The day the Queen threw a tantrum and tipped a pot of ink over her own head
21:56 GMT, 18 May 2012
21:56 GMT, 18 May 2012
Throughout the Queen’s long reign there has only ever been one intimate account of her early life – written by her governess Marion Crawford in 1950 and now reissued to mark the Diamond Jubilee.
In the first part of our serialisation, Crawfie, as the Queen called her, recalls her first meeting with her five-year-old charge, when her father — the future George VI — was still Duke of York…
Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, and her sister Princess Margaret. 'Margaret always wants what I want,' was a common complaint
After a long trip down from my home in Scotland, I arrived to find my new employers had gone out and the future Queen of England was in bed.
She knew I was coming, though.
As soon as I stepped through the door of the Royal Lodge, Windsor, a butler told me that Her Royal Highness had been granted permission to stay awake until my arrival.
In the night nursery upstairs — decorated in her mother’s favourite colour scheme of fawn and pink — a small girl with a mass of curls was driving her team of horses round the park.
For this, she’d attached her dressing-gown cords to the posts of her old-fashioned bed.
‘How do you do,’ she said politely.
Then she gave me a long, comprehensive look and asked, ‘Why have you no hair’
I pulled off my hat. ‘I have enough to go on with,’ I said. ‘It’s an Eton crop.’
As she picked up her reins again, I asked if she usually drove in bed.
‘I mostly go once or twice round the park before I go to sleep, you know,’ she said.
‘It exercises my horses.’
After navigating a dangerous and difficult corner, she added, ‘Are you going to stay with us’
I told her I’d be her governess for a little while. But, in truth, teaching the King’s granddaughter was the last thing I’d expected after completing my training to be a teacher.
After graduating, I’d been desperate to work with poor children. But first I’d taken a temporary post as governess to the children of the Earl and Countess of Elgin in my hometown of Dunfermline.
Then one day, as I crossed their lawn, I looked up at the house because I had an eerie feeling that someone was watching me.
For the first time, my eyes met that long cool stare that I was later to know so well.
The 31-year-old Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother) was visiting with her husband, and evidently approved of what she saw.
Royal charges: Elizabeth and Margaret in 1932, when 'Crawfie' was employed. Marion was just 22 and 'scared and doubtful whether I was doing the right thing'
Two weeks later, she asked me to undertake the education of their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, then aged five and 18 months.
I was 22. Scared and doubtful whether I was doing the right thing, I agreed to join them at Windsor at Easter, 1932, for a one-month trial.
The morning after my arrival, I suddenly heard an unholy din, punctuated by shrieks of laughter.
The girls, I learned later, were having their usual session of high jinks in their parents’ bedroom — a ritual that continued right up until the morning of Elizabeth’s marriage.
No one got dressed till 10am. Then Lilibet — as everyone called her — insisted on showing me the Little House, a miniature thatched house that had been given to the girls by the people of Wales.
For many years, this was the Princesses’ favourite toy. Built to scale for children, it was so small I had to explore it on hands and knees.
The house was complete in every detail, with chintz curtains, plumbing, a complete kitchen and lights that went on and off.
The girls cleaned and dusted it themselves. And when it was time to return to their home in London, Lilibet carefully put away all the blankets and linen, covered the miniature furniture in dust sheets and wrapped up the silver in newspaper — ‘to prevent it getting tarnished’, she told me.
She wasn’t quite six, but clearly loved order. After dinner every night, both she and Margaret — then a little fat child — would hold out their hands and their father would give them each a spoonful of old-fashioned barley sugar.
Margaret pushed the whole lot into her mouth. Lilibet, however, carefully sorted hers out on the table, and then ate it very daintily.
She also kept all her belongings immaculately tidy — but there’d come a time later when she became almost too methodical and neat. Indeed, I grew quite anxious about her.
During the course of each night, she’d hop out of bed several times just to make sure her shoes were quite straight on the floor and her clothes arranged just so.
It was only when Margaret did a hilarious imitation of her sister’s bedtime rituals that Lilibet finally stopped performing them.
Princess Elizabeth playing with a doll in a toy pram outside the Welsh House, a miniature house presented to her and Princess Margaret by the people of Wales
One day, while still at Windsor, I learned that King George V and Queen Mary (Elizabeth’s grandparents) were coming to tea.
