Elizabeth: A Biography of Britain's Queen

Elizabeth: A Biography of Britain's Queen

by Sarah H. Bradford


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, March 25

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538118
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/20/2018
Pages: 580
Sales rank: 890,443
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.34(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


'In a way I didn't have an apprenticeship, my father died much too young — It was all very sudden, kind of taking on and making the best job you can. It's a question of just maturing into what you're doing and accepting that here you are and it's your fate. I think continuity is very important. It is a job for life.'
Elizabeth II on television, EIIR

On a bitterly cold early February afternoon in 1952 a British Overseas Airways Corporation Argonaut aircraft taxied to a halt at London's Heathrow Airport. A reception line of members of the royal family and the British Government, among them the unmistakable figure of Winston Churchill, stood waiting on the tarmac. All were dressed in black mourning for the late King; despite the cold wind the men were hatless in honour of their new Queen. Aboard the aircraft a slim, young woman of twenty-five, her skin lightly tanned by the African sun, looked out of the window. Behind the line of men in dark overcoats ranged up to greet her loomed the black bulk of the ancient royal Rolls-Royces. 'Oh,' she said, a momentary gleam of grim humour lighting her seriousness, 'I see they've brought the hearses.' She had waited to the last moment before donning a black coat and hat, as if to put off for as long as she could the moment of formal acknowledgement that her father was dead and that what private life she had had was forever over. As she stepped out to greet the members of her administration, she became an icon with a dual role: executive woman and symbol of hercountry first, wife and mother second. She had accepted her destiny.

Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of York was just ten years and eight months old on Thursday, 10 December 1936, when she realised that she would almost certainly be Queen of Great Britain. Tension had been building up over the dark December days as her mother lay ill with influenza in her third-floor bedroom and her father hurried in and out of the house, a haunted look on his face, the muscles in his cheek twitching with nerves. Outside the house, No. 145 Piccadilly, silent crowds gathered waiting to hear if and when Elizabeth's father, Prince Albert, Duke of York, would succeed his older brother, King Edward VIII, Elizabeth's 'Uncle David', as King of Great Britain, Emperor of India, King of the Dominions of Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand and titular head of the great British Empire on which the sun never set.

Elizabeth learned the truth from a servant; everyone else was too traumatised to think of keeping her informed of what was seen as one of the most disgraceful and dangerous episodes in the history of the royal family: her uncle had that morning abdicated his throne to marry an American divorcee; her father, second son of the late King George V, would be King in his place. As her father's eldest child, Elizabeth was first in line to succeed him. Even at the age of ten, she knew that this was not an occasion for celebration from either her own personal point of view or that of her family, the House of Windsor. She had seen her father's distress at the prospect of becoming King and she had already had personal experience of the glass wall which divides royalty from the rest of mankind. According to one source, from that day she prayed nightly for the birth of a brother to supersede her in the royal succession. She was already sufficiently trained in the long history of her family and the British monarchy to know that a voluntary abdication was without precedent. Two of her ancestors, Charles I and James II, had been forced off the throne, but their bloodline, even if abruptly diverted, had returned with their descendants. Legitimacy of descent was the basis of the dynastic right by which her family held the British throne. It was the key to her own extraordinary destiny. Elizabeth knew that this was a turning-point in her life. Where any ordinary child would have headed the daily diary she kept simply with the date, when Elizabeth sat down to write up her swimming lesson notes for 10 December 1936, she headed her entry 'Abdication Day'.

A complex web of bloodlines on her father's side traced Elizabeth's descent back to the Saxon Kings of Wessex, who had emerged supreme over the various Germanic tribes, invaders of the province of Roman Britain after the departure of the imperial troops in the mid-fifth century AD. The early Kings had claimed descent from Woden, the Saxon God of War, as justification for their right to rule; later, when they converted to Christianity, they sanctified their claims as the Lord's Anointed, Christ's deputies on earth. Elizabeth's most famous Saxon ancestor, Alfred the Great, was confirmed in Rome at the age of five by Pope Leo IV in 853 AD; and for some seven hundred years the Kings of England acknowledged papal supremacy. Except for the brief Cromwellian interregnum between 1649 and 1660, the descendants of Egbert, King of Wessex (802-39), have reigned continuously in Britain for nearly twelve hundred years. A succession of dynasties had followed the Saxons — Normans, Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts and finally, in 1714, Princess Elizabeth's own immediate ancestors, the Hanoverians They were thoroughly German, but a thin bloodline of legitimacy took them back to another Elizabeth who was both Tudor and Stuart, James I's daughter, the Winter Queen.

