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Sixty years later, Queen Elizabeth II still reigns

Sixty years later, Queen Elizabeth II still reigns

Monday, 6 February, marks the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. REBECCA DAVIS takes a look back on a royal career spanning six decades.

If it had not been for an American woman born Bessie Warfield, Elizabeth Windsor would have led a very different life. Her uncle Edward was to be King of England, leaving her own father, George, second in line for the throne, and Elizabeth, as his oldest child, third in line. If Elizabeth had had brothers, she would likely not have ascended the throne either, but she only had a sister, Margaret, who was four years younger.

Elizabeth Windsor was born on 21 April 1926 at an address which is now a Chinese restaurant: 17 Bruton St, in Mayfair, her maternal family home. While her birth attracted interest, because Elizabeth was not destined for the throne, her early years passed with much less scrutiny than was later to be the case. Yet hers was no normal childhood: for her sixth birthday she received a giant Wendy-house “from the people of Wales”. And from a young age, it appeared that Elizabeth carried herself with the gravitas befitting a future monarch. When she was just two, Winston Churchill said of her: “She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.” 

When Elizabeth was 10 years old, something happened to change the course of her life forever. Uncle Edward abdicated, giving up the throne to marry divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson (born Bessie Warfield). Suddenly her father George was in power, as anyone who saw The King’s Speech would know. And suddenly Elizabeth was heiress presumptive to the throne of England. It is rumoured that her younger sister Margaret’s comment to her on the occasion of their father’s coronation was: “Does that mean you’re going to be Queen? Poor you.”

When World War II struck in 1939, the UK government felt strongly that the two princesses be evacuated somewhere safe, like Canada. But the two stayed behind at Windsor Castle, and while Margaret had no official duties, Elizabeth worked as a mechanic and truck driver for the last year of the war after enlisting in 1945. There is a wonderful photograph from that era which shows her squatting beside a car in a mechanic’s overall, about to carry out some act of maintenance. On the day the war ended, she and her sister received unusual permission from their parents to walk the streets of London unaccompanied. She recalled years later: “I remember we were terrified of being recognised… I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.”

Two years after the war’s end, Elizabeth married Philip, Prince of Denmark and Greece. The union raised some eyebrows, especially because Philip was of no particular financial standing and was also suspiciously foreign. His sisters had married Germans with Nazi links, and the Queen Mother allegedly used to refer to him sniffily as “The Hun”. But Elizabeth, madly in love with him, would not be deterred, and the two married in 1947. In the run-up to the wedding, she received thousands of clothing coupons in the post – fabric was still rationed in the post-war years, and well-meaning civilians wished to contribute towards her wedding dress. She had to send them all back, because it was illegal to give them away. Philip’s sisters were not invited to the wedding, and neither was her disgraced uncle, Edward.

The sixth day of February 1952 was Elizabeth’s Accession Day: the day on which she took the throne. Yet the day likely has bittersweet associations for the Queen, since it was also the day her father died. She normally spends the day in private, although this year will be attending a few events in honour of the Diamond Jubilee. At her coronation in 1953, her robes were so heavy that she asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to give her a bit of a push, whispering: “Get me started.” It was the first coronation ever to be televised.

And so begun the second longest royal reign in the history of the British monarchy (Queen Victoria hung on for 64 years). She has worked with 12 British prime ministers and 11 US presidents. While the institution of the British monarchy has been through some radical peaks and troughs of popularity, the Queen has largely maintained high approval rates throughout.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The first hint of controversy to dog her career came in 1956. Incredibly, the Conservative Party in the UK used to lack a formal system of selecting leaders, meaning that they ended up in a pickle whenever one of them resigned. When Anthony Eden stepped down in 1956 after his failed attempt to capture the Suez Canal, the Conservative Party turned to the Queen to select a replacement prime minister. She sought counsel from advisers and ended up appointing Harold Macmillan. The decision – as well as the fact that the Queen, in consultation with a small number of people, had the power to appoint the head of government – earned her the first real public criticism she had ever faced. But subsequent responses also revealed the British public’s abiding loyalty to their royal ruler: a newspaper editor who criticised her in his paper was the subject of a physical attack from one of her admirers.

The Queen’s popularity among her subjects is partly a matter of cultural tradition, but has also been consciously fostered by a woman with an understanding of the fact that she needed to be witnessed in public, interacting with citizens, frequently. A documentary by the BBC’s Andrew Marr, to be broadcast on Monday night in England, contains the intriguing revelation that the monarch’s personal motto is “I must be seen to be believed”. With this in mind, she introduced the practice of ‘walkabouts’ in 1970, where she greets and mingles with the public.

