The Queen, a Spice Girl and a cheeky parlour game at Balmoral: An intriguing peek behind the curtains at 60 years of royal family life
Yesterday, the distinguished historian and author Robert Lacey revealed how the Queen’s down-to-earth childhood had prepared her for a glorious 60 years on the throne.
Today, in the final part of our exclusive series, he gives a unique insight into some of the grand occasions and private moments that have shaped her reign…
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As Britain prepared for the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II, there was growing hysteria. But the enigmatic young woman at the heart of it all remained reserved and shy. Too shy, in fact.
When it was proposed that the ceremony should be shared with her 1.5 million subjects who owned one of the new television sets (average screen size 9×6 inches), she gave a flat ‘No’.
There were certain moments of the service, such as the anointing with sacred oil of the bared upper part of her chest, that she wished to keep private. Furthermore, she shared the view of her family and courtiers: the ‘telly’ was just impossibly ‘common’.
The Queen meets the Spice Girls and is pictured shaking hands with Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell following their appearance in the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 1997
The Archbishop of Canterbury agreed. ‘Television,’ he pronounced, ‘is a mass-produced form of entertainment, which is potentially one of the great dangers of the world.’
In deference to Elizabeth’s wishes, it was decided that the cameras could track her up the aisle, but no further than Westminster Abbey’s massive choir screen. The service itself, conducted beyond the screen, would be broadcast only by radio.
News of the ban was greeted with outrage. Never before had there been such an instant, media-led rebellion against a royal policy. Elizabeth promptly retreated. A (literally) face-saving compromise was agreed: all close-ups would be banned and her anointing and communion would be done in private. But the people had won, successfully pushing their way into the holy of holies.
The crowning of the new Queen was set for June 2 1953, the day estimated by meteorologists to be the likeliest to produce sunshine. It rained, of course — incessantly. Nothing, however, could detract from the power and glory of the proceedings.
After the glittering Crown of Saint Edward was solemnly placed upon Elizabeth’s head, one of the Heralds, Dermot Morrah, felt a chill run through his body. ‘The sense of spiritual exultation that radiated from the newly crowned Queen,’ he later wrote, ‘was almost tangible.’
GAME FOR A LAUGH
A crown like a 'candle-snuffer': Prince Charles's investiture in 1968 when he became the Prince of Wales
During her autumn visits to Balmoral, the Queen enjoys playing after-dinner parlour games. One of these involves miming words and phrases — such as ‘food for thought’ or ‘the top of the tree’.
When the game is over, guest preachers staying at the Scottish castle are challenged by mischievous younger members of the Royal Family to weave as many of these expressions as they can into the sermon they make the following morning.
‘The record,’ says one prince who likes to keep score in church, ‘is 11.’
Another royal evening amusement is simply known as ‘The Game’, for which guests are asked to write the names of famous people — such as Socrates or Napoleon — on sticky labels and put them into a hat.
Each player then draws out a label, sticks it on his forehead and tries to work out who he is by asking questions to which the others can answer only yes or no.
Everyone did well on a recent Game evening — except for the unfortunate player who drew the name of former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell.
Afterwards, Prince Andrew took a closer look at the label to try to work out who’d written it.
‘That was you!’ he said to his mother. ‘I recognise the handwriting.’
‘Well,’ said the Queen defiantly, ‘Geri Halliwell’s a famous person, isn’t she’
One weekend, Lord Mountbatten was crammed sideways in the back of an open-top sports car being driven rapidly across his Broadlands estate by his nephew Prince Philip, with the Queen sitting in the front beside him. Every time they squealed round a corner, Mountbatten told friends, Elizabeth would show her alarm with an increasingly loud intake of breath.
Suddenly, Philip slammed on the brakes. ‘If you make that bloody noise one more time,’ he said, ‘you’ll have to get out and walk.’
The rest of the drive proceeded in silence, and when they reached their destination, Philip got out of the car and stalked off.
‘My dear,’ protested Lord Mount-batten, as he struggled out of his cramped seat in the back. ‘You’re the Queen! Why do you let him treat you like that’
‘It’s quite simple,’ replied Elizabeth, smiling happily. ‘I didn’t want to walk!’
