his stammer. Good though it is, the movie’s unforgettable image is of Colin Firth bellowing four-lettered words. Look instead at a photograph of “Bertie” when he was Prince of Wales, such as the Philip de László portrait of 1931, and then compare it to a picture of him after the war, such as the official portrait in RAF uniform taken twenty years later. The King experienced health problems as he aged, and, like most of his generation, he was a heavy smoker. Even so, the alteration is shocking. In his mid-thirties, he looked like an adult boy, with a sensitive, carefree face, big dark eyes and full lips. By his mid-fifties, he has the hair of a young man and the face of someone in his seventies; his visage is haggard, lined and sunken, an image of exhausted decay. Even though he worked in Churchill’s shadow, being a wartime leader did this to him.
Another measure of the alteration can be found in the fearlessly frank diaries of Harold Nicolson, the politician and writer responsible for the official life of George’s father. In 1929 he found the Prince “just a snipe from the Windsor marshes” but by 1940 was writing after meeting him that he was no longer “a foolish loutish boy” but calm and reassuring. Nicolson wrote that he and the Queen were “resolute and sensible. WE SHALL WIN. I know that now.”
George VI knew what being King would do to him. He felt he was horribly ill-equipped for the job. On the day “David” finally made it clear to his younger brother that he was abdicating, after having left him hanging in suspense for days, the future King went to see his mother, Queen Mary, “& when I told her what had happened I broke down and sobbed like a child.” (She said later that he cried for an hour on her shoulder.) The next day, as he was watching his brother make his final preparations for departure, he told Lord Mountbatten, one of his closest friends, “Dickie, this is absolutely terrible. I never wanted this to happen; I’m quite unprepared for it. David has been trained for this all his life. I’ve never even seen a State Paper. I’m only a Naval Officer, it’s the only thing I know about.” For once, Mountbatten’s encyclopedic memory for royal anecdotage proved useful: he happened to remember his father telling him that King George V had said just the same when his elder brother died, only to be told: “George, you’re wrong. There is no more fitting preparation for a King than to have been trained in the Navy.”
Whether that assessment is true or not—and there is a case for it, since the navy puts the trainee monarch alongside all types and classes of men in a confined place, and teaches good timekeeping, practicality and stress management—it was only part of the answer. “Bertie” had been struggling all his life with a severe stammer, perhaps derived from lifelong feelings of inadequacy prompted by comparisons with his glamorous and self-assured brother, whom he once idolized. He spent his early years with his siblings in York Cottage, a crowded home in the grounds of Sandringham, before going to the tough boarding environment of the Royal Naval College on the Isle of Wight, which had once been Queen Victoria’s favored southern retreat, Osborne. This must have been a challenging experience for a shy boy who had never mixed well with other children. He was bullied and struggled to make his mark, coming sixty-eighth out of sixty-eight in his final exams.
Bertie nevertheless went on to the next phase of his naval training at Dartmouth, did a year at Oxford and was commissioned as a junior midshipman a year before the beginning of the Great War. As a boy he had had bowlegs and been forced to wear excruciatingly painful leg braces. His digestive system was badly impaired, perhaps partly as a result of neglectful feeding by an early nurse. During the war, he repeatedly spent time away from his ship in hospitals but he did manage to participate in the titanic, if indecisive, Battle of Jutland. Unable to speak well in public because of his famous stammer, untrained in statecraft, physically in poor shape (though a good rider and tennis player), he seemed about as badly suited to become the King-Emperor as a man could be.
Yet he had shown another side to his character, a streak of determination and persistence that would change his reputation. After the war, he fell in love with a glamorous Scottish aristocrat. Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was only twenty when they met for the first time at a dance in 1920. She was besieged by confident and pushy admirers, but Bertie paid court and made his first marriage proposal through an emissary. Though it was rejected, he refused to give up, and in January 1923 his proposal was finally accepted.
