Enthusiastically, Andy Warhol once wrote: ‘I want to be as famous as the Queen of England.’ For the celebrity-obsessed US artist, the Monarch was the ultimate expression of global fame.
The facts bear out his view. No one has been as famous in their lifetime for as long as Her Majesty, nor been the subject of such intense public scrutiny.
Historical giants such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon and even Hitler pale in comparison.
From the moment of her birth in 1926, crowds have surrounded her homes. She learned to wave to strangers while she was still in her pram, took her first salute at three, and attended her first State Opening of Parliament when she was just ten.
On her 20th birthday, 40,000 people gathered at Windsor Castle just to get a glimpse of her, while during walkabouts in her Silver Jubilee year in 1977, crowds reached out to touch her as if she had mystical powers. ‘She has a love affair with the country,’ wrote her private secretary Martin Charteris.
Told of Prince Harry’s decision to ‘step back’ as a senior Royal just minutes before his public announcement in January last year, the Queen was hurt and disappointed. They are seen at the wedding of Lady Gabriella Windsor and Thomas Kingston in 2019
Abroad it was the same. A million Indian admirers welcomed her to New Delhi in 1961, while in Canada in 1983 she was described by one magazine as ‘a real superstar’, with a ‘legendary power to dispel gloom’.
Now 95, the Queen seems to have lost none of her ability to enthral, with 24 million people – more than watched Princess Diana’s infamous 1995 Panorama interview – tuning into her coronavirus TV broadcast in March last year.
In a privacy-obsessed age, the Queen has accepted such levels of public interest all her life. For her, it goes with the territory.
Modest and naturally shy – she once confided to a friend, ‘I’m absolutely terrified of sitting next to people in case they talk about things I’ve never heard of’ – she does not crave celebrity for itself, instead seeing herself as the public face of the institution of Monarchy.
In the face of setbacks and difficulties, her Royal persona is the same.
Told of Prince Harry’s decision to ‘step back’ as a senior Royal just minutes before his public announcement in January last year, the Queen was hurt and disappointed.
Even accusations of the kind currently being made by him are nothing new to her.
A biography of Prince Charles by Jonathan Dimbleby, written with the heir’s co-operation, presented a devastating critique of Royal parenting, describing Prince Philip’s ‘inexplicably harsh’ behaviour towards his eldest son as he grew up.
Dimbleby also described the Queen as ‘not indifferent so much as detached’, and he noted, at key moments, the absence of a mother’s ‘protective word or gesture’.
‘We did our best,’ was Prince Philip’s terse response, as the couple’s other three children rallied to their parents’ defence when the book was published in 1994. The Queen made no comment.
The late former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie once remarked that Her Majesty ‘is in a league by herself in terms of rising above calamity or changing fortune.
She’s very much in control of her emotions about these things, just as she is about almost everything. With her, duty comes first, even above family problems.’
Shortly after celebrating her 21st birthday, during her first overseas tour with her parents, hundreds looked on as the Queen swam off the South African coast. A reporter’s description of her in her bathing costume (pictured, fourth from left) as having ‘curves in all the right places’ is said to have marred her father’s enjoyment of the visit
The Queen has simply been quietly, without fuss, ‘getting out there and loving people’ for eight decades.
Years before Diana hugged people with AIDS, the Queen was shaking hands with leprosy sufferers. ‘We cannot express enough our joy and happiness at seeing you here,’ one of them, John Aguh, told her.
Timothy Knatchbull, whose grandfather, Louis Mountbatten, and other close family members were killed in an IRA blast, remembers the kindness of the Queen in the aftermath.
He recalled arriving at Balmoral in the middle of the night and ‘this sort of feeling of a mother duck gathering up her lost young… [her] default setting of love and care, of plying us with soup and sandwiches and wrapping us up in a sort of motherliness’.
He remembered many years later ‘a strange warm glow that’s really never left me… the care, the loving tender care that the Queen [has] as a mum’.
Averse to gimmicks, stunts or any sort of self-publicity, the Queen has ensured the Monarchy’s popularity with a careful balancing act of remoteness and accessibility, stability and steadfastness – a YouGov poll in March found that 63 per cent want to retain the Royal Family.
‘We do not want the Queen to be one of us,’ wrote the women’s editor of the Reading Evening Post in 1991, ‘but we do want her to be with us.’