This was quite unusual: the Royal Family visited one another very rarely and seldom met en masse unless there was a coronation, christening, wedding, or funeral.
I was in the garden when I noticed them heading straight for me. Queen Mary looked taller than the King because she had such a magnificent carriage.
She stopped, leaned on her folded silk umbrella, and said, ‘You are Miss Crawford.’
I made my deepest curtsy, and they looked me over with a searching look that was now becoming familiar. I had an almost irresistible desire to say, ‘Please, will I do’
The Queen said nothing, but smiled. King George grunted and prodded the ground with his stick.
Then he said in a booming voice: ‘For goodness sake, teach Margaret and Lilibet to write a decent hand, that’s all I ask you. Not one of my children can write properly. I like a hand with character in it.’
And he walked away.
This was my first experience of royalty’s economy with words. Sometimes nothing was said at all — such as when my month’s trial turned into five weeks, then six.
In the end, I went to see the Duchess, who seemed surprised.
‘But of course you must stay,’ she said.
She was also surprised that I needed to go home first to find some clothes suitable to my new life. I later had to spend most of my salary on clothes. One of my most successful evening frocks was made from curtain material.
When I returned south in the autumn, it was as a permanent member of the ducal household at 145 Piccadilly in London. This was a tall, narrow house with a garden that had a gate leading out to Hyde Park.
My bedroom was the only spare room. Lilibet’s was next door and we did our lessons in her mother’s little boudoir.
The large double bed in the Duchess’s room had blue silk covers and lemon pleatings. There was a kidney-shaped dressing-table, and the furniture and cupboards were made of white apple wood.
The Duke’s room always reminded me of a ship’s cabin. A blue-green draped bed, very hard-looking, a dressing-table with a nautical air, and one bookcase were all the furniture he had. Everything was laid out very neatly, as if for a parade inspection.
Princess Elizabeth visiting the Royal Tournament at Olympia in 1932
It was an unpretentious home, neither large nor splendid, the centre of which was the day and night nurseries on the top floor — ruled by a nanny, an under-nurse and a nursemaid — that opened on to a landing beneath a big dome.
Under this dome stood some 30-odd toy horses on wheels, each about a foot high.
‘That’s where we stable them,’ Lilibet explained, and she showed me saddles and bridles which she and Margaret polished.
When in doubt, relatives knew it was always safe to give the girls another horse.
Each horse had its saddle removed nightly and was duly fed and watered. They later stood in a row along one of the corridors at Buckingham Palace.
Meanwhile, I was called on to do duty as a stand-in horse. One of Lilibet’s favourite games for years was to harness me with a pair of red reins that had bells on them, and off we’d go, delivering groceries.
I’d be patted, given my nosebag, and jerked to a standstill, while Lilibet delivered imaginary groceries at imaginary houses, and held intimate conversations with her make-believe customers.
Sometimes she’d whisper, ‘You must pretend to be impatient. Paw the ground a bit.’ So I’d paw.
Or she herself would be the horse, prancing around, sidling up to me, nosing in my pockets for sugar, making convincing little whinnying noises.
In the evenings, both she and Margaret would press their noses to the nursery window, on the lookout for a fine pair of real horses that drew a brewer’s dray. If they were late, the girls worried that the horses might have been involved in an accident.
From the other side of the house, they watched the riding-school ponies trotting along Rotten Row.
‘If I am ever Queen,’ said Lilibet firmly, ‘I shall make a law that there must be no riding on Sundays. Horses should have a rest, too. And I shan’t let anyone dock their pony’s tail.’
Indoors, I had a table made specially for a farm that Lilibet was collecting, piece by piece. She went through a phase of being very farm-minded, and used to say that when she grew up she’d marry a farmer.
‘I shall have lots of cows, horses and children,’ she told me gravely.
She bought the toy animals herself from Woolworth with her pocket money (a shilling a week till she was 14.) This was also the shop where the girls bought most of their Christmas presents.
Were they always angels Of course not: they were two entirely normal and healthy girls, and we had our difficulties.