This was a side to Bertie his parents had not seen before, and they were delighted. Elizabeth was the first commoner to be ushered into the family since the 1917 Windsor revolution. (“Commoner” in this respect means only “non-royal,” since she came from a distinguished Scottish landowning family.) It would be a pivot in his life. As his brother’s behavior became progressively more scandalous, his father began to see Bertie in a kinder light. When his second son married, George V wrote that “you have always been so sensible and easy to work with, and you have always been ready to listen to my advice and to agree with my opinions about people and things, that I feel we have always got on very well together (very different from dear David).” Later George was reported to have said he hoped his eldest son would not marry, so that Bertie and then little Elizabeth would succeed instead.
Between the wars Bertie had settled into the quiet life of a private gentleman, while not shirking the royal duties imposed by his father. He was interested in industry and public works, opening a summer camp for boys from very different backgrounds. But his inclinations were profoundly private and quietly conservative, and he reveled in a warm family life, leaning on a wife who was, according to courtiers at the time, even more instinctively conservative than he was. He was deeply suspicious of socialists, liberals and indeed any politicians who were not “sound” Tories of the old school. He loathed public speaking and experienced a deeply embarrassing moment in May 1925 when he struggled to complete a speech at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley. As the authors of a book on the King’s speech defect put it, “It would be difficult to overestimate the psychological effect that the speech had both on Bertie and his family, and the problem that his dismal performance threw up for the monarchy. Such speeches were meant to be part of the daily routine of the Duke, who was second in line to the throne, yet he had conspicuously failed to rise to the challenge.”
Though he had tried almost every reputable speech therapist in London, in October 1926 Bertie’s wife persuaded him to meet Lionel Logue, the Australian whose unorthodox skills would do so much to help him. Speech therapy was still in its infancy, a hit-or-miss affair which oscillated between psychology, physical work on the diaphragm, lungs and tongue, and exercises both useful and bizarre. Logue was not medically trained but was himself a good and self-confident speech maker and performer whose optimism and energy won over his suspicious and pessimistic royal client. The most striking thing about the treatment was the sheer relentlessness and frequency of the sessions. In a little over a year, running through to December 1927, Bertie endured eighty-two sessions with Logue in Harley Street. He practiced day after day at home, breaking engagements and leaving his beloved hunting field early to force himself through tongue twisters, breathing exercises and reading practice. Little by little, the intense effort paid off and audiences who had been expecting a monosyllabic, stuttering performance found themselves listening to relatively fluent speeches. Throughout, his wife was urging him on, sitting beside him, her knuckles white with tension. As the years went on—during foreign visits and while making numerous home speeches and even broadcasts—Bertie got better.
Speech defects do not disappear overnight, and absolute cures are rare. The psychological pressures of his early upbringing could not be simply magicked away; like so many people, the future King lived with the scar tissue of those hard years and learned to cope with the consequences. Once he became king there was vicious gossip about him, even before it was known that he would take his father’s name (he might have been the first King Albert). He was, it was said, too nervous and dim to manage the duties of kingship; he would barely make it through his Coronation.
Certainly in his first years as King, George VI had to endure a torrent of loud clubland muttering and drawing-room whispering. He did not visit India for the expected durbar (and, despite being its last emperor, never visited India at all). Unhelpfully, the somewhat cloddish Archbishop of Canterbury of the day openly discussed his stammer. His brother bombarded him with unwanted advice from his Austrian exile. When his first prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who had been an avuncular source of support, quickly resigned, George VI was forlorn. Yet again he showed the tenacity which had won him his wife and subdued his stammer, applying himself to royal business and duty with a grim vigor Edward VIII had been incapable of. King Edward had horrified the political establishment by ignoring boxes of official papers, sending them back with whisky-glass stains or, worse, showing them around, so that Whitehall officials began to censor what was sent to the Palace.
George read his papers and kept his counsel, and gradually he began to overcome his meager constitutional education. The establishment responded, warily and then with relief. The British press, which had hushed up the Edward and Wallis affair almost until the last moment, returned to its former instincts for loyalty and discretion. In many ways, this proved to be bad for the monarchy. Though it allowed George VI to grow into the role of King, it also made it possible for the royal family to revert to past habits, including a knee-jerk preference for “safe” aristocratic and Conservative politicians, just at the moment when they were to prove wanting. The court was deeply suspicious of Churchill in particular, who had been belligerently pro-Edward. More generally, Lascelles and his colleagues provided a protective crust of tradition and precedence around the four-strong family, which lasted until the 1950s.
