THE HOUSE OF WINDSOR
The Queen Elizabeth II and Her Platinum Jubilee
by Elena Vassilieva
“It almost frightens me that the people should love her so much. I suppose it is a good thing, and I hope that she will be worthy of it, poor little darling.” – The Duchess of York to Queen Mary, autumn 1928.
Her Majesty the Queen has just set a record of being on the throne for seventy years. To reign successfully for such a long period of time requires good health, sound judgement and the mutual love and respect the Queen and her subjects feel for one another. Her Majesty has easily fulfilled all these requirements ever since she, still a twenty-one-year-old princess then, gave her famous birthday speech at the BBC in Cape Town, South Africa, on 21 April 1947: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.”
Later, after the death of her father, King George VI, on 8 February 1952, at St. James’ Palace, she repeated her vow: “By the sudden death of my dear father, I am called to assume the duty and responsibility of sovereignty. […] My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than that I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to uphold the constitutional government and to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over. […] I pray that God will help me to discharge worthily this heavy task that has been laid upon me so early in my life.” That was a solemn promise to be a good queen, but also a circumstance forced by destiny that made both the young princess and the global audience experience her heartfelt new responsibility mixed with a touch of trepidation. One can sense here not only deep sorrow but also worry whether at such a young age she would be capable of doing the job the way it was expected. But in spite of it, she demonstrated bravely her steely determination to be a conscientious and devoted sovereign.
Today, if one were asked to describe her reign in just a few words and one were to say that it has been an act of selfless devotion, that wouldn’t be an erroneous statement at all. In fact, it is an exemplary devotion of the monarch who takes most seriously her duty rather than herself in this hereditary position, let alone her own persona, so much surrounded by an aura of the House of Windsor’s grandeur and mystique. In 1952 people must also have thought of her great-great grandmother, the Queen Victoria, who acceded to the throne even at an earlier age; she was just an eighteen-year-old, albeit very opinionated, teenager who consequently had been the Queen and Empress for sixty-three years which formed the Victorian era. If she could do it at eighteen, why wouldn’t the Queen Elizabeth II do it at twenty-five? – An obvious and logical reasoning must have been, not that the young Queen had much of a choice and not that she was the only British Queen who would be a monarch at twenty-five. The first Queen Elizabeth was also twenty-five when she became Regina in 1558.
Nevertheless, even her own grandson, Prince William, suggested in 2011, when in conversation with the Queen’s biographer, Robert Hardman, that “[i]t must have been very daunting,” indeed. He continued then, clearly awed and fascinated by his grandmother’s talent as a public servant: “And I think how loads of twenty-five-year-olds – myself, my brother and lots of people included – didn’t have anything like that. And we didn’t have the extra pressure put on us at that age. It’s amazing that she didn’t crack. She just carried on and kept going. And that’s the thing about her. You present a challenge in front of her and she’ll climb it. And I think that to be doing for sixty years – it’s incredible.” Well, the Queen has been doing it for seventy years now.
But seven decades ago, when the Prime Minister Winston Churchill was given the news, he gloomily said that he didn’t know her well and that she was only a child, the utterance that has now been quoted most often. However, Churchill’s first encounter with the then-Princess Elizabeth happened on 25 September 1928 at Balmoral. He wrote to his wife from there that “[t]here is no one here at all except the family, the Household & Queen & Elizabeth – age two. The last is a character. She has an air of authority & reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.”
The Queen has preserved the air of authority and reflectiveness to this day. And Churchill soon changed his view on her, after he had met her again in person in 1952. Afterwards, she had only won praise from the Prime Minister, and the feelings of great respect and fondness were mutual. According to Jock Colville, Churchill’s Joint Principal Private Secretary, the Prime Minister “was madly in love with the Queen and she got more fun out of her audiences with Churchill than with any of his successors.” (winstonchurchill.org)
Naturally, the Queen was deeply saddened when Churchill, perhaps her best and most valuable mentor, had to retire in 1955 due to his failing health. Born in 1874, Churchill was a child of the Victorian era and a national hero, who happened to have an enormously positive and formative influence on the young Queen in her role of head of state. The Queen was so much in awe of the Prime Minister that when he died, she broke the protocol by rushing to his funeral as the first mourning visitor, not the last one as it should have been according to the rule.