Neither was above taking a whack at her adversary, if roused, and Lilibet was quick with her left hook. Margaret was more of a close-in fighter, known to bite on occasions. More than once, I was shown a hand bearing royal teeth marks.
‘Margaret always wants what I want,’ was a common complaint.
Some scraps erupted over toys; other brawls often started when they were told they had to wear hats. They hated hats: they’d snap each other’s elastic to shrill cries of ‘You brute! You beast!’
Margaret was often naughty, but she had a gay, bouncing way about her that made her hard to discipline. She’d often defy me with a sidelong look, make a scene, then kiss me — assuming all was instantly forgiven and forgotten.
When she wanted to be tiresome, she’d conjure up an imaginary crony called Cousin Halifax. Nothing was ever Margaret’s fault; it was Cousin Halifax to blame for tasks undone and things forgotten.
‘I was busy with Cousin Halifax,’ she’d say haughtily, watching me out of the corner of her eye to see if I was swallowing it.
Of the two, Lilibet was the one with the temper, though she usually kept it under control.
She also took longer to recover after their spats. It was very seldom that she rebelled against authority — but when she did, it was in her own determined manner.
One target for her fury was a certain Mademoiselle who came to teach her French — chiefly by making her write out endless columns of verbs.
One day, I heard curious sounds emerging from the schoolroom and popped in. Poor Mademoiselle was transfixed with horror.
Lilibet, goaded by boredom to violent measures, had picked up a big ornamental silver inkpot and, without any warning, tipped it over her own head.
There she sat, with ink trickling down her face and dyeing her golden curls blue. Sadly, I never did learn the full story: Mademoiselle was past explaining, and left soon afterwards.
As far as the Princesses’ education was concerned, no governess ever had employers who interfered so little.
Perhaps they felt that the education of two not very important little girls didn’t matter much. But Lilibet was a very clever child.
The lessons she liked best were the ones about real people. So that’s how I presented history to her — as the lives of real people with all their problems and bothers. She’d listen with rapt attention.
She was also fascinated by other children, gazing at those she encountered on our walks in Hyde Park as if they were mystic beings from outer space.
Both girls would have so loved to speak to them and make friends, but this was never encouraged.
Their nanny Clara Knight, more regal than the Duke and Duchess, disapproved of our wanderings, but I was keen to expand the girls’ horizons.
Strong swimmer: Young Elizabeth
One day, as we passed Hyde Park Corner, there were people streaming out of the underground station. Lilibet said wistfully, ‘Oh, dear, what fun it must be to ride in those trains.’
I thought: why not The Duke agreed we could go, provided we were accompanied by the house detective and a lady in waiting.
As part of the fun, the girls bought their tickets themselves. The whole business was as solemn as an investiture: they took an immense time getting the money out of their little embroidered purses and then collecting their change.
On the escalator, Margaret’s hand tightened on mine and she swallowed apprehensively. Once we’d boarded a train, both girls sat there, wide-eyed and enchanted — until they became aware of a small commotion.
Their detective, who was standing at the far end of the carriage, looked so very obvious that people were looking round to see what he was detecting.
Mercifully, we arrived at Tottenham Court Road and got out before anyone had spotted the Princesses.
Then it was on to the YWCA for tea, which was self-service and drunk from thick mugs. When Lilibet accidentally left her teapot behind, the lady in charge bawled out, ‘If you want it, you must come and fetch it’.
The next grand occasion was to ride on top of a bus. It seemed to Lilibet such a wonderful idea to be able to see into other people’s gardens.
Unfortunately, these pleasant jaunts came to a sudden end when the Irish Republican Army started to commit public nuisances to draw attention to their demand for Home Rule.
As the girls were always anxious to do what other children did, I took them for swimming lessons at the Bath Club.
For our first trip, the nanny made preparations of such magnitude, we might have been going to a desert island. There were large bath towels, dusting powder, combs and brushes, even a small box of chocolates.
The Duke, who often came to watch, was astonished when his girls both won life-saving certificates.
‘I don’t know how they do it,’ he said more than once.
‘We were always so terribly shy and self-conscious as children. These two don’t seem to care.’