Yet in the run-up to World War II, George VI was still an inexperienced monarch, finding his way. When his second prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, embarked on the policy of appeasement, the King backed him so enthusiastically that some MPs believed he was behaving too politically, breaking his constitutional role. George wanted to make personal King-to-Führer appeals himself, and he insisted that Chamberlain join him on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after Chamberlain’s now-notorious visit to Munich. The atmosphere is hard to recapture: at the time most British people were also delighted. The King issued a message to the Empire promising “the time of anxiety is past” and thanking God and Mr. Chamberlain for “a new era of friendship and prosperity.” This was a family view: his mother, Queen Mary, wrote to him expressing her exasperation with the critics of the Munich Agreement and asking why people couldn’t simply be grateful that Chamberlain had come home bringing peace. “It is always so easy for people to criticize when they don’t know the ins and outs of the question,” she complained. After the war started and Britain’s early Norway campaign failed, Chamberlain was forced to resign; when he did, the King was aghast, and angry with the prime minister’s critics. (Princess Elizabeth, hearing the news of Chamberlain’s resignation, cried.) To replace Chamberlain the King wanted Lord Halifax, another arch-appeaser and a high-Tory aristocrat. Only with great reluctance did he eventually accept the idea that the rogue elephant Winston Churchill was the better choice, and he took quite some time to get used to him.
One eminent royal biographer concluded: “George VI was not a born leader. He could seem shy and harassed, aloof and even morose.” He was also famous for his outbursts of temper, his “gnashes,” as the family called them. Yet the war made his reputation, as it was to make Churchill’s and Mountbatten’s. Underneath the thin skin was an intelligent and sensitive man with an iron sense of duty.
The first real evidence that George VI might prove a good King came during his visit to America in June 1939. He was on a long-planned visit to Canada and President Roosevelt invited him south. No reigning British sovereign had ever traveled to the United States, but Roosevelt had seized his moment. According to his wife, he believed “we might all soon be engaged in a life or death struggle, in which Great Britain would be our first line of defence” and wanted “to create a bond of friendship.”
The visit was a great success. Both the King and Queen Elizabeth were greeted ecstatically, and they impressed American politicians, newspapers and crowds with their informality and warmth. The Queen wrote to her daughter Elizabeth and described the excitement of dining outside, with all the food jumbled together, including “HOT DOGS!” At his home on the Hudson River, President Roosevelt and George VI talked long into the night about such difficult issues as debts, steel exports, naval bases, the Soviet position and how to win round American opinion from isolationism. Roosevelt went far further than most Americans would have been comfortable with at the time: he promised, according to the King’s note, that “If London was bombed USA would come in.” All this was meticulously recorded by him the next day and sent back to the British government. (When President Obama visited London in the spring of 2011, he brought as a present for the Queen a bound volume of photographs of this visit: it meant a lot to her father and so meant a lot to her too.)
When war with Germany broke out, the King’s most important role was to support the bigger and even more sensitive personality of his prime minister. Thrown into Churchill’s giant shadow, he never complained. George VI was privy to the deepest secrets of wartime, including the Enigma intercepts; he also had prior knowledge of the invention and then the use of the atomic bomb. Despite occasional spats, he and the arch-royalist Churchill became close friends. He worked hard, ruthlessly cut back the costs of the court and supported his extraordinary prime minister in every way. He famously refused to leave London during the Blitz—though the royal family spent their nights at Windsor, where Princess Elizabeth was largely sheltered from the privations of wartime. Buckingham Palace was bombed nine times.
During the war, the King thought up the idea of the George Cross and George Medal to honor civilian heroes, building in a smaller way on his father’s creation of the OBE. He visited British forces in North Africa, Italy and—most dramatically—heavily bombed Malta. He argued with Churchill over the latter’s enthusiasm for going to France after D-day, pointing out that as King he was unable to go and he was therefore being put in an unfair position. (Churchill grumpily stayed at home a little longer.) By the end of the war, the King had become a genuine symbol of British doggedness: shy, devout, and surprisingly humble in an age when so many countries had monsters for their heads of state.