Equally and rightly so, Queen Victoria’s great-great granddaughter’s reign is now regarded as the second Elizabethan era, which is hallmarked by the Queen Elizabeth II’s impeccable work ethic and her very tolerant and, despite the air of some mysteriousness around her, or, maybe precisely because of this, loveable personality. No wonder that she is perceived by so many around the globe as the epitome of stoical reliability and British goodness, a leader who has never put a foot wrong. But before that, in the very beginning of her reign, it was her youth and innocent and fresh outlook on the world that had charmed people in all corners of the Earth. Her great sense of duty, quick wit, placid disposition, and a total lack of haughtiness and arrogance have touched people in a very profound way.
“We grew up loving the Queen. To us, teenagers, she was a babe,” reminisced Sir Paul McCartney. Just recently, in January 2022, a certain Winfield Scott, @LtGenScott on Twitter, echoed this sentiment, saying that “she was a babe back in the day.” And I replied to him playfully that she still is! Once a babe, always a babe. At her noble age still riding, walking with her beloved corgis, wearing her dresses better than any other woman who is as much photographed as she is, and delivering her Christmas message (2021) full of love and warmth in the striking red outfit, looking radiant. At that respectable age, to the envy of many, even much younger, women, she is still displaying best complexion in town. The babe of the babes! Mr Scott seemed to approve of my laudatory, good-humoured remark.
But the Queen also inspires and motivates much younger generations. Not that long ago, after the Ashes 2021-22 were over, I did run into a tweet by Sam Billings, the English cricketer, who regarded the Queen as his inspiration. Similar moods prevailed on the crowded Londoner streets on the bank holiday weekend of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, 2-5 June 2022. “She is my Queen,” said one very proud woman in the crowd during the festivities. One can be certain that this sentiment is not singular, the majority would say the same or something similar. Regarding the festivities, the Queen replied:
“When it comes to how to mark seventy years as your Queen, there is no guidebook to follow. It really is a first. But I have been humbled and deeply touched that so many people have taken to the streets to celebrate my Platinum Jubilee. While I may not have attended every event in person, my heart has been with you all; and I remain committed to serving you to the best of my ability, supported by my family. I have been inspired by the kindness, joy and kinship that has been so evident in recent days, and I hope this renewed sense of togetherness will be felt for many years to come. I thank you most sincerely for your good wishes and for the part you have all played in these happy celebrations.”
Historically speaking, her only competitor is her own great-great grandmother, the Queen Victoria. Although their similarities start and end with a very young age of accession to the throne, their longevity on the throne, excellent reigning skills, and their happy marriages to their handsome cousins, they still invite comparison, particularly because they seem to be such strikingly opposing each other grand historical figures. When the Princess Elizabeth was about to turn eighteen, Lady Airlie, Queen Mary’s dear friend, quite charmed by the Princess, said that there was “something about her, that indescribable something which Queen Victoria had.” (Kate Williams, 2012, p. 184f) Queen Victoria was an expansive Royal entity, who, at the age of fourteen, after having learned that eventually she will be a queen, quite self-confidently announced: “I will be good.” (Britannica) She was the Empress, who didn’t shy away from glorifying her own regal persona and from commanding respect and control over her subjects, which, of course, coincided with the social and cultural norms of her era, whereas the Queen Elizabeth II is by nature a thoughtful, open-minded, tactful, and unassuming person, without sacrificing her love of tradition and heritage.
She had been fully aware of her social standing when she was already a little girl, and it might have induced a spirit of conceit and vanity in her childish imagination, but only until her prudent grandmother, Queen Mary, intervened. Thus, her biographer, Kate Williams (2012, p. 74f), recounts the following amusing story: ‘“Good morning, little lady,” the Lord Chamberlain said, encountering the Princess in the corridors. “I’m not a little lady,” she replied imperiously. “I’m Princess Elizabeth.” Later that day Queen Mary arrived in his rooms with Lilibet, announcing, “This is Princess Elizabeth who hopes one day to be a lady.’” And this unfavourable trait had disappeared without leaving a trace in the Queen Elizabeth II’s character ever since.