By then the British people as represented (though not yet in any real democratic sense) by Parliament had laid down the limits of royal power. Power lay with the people in Parliament; the British monarchy was constitutional and Protestant. The third Hanoverian king, George III, had surrendered a large part of Crown property in return for an annual allowance from Parliament, the Civil List, an arrangement which definitively put his descendants in the hands of their subjects. Although the kings' powers sounded almost unlimited — they were supreme governors of the Church of England and heads of the armed forces, enjoying the right to appoint prime ministers and dissolve Parliaments — in actual fact all executive power was exercised by what was politely termed 'His (or Her) Majesty's Government'. For all the high-sounding titles of the royal household, many of them dating from the days when kings or queens held the real power of decision over their subjects' lives, the monarchs were in fact only very important cogs in a complicated machinery of government, control of which was increasingly slipping into democratic hands. Since all the most glamorous and valuable parts of their inheritance, the royal collections and the royal palaces, were now inalienable, the British royal family were in essence hereditary heads of state, dependent in the last instance on the will of their subjects to sustain them in that position.

The reality of their situation had taken some time to sink in. The first two Hanoverian kings had made no attempt to endear themselves to the population at large; George I spoke no English at all while George II spoke it badly. George III, who contrived to lose the American colonies, was the first British monarch of the Hanoverian dynasty to be regarded with any affection by his people. He was simple and approachable, an engaging man with a taste and a talent for art and music, who formed one of the great royal collections, but his later life and reign were overshadowed by a terrible and agonising rare genetic disease, porphyria, which induced unpredictable and increasingly prolonged bouts of insanity. George III led an admirably domestic life with his Queen Charlotte, the first of his dynasty to do so, but as a role model for the royal family it was short-lived. Mistresses, bastards and extravagance characterised the lives of most of his sons. George IV, who had inherited his father's taste and was responsible for improving Windsor Castle, secretly married a Catholic, Mrs Fitzherbert, and subsequently a German princess, Caroline, whom he later divorced amidst resounding scandal. Caricatures of George IV exceeded in violence anything subsequently produced on the royal family; two of the most vicious artists had to be bought off. His brother, William IV, nicknamed 'Silly Billy', after forty years living with a common-law wife, married at the last moment in the hope of producing an heir, but perhaps fortunately for the subsequent history of the British monarchy, he failed.

His niece, Victoria, Elizabeth's great-great-grandmother, daughter of his younger brother, Edward, Duke of Kent (who had hastily dropped his French mistress and married a Saxe-Coburg princess for the same reason), had scarcely a drop of English blood in her veins. She was even younger than Elizabeth, only eighteen when she succeeded to the throne on her uncle William's death in 1837; by the time she died more than sixty-four years later, her large family, dynastic skills and powerful personality had made her 'the grandmother of Europe'. She was to be a role model for the young Elizabeth when she became Queen; Victoria's solemn promise on the morning of her accession, 'I will be good,' could have been echoed by her great-great-granddaughter. Victoria, like Elizabeth, was small but had exceptional self-possession and natural dignity to compensate for it. In Victoria's case (but not Elizabeth's), the self-possession was a mask concealing a temperament so highly-strung that her husband, Prince Albert (another Saxe-Coburg), confided that he sometimes feared for her sanity, suspecting that she might have inherited the madness of her grandfather George III (in fact, Victoria was a carrier of another genetic disease, haemophilia). Victoria was a passionate and demanding wife — she must, one royal historian told Harold Nicolson, official biographer to George V, 'have been great fun in bed'. Victoria liked sex but disliked childbirth and pregnancy; none the less, in twenty-two years of marriage she produced nine children, all of whom survived to adulthood. All married partners carefully vetted for them by their mother, producing a raft of grandchildren including the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