Mostly, the balancing act has worked. Only occasionally has it spectacularly faltered, revealing all too starkly the occasional fragility of the contract between the throne and the public that the Queen has striven so hard to sustain.
Timothy Knatchbull, whose grandfather, Louis Mountbatten, (pictured) and other close family members were killed in an IRA blast, remembers the kindness of the Queen in the aftermath
Famously, the family’s apparent lack of warmth and empathy with the public mood in the aftermath of Diana’s death attracted criticism – but such occasions have been a great rarity.
Even before she was born, crowds who gathered outside Princess Elizabeth’s parents’ home in Mayfair, Central London, awaiting the announcement of her arrival, hinted at the shape of things to come.
Just a few days old and being taken out for exercise in her pram, the multitudes of people waiting to see her were so great that nanny and baby had to leave by a back door.
Visiting Australia, Fiji, Jamaica and New Zealand in the subsequent months, her parents were given three tons of presents, including teddies and dolls bigger than the child herself, to take home for the new baby.
‘It is extraordinary how her arrival is so popular out here,’ wrote her father, the future George VI, to his mother Queen Mary from Australia. ‘Wherever we go, cheers are given for her as well.’
‘It almost frightens me that the people should love her so much,’ her mother wrote. ‘I suppose that it is a good thing, and I hope that she will be worthy of it.’
Nothing in the tiny Princess’s life was too trivial for publication in the journals of the day: her appearance and nursery routine; antics described as ‘dainty’ or ‘roguish’; party frocks in ‘sapphire blue’, ‘primrose yellow or delicious flower-like pink’; her car sickness, taste for toffee, enjoyment of splashing in puddles; her ‘shining’, ‘twinkling’, ‘bubbling’, ‘sunny’, ‘vital’, ‘engaging’, ‘quicksilver’ personality.
‘The child spends her life in the limelight,’ wrote one American journalist. ‘A great crowd cheers whenever she appears. When she goes out with her nurse, guards and other soldiers stand at attention.’
‘If Princess Elizabeth were old enough to have her head turned by the absolute adulation of a whole nation, it would have happened long ago,’ Tatler magazine commented on her sixth birthday.
It was the troubled relationship between Charles and Diana that ultimately brought the Queen to the lowest and most dangerous point in her reign. Pictured is Diana discussing her relationship with Charles with shamed BBC journalist Martin Bashir
By the time Princess Elizabeth was old enough to play outside in the garden with her younger sister Margaret, the eager crowds were more numerous, pressing their faces against the railings for a better view.
On at least one occasion, she demonstrated that, even as a young child, acceptance of her public role was second nature.
‘Princess Elizabeth takes a friendly interest in the people who watch her playing in the garden,’ reported the Lancashire Evening Post. It described how, once, she led a young friend and neighbour by the hand ‘and brought her proudly to the railings’.
The adulation was to continue unabated. Aged 13, she made her first radio broadcast, to huge acclaim, and aged 16 a hat she wore for an inspection of the Grenadier Guards was copied ‘in tens of thousands’, eliciting a very similar public response to Royal fashion as the Duchess of Cambridge’s sell-out styles do today.
Shortly after celebrating her 21st birthday, during her first overseas tour with her parents, hundreds looked on as she swam off the South African coast.
A reporter’s description of her in her bathing costume as having ‘curves in all the right places’ is said to have marred her father’s enjoyment of the visit. The Princess’s engagement to the handsome naval officer Philip Mountbatten in 1947 led to a fresh outpouring of adoration.
‘There is a special place in English hearts for a sailor and a sailor’s bride,’ The Spectator said.
The Princess, whose birth had offered distraction at the time of the General Strike, again inspired escapism in the bleak post- war period.
For an exhausted, grey and demoralised country, Elizabeth embodied storybook ideas of Royalty, in love with her square-jawed Viking prince, radiant in her happiness and everything, according to one MP, ‘that a Princess in a fairy tale ought to look like on the eve of her wedding’.
AT Broadlands, the Mountbatten home in Hampshire where the couple honeymooned, sightseers laid siege to house and gardens. Furious Philip reacted in a manner described by staff as ‘querulous’.
Over the next months, he struggled further with aspects of his wife’s very public life, including the constant presence of courtiers and staff, among them his wife’s lady’s maid Bobo McDonald, who had cared for her from babyhood.
