The Queen & the Crown
In 1937, librettist Christopher Hassall published a poem entitled ‘The Princesses’. His subjects were the two daughters of Britain’s new king, George VI, Elizabeth – the future Elizabeth II – and Margaret Rose. The poem celebrated the royal sisters as ‘two folded roses… buds of a royal Spring’ and imagined a nation blessed in the gift of this latest royal generation: ‘O happy Land!/ In dead of night Hope visits Thee,/ With green buds in her hand.’
Such syrupy effusions were commonplace during the Queen’s childhood. Royalty inspired deference, and princesses a particular kind of sugary fawning. Princess Elizabeth of York was an object of widespread fascination from the cradle. A gossip columnist called ‘Mariegold’, writing in The Sketch the week after her birth in April 1926, prophesied ‘plenty of adulation in store for the fourth lady in the land as soon as she is old enough to receive it’. So indeed, it proved – as it happened, long before George V’s first royal grandchild was old enough to receive it. Before her first birthday, in a publication approved by her parents, Elizabeth was acclaimed as ‘the golden-crested little friend of all the world’. When she was only four, her first biographer suggested that, ‘after a while, Princess Elizabeth will be aware that the eyes of all the other children are upon her, that they are looking to her with love and admiration – as to an Example’. The same year, she made her debut as an exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s, bare-headed, mounted on a Shetland pony called Peggy. No other display, reported the Daily Mirror, drew such crowds or such admiration.
Throughout her long life, Elizabeth had been the cynosure of many eyes; she had also been looked to as an example and she indeed inspired love and admiration. She was eleven when, unexpectedly, the abdication of her Uncle David, Edward VIII, placed her father on the throne and determined the course of her life. ‘So early in life, she has been dedicated to the service of an Empire,’ the Western Mail informed its readers in December 1937. It was an early age at which to be dedicated to service. Among Elizabeth II’s many achievements was her fidelity to a burden of service imposed upon her by popular expectation when she was still a child, and her success in serving as an example of much that is regarded as best in British and Commonwealth values and our national way of life. A commemorative coin minted for the Golden Jubilee in 2002 bore the Latin inscription ‘amor populi praesidium reginae’, ‘the love of the people is the Queen’s protection’. That love has consistently been reflected in opinion polls that confirm the Queen’s place in the national affections.
A journalist from a Sunday newspaper was working his way through the crowds outside Westminster Abbey on a sunny morning in July 1986. Jostling spectators had come to glimpse the wedding of the Queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, to Sarah Ferguson. Not for everyone, however, was the bridal couple their chief focus. One woman said she had come to see the Queen. She explained, ‘She’s it, really, isn’t she, I mean she’s the Realm.’ For seventy years, Elizabeth II had been ‘it’, the living embodiment of a millennium-long history of monarchy in these islands. For generations of her subjects she has personified both the realm and popular understanding of royalty. Approvingly, her former critic John Grigg, Baron Altrincham, reflected at the time of the Silver Jubilee, ‘She looks a Queen and obviously believes in her right to be one. Her bearing is both simple and majestic – no actress could possibly match it.’ Successfully the Queen sustained royalty’s specialness in an increasingly cynical age that has downgraded every aspect of institutional authority: the Church, the judiciary and the police force, politicians and government.
Christopher Hassall’s poem ended with a prayer that the princesses’ ‘promise’ would be fulfilled by God ‘with splendid blossoming’. Elizabeth II was a modest woman, unlikely to dwell on her successes. Unlike that of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to whom she is inevitably compared, her reign has coincided with a period of national retrenchment, decline on the international stage and variable economic fortunes. Despite this, the Queen achieved her own ‘blossoming’, confident in her role and skilful in acquitting this role in a way endorsed by the majority of her subjects over seven decades. She achieved a remarkable balancing act: the most famous woman on the planet, she was also among the least known. Her portrait by Arnold Machin, based on black-and-white photographs taken by John Hedgecoe in June 1966 and used on every British stamp since 1967, has become the most reproduced work of art in history. Millions of her subjects have dreamed about her, but of the nature of the private thoughts of the woman behind Machin’s regal profile, they can hazard almost nothing. Celebrity culture has dominated the second half of her reign: it played no part in the Queen’s own public persona. ‘She cares not for celebrity, that’s for sure,’ the Duke of Cambridge has commented of his sternly unshowy grandmother. Alone in her immediate family, the Queen never gave an interview, never appeared on a chat show or aired her views online or in a podcast. Her conduct in public suggests, as Lady Selina Hastings observed, that she ‘has no desire to participate in ordinary life… There she is up on her cloud and on her cloud, she knows very well, it is essential she remain.’ One aspect of the Queen’s role was to safeguard her inheritance and ensure the monarchy’s survival. In eschewing celebrity-style behaviour, the Queen ensured she did not, like celebrities, eventually exhaust public interest and affection.
At the time of her twenty-first birthday in 1947, the Queen’s parents authorised an account of their daughter’s life so far. ‘The King and Queen have never encouraged her to regard herself as anything but an ordinary person,’ explained author Dermot Morrah. ‘It is her position, not her personality, that she knows to be exceptional.’ Undoubtedly, as the Queen’s parents understood, this was a sensible way of presenting their daughter to the British public in a period of postwar austerity and widespread economic hardship, following a conflict that, like the First World War, had seen the dismantling of monarchies across Europe. As the Queen’s behaviour and her public utterances indicated, Morrah’s explanation was more than empty rhetoric. The princess once celebrated as a ‘bud’ of a royal spring has indeed proved a blessing in the nation’s life and that of countries across the Commonwealth. She has done so through belief in her duty of service, as well as a personal conviction in line with that articulated by Dermot Morrah, that it is her position, not her own personality, that is exceptional. In her speech at the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, at Prince Philip’s suggestion the Queen quoted an Aboriginal proverb: ‘We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love.’ It may well be an expression of her own beliefs, markedly free from vainglory or self-assertion.
‘It’s quite heavy,’ the Queen once commented of the Imperial State Crown. After a pause, she added, ‘It’s meant to be heavy, I think.’ Perhaps she was reflecting on the duties of sovereignty. If so, she bore her heavy burden with grace, humility and seriousness of purpose – and amply merited the encomia that certainly played a part in the 2022 Platinum Jubilee.
Matthew Dennison a journalist, broadcaster and author of The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria’s Youngest Daughter and Livia, Empress of Rome. The Queen is his latest book.