When Albert died, presumably of typhoid, at Windsor Castle on 14 December 1861, Victoria withdrew into the deepest mourning. She was shy and disliked 'Society' with a capital 'S'; after Albert's death she appeared as little as she could in public, refusing even to perform state duties like the formal opening of Parliament. She spent as much time as she could in the Highlands at Balmoral, the holiday home that she and Albert had built, retreating to ever more remote lodges in the hills, where she spent hours painting watercolours or writing up her journals. Her reclusive life made her unpopular; she was seen not to be performing her public duties and rumours of her close relationship with her Scottish servant, John Brown, spread through society. In June 1867 the Cabinet went so far as to warn Victoria about it and in fashionable drawing-rooms the Queen was referred to as 'Mrs Brown'. There has never been any evidence that the Queen married John Brown; her strong sense of royalty made it very unlikely that she would do so. Brown was, however, allowed latitude with the Queen that no one else in her family or household would ever have been given. One of her Private Secretaries told his wife of seeing the Queen get up from the table after dinner and, with the utmost unconcern, step gracefully over the prostrate figure of John Brown, lying dead drunk on the floor behind her chair. Rumours of even more intimate behaviour, with Brown being seen entering the Queen's bedroom at night, circulated among the aristocratic families of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, and, according to the Queen's doctor, she left instructions that a photograph of Brown should be placed in her hand when she was laid in her coffin. After her death, her son, Edward VII, who had detested Brown, destroyed several statues of him, and when her grandson succeeded as George V he had the last remaining statue, which had stood outside Brown's house at Balmoral, removed to an obscure position in the woods.

Victoria was exceptionally free from class or racial prejudice for a woman of her time. She was indulgent not only to Brown and his fellow Highlanders at Balmoral but also to her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, known as 'the Munshi', for whom she built a house at Balmoral in the style of an Indian bungalow to make him feel at home. She was deeply concerned when her son, the Prince of Wales, reported from India the snobbish treatment of Indians by British military and colonial officials. At a time when anti-Semitism was widespread in English society, the Queen preferred Benjamin Disraeli to any of her aristocratic Prime Ministers (with the exception of Lord Melbourne, the father-figure of her youth). Although prudish and dictatorial, she was also kind and humane. When the daughter of one of her German princely relations was seduced and made pregnant by a footman, Queen Victoria alone supported her. She hated snobbish behaviour and particularly the macho bullyboy attitudes — 'so-called manliness' she termed it — to be found in British educational establishments. When her son Prince Arthur was sent to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, the Queen 'dreaded him becoming harsh and stuck up; she distrusted the regular type of young officer'.(1) Despite her secluded life, Victoria's views on political and social questions usually coincided with those of the mass of her subjects. The high aristocrat, Lord Salisbury, who served as her Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, used her as his sounding-board for public opinion: 'I have always felt', he wrote, 'that when I knew what the Queen thought, I knew pretty certainly what view her subjects would take, and especially the middle class of her subjects.'(2)

That the Queen was neither snobbish nor particularly sympathetic towards the aristocratic point of view did not, however, imply that she did not have a strong sense of her own position. To her, royalty was a caste apart. 'In our position which is so totally different from other people's,' she advised her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Germany, 'one ought not to be left alone, without a Child or a Relation.' There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of a royal doctor congratulating Queen Victoria on the birth of the Prince of Wales — 'a fine boy, ma'am,' he said. 'Prince, you mean,' was the weak but frosty reply. To Victoria and her royal relations, the world was simply divided into two groups, royalty and non-royalty. An observer of the court of her grandson, George V, told Harold Nicolson that in his opinion royalties never saw any difference or gradation between nonroyalties, and that to them the Duke of Devonshire was much the same as any other commoner.

The members of a caste, according to the dictionary, are socially equal, have the same religious rites, generally follow the same occupation or profession, and have no social intercourse with those of another caste. Victoria's son and heir, Edward VII, certainly regarded kingship as a profession. When pressure was put on him by Germany and Italy to restore diplomatic relations with Serbia after the assassination in 1903 of the King and Queen, Edward claimed that British public opinion was too outraged to accept it, adding:

I have another, and, so to say, a personal reason. My profession is to be King. King Alexander was also by profession a King. I cannot be indifferent to the assassination of a member of my profession ... We should be obliged to shut up our businesses if we, the kings, were to consider the assassination of kings as of no consequence at all ...(3)

Another feature of a profession or caste, which, like royalty, depends so greatly on ritual and ceremonial as its distinguishing features, is an obsession with outward form. The males of the House of Windsor since the reign of George IV have been fanatical on the subject of clothes. Even Queen Victoria, who herself wore a simple black dress and widow's cap after the death of Albert, was aware of its importance in sending signals to the public at large: '... it gives also the one outward sign from which people in general can and often do judge upon the inward state of mind and feeling of a person,' she wrote to Edward, aged ten; 'for this they all see, while the other they cannot see. On that account it is of some importance particularly in persons of high rank.'