After the war was over, George supported Indian independence and demonstrated his hostility to South African racism during a visit there. Just as Queen Victoria had been horrified by slavery in the United States and had delighted in the close attention of her Indian servants, so George VI gave every indication of being genuinely color-blind, though of course his empire as a whole was not.
The King, however, was no radical and found it hard to accept Churchill’s election defeat in 1945. He was always privately dubious about Attlee’s socialist administration. Just as his father had had to cope with the first arrival of a Labour government in 1924, so the son had to swallow his instincts and deal with unfamiliar men holding alarming views. He coped but did not enjoy it. In many ways, George VI remained a highly conservative prewar traditionalist; meticulous about dress, honors and court precedence, obsessively keen on shooting, he was a thinner, clean-shaven version of his father. The future Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell said he was “a fairly reactionary person.” When he needed an operation on his leg to restore the blood supply choked by arteriosclerosis, he was told he should be operated on in hospital and refused on the odd grounds of court protocol: “I have never heard of a King going to a hospital before.” But he worked intensely hard, bit his rebellious tongue, and kept the constitutional monarchy in good repair.
All this was observed and noted by his elder daughter, the serious-minded girl he knew would be Queen. He introduced Elizabeth early into the work and rituals that being the British monarch would entail. In 1955, when the Queen unveiled a memorial to her father, she praised his wartime steadfastness, his “friendliness and simplicity,” his “warm and friendly sympathies,” his “unassuming humanity” and pointed out that he had sacrificed himself during bouts of serious illness: “his courage in overcoming it endeared him to everybody.” After the torment of the first global war, his father, George V, had fervently hoped the monarchy would become associated with precisely these qualities.
The House of Windsor has an unusually direct transmission of ideas and behavior from its origin in 1917 through grandfather, father and daughter. In a radical change carried through by conservative people with a strong sense of duty and purpose, these three have become Britain’s new model monarchs. They have been called the welfare monarchy, or the democracy monarchy, or even the suburban monarchy. The essence of this new paradigm is a paradox: the ruler who is servant to her subjects.
When Elizabeth II became queen people talked rather pompously of a “new Elizabethan age” and asked whether the Britain of the mid-twentieth century could surprise the world like the English of the age of Drake, Shakespeare and Bacon. The Queen put them right. In her Christmas broadcast of 1953 she said she did not “feel at all like my great Tudor forebear, who was blessed with neither husband nor children, who ruled as a despot and was never able to leave her native shores.” Yet she went on to compare modern Britain, rich in courage and enterprise, with the poor, small but “great in spirit” England of the earlier Elizabeth. It is also true that the Queen and the Windsors shared something else with the Tudors: they, too, reinvented themselves as a dynasty.
Except for her husband, the single biggest influence on the Queen was her father. But there are two other major characters without whom we cannot understand the Queen and her reign. One is, obviously, her mother, but first we will consider a less obvious influence, and a more ambiguous one, whose impact was at its height in the mid-twentieth century. Traveling alongside the future Edward VIII on those post-1918 tours had been a besotted admirer who was part of the family. Like the Prince, he had been held in his grandmother Queen Victoria’s arms as a baby and given, as one of his names, “Albert,” in memory of her husband. Today he is remembered simply as “Mountbatten,” the Prince’s cousin and one of the most exotic, too-big-to-be-true characters in twentieth-century British history.
“Dickie” Mountbatten was just fifteen when his father, Prince Louis Battenberg, had been forced to resign as First Sea Lord. Prince Battenberg and his son were members of a relatively junior branch of the interwoven tree of European royal dynasties. Even so, the Battenbergs had holidayed with the Romanovs in Russia and felt entitled to meddle in the affairs of kings from Sweden to Greece. Louis Mountbatten, as he became, was a British naval officer in the Great War; between the wars, he rose through the naval ranks, became very close to the future British king, and then married one of the richest women in Britain.