After 64 years of loving marriage, Prince Philip still calls his wife ‘Cabbage’ when he’s feeling particularly affectionate. Certainly, few can doubt that they still adore each other, and the Queen has learned to tolerate her husband’s delight in the company of pretty women.
Conscious that a proud man who once captained his own ship might have difficulties perpetually staying one step behind her, she is also too wise to feel threatened by whatever he might need to do to prove his independence.
After 64 years of loving marriage, Prince Philip still calls his wife 'Cabbage' when he's feeling particularly affectionate
As for Prince Philip, he’s heard all the rumours linking him to various ladies, and laughs them off. ‘He feels he’s done nothing to feel guilty about,’ says a close friend, ‘so he doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks.’
For many years, it was noted that Philip spent a good deal of time with his attractive cousin, Princess Alexandra. And for the past 15 years or so, his regular companion for weekends away has been another member of the family: his fellow carriage-driving enthusiast, Penelope Knatchbull — wife of Lord Mountbatten’s grandson (and Prince Philip’s godson) Norton.
The weekends away, of course, had an entirely innocent explanation: they were travelling around Britain to compete in four-in-hand driving events. And, the Queen, for her part, expressed no concern about their friendship.
‘She knows,’ says one close female relative, ‘that there is no way he will humiliate her.’
After Norton Knatchbull deserted Broadlands and his wife in 2010 to go to live in the Bahamas with Jeannie McQueeny, a resort-wear designer, the Queen made a point of inviting Penelope to join the Royal Family at Sandringham during the next New Year holidays.
Sunday, January 9, 2011, was a sunny day and most of the house party elected to walk to church. But the Queen chose to go by car with just one companion — Penny Knatchbull.
ONE’S BEST CHUMS
The Queen has had several of her own confidants. Having known him since childhood, she was particularly close to the suave bachelor Patrick Plunket, who became her Deputy Master of the Household in 1954.
Never were flowers better arranged or menus so expertly chosen than when he was in charge.
Before Christmas or the birthdays of family or close friends, Plunket would haunt Burlington Arcade and the smarter Mayfair streets, bringing back a selection of classy and original gifts from which the Queen could make her choices for gifts.
‘Patrick was like a step-brother to her,’ remembers a friend.
When it was proposed that the Coronation ceremony should be shared with her 1.5 million subjects who owned one of the new television sets she gave a flat 'No', but now she is used to cameras
He arranged the Queen’s private social life, including trips to cinemas and discreet lunches with friends in smart restaurants. And if Prince Philip was kicking his heels up with someone else, it was Plunket who danced with Elizabeth at parties, occasionally dropping her off with a new partner who wouldn’t have dared to ask the monarch for a dance.
Better than anyone else — her husband included — Plunket knew how to handle her, coaxing her gently out of her obstinacies. He also revived her love of art, crushed in childhood by her grandmother Queen Mary’s heavy-handed tours and lectures.
At one late-night reception in the mid-Seventies, Elizabeth led a group of guests into the palace picture gallery and gave them a guided tour. ‘She took such delight in her paintings,’ remembers one of the party. ‘She knew everything about them.’
That was entirely down to Plunket.
‘She knows,’ says one close female relative, ‘that there is no way he will humiliate her.’
When he died of cancer in 1975, aged only 52, Elizabeth was devastated. After contributing to the cost of a gazebo at Windsor in his memory, she granted permission for him to be buried in the royal cemetery at Frogmore — the royal estate near Windsor — a distinction that she has bestowed on no other servant or courtier.
Gradually, the place of her principal friend and confidant was taken by Lord Porchester, the Earl of Carnavon, who was also her racing manager. Rumours that he had fathered Prince Andrew were untrue — but he and the Queen did produce countless classy racehorses together.
Porchie, as he was known, was the only person who could be sure of being put through to the Queen on the phone at any time without question, according to Princess Anne.
‘He had the horse news,’ explains a friend, ‘and that was the news she really wanted to hear.’