Edward took his mother's advice very much to heart. At a public drawing-room at Buckingham Palace, he raged out loud at the Prime Minister, the absent-minded Lord Salisbury, who appeared in an odd mixture of clothing, having dressed in a hurry without the help of his valet. 'Here is Europe in a turmoil,' he shouted, 'twenty ambassadors and ministers looking on — what will they think — what can they think of a Prime Minister who can't put on his clothes?' A good deal of the battleground between Edward's son, George V, and George's own heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor, raged over the latter's innovations in dress. To George V, his son's thickly knotted ties, Fair Isle sweaters, trouser turn-ups and fondness for dinner jackets as opposed to tails, were the outward sign of his inner rejection of traditional values. Elizabeth's father, George VI, though more conservatively dressed than his brother, was intensely interested in clothes, spent hours with his tailors, suggested to the royal couturier Norman Hartnell that he design crinolines copied from Winterhalter portraits to create a new image for Queen Elizabeth, and in the last week of his life spent time writing a long letter to the Chancellor of the Order of the Garter describing his own design for special boots and trousers to be worn with the Order. Elizabeth herself, although not really interested in clothes, has inherited the family sharp eye for correct detail in dress and decorations. 'How dull the royal family is,' the sharp-tongued Margot Asquith complained of George V's court, 'only interested in buttons and things.'

By the end of her reign in 1901 Victoria had immeasurably raised the status of the British monarchy in the public eye. The virtuous domestic image of her life with Albert had blotted out the memory of the disreputable sons of George III, her 'wicked uncles', with their extravagance, their mistresses and illegitimate children, and the scandal of George IV's divorce from his wife, Queen Caroline. Victoria had taken great care over her children's marriages and all but two had been successful. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, had made a grand marriage with the Tsar's daughter, the Grand Duchess Marie, but the two did not get on; he died of cancer probably aggravated by addiction to alcohol, while she became so anti-British that she refused to allow their beautiful daughter, Marie, to contemplate marriage with Victoria's grandson, George, preferring to marry her off to a dull Hohenzollern who succeeded to the doubtful throne of Romania. Princess Louise married a commoner (i.e. a non-royal), the Marquis of Lorne, heir to the dukedom of Argyll, but their marriage ended in separation.

Victoria's principal problem, one which had become a family tradition since the arrival of the Hanoverians, was with the Prince of Wales. The position of the heir to the throne, who, because of his status, cannot take an ordinary office job and yet has to wait until his parent dies before he can take on the work he or she is destined for, is a particularly difficult one. Just because he is the heir, his parents' expectations of him are high and it is difficult for him to win their approval. At the same time as he has virtually nothing meaningful to occupy his time, he is fawned on and flattered by everyone and invariably lands in trouble, usually sexual. Victoria's eldest son, the future Edward VII, Prince Albert Edward (known as 'Bertie' in the family), was no exception to the rule. His parents were in a chronic state of disappointment with him since childhood; he fell short of the academic standards they expected of him and showed a notable lack of enthusiasm for the rigorous educational programme they set up for him. Moreover, as he grew up it became obvious to them that he was a dedicated sensualist; his first sexual exploit with an actress when he was a young officer stationed at the Curragh in Dublin finished him irrevocably in his parents' eyes. Victoria, quite unfairly, blamed the distress this episode caused for Albert's death some months later. She married off the Prince as soon as possible to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.