They seemed not to care, either, that they rarely played with other children. Indeed, Lilibet had only one special friend: Sonia Graham Hodgson, the daughter of the Royal Family’s radiologist, with whom she played in the garden.
But when they grew older, Sonia was sent away to school and the friendship came to an untimely end.
Adults featured largely in their lives. Once, they nudged me in shock and triumphant delight when they saw Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, biting his nails. If he could do it, said the girls — who both bit theirs until the age of 12— then why couldn’t they
They took great interest in the various prominent people who came and went, and Lilibet made an effort to read about current affairs. One day, as the Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald bent low over her hand, she said in a clear ringing voice: ‘I saw you in Punch this morning, Mr MacDonald, leading a flock of geese!’
He gave her a wan smile.
Lilibet’s first love was undoubtedly Owen the groom, who taught her to ride.
Whatever Owen did or said was gospel. Once, when she asked her father about some plan, he replied testily: ‘Don’t ask me — ask Owen. Who am I to make suggestions’
In truth, the shy and delicate Duke of York, who had an impediment in his speech, was not considered to be a particularly important person in the family.
The apple of Queen Mary’s eye was Lilibet’s golden-haired Uncle David, the Prince of Wales.
Devoted to Lilibet, he was perhaps the most constant visitor. He often took part in their after-tea games – Snap and Happy Families — and he gave her all the A A Milne children’s books, including Winnie The Pooh and When We Were Very Young.
Both girls knew most of the poems by heart, and their favourite was ‘Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace’.
Alas, there were other changes at the palace before long. The old King died and Uncle David dropped in far less frequently for a romp with his nieces.
Then one day, he came for tea with Mrs Wallis Simpson — an American divorcee. She was a smart, attractive woman, with that immediate friendliness common to American women.
But that evening, after they’d left, no one alluded to the visit. Indeed, Mrs Simpson was never mentioned again.
Over the next few months, Uncle David changed. He seemed not to be listening to what anyone said, and he made plans to do things with the children, then forgot them.
On 3 December 1936, I saw the headline: THE KING AND HIS MINISTERS — GREAT CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS. During the days that followed (which ended when the new King abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson) I had to carry on as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
Down the well of the dome, the girls and I watched the comings and goings of the Prime Minister, various bishops and archbishops, all looking anxious and harried. The Duke and Duchess never spoke of what was happening.
One day, the Duchess summoned me to her bedroom, to which she’d retreated with a bad cold.
Queen Mary was coming out, suddenly looking old and very tired. I didn’t need to be told that Uncle David had abdicated.
The Duchess was lying in bed. ‘I’m afraid there are going to be great changes in our lives, Crawfie,’ she said. ‘We must take what is coming to us and make the best of it.’
When I broke the news to Margaret and Lilibet that they were going to live in Buckingham Palace, they looked at me in horror. ‘What!’ Lilibet said. ‘You mean for ever’
Margaret protested: ‘But I’ve only just learned to write “York”.’
RED INDIANS IN THE SHRUBBERY
For all the relative modesty of the house, it was clear to me that we were all living in an ivory tower.
Until my arrival, fun for the girls had consisted of drives in the park, quiet ladylike games in the garden, or leisurely drives in an open carriage.
Lilibet had never been allowed to get dirty. But I changed all that — and she was never happier than when she was thoroughly busy and rather grubby.
We ran a horse market with the princess’s assorted steeds. We played Red Indians among the shrubberies. We played hide-and-seek and sardines. The air resounded with Margaret’s calls of ‘Wait for me!’ — which became her signature tune for many years to come.
Her father the Duke often joined us for games in the morning break. He was the fastest runner I’ve ever known: I can still see him putting on an immense spurt round a statue of Byron that came in very handy as ‘home’.
It was during a game of ball that Lilibet finally hit on what to call me. After dropping six balls, one after the other, she let out an involuntary moan: ‘Oh, Crawfie!’ Then she looked at me, pleased with herself.
‘There!’ she said. ‘That’s what I’ll call you.’ So ‘Crawfie’ it was.
Adapted from The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen’s Childhood by Her Nanny, Crawfie by Marion Crawford, published by Orion as an ebook at 4.49, available for download from all e-book retailers, or in paperback at 8.99.
To order a copy at 7.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.