Mountbatten got his great career break during the Second World War despite a series of early embarrassments as a serving captain. His destroyer, HMS Kelly, hit mines and once another ship, and it was badly damaged by bombers after he sent nighttime signals that were picked up by the enemy. Yet Mountbatten’s sense of theater and his ability to make stirring speeches meant that after he had nursed the wounded ship back home, he became a national hero and the subject of a wartime propaganda film by Noël Coward, In Which We Serve. Later in the war, the Kelly was bombed and sunk off Crete, where Mountbatten’s flotilla of destroyers was trying to hold off the German invasion. He was very lucky to survive; 136 members of his crew did not.
Though the Kelly was facing impossible odds and none of these mishaps was explicitly his fault, naval historians and Mountbatten’s biographers generally agree that he was a dashing but not particularly good commander of ships. But thanks to Winston Churchill, who recognized a dynamic and publicity-conscious personality rather like his own, Mountbatten was soon raised far above his rank to become Chief of Combined Operations. Later he rose even further and became Supreme Allied Commander for South East Asia. There he would successfully lead the fight to retake Burma and Malaya from the Japanese.
Wars accelerate everything, including promotions, but to go from being the captain of a destroyer mocked for depth-charging a shoal of fish to becoming one of the grand masters of strategy in a global conflict was quite extraordinary. Particularly in the difficult conditions of the early 1940s, Mountbatten’s charisma and the surging self-confidence that communicated itself in ever wider circles mattered enormously. He had always milked his connections and shamelessly lobbied for every job he wanted, right back to his appointment accompanying the Prince of Wales on his foreign jaunts. After the abdication, he had quickly switched allegiance to the new King George VI and never forgot to remind all around him about his close royal ties. Long ago Churchill had acquiesced in Mountbatten’s father’s humiliating removal from the Admiralty; now Churchill was his fervent supporter. Mountbatten, it seemed, had everything. He had the flair for PR and self-promotion that a tired Britain responded to, just like Churchill’s favored soldier, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He had good looks, personal courage, charm and the self-possession of a very wealthy man. And he was part of the royal establishment at a time when that counted for a lot. No wonder so many well-placed people hated him with such cold and sparkling intensity.
After the war and Churchill’s defeat in the 1945 general election, the new Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, asked Mountbatten to become the last Viceroy of India and finish the independence negotiations with India and Pakistan. He did so, working to a tight timetable and with energetic ruthlessness. He and his lively wife, Edwina, enjoyed the grand style of the final days of the Indian Empire. Their vice-regal house put Buckingham Palace to shame; their daughter compared it to the greatest palaces of the Russian Tsar. Beyond the busy but civilized withdrawal of the senior echelons of the Raj, a ragged dissolution began across the subcontinent. Mountbatten worked hard for a total of 125 days to end Britain’s Indian Empire, making a number of brutal decisions very quickly. Churchill, for one, was appalled. Nobody had fought for the Empire harder or had loved it more than he had, and he now regarded his former protégé as a traitor.
The partition resulted in terrible bloodshed, the worst slaughter and migration in the history of the subcontinent. This was not Mountbatten’s fault, and he and Edwina did their best to organize help. Yet at some level, Britain no longer seemed to care about the agonies of its former colonized people. Mountbatten returned to the navy and continued to prosper until becoming Admiral of the Fleet, Chief of the Defence Staff and at last, in 1955, First Sea Lord—the job his father had been forced from forty-one years before. That final great promotion was given with the reluctant agreement of the elderly prime minister, Winston Churchill. For Mountbatten, this revenge could hardly have been sweeter. He moved back to his father’s old office, and on his first day he wrote in his diary, “Thrill to sit under Papa’s picture.”
