Excerpt: Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II

This was what had been lacking — anyone from the royal family personally expressing their feelings. The family had been planning to stay in Balmoral until the last possible moment, coming down on the royal train on Friday night to arrive in London on the morning of the funeral itself.

"How can we coop the boys up in a gloomy old palace all covered with dustsheets?" Prince Philip had asked.

But the royal journey south must now be visibly moved forward as a solid concession to public sentiment — even though "concession" was a word that the press office would eschew. The queen's arrival in London would be turned into a significant event, and it would also provide the moment for her to face the TV cameras.

Robert Fellowes and Geoffrey Crawford, the queen's Australian-born press secretary, got on the phone to Balmoral to talk the problem through with Robin Janvrin and with the queen herself. There was a need for a fresh and clearly pro-active policy, the two men in London argued, a visible change of direction — and, faced with the facts, Queen Elizabeth II, guardian of unchanging tradition and protocol, agreed to it all, virtually on the spot. Suddenly the arcane details of what flag flew where counted for nothing.

"The Queen has ruthless common sense," says one of her private secretaries. "If you can explain clearly why something has to be done, and she agrees, that's the end of the matter. She doesn't say, 'Well, last time when we looked at this … ' She has an extraordinary ability to listen, absorb, and come to a decision immediately."

Five years earlier, at the time of another crisis, the queen had decided with similar abruptness that standing arrangements could be discarded, and had agreed to surrender the royal tax immunity which she had until then considered an article of faith.

If you have got to move on, you have got to move on. That is the bottom-line motto of the House of Windsor. They are a tough bunch. Their anachronistic persistence in the modern world derives from an unsentimental ability to sense when the dynasty's existence is threatened, and to adapt, backtracking and reinventing themselves if necessary. They have an uncanny nose for survival, derived from a profound understanding that their power and entire significance stem ultimately from the people. Being royal has no meaning or function without it. If the people do not want a stoic, stiff-upper-lip figurehead, then let the lip wobble a little.

The queen told her private secretaries to start drafting the speech she would deliver next day.

Early in her reign, Elizabeth II was due to visit the Yorkshire town of Kingston upon Hull and asked one of her private secretaries to prepare a first draft of her speech.

"I am very pleased to be in Kingston today," the draft confidently started.

The young queen crossed out the word "very."

"I will be pleased to be in Kingston," she explained. "But I will not be very pleased."

Elizabeth II has always found it impossible to be what she is not. Her staff say it is her greatest strength — her inability to pose or act. She is bleakly and appallingly honest — trained by a lifetime inside the prison of courtly waffle and flattery to detect insincerity, and dismiss it in a regal and disdainful blink of the eye.

"I am not a politician," is her standard response to modern press advisors who try to get her to jump through hoops.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...