At the BBC, in 2005, Prince William described her ruling style as “more of a soft, influencing, modest kind of guidance.” She won the hearts of her subjects and those of the rest of the world precisely because of her humbleness, her utter wish to be enthusiastic and dutiful, yet unglorified, placing others into the limelight instead. “She cares not for celebrity, that’s for sure. That’s not what monarchy’s about. It’s about setting examples. It’s about doing one’s duty, as she would say. It’s about using your position for the good. It’s about serving the country – and that’s really the crux of it,” said Prince William.
She is also hardly ever judgemental or disgruntled, even when an arrow is aimed at her family and her institution by a close relative of hers, say, her own grandson, Prince Harry. Once widely popular, he has chosen the road well-travelled by the King Edward VIII, who foolishly abdicated the throne for the sake of his personal caprice or, as he claimed, his personal happiness with Wallis Simpson, in 1936. But even the Duke of Windsor and his arrogant and manipulative wife hadn’t been as viciously selfish and cruel as the Duke of Sussex and his self-obsessed and aspirational wife have been. It might have taken the Queen Elizabeth years to cease to think of her Uncle David’s act of the highest egotism, but it may have taken only a minute for those unpleasant memories of the childhood to be retrieved when the Duke of Sussex and his spouse had engaged their PR machine that would condemn and trash the Royal Household ruthlessly. Something the Duke of Windsor had never done, despite his bitter criticism of the establishment and especially the key political figures of the time.
Now, imagine, how the Queen Victoria, after a similar peripeteia, would have reacted? She may have uttered in dismay that “recollections may vary,” but would she have ever graciously said: “I am pleased that together we have found a constructive and supportive way forward for my grandson and his family. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family”, adding, “my whole family’s hope that today’s agreement allows them to start building a happy and peaceful new life?” Very doubtful, she would have. Some are even flagrantly tempted to exploit the Queen Elizabeth II’s delicate approach and heartwarming kindness.
Not only the Royal Family matters are being handled by her tactfully and with sympathy, but also those of the Commonwealth. She would never insist on being a queen or a head in a country that wouldn’t wish it, granting freedom of decision and choice to her subjects. The Queen Victoria might have never even contemplated this style of ruling, depriving her subjects of the freedom to choose. But those were different times, of course, colonialism was perceived not only as a form of the ubiquitous imperial power, but, unlike today, also as a means of gaining political authority on the global scene. Even to entertain any imperial ideas, let alone pursue them, is rightly regarded as very retrograde and uncivilised today, and the Queen is, naturally, far from such ideas. It is very modern and wise of her to wholly omit the norm and ambition of the far past.
But she is also not complaining at all about certain things that had been removed from her jurisdiction during her reign. Although the crown had begun to shift from a political role to an ambassadorial and ceremonial one already during the Queen Victoria’s reign, today, the crown’s political power has diminished even more. For instance, the Queen may no longer choose her prime ministers, and although, de jure, she has the right to dissolve Parliament, de facto she has little power over it. Similarly, in 1968 the Lord Chamberlain’s role as a censor of all theatrical works was abolished after the Theatres Act 1968 had been passed.
While political influence of the Queen is not as strong as it used to be in the times of her great-great-grandmother, the Queen’s influence as a moral compass and ambassador of good will, kindness and British heritage is stronger than ever. Some of the Royal Family’s younger members pursue very important and ambitious projects. Prince William’s Earthshot Prize has been an immensely impressive and successful endeavour to help heal the wounds the Earth is suffering from right now. The most remarkable thing is that it’s a continuation of the Royal Family’s tradition of caring for the environment. Both the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of Wales have been untiring advocates for the nature and environment for decades.
At the same time and sadly, the Royal Family have been ascribed by society via mass and social media (understandably, to great annoyance of the Royal Family members) an additional role of some sort of forced entertainers. And since they are perceived as celebrities, the relentless and obnoxious media hunt for the Royal Family’s private moments has been an ongoing malpractice. In his book, Robert Jobson (2021) writes that already in 1947, when Prince Philip was courting Princess Elizabeth and when the glamorous couple were out for a ride in Prince Philip’s two-seat MG, one paparazzi photographer had been persistently following them. At that time, according to Kate Williams (2012, p. 202), the teenage Princess Margaret commented: “Poor Lil. Nothing of your own. Not even your love affair!” But the paparazzi hunt and social media pernicious and libellous fabrications had never been as intense and unpleasant as they are now. One can only sympathise and praise the Royal Family for enduring stoically this stressful ordeal. And one wishes the Royals would be granted their human and natural right to privacy and therefore normalcy.