Mountbatten was a huge influence on the Windsors during the earlier part of the Queen’s reign—if not so directly on her, then on her husband and her son. First and most important, he acted as a kind of semi-guardian to Prince Philip from early 1930 onward. In its most melodramatic version, the story of “Uncle Dickie” and his young charge has Mountbatten shaping Philip in his own image, intriguing to marry him off to Princess Elizabeth and then exulting in a family triumph when she became queen. This is greatly overcooked. It is true that Mountbatten urged Philip to follow a naval career; it is also true that Mountbatten was a keen and dynastic matchmaker. (Years later, he would try to interest Prince Charles in one of his granddaughters.) He also worked hard and successfully to achieve Prince Philip’s naturalization as a British citizen rather than a Greek one. (In February 1947, Philip took his mother’s anglicized name, Mountbatten, rather than what would have been his paternal family name, the Danish one of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, thus making it much easier for him to marry.) Finally, it is true that after Philip and Elizabeth married, Mountbatten campaigned long, hard and unsuccessfully for the replacement of “Windsor” with Mountbatten-Windsor as the royal family name.
But the Duke of Edinburgh has repeatedly made it clear that he thinks Mountbatten overstated his involvement in his upbringing, complaining that his own father and mother were being written out of the picture, and that he had spent more time staying with his grandmother and other relatives. One gets the impression that he resented Uncle Dickie overplaying his hand. It was he, not his uncle, who decided he should marry the future Queen. At the time they were wooing, Philip wrote a terse letter to Mountbatten, humorously but effectively warning him off: “I am not being rude, but it is apparent that you like being General Manager of this little show, and I am rather afraid she might not take to the idea quite as docilely as I do.”
Much later, Mountbatten would develop an especially close relationship with Philip’s first son, Prince Charles. By then, he had long been a special intimate of the inner royal family, included in holidays and private visits, his self-serving and oft-repeated stories listened to with tolerant amusement, and his vast range of connections admired. Yet for all the affection and warmth there was something held back, at least by the older royals, for Uncle Dickie also provided an unsettling link with Uncle David.
Not long after he and the Prince of Wales returned from their expedition to India, Mountbatten married heiress Edwina Ashley at a glittering society wedding—and the future Edward VIII was his best man. The Mountbattens were key members of the Prince’s “set” and remained close friends during his brief reign. Though he disapproved of the abdication, fighting vigorously as a member of the “King’s party” alongside Churchill, Mountbatten kept in close touch with the exiled former monarch, offered to be his best man when he married Mrs. Simpson, and later passed messages between him and the court. He was on hand to rescue the pair from France in 1940 as the Germans closed in. He was the middle man in negotiations about titles and money after the war, and he did his best to repair relations. In this he was unsuccessful: Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, never forgave the Duke of Windsor for his dereliction of duty.
Mountbatten had a far greater sense of duty and was much more energetic than Edward, and he always deplored the abdication. But he and Edwina had the same relaxed attitude to infidelity, and like the former king Mountbatten was thought to be a bit “too much.” He lived in high style and had an almost endearing streak of vanity. He and Montgomery once counted each other’s medals; when Mountbatten found that he had one decoration fewer, he got himself awarded two more. He was inclined to woo the media rather than shun them. After the Duke of Windsor died, Mountbatten claimed, perhaps more kindly than accurately, that he had been “my best friend all my life.”
The Queen Mother had spread a strong antipathy to that best friend throughout her family, and it is possible that a certain suspicion of Mountbatten passed to her daughter. It would not be surprising if there was a certain ambiguity about him in the Duke of Edinburgh’s mind as well. For the Windsor dynasty, which had come to believe that success was about being comparatively quiet and subdued, Mountbatten’s style—which had been tested and found wanting in the 1930s—may well have seemed dangerously flamboyant.
A gentler flamboyance was a primary characteristic of the young girl who was successfully wooed in the world of the “Bright Young Things” and became an important presence at Queen Elizabeth II’s shoulder through most of her reign. Queen Elizabeth as she was properly known—or the Queen Mother, as she was mostly known for the second half of her life—ended up as a much-loved granny figure who lived into the current century. To the Queen she was “Mummy”; to millions of the Queen’s subjects she was an idealized doughty old duck, with a twinkle in her eye and a decent-sized drink near at hand.
She seemed to have been always with us. For almost everyone alive by the year 2000 that was literally true. Born in 1900, she lived for slightly more than the twentieth century. She was alive during the reigns of six monarchs: Queen Victoria, Edward VII, her father-in-law George V, Edward VIII, her husband George VI and her daughter Elizabeth II. To Britons old enough to remember, she was above all a living link to World War II and the Blitz in particular. Her comment after Buckingham Palace was bombed, that at last she could “now look the East End in the face,” was the most famous thing she ever said. To some she seemed to overshadow her daughter when the two were present together. The Queen’s family say she depended heavily on her mother as a sounding board and source of fun.