Alexandra was beautiful, chic, empty-headed, affectionate, spoiled and strong-willed; like the twentieth-century Lady Diana Spencer, her beauty, charm and elegance made her an instant hit with the British public. She too had a strong affinity with children and the sick, adored birds and animals and kept her figure lithe with gymnastics. Increasing deafness made her withdraw from social life, but she retained her beauty until old age with carefully enamelled make-up, wigs which she cheerfully admitted to wearing, and hats with veils which helped to conceal her age. Bertie's marriage to Alexandra did not stop him indulging in a succession of mistresses, usually the wives of his friends but also, famously, the actress Lillie Langtry. His wife endured these serial affairs with great dignity; unlike the present Princess of Wales, she never made a scene, even generously allowing her husband's last mistress, the Hon. Mrs George Keppel, to visit him when he was dying. The British public was not so forbearing on her behalf and Bertie was once hissed at Ascot racecourse by the crowd, angry at one of his more public infidelities. There were scandals; on one occasion he had to take the witness stand in a divorce case, while the Tranby Croft affair involved cheating at baccarat at a house where he happened to be spending the weekend. His appetite for eating equalled his taste for women; he devoured huge quantities of food at short intervals preceded and followed by innumerable large cigars. At Sandringham, the country estate which he acquired in 1866 and where his parents fondly hoped he would lead a quiet life far from the temptations of London, he held enormous shooting-parties for his friends during which hundreds of pheasants would be killed in a day. He enjoyed racing and breeding racehorses, two of which won the Derby, and had the family passion for clothes. His Marlborough House set of friends (named after his London residence) — sporting 'swells' as they were called, dandies and court jesters — was a conspicuously alternative court to the hushed atmosphere and impenetrable respectability of his mother's household.

Yet on his mother's death in January 1901, Edward, to everyone's surprise, proved to be a successful King. He did not give up women (although more or less limiting himself to one permanent mistress, Alice Keppel), eating or racing, but he showed extraordinary dexterity in diplomacy, using his personal influence to establish the Entente Cordiale between England and France. His one — important — failure was with his nephew, the Kaiser, who had adored his grandmother, Queen Victoria, but detested his uncle Edward. The loathing was mutual, the animosity both personal and political. On Kaiser Wilhelm II's side there was envy of Edward's great international prestige, of the size of the British Empire and of the power of the British Navy. Edward could not forgive Wilhelm for his brutal treatment of his mother, Victoria (Edward's sister), and disliked his boorish behaviour on his English visits. Some people thought that the First World War might not have broken out had Edward VII still been alive, but, given his antipathy towards his German nephew, this must be an overestimate of his power to prevent it.

When Edward died in May 1910, a kind fate had already removed from the scene his eldest son, the Duke of Clarence, known as 'Eddy', a thoroughly unsatisfactory young man who would have been a disaster as king. Eddy was born prematurely at seven months and as he grew up it became obvious that, although amiable, he was stupid and indolent and interested only in polo and sex. A combination of naivete and lust led to his being unwittingly involved in a major scandal, the Cleveland Street case. This concerned a homosexual brothel in which the male prostitutes were telegraph boys whose clients included members of Prince Eddy's father's own household. Prince Eddy, apparently, had visited the place in the hope of seeing 'poses plastiques', tableaux of naked women, the Victorian equivalent of a strip show. The case was hushed up with difficulty and probably gave rise to later rumours that the serial killer of prostitutes, 'Jack the Ripper', was in fact the Duke of Clarence. Prince Eddy proceeded to annoy his family by falling in love with a princess, Helene of France, whose Catholic religion put her out of bounds as a marriage prospect. He was then steered in the direction of a more suitable girl, Princess May of Teck, who was to become the future Queen Mary and Elizabeth's grandmother.

Princess May, christened Victoria Mary but always known as 'May', was a shy, responsible girl, small but statuesque, with a fine complexion, blue eyes and blonde hair, neither pretty nor plain, with slightly canine looks as she grew older which persisted in her descendants, notably George VI and his daughter, Princess Elizabeth. She was emotionally inhibited and suffered from an inferiority complex derived from the consciousness that within the extremely status-conscious circle of European royalty she was considered insufficiently royal. Although her mother, Princess Mary Adelaide, as a granddaughter of George III through her father, Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, was a first cousin of Queen Victoria, her father, Prince Franz, Duke of Teck, was the son of Duke Alexander of Wurttemberg by his morganatic marriage to the Hungarian countess, Claudine Rhedey, an aristocrat but not a royal, whose family came from Szent-Gyorgy in Transylvania and who died dramatically, trampled to death, when her horse threw her in front of a cavalry charge at a military review. Beyond that, Princess May was always embarrassed by her parents. Her mother was a complete extrovert who revelled in rich food (her weight at the age of twenty-four was computed by the American Ambassador to the Court of St James's to be 250lb). At dancing classes Princess May would be mortified to see her enormous mother occupying not one but two of the gilded chairs provided for spectators. She was equally embarrassed by the public rows which her father would regularly create at some imagined slight. Franz of Teck with his dark good looks had also brought with him a dubious heritage. He was liable to sudden fits of rage which, allied to the splenetic Hanoverian temperament, were to produce the 'gnashes' of his grandson, George VI, and the temper of his great-great-grandson, Charles, Prince of Wales. Teck and Mary Adelaide were virtually penniless, but both were irresponsibly extravagant; their consequent chronic poverty was induced by their fixed conviction that they should live in a style to which their birth entitled them. At one point the Tecks were obliged to resort to the time-honoured practice of aristocratic and not-so-aristocratic English debtors — living abroad. They retreated to Florence for some years before returning to England to be supported, to some extent, by Mary Adelaide's cousin, Queen Victoria. For their conscientious daughter, some of the humiliation this caused her came from the utter obliviousness her parents showed to their shortcomings. Opening a church fete in Kensington, Princess Mary Adelaide referred cheerfully to 'Mr Barker [a prominent local shopkeeper] to whom we owe so much'.

