Changing greasy tyres, knitting socks and the making of a very modest Monarch
In this major series on the Queen, an eminent royal author reassesses her formative years and reveals how a singular lack of ego became the secret of her greatness
On Saturday, distinguished royal writer Robert Lacey revealed the truth about the Queen’s relationship with Princess Diana. Today, continuing our major series, he describes how a down-to-earth childhood prepared her for 60 glorious years on the throne…
For most of her childhood, the future Queen shared her bedroom with a plain-spoken Scotswoman who grew up in a modest cottage beside a railway line.
It was Bobo MacDonald — aged 26 when she joined the Duke of York’s household — who became Elizabeth’s most intimate friend and confidante.
And Bobo, the nanny, taught the little Princess to open her Christmas and birthday presents carefully, then smooth out the wrapping paper, roll up the ribbon and store it all in a box for future use.
The war effort: A young princess Elizabeth in ATS uniform in 1942 demonstrating that the royal family did their bit during the war
The future Elizabeth II was brought up in the deepest of Britain’s many 20th century recessions, and it was thanks to Bobo that she retained some contact with the frugal habits of working and middle-class families as they struggled to survive in the Thirties.
She learned how to recycle paper, almost as if she, too, had been born the daughter of an Inverness railwayman.
To this day, the Queen keeps her breakfast cereal in Tupperware boxes, and is eagle-eyed in switching off unnecessary lights in Buckingham Palace.
She was not born in the main line of succession to the throne. For the first ten years of her life, her position in the Royal Family was the same as Princess Beatrice’s today — a daughter of a younger son, destined to flutter on the royal fringes.
Brought up with an almost religious respect for the Crown, there seemed no prospect of her inheriting it.
Her young head was never turned by the prospect of grandeur — which is why she would prove so good at her job. Elizabeth II’s lack of ego would become the paradoxical secret of her greatness.
Nicknamed Lilibet — after she had trouble pronouncing her name — at the age of three, the little Princess could often be seen riding her tricycle in the gravelled gardens of Mayfair.
Unlike other children, though, she called her grandfather ‘Grandpa England’ — and he lived across the park in Buckingham Palace.
Hands on: Princess Margaret Rose and Princess Elizabeth on a terrace of the Royal Lodge, Windsor with gardening equipment and a pet corgi dog
She was born on April 21, 1926, and grew up in No 145 Piccadilly, a large, semi-detached London town house that was destroyed by German bombs in World War II. It is now the site of the London Intercontinental Hotel beside the Hard Rock Cafe.
The night nursery in which she slept did not have plumbing — she used a large jug and basin to wash her face and hands before bed.
And she also had a scarlet dustpan and brush with which she was encouraged to keep her room clean and tidy.
On the landing was her collection of toy horses on wheels that she liked to ride around the house. Every evening, she would remove their saddles and harnesses before going to bed.
The newspapers of the time could not get enough of such details. When it was let slip that yellow was the colour of the Princess’s nursery clothes and trimmings, blue and pink fell out of favour overnight.
The Royal Family doted on her, too. When George V fell ill with bronchial pneumonia early in 1929, his doctors prescribed recuperation in the bracing sea air of Bognor, and his granddaughter was sent down to aid his recovery.
Playful princesses: Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret riding a rocking horse at St. Paul's Waldenbury in August 1932
‘G. delighted to see her,’ wrote Queen Mary in her diary at the end of March 1929. ‘I played . . . in the garden making sandpies!’ When the King returned to London, he declared that regular contact with his granddaughter was essential to his health.
He’d also worked out that, when the trees in Green Park shed their leaves, he could see the windows of her home from the back of Buckingham Palace. So every winter morning the young Princess would draw her curtains and wave across the park, and her grandfather would wave back.
As Britain’s economic woes continued, the Royal Family had the challenge of how to display sacrifice (the popular phrase was ‘tighten the belt’) without raising disquiet about the comfort and privilege they continued to enjoy.
Elizabeth’s father, the Duke of York, sold all his horses and stopped going hunting — while Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret took part in a unique propaganda exercise.
In 1932, Welsh labourers, among the hardest hit by the Depression, had been employed to build a tiny cottage, Y Bwthyn Bach (The Little House) in which every item — from the wireless on the dresser to the Epsom salts in the bathroom — was constructed to two-thirds scale.
After being displayed at the Ideal Home exhibition, the house was moved to Windsor, where Elizabeth and her two- year-old sister Margaret set to work, scrubbing and dusting, acting out the role of miniature housewives as they were photographed for morale-boosting magazine features.
Modest: Queen Elizabeth poses in the Music Room of Buckingham Palace last year
Model house, model family. Domestic virtues would overcome. But in December 1936, Elizabeth’s life moved into a different gear.
After the death of her grandfather and the short reign of her uncle David — who abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson — her father was proclaimed George VI.
‘When our father became King, I said to her: “Does that mean you’re going to become Queen” ’ Princess Margaret recounted years later. ‘She replied: “Yes, I suppose it does.” ‘She didn’t mention it again.’
At ten years old, the new heir to the throne already had her own style: better to say too little than too much. And ever since, her instinct has been to play safe, keep her head down and find the middle way. The perfect recipe for a modern, constitutional monarch.
Her father already had complete faith in her, brushing aside suggestions that he and his wife should make one last attempt for a son.
Talking to the poet and essayist Osbert Sitwell in the Thirties, he compared his elder daughter to Queen Victoria, then gave Sitwell a direct and meaningful look.
‘From the first moment of talking, she showed so much character that it was impossible not to wonder whether history would not repeat itself,’ he said.