Queen Elizabeth liked to flirt with men; well into her nineties she enjoyed the company of a male with a raffish twinkle in his eye. She liked anecdotes about “naughty” friends and relatives, and she recommended the stories of Maupassant about love and romance. She possessed natural charisma and shrewd intelligence and could be very funny. The ballet choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton was a favorite dancing partner of the Queen Mother’s at Sandringham when balls were held there. She would gesture to him when she wanted to dance, but once, as he went over to take her hand, the Queen herself interposed and suggested he dance with her. Ashton did not refuse his monarch; as they twirled round and passed the Queen Mother’s table, she hissed at him: “Social climber!”
For half her life she was a widow, but in general a merry one. Her role in the inner sanctum of “the Firm” was enormously important. Strongly opinionated and occasionally steely to the point of cruelty, she was more interesting than her later public image of a little old lady who liked horses and gin and tonics and big pink hats. (For the record, her drink of choice was actually gin and Dubonnet, a dreadful concoction and a taste for which she passed to her daughter.) With those she felt relaxed around, she liked an argument and liked to win it, just as she liked to win at the card game Racing Demon—enough, it has to be said, to indulge in some outrageous cheating. Her husband’s official biographer said of her that Queen Elizabeth had “a small drop of arsenic at the centre of that marshmallow.” She was famously vague about money and ran up large overdrafts. Yet her charisma, which in her day rivaled that of Diana in hers, and her tough sense of Christian duty—the two were not alike in every way—kept her out of trouble.
Her strongly conservative views remained mostly private and she became adept at blocking dangerous questions or simply ignoring “unwise” subjects, strategies she passed down to her daughter. Nor was her conservatism simply a matter of holding partisan Tory beliefs. She was, for instance, passionately hostile to the Social Democratic Party, formed in the 1980s—but not because it was left of center. She disliked the SDP because it had broken away from and damaged “the good old Labour Party.” For her, loyalty was all. If Lord Stamfordham was the commoner who, with George V, created the House of Windsor, Queen Elizabeth was the aristocratic commoner who gave it much of its style and many of its codes.
The youngest daughter of the Earl of Strathmore (whose castle at Glamis in Angus could have been a setting for Disneyland), Lady Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes Lyon was a vivacious, attractive girl who eventually became the first non-Royal to benefit from George V’s rewriting of the family rules in 1917. She may have been brought up in a privileged family—with its fair share of bloodthirsty history, cads and romantic martyrs—and in a home with many ancient royal connections, but when she finally joined the royal family in 1923 she was looked on as an outsider. The lack of precedent caused a rather pompous official debate about how exactly she would be described as the Duke of York’s wife, and whether she would be a Royal Highness (she would). She herself replied to one of her oldest friends who had written asking how to address her: “I really don’t know! It might be anything—you might try ‘All Hail Duchess,’ that is an Alice in Wonderland sort of Duchess, or just ‘Greetings’ or ‘What Ho, Duchess’ or ‘Say, Dutch’—in fact you can please yourself.”
Elizabeth had spent most of her girlhood in her family’s southern house, St. Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire, with nine older brothers and sisters. The girl called “Buffy” by her family lived the golden Edwardian idyll as it still existed for a few, surrounded by servants and immaculate lawns, completely isolated from the Britain of Suffragette protests, trade union strikes and bitter political argument. It was a childhood of woodland rambles and hideouts, horses and shooting parties, candlelit balls, in-jokes and family sing-alongs. Elizabeth attended school only sporadically; most of her education came from governesses, in particular a young German woman who wrote in amazement about the grandness and extravagance of life at Glamis Castle just before the Great War. This lost world would leave some mark on “Buffy’s” daughter, because it put a very secure and self-certain woman at the heart of the Windsor dynasty. She would inspire much more than a love of horses and a fierce belief in family loyalty in the current Queen.