Queen Victoria, a perceptive judge of human nature, was quite unworried by May's lack of money and her 'tainted' blood, approving of her after a ten-day inspection at Balmoral in November 1891 as 'a superior girl — quiet and reserved till you know her well — ... & so sensible and unfrivolous'. May was duly betrothed to the future King of England in the unpromising form of Prince Eddy. Shortly before their wedding, however, Eddy went down with influenza while shooting at Sandringham, and died of pneumonia on 14 January 1892, his delirious shouts of 'Helene, Helene,' echoing in the ears of his disconsolate fiancee. Eddy's death sent a shock-wave through the royal family; a match was soon arranged between Princess May and Eddy's younger brother, Prince George. They were engaged on 3 May 1893 and married two months later. May, Queen Victoria noted, 'had never been in love with Eddy'. People thought her marriage to Prince George merely one of convenience, but in fact it was based on deep love and a similarity of character and tastes. 'People only said I married you out of pity and sympathy,' Prince George wrote to her later, 'that shows how little the world really knows what it is talking about.'

Prince George, who succeeded his father as King George V, was short and slight, with the fair hair and slightly prominent china-blue eyes characteristic of the Hanoverians. He sported a trim naval officer's beard and, having spent most of his formative years in the Navy, his spiritual home, he had acquired its mannerisms and outlook, a fondness for sharp expletives — 'damn fool' being his favourite — and salty wardroom jokes. Every day, morning and evening, he would tap the barometer to check the weather and a large part of the daily diary which he kept in his straggling, uneducated hand would be dedicated to a description of the weather. He was talkative, even garrulous, and had the reputation of never allowing his government ministers a word in when they came to see him. He was, according to his biographer, fundamentally a limited man, but extraordinarily loyal, straightforward and honest. He had no illusions about his own intellectual capacities, but a strong sense of his position and duties as a monarch. Like all royalty, he did not like being told what he did not wish to hear. The outspoken Sir Frederick 'Fritz' Ponsonby, who as Edward VII's Assistant Private Secretary had made the King bellow with rage at his unwanted advice, had much the same effect upon George V, of whom he wrote: 'The King hated all insincerity and flattery, but after a time he got so accustomed to people agreeing with him that he resented the candid friend business ...'

George's hatred of change was almost pathological; he wanted everything to remain as it had been in the days of his childhood and, when he became King, he saw to it that his court reverted to the simpler ways and even the exact customs of his grandmother Victoria. This adherence to the old demonstrated itself in small things such as his attachment to ancient hairbrushes, which he would have re-bristled over and over again rather than acquire new ones. His short temper would explode if a housemaid happened to move a piece of furniture from its accustomed place. At the traditional 'ghillies' ball' held at Balmoral for the staff, he refused to dance because he thought dancing had never been elegant since bustles went out of fashion. When, after the First World War, Queen Mary, as Princess May became known on her husband's accession, attempted to shorten her skirts in line with prevailing fashion, the result was an explosion of such proportions that she never tried to update her style again, remaining like a fly in amber as a relic of pre-war days. The post-war world was to him an abomination. 'He disapproved of Soviet Russia, painted fingernails, women who smoked in public, cocktails, frivolous hats, American jazz and the growing habit of going away for weekends,' his eldest son recalled.(4)