In fact, until his death, the Queen spoke to Porchie almost every day of her adult life, and went racing with him as often as she could. He was the hotline to the gossip she enjoyed most of all — which mares were in foal, what young stock looked promising — and he’d even ring her from the sale-rooms when he was buying on her behalf, holding up the phone so she could hear the bidding.
Porchie died of a heart attack in 2001, aged 77, while watching the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre on television.
‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’ was how the Queen chose to end the message read out in her name at a Washington memorial service for those who had died on 9/11.
The words made sense only if she, too, was mourning someone she had loved.
Despite her image as a traditional monarch, the Queen really does move with the times. /01/31/article-2094142-00BC41C400000190-919_634x400.jpg” width=”634″ height=”400″ alt=”The Queen and Prince Philip enjoying the fresh air in 1972. Despite her image as a traditional monarch, the Queen really does move with the times” class=”blkBorder” />
The Queen and Prince Philip enjoying the fresh air in 1972. Despite her image as a traditional monarch, the Queen really does move with the times
‘There was much talk of high treason for Tim committing adultery with the Princess,’ remembers one courtier.
‘One of the few people who wasn’t shocked was the Queen. She liked her equerry, and I think she took the view that if the Princess found some satisfaction in her relationship with him, that was not a bad thing.’
Similarly, during the years before Kate Middleton and Prince William became engaged, the Queen was quite relaxed about them sharing sleeping quarters at Clarence House. As she said once: ‘I’ve decided that I’m not stuffy enough for my age.’
Elizabeth and Harold Wilson got off to a prickly start in 1964 when the new Prime Minister ignored the royal convention of arriving alone for the ceremony of kissing hands — his formal appointment as Prime Minister. Instead, he brought along his wife, his father, his sister, his two sons, and his Personal Secretary, Marcia Williams.
'The Queen said once: ‘I’ve decided that I’m not stuffy enough for my age.’
More seriously, he assumed that his weekly meeting with the monarch would take the form of a cosy round-up of the political scene, having failed to anticipate that the Queen would read the daily boxes — containing Cabinet and Foreign Office documents — with meticulous care.
‘Very interesting,’ she remarked at an early audience, ‘this idea of a new town in the Bletchley area.’
The Prime Minister looked blank: it was the first he’d heard of the proposal to build the Buckinghamshire town that would become Milton Keynes. The plans had been set out in a Cabinet Committee paper that he had put aside to read later.
‘I shall certainly advise my successor to do his homework before his Audience,’ he said a dozen years later in his retirement speech, ‘or he will feel like an unprepared schoolboy.’
From shaky beginnings, an unexpected partnership developed. Elizabeth appreciated the intelligence of Wilson, who’d been an Oxford don at 21, and liked the fact that he took an interest in her younger sons, born in 1960 and 1964.
Wilson, for his part, was warmed by Elizabeth’s feminine concern when he tired, and by a sense of her absolute support. The Queen was the one working colleague, he confided to the Irish Prime Minister, to whom he could take his problems without feeling as though he might be sharpening a knife for his own back.
When he decided to resign, he suggested nobly to Elizabeth that the announcement should be made on March 19, 1976. As both were aware, this was the date on which the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and her husband Lord Snowdon were planning to announce their legal separation.
‘He came back from the Palace with some glee,’ recalled Wilson’s Press Secretary, Joe Haines. ‘He’d made this arrangement with the Queen, he said, to blank out the separation by announcing his resignation on the same day.’
However, Wilson’s sacrifice was in vain: the royal scandal pushed the gallant Prime Minister straight off the front pages.
THE COMIC CORONET
The investiture of the Queen’s eldest son, Charles, as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle was a pseudo-medieval pageant — as bogus as the acrylic canopy Lord Snowdon devised to keep off the rain.
All Princes of Wales had been invested in England until 1911, when David Lloyd-George proposed a Welsh ceremony, complete with white-draped druids and bards, in the hope of bolstering his Welsh Liberal power base against the inroads of the new Labour Party.
In private, the Queen could see the funny side. The bulbous coronet with which she had to crown her son extinguished Prince Charles like ‘a candle snuffer’, she confided later to Noel Coward. But she played her part with a straight face.
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.