In the Royal Archives, tied in pink ribbon, is Princess Elizabeth’s account of her parents’ Coronation in May 1937, written in her neat, rounded hand: ‘To Mummy and Papa, In Memory of Their Coronation, From Lilibet. /01/30/article-2093635-1161BD92000005DC-512_634x651.jpg” width=”634″ height=”651″ alt=”Princess Elizabeth is pictured talking with her father King George VI IN 1946 ” class=”blkBorder” />
Princess Elizabeth is pictured talking with her father King George VI in 1946. That autumn Philip proposed but her father was loathe to lose his daughter and asked her to announce the engagement after her 21st birthday
But the Princess’s mother, Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), believed plenty of fun, light reading and fresh air were educational priorities. One July, the Royal Librarian, Owen Morshead, was horrified to discover that the 18 books the Queen had ordered for her elder daughter’s summer reading list were all novels — and every one of them was by P. G. Wodehouse.
The Princesses’ governess, Marion Crawford — known as Crawfie — also found herself at odds with her mistress. ‘Things are not made easy,’ she complained to a courtier. ‘I have been more or less commanded to keep the afternoons as free of “serious” work as possible.’
The royal librarian weighed in on Crawfie’s side, informing Queen Mary that the governess ‘was apt to feel discouraged about her work from time to time . . . [a] delicate point in which I know Your Majesty’s feelings are deeply engaged’.
With the old Queen’s approval, Morshead started giving the Princesses tours of Windsor Castle that doubled as history lessons. But even this proved problematic.
Queen Mary wrote to Morshead: ‘Between ourselves, I asked nice Miss Crawford about your talks to the Princesses, which she is so keen about, [but] she says it is so awkward to fix definite hours or days for these, as her dear Majesty [Queen Elizabeth] constantly wants the children at odd moments.’
This was ‘a fatal proceeding when one has lessons to do,’ added the old Queen, ‘& one which the late King & I never indulged in!’
Among the private papers of the Queen Mother was found a poignant personal note about child-raising which she wrote for her husband sometime in the Thirties: ‘In case of anything happening to me: Be very careful not to ridicule your children or laugh at them . . . Always try & talk very quietly to children.
‘Never shout or frighten them, as otherwise you lose their delightful trust in you. Remember how your father, by shouting at you, & making you feel uncomfortable, lost all your real affection. None of his sons are his friends, because he is not understanding & helpful to them.’
The final lines give a chilling insight into the relationship between George V and his sons — and help to explain why Elizabeth remained so close to her parents.
Doing her bit: The future Queen learns how to change a car wheel as an auxiliary-officer of the English Army in 1945
/01/30/article-2093635-00C2326A00000190-963_634x593.jpg” width=”634″ height=”593″ alt=”Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh hold their first child Prince Charles, aged six months, in April 1949″ class=”blkBorder” />
Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh hold their first child Prince Charles, aged six months, in April 1949
In the spring of 1945, with her 19th birthday approaching, she escaped court life to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service, or the ‘Women’s Army’ as the ATS was known — No 230873, Second Subaltern Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor.
For a month, she travelled to Aldershot every morning for a vehicle maintenance course, learning how to change tyres and cylinder heads, then returned to Windsor for dinner each evening to lecture her sister and parents on the joys of the internal combustion engine.
In the autumn of 1946, while on leave, Philip formally proposed — and was accepted. Her father, who was loathe to lose his daughter, asked her not to announce the engagement until after her 21st the following year.
But even then, he obstinately refused to acknowledge the engagement. The ultra-conservative Queen, for her part, was dubious about Philip’s politics. She’d once had such a heated discussion with him that he’d written to apologise, telling her he hoped she didn’t think him ‘violently argumentative and an exponent of Socialism’. That was, in fact, exactly what she did think of him then — and almost certainly for the rest of her life.
But Elizabeth and Philip were more in love and more determined than ever.
‘I am sure I do not deserve all the good things that have happened to me,’ the Prince wrote to his future mother-in-law. ‘To have been spared in the war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love, completely and unreservedly . . .’
Now 21, Elizabeth informed her parents, she couldn’t accept further delay. Faced with her iron resolve, the engagement was announced.
‘They came to see me after luncheon looking radiant,’ wrote a delighted Queen Mary, who gave her granddaughter some family jewellery. Her lady-in-waiting Mabell Airlie was impressed by how Philip’s costume reflected the country’s state of austerity: ‘His uniform was shabby — the usual after-the-war look . . . I liked him for not having got a new one for the occasion, as many would have done, to make an impression.’
Like the Princess, who saved all her wrapping paper, her fianc clearly had a similar disregard for unnecessary grandeur and waste.
Of course, the Royal Family came round in the end.
‘I was so proud of you & thrilled at having you so close to me on our long walk in Westminster Abbey,’ wrote the King to his daughter after the wedding. ‘But when I handed your hand to the Archbishop, I felt that I had lost something very precious.’
In fact, George VI was feeling guilty about the delay he’d imposed. ‘I was rather afraid that you had thought I was being hard-hearted about it.
‘Our family, us four, the “Royal Family”, must remain together — with additions, of course, at suitable moments!’
All was forgiven, so far as Elizabeth was concerned.
‘Darling Mummy,’ she wrote on the second day of her honeymoon at the Mountbatten estate at Broadlands, Hampshire. ‘First of all, to say thank you . . . I think I’ve got the best mother and father in the world, and I only hope that I can bring up my children in the happy atmosphere of love and fairness in which Margaret and I have grown up.’
Nothing could have touched her mother more. She kept the letter, re-reading it many times in subsequent years.
‘And each time, I feel more grateful for our darling little daughter,’ she told Elizabeth.
Adapted from A Brief Life Of The Queen by Robert Lacey, published by Duckworth tomorrow at 9.99. Robert Lacey 2012. To order a copy at 8.99 (P&P free), tel: 0843 382 0000.