The war brought out the old spirit of noblesse oblige as Glamis and St. Paul’s Walden Bury were used for convalescent soldiers, with Lady Strathmore presiding over her hospitals. The teenage Elizabeth knitted endlessly, packaged presents for troops at the front and stuffed sleeping bags. At Glamis, she grew used to mingling with injured, plain-speaking working-class men who were not her servants, an experience that would later help with her “common touch.” The Bowes Lyons were strongly religious, none more so than Elizabeth. During the war one brother, in the Black Watch, was killed; another was taken prisoner. Alongside the privilege there was loss, grief and much dependence on Christian prayer and church attendance, all of which was in due course passed on to her elder daughter.
Scottish-British patriotism and a passionate dislike of Germans were rooted in Elizabeth’s character long before the rise of Hitler. So was her gusto for life—her enthusiasm for food, music, dancing and parties were all uncorked as soon as the war ended. She was better educated than her own daughter, but conspicuously failed at an open exam, writing afterward, “DAMN THE EXAM!!… What was the use of toiling down to that—er—place Hackney? None, I tell you none. It makes me boil with rage to think of that vile stuff, tapioca, eating for—nothing? Oh hell.… Yes, I am very disappointed.” Given the later criticism of her for failing to give Princess Elizabeth a better and broader education, the tapioca may have a lot to answer for.
Initially Elizabeth was uncertain about Bertie, but when she kept refusing him she may also have been properly nervous about the implications of becoming a “Royal.” This was an intensely formal, frock-coated and traditionalist court, presided over by a somewhat forbidding monarch. In a revealing letter to Bertie, she wrote of Frogmore, the house by Windsor Castle where Victoria’s mausoleum was built: “Having never seen Frogmore, I imagine it as a large white Tomb full of frogs! I can’t think why, but that is the impression it gives me—isn’t it silly?” She liked jazz and nightclubs, and ran into trouble with George V when she and Bertie stayed out until three a.m. at a nightclub, the Follies, at London’s Metropole Hotel.
William Shawcross, Elizabeth’s official biographer, wrote that upon her marriage she was entering “a sort of golden incarceration. The young Duchess could no longer go shopping alone; she could not travel on trains alone, or on buses at all. She was no longer able to see her friends as spontaneously as she loved to do.… All in all, the Duchess was isolated and restricted in a way she had never been before.” Her situation was, in short, strikingly similar to that of another young aristocratic woman who entered the family in 1981.
Like Diana, Elizabeth proved an early hit with the public. Like Diana, she made a particular success of an early tour of Australia, overshadowing—as Diana did—her husband. Her smile was endlessly discussed. Like her daughter, today’s Queen, Elizabeth would grit her teeth and head off on extended royal tours, leaving her own children behind. But by the time the present Queen was born, her mother had already shown herself to be far wilier and shrewder than Diana would ever be. Elizabeth won over her growling father-in-law with apologetic letters, tact and charm. Formidable Queen Mary, pleased with Elizabeth’s effect on her son, thawed too. And Elizabeth was quick to take on her new obligations as a cadet Windsor, picking up patronage duty, visiting duty, opening-things duty as if born to it. Above all, despite those initial refusals and perhaps against expectations—and certainly unlike Diana—she was sustained by a very happy marriage.
The Queen Mother’s influence on her daughter was perhaps less than that of the current Queen’s husband. She did not pass on her flirtatiousness or her enthusiasm for racy gossip. Her daughter is more careful of money and more reserved, and she takes life more seriously. But Queen Elizabeth did pass on a passion for horse racing, a world within a world where the current Queen has been able to lighten up and forget human bloodlines for the even chancier business of equine ones. And her greatest service to her daughter can be measured by her loss: when the Queen Mother died at the ripe age of 101, the Queen lost not only her mother but an extraordinarily close, lifelong companion.
THE REAL ELIZABETH Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Marr
Meet the Author
Andrew Marr, a bestselling author and award-winning journalist, hosts The Andrew Marr Show on BBC. His best-known book, A History of Modern Britain, was accompanied by a BBC television series that won one of British television's most prestigious prizes. He and his wife live in London with their three children.
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