Curiously, for a man so fundamentally kind and even sentimental (the death of a sparrow would bring a tear to his eye), George V was a repressive, even tyrannical husband and father. His own childhood had been exceptionally happy; he had had a strong bond with his beautiful, adoring, childlike mother, worshipped his father while being more than a little afraid of him, and was devoted to his siblings, the unfortunate Prince Eddy and his three sisters, Maud, Louise and Victoria, who were collectively, if unflatteringly, known as 'the Hags'. In fact, Princess May had found it hard to fit in with the close family she had married into, nor did George's relations treat her kindly. Alexandra was a demanding and possessive mother, who did not welcome a rival for her son's affections. Shortly before their engagement, Alexandra wrote anxiously to her son of 'the bond of love between us — that of Mother & child — which nothing can ever diminish or render less binding — & nothing & nobody can or shall ever come between me & my darling Georgie boy'. Princess May had been made to feel a poor relation at her parents-in-law's glittering court, where she was criticised for being dull and boring. Her sharp-tongued sisters-in-law, particularly Princess Louise, Duchess of Fife, and Princess Victoria, liked to remind her of her morganatic blood. 'Poor May, with her Wurttemberg hands,' they would sigh audibly.

Unfortunately, just as they had been temperamentally incapable of expressing their love for each other except by letter, George V and Queen Mary found the same difficulties in showing their affection for their children. They were anxious but unsuccessful parents. Mabell, Lady Airlie, Queen Mary's friend and lady-in-waiting, a close observer of the family relationships from 1902, denied that they were stern and unloving. 'Remembering them in my early days at Sandringham,' she wrote, 'before their family was even complete, I believe they were more conscientious and more truly devoted to their children than the majority of parents in that era. The tragedy was that neither had any understanding of a child's mind ... they did not succeed in making their children happy.'(5)

The couple had six children: Prince Edward, always known in the family as 'David', born in 1894; Prince Albert (Elizabeth's father), born eighteen months later in December 1895 and always known as 'Bertie'; Princess Mary, born in 1897; Prince Henry, born in 1900; Prince George, born in 1902; and lastly, Prince John, born in 1905. This last child seems to have been born with some form of brain damage; he developed epileptic fits when he was four and seems to have suffered from mental retardation. His condition later worsened so that he had to be separated from the rest of the family in 1917 and lived for two years at Wolferton Farm at Sandringham in the care of the family nanny, Lalla Bill, before dying there in 1919.

The children were brought up at physically extremely close quarters with their parents, particularly at York Cottage, their father's favourite home, a hideous cramped suburban villa in the grounds of the vast Sandringham House. Even after he became King, George V continued to live there, crammed in with his growing family, their attendant nurses and tutors, plus the royal household with equerries and ladies-in-waiting, valets and dressers. 'The congestion at York Cottage', a courtier recalled, 'had to be seen to be believed.' Even today when it operates as the estate office it is difficult to imagine how they could have functioned in such a confined space. Yet the children lived apart from their parents behind a green baize door and when they were small saw their parents for an hour a day at tea-time, an occasion spoiled by their sadistic nurse, who pinched David's arm as they went into the room, causing him to bawl and his father to demand that he be ejected. The same nurse deliberately upset Bertie's digestion by feeding him in a particularly springy carriage. When she collapsed with a nervous breakdown, Princess May was amazed to discover that she had not had a day off in three years and it was only then that the story of her ill-treatment of the children was revealed. Princess May's eldest son later described their childhood as 'buttoned up' and Lady Airlie testified that she never saw them run but always solemnly shepherded by nurse or tutors. When they were naughty, they were summoned to their father's study, known as 'the Library' although there were no books in it, only the albums containing Prince George's famous stamp collection and glass-fronted cases displaying his prized collection of shotguns. 'For seventeen years', Harold Nicolson remarked of his subject as Duke of York, 'he did nothing but kill animals and stick in stamps.'

