Then, with the Prince of Wales, Queen Elizabeth climbed into a landau decked with flowers in her racing colours of blue and gold, and was driven to Buckingham Palace past the large crowds lining the Mall. The Prince was deeply moved by the rapturous reception for his beloved grandmother. It was, he thought, 'the British at their best – and you always manage to bring the best out in people!' At the Palace, Queen Elizabeth appeared alone on the balcony. She waved to the crowds as she had first waved after her marriage in 1923 and, most famously, on Victory in Europe (VE) Day in May 1945. As the Band of the Coldstream Guards played Happy Birthday and the crowd roared its approval, she was joined by twenty-seven of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces and many of their spouses.
In her long life the world had undergone technological change with unprecedented speed, and political transformations of exceptional violence. It had moved from the age of travel by horse to that of travel through space. The First World War and the Russian Revolution had toppled the emperors of Austria, Germany and Russia. Many other European kings and queens had subsequently departed their thrones. The United Kingdom had suffered the trauma of the Great War and then faced almost continuous challenge from economic and political turmoil, from war and the threat of war – through a world slump, the abdication of King Edward VIII, the Second World War, the Cold War. Queen Elizabeth had come to terms with massive changes – loss of empire, the growth of a modern multi-racial Commonwealth of newly independent states in Asia and Africa, and a social revolution in Britain itself which had begun with the first majority Labour government elected in 1945.
The British monarchy was not isolated from the political and social changes. Indeed the abdication in 1936 was a self-inflicted wound from which it might not have recovered. It had adapted itself, and it had survived; more than that, it had retained the consent of the people essential to constitutional monarchy. This adaptation was largely due to the efforts of successive sovereigns and their advisers. But a key question, explored in this book, is the extent to which the consent necessary for its survival was generated by the woman who was for almost eighty years at its heart – as Duchess of York, Queen and Queen Mother.
In any biography of a public person there is a danger of over-Emphasizing the role of the individual in shaping events. This is particularly true when the individual has, like Queen Elizabeth, great prestige but no real power. Nevertheless, it remains legitimate to ask how Queen Elizabeth responded to the great personal and public crises of her life and what wider effect this had.