It must also not be forgotten that the Queen’s incredibly successful reign is the fruit of collaboration, as she stressed it herself in her thank-you-speech during the Jubilee weekend festivities. The Queen and the House of Windsor are unimaginable without the support of the Royal Family’s members. With or without Prince Philip, the Queen would have been a splendid sovereign in any case, but the energy, optimism, wisdom, and authenticity of the longest-serving consort in British history and the oldest serving partner of a reigning monarch, enabled the Queen to blossom into a self-confident and self-reliant woman. He gave up his own brilliant career in the Royal Navy for the Queen. With his perpetual intellectual curiosity and good humour, the Duke of Edinburgh made the Queen’s strenuous job so much pleasanter, and she has always been very grateful to him for that. Having lost the Duke last year, the Queen is fortunate enough to rely on the Princess Royal, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who all have acquired the Queen’s high standards of public service. But she can also count at any time on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who have been tremendously active and diligent in the past years. Prince Edward and Countess of Wessex are willing to join as well whenever the Queen is in need of their help.
The Queen isn’t thus worried about the crown being transferred later to Prince Charles who, along with the help of the Duchess of Cornwall, has convinced the British pro-monarchy population that the monarchy will continue to remain in good hands. Although it is too early to predict anything right now, but it does seem more and more that Prince William would particularly excel at running the House of Windsor and at being an outstanding Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, given the fact that his cultural and moral values strongly coincide with those of the Queen. On the other hand, all the people who have been behind the scenes, yet helping the Queen run the Royal Household throughout the years, have also contributed enormously to her success. Just think of the Queen’s private secretaries and hardworking ladies-in-waiting, it seems that Lady Hussey, also Prince William’s godmother, has never left the Queen’s side for a minute, she has always been there for her.
Or the Queen’s dresser and fashion designer, Angela Kelly, whose creativity and loyalty since 1994 have been astonishing. Needless to say how much the Queen, at her noble age, is still dazzling the crowd with her very unique style and her very independent sense of fashion. Moreover, the Queen beautifully encouraged Ms Kelly to apply her talent in the role of the Queen’s first ever in-house designer. This is an example of how the Queen graciously lets other people elevate themselves to the highest point of their abilities and then shine. Little wonder that in her book, Angela Kelly (2019) wrote that “[e]ven now, after twenty-five years, I still admire The Queen as a strong, powerful woman and I find great inspiration not only in her courage, but also in her humility and gentle humour. She has taught me so much over the years and has always encouraged me to stay true to myself while being open to the opinions of others, even if I don’t share them. I know that her guidance made me a better person, and for that I am eternally grateful.” Those are undoubtedly lauding notes the Queen’s designer is offering here, and I do share them with her wholeheartedly. Queen Elizabeth II’s unparalleled and superb work during seventy years of her reign can’t possibly be overstated. It is a most notable and extraordinary achievement by the ninety-six-year-old woman who has been inspiring people for the good for seven decades. Q.E.D.
The following books have been consulted here:
Bedell Smith, Sally (2012). Elizabeth The Queen. The Life of a Modern Monarch. New York: Random House.
Hardman, Robert (2022). Queen of Our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II. New York: Pegasus Books.
Howard, Alathea Fitzalan (2021). The Windsor Diaries 1940-45. My Childhood with the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi: Atria Books.
Jobson, Robert (2021). Prince Philip’s Century 1921-2021: The Extraordinary Life of the Duke of Edinburgh. Boldwood Books.
Kelly, Angela, LVO (2019). The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperCollins Books.
Shawcross, William (2009). Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother. London: Macmillan.
Williams, Kate (2012). Young Elizabeth. The Making of Our Queen. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
Written in my garden of lilies on Cape Cod, on 10 July 2022.
Copyright © 2022 by Elena Vassilieva. All Rights Reserved.