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From childhood to the Diamond Jubilee: the life of Queen Elizabeth II

To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, we’ve selected an extract from our Oxford Paperback Reference title, The Kings and Queens of Britain, for your enjoyment. – Nicola, blog editor.

Elizabeth’s childhood was affectionate and secure, with only a slight possibility at first that she might become queen, since her uncle (the Prince of Wales) might well marry and have children, or her parents might have a son. Neither event happened, and in 1936 when Edward VIII abdicated, she became heir presumptive to her father, George VI. She was educated privately, with nurses and governesses playing a prominent part in her life. Her schooling was therefore comfortable, sheltered, and pleasant, if limited; with only a younger sister, there was little sense of competition and no great variety of experience. She learned to ride and grew up with a fondness for dogs.

Things changed at the outbreak of war in 1939. Most of her time was spent at Windsor castle; she was introduced gently into political and constitutional duties, making her first broadcast at fourteen and appointed a Counsellor of State at eighteen. In 1944 she launched a battleship HMS Vanguard. The following year she joined the ATS, was commissioned, and qualified as a driver; as always, palace spokesmen insisted that she would be treated like everyone else, but she was driven to Aldershot for the training, returning to the castle each evening. The first phase in her life ended in 1947 when, at the age of twenty-one, she married Philip, like her father a naval officer, whom she had known and admired for several years. A year later, her son Charles was born.

The Queen’s Coronation: 

She was given little time to develop her own family life before she was called to the throne in 1952 by the early death of her father. The mood and atmosphere of the country was still post-war. Economic recovery was slow, there was still rationing, and decolonization had already started with the independence of India, Pakistan, and Burma. The press wrote fatuously about a ‘New Elizabethan Age’, but there was little evidence for it. After the euphoria of welcoming a young and attractive queen, and the excitement of her coronation, watched by millions clustering round small black-and-white television sets, the mood began to change, and voices were heard in criticism. Though there could be no doubt of the new queen’s devotion to duty, she did not seem to enjoy it much. Lord Altrincham in 1957 complained that she sounded like ‘a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team’, and was promptly threatened with horsewhipping. Thoughtful people were prepared to admit that the royal family seemed remote, while the public was less respectful and more critical than its forebears. Debate began on the extent to which ‘the curtain’ should be raised on royal activities, and modernizers and traditionalists began to draw up battle lines. Meanwhile, the Queen settled down to visiting countries of the empire, only to discover that this involved her in further controversy that she was allowing herself to be the lead in ‘the Commonwealth charade’.

There were few significant political or constitutional issues, though the royal prerogative was involved in the choice of prime ministers in 1956 and again in 1963, and relations within the Commonwealth have often been delicate. Her greatest problems were within the royal family, and were accentuated by the growth of an avid, intrusive, and censorious press. The days of 1936, when a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ of newspaper proprietors could keep their readers in ignorance for months of the king’s infatuation with Mrs Simpson, were replaced by fierce competition for royal scoops or leaks. In 1955, when Princess Margaret was undecided whether to marry a divorcee, Group Captain Townsend, newspapers polled their readers to offer advice. Two years later, rumours that Prince Philip was involved with another woman prompted the palace to issue an official denial of any rift with the queen, which merely fed the monster. Henceforward, piquant stories followed at regular intervals. Lord Harewood, the Queen’s cousin, was sued for divorce in 1967; Princess Margaret announced a separation from her husband Lord Snowdon in 1976; the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, a television spectacular in 1981, was clearly in trouble by the early 1990s; the marriages of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew also ended in divorce. In 1992 the Queen referred openly and ruefully to her ‘annus horribilis’, which had included much criticism of the cost of the royal family, a difficult visit to Australia where republicanism was gaining ground, two royal divorces, details of the breakdown of the Prince of Wales’s marriage, and a disastrous fire at Windsor castle. ‘Not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure’, summarized the Queen.

Royal Family television documentary, 1969: 

The Palace was uncertain how to respond to a prurient and raucous press. One reply was a documentary film, Royal Family, shown in 1969, and regarded at the time as a daring initiative. An exercise in studied informality, it was well received, but the new press was not long to be satisfied with the revelation that the Duke of Edinburgh could fry sausages. The running was taken up by paparazzi, who pursued the royal family without mercy from behind hedges and hired rooms, aiming particularly at the younger royals, preferably female and preferably lightly clad. Prince Charles’s response was a series of speeches on contemporary issues, especially environmental, but even these were not wholly successful. While they illuminated the issues and the prince’s opinions were often popular, those criticized tended to answer back, and an increasingly sophisticated public wondered what qualifications the prince had for setting up as mentor to the nation.

A very different approach landed the royal family in the unmitigated disaster of It’s a Royal Knock-out!, shown on television in 1987, and including Princess Anne and the new Duchess of York in prominent parts. It was intended to demonstrate that the royal family had the common touch and could be good sports, and was reported to have been put on despite the Queen’s misgivings. The catastrophe was compounded the following day when Prince Edward, who had master-minded it, lost his temper at the press conference and stalked out. Even more extraordinary were the television interviews in which the Prince and Princess of Wales, their marriage in ruins, took the screen in a bizarre competition of candour about infidelity.

From these populist gestures, the Queen held aloof and emerged unscathed. It is unlikely that her way of life will change much in the twenty-first century: the pattern of garden parties at Buckingham palace in the summer, autumn among the heather at Balmoral, and Christmas at Windsor or Sandringham has been established over the years. There are, from time to time, rumours that she may abdicate, but they are invariably followed by strong denials, and Prince Charles seems likely to be one of the oldest monarchs to inherit the throne. Her reign has seen slow but substantial recovery from the Second World War, and her subjects are infinitely more prosperous than those she ruled over in 1952. The importance of the Commonwealth has receded, the issue of devolution has come to the surface, and Britain’s attitude towards the European Community remains deeply divisive.

The successful introduction into public life of her two grandsons has made the future of the dynasty more secure and the Queen has taken steps to share more of her official duties with them and the Prince of Wales. The later years of the Queen’s reign have been easier and the royal family has been reinforced by the grace and dignity of two newcomers, the Duchess of Cornwall, and the Duchess of Cambridge. Despite serious financial and political difficulties, the monarchy at the time of this jubilee looks more confident and assured than seemed likely 20 years ago. In 2002 Elizabeth’s fifty years on the throne was celebrated with widespread respect and affection and now having reached her diamond jubilee she is the oldest monarch. Should she still be on the throne in 2015 she will surpass the 63 years of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.

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