The Queen suffered a rather too intimate interaction with a member of the public in 1982, when an Irish man with mental problems broke into Buckingham Palace and gained access to the Queen’s bedroom. Michael Fagan sat on the edge of the Queen’s bed talking to her for around 10 minutes, while the Queen phoned in vain for security. When he requested a pack of cigarettes, however, she was able to call for a maid to bring him some, and armed police officers followed. Fagan’s mother later said: “He thinks so much of the Queen. I can imagine him just wanting to simply talk and say hello and discuss his problems.”

By the early 1990s, however, the British monarchy was approaching a real crisis point. This was brought about largely by two factors: public unhappiness with their wealth and spending, and the tumultuous personal lives of the younger royals, which would certainly have left the notoriously staid Queen Victoria rolling vigorously in her grave. In 1992, the Queen gave an unprecedentedly personal address in her annual Queen’s Speech, referring to 1992 as an “annus horribilis” (horrible year). The previous 12 months had seen her sons Charles and Andrew both separate from their wives (Diana and Sarah Ferguson, respectively), her daughter Anne get divorced from her husband Mark Phillips and parts of Windsor Castle burn down in a fire. 

In what was tantamount to an open plea for sympathy, the Queen admitted that the British monarchy must expect criticism, but suggested it be done with “a touch of humour, gentleness and understanding”. Shortly after this, the royal family began to pay income tax for the first time and opened portions of Buckingham Palace to the public as a revenue-generator.

In the 2006 film The Queen, screenwriter Peter Morgan chose to focus on the period directly following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, as exemplifying both the weaknesses and strengths of the Queen’s engagement with the British public. After the death of Diana, the royal family remained silent in Balmoral Castle for five days: a decision taken out of their desire to protect Diana’s grieving sons. The film suggests, though, that what happened was that the Queen radically misread the public mood – underestimating the levels of support for Diana and not understanding that a more human touch was required in her handling of the death. A day before the funeral, therefore, the Queen gave a live televised address. “What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart,” she began, and went on to express her admiration for Diana. She concluded:  “May those who died rest in peace and may we, each and every one of us, thank God for someone who made many, many people happy.” It was perfect, and it won the British public back. There were suggestions afterwards that the speech had been written with the aid of Tony Blair’s New Labour spindoctors, but this has been strongly denied. (Incidentally, it was reported in 2009 that Blair and the Queen had made a pact never to watch the movie The Queen, which showcased the relationship between the two.)

Support for the monarchy in the last while was bolstered by last year’s feel-good wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, as well as surprising levels of acceptance for the late love between Prince Charles and Camilla. The fact that the Queen’s official Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June come a few weeks before the opening of the London Olympics means that they are likely to be greeted with a positive pro-Britannia spirit, despite the austere financial climate.

Accounts of the Queen’s last 60 years are inevitably heavy on facts and dates and low on personal information. It is very hard to say what Queen Elizabeth II is actually like as a person, so guarded and professional is her public image. We know that she takes her role very seriously. We also know that she loves horses and dogs, and through breeding her corgis with a dachshund has created a special breed of Buckingham Palace ‘dorgi’. She is also believed to be religious: in her annual address in 2000, she said: “I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

In February 2010, I attended a reception held by the Queen at Buckingham Palace for South Africans in the UK, in advance of Jacob Zuma’s state visit. This sounds much more impressive than it was: I was invited purely because under the remit of my job at the time, I had assisted the royal household by telling them who the prominent South Africans in the UK were, and they thanked me with an invitation. We duly queued to be presented to the Queen, who unsmilingly extended her hand for the barest of seconds and then withdrew it. Later, I got chatting to the management accountant of the Royal Household, who most incongruously was an Afrikaans woman from the Klein Karoo.

She had weekly one-on-ones with the Queen, she told me, where the Queen poured over the figures for all her properties with steely vigilance, alert to sudden upturns in the quantity of dishwashing liquid purchased for Balmoral, or the amount of lamb-chunks for the corgis they’re going through at Windsor. “And you know the thing about the Queen?” she said earnestly, “she doesn’t take shit, hey.”

As we chatted in little circles, the Queen and Prince Phillip walked from group to group to briefly interact. Arriving at mine, she politely inquired as to what we all did for a living. Then a member of my circle asked her if she’d been to South Africa. Her whole face lit up as she spoke about horse-riding on the beach here, just after the war in 1947. “I’ve never felt so free,” she reminisced. And then briskly moved on to the next group. DM

Watch a tribute to Queen Elizabeth here:

Photo: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth celebrates sixty years of rule today (Monday, 6 February 2012). REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett.


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