‘When Elizabeth was changing for dinner and having a bath,’ remembered Patricia Mountbatten, Bobo ‘would be in and out of the bathroom, so Philip couldn’t share the bath with her. Elizabeth didn’t feel she could say, “Bobo, please don’t come in,” so Philip had to go off and have a bath on his own.’
The public reaction to Diana’s tragic death in 1997, so different from the quiet grief usually associated with Royal deaths, was, according to courtiers, utterly beyond the Queen’s understanding, like semaphore from a distant planet (pictured are flowers at Kensington Palace)
A letter written to her mother from her honeymoon made clear that the Princess recognised her new husband’s unease. ‘Philip is terribly independent, and I quite understand the poor darling wanting to start off properly, without everything being done for us,’ she wrote, adding that she hoped he could be ‘boss in his own home’.
Their ‘own home’ would be Clarence House, where, following a sumptuous upgrade, the young couple enjoyed a princely lifestyle with their baby son Charles – followed later by Anne – that would be almost unthinkable today.
Staff included housemaids, butlers, kitchen staff, chauffeurs and detectives as well as a nursery footman to deliver Charles’s meals and maintain his pram, which was washed and polished, including wheels, tyres and hood, every day.
Levels of service were of the highest – even the soles of shoes were polished. At teatime, Princess Elizabeth fed her corgis, mixing together meat, vegetables and gravy from dishes delivered on a silver tray by a footman.
Together, she and Philip undertook visits at home and abroad – everywhere, rapturous crowds were apparently spellbound by the glamorous love match. Such was the interest that, ahead of a rail journey from Harlech to Paddington, an Oxfordshire newspaper informed its readers of the Royal Train’s scheduled halt at Banbury – ‘on Friday evening at 8.41 pm… for four minutes’ – so readers could go to the platform in the hope of seeing the couple even though ‘the Royal passengers [were] not expected to alight’. None of this went to their heads.
The shy Princess told the artist Laura Knight that her only way of withstanding the constant attention was ‘to dismiss it entirely from your mind, or you could not possibly continue’. For his part, Philip said: ‘It would have been very easy to play to the gallery but I took a conscious decision not to do that.’
No conscious decisions were necessary, though, for his wife. Early exposure to the unremitting attention of strangers safeguarded her from any egotism.
During a visit to Australia, she requested her cars and trains proceed slowly, to allow those who had travelled long distances or endured lengthy waits the best possible view of her. Making herself visible, regardless of the discomfort of high temperatures and the strain of smiling continually, was key to Elizabeth’s mission. ‘What’s the point in coming unless they can see me?’ she repeated.
From her mother back in Britain, however, came gentle reminders that the ecstatic public tributes were being paid to the Monarch, not the individual.
‘How moving & humble-making,’ wrote the Queen Mother to her daughter in Australia, ‘that one can be the vehicle through which this love for country can be expressed.’
THAT the Queen remains so popular, despite decades of social and technological upheaval, is testament to her ability to weather storms, which she continues to face.
Her sister’s divorce, the fire at Windsor Castle, attacks from the public and politicians about her funding from the Civil List, criticism of her personal style, a waning of interest in the Establishment during the rebellious 1960s, and even a battle with Labour Minister Tony Wedgwood Benn to stop her image being removed from postage stamps, have tested her resolve over the years.
But it was the troubled relationship between Charles and Diana that ultimately brought her to the lowest and most dangerous point in her reign.
Of his sternly unboastful grandmother, Prince William (seen yesterday) has said: ‘She cares not for celebrity, that’s for sure.’ Yet the paradox of her fame has seen her sustain for an unprecedented seven decades an extraordinary global brand’
As Charles approached his 30th birthday in 1978, the Monarch’s concern about his continuing bachelorhood had increased. Like his great-uncle David, who later abdicated as King, Charles had discovered the easy sexual perks of being the Prince of Wales. Not quite accurately, Martin Charteris described the heir’s life as ‘hunting, shooting, polo and fornicating’.
When news broke that Diana Spencer had become his latest girlfriend, Philip wrote to Charles to make clear the danger to the young woman’s reputation of so public a relationship if he didn’t intend to marry her.
An undecided Charles did not directly address his concerns with his mother, though a rumour recorded in biographer Hugo Vickers’s diary that Charles had ‘told the Queen angrily, “My marriage and my sex life have nothing to do with each other…” ’, if true, suggests an exchange about his ongoing relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles.
With the engagement and subsequent wedding of Charles and Diana, the Queen’s happiness appeared