Prince George deliberately terrorised his children; as he told Lord Derby: 'I was frightened of my father and I'm damn well going to see that my children are frightened of me.' He did this not only because he modelled everything as far as he could on the days of his own childhood (even to the extent of employing his old tutor, the ingratiating but unlovable Canon Dalton), but also because he was rightly afraid that royal princes would have no one else to criticise them. As they grew up so his treatment of them worsened. He would pick on his eldest son at the slightest opportunity, usually for some sartorial fault, and shout, 'Get it out,' to his stammering second son, Bertie. George V also had the unattractive, and to his friends embarrassing, habit of making derogatory remarks about his sons. Talking about Bertie's stammer to Lord Halifax, he complained about how '"tiresome it was to everybody" ... He [George V] thought the best way of dealing with it was by mimicking him and laughing at him, and he always did this.'(6) Margot Asquith, outspoken wife of the Liberal Prime Minister, bravely told him that if he went on being so 'horrible' to his children, he would drive them to drink. 'He was always trying to mess up their social lives,' Loelia Ponsonby, Sir Frederick Ponsonby's daughter, recalled. 'He would find out if they were having a picnic on the river or whatever and put a stop to it.'(7) His secret fear, perhaps based on his memory of Prince Eddy's 'scrapes', was that his sons might fall into the hands of some designing woman, something which his tyrannical behaviour would conversely make more likely. A photograph of his youngest son, Prince George, at a fancy-dress ball with two sisters, leaders of the 'Bright Young Things', sitting at his feet clad only in silver-sequinned bathing costumes, caused an explosion that reverberated around Buckingham Palace. Queen Mary was too frightened of her husband to protect her children from his bullying; besides, she had an exaggerated respect for the greatness of his position. 'I always remember', she said, 'that as well as their father he is also their King.'

'The House of Hanover, like ducks, produce bad parents,' the Royal Librarian, Sir Owen Morshead, told Harold Nicolson; 'they trample on their young...'(8) All the children of George V and Queen Mary suffered to some degree as a result of this harsh treatment. David, the Prince of Wales, had a nervous habit of twitching at his tie and fiddling with his cuffs; as a child he was practically anorexic, obsessively keen on exercise and difficult over food, possessed by the spectre of being overweight like his greedy grandfather, Edward VII. Prince Albert developed a crippling stammer at the age of seven and would fly into furious rages, later famously known as his 'gnashes'. Prince George went wild after leaving the Navy, into which he had been forced by his father, and plunged into night-life, sometimes louche; there were rumours of bisexuality and for a brief period he became addicted to drugs. All of them showed signs of nervous tension and sometimes smoked and drank too much. Princess Mary, being female, was not subjected to the same treatment by her father, but she was kept under strict control, not allowed to wear ultra-fashionable clothes and was despatched to do charity work with her mother instead of enjoying the frivolous social life of her contemporaries. Like her mother, she was emotionally intensely inhibited. Her son, the Earl of Harewood, wrote that she was conditioned to communicate only on as uncontroversial a level as possible. He believed it to be the result of an upbringing which discouraged direct discussion or any display of emotion. 'We did not talk of love and affection and what we meant to each other, but rather of duty and behaviour and what we ought to do.'(9) The pattern of royal family relationships was already being set.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
1 Destiny1
2 Princess in an Ivory Tower26
3 Heiress58
4 Windsor War86
5 A Princely Marriage111
6 The Edinburghs133
7 Sovereign Lady167
8 Dark Princess193
9 `The World's Sweetheart'215
10 Tweed and Diamonds243
11 Mountbatten-Windsor264
12 Advise, Consult and Warn294
13 Head of the Family325
14 Daylight upon Magic353
15 Extended Family392
16 Grim Fairy-Tales429
17 Family at War464
18 Elizabeth R494
Select Bibliography542

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Elizabeth: A Biography of Britain's Queen 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
lolitaguy on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I like this author's style. She's a fast read, and has a talent for boiling down complex stories to their essential facts. I also have her bio of George VI. She is a friend of the royal family, as she portrays Princess Diana as a schemer who was out to get all she could from day one--the 'shy Di' image was a face she put on to show the world. Bradford is at great pains to defend Prince Charles at all times throughout the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bradford's book is a straight-forward look at what the life of a queen (in England) entails. While it does discuss royal scandals, it does so in a constructive manner, giving the reader an opportunity to understand how these issues are dealt with and all of the behind-the-scenes people who are involved with a palace response or decision. The book also contains a great deal of insight into the Queen's relationship with her prime ministers and other family members and the careful balancing act of her role in Britain. The issue of royal compensation is also addressed and while the queen deserves her compensation, it is questionnable whether other royal family members deserve theirs. The book reminds us that the role of queen for better or for worse is a lifetime commitment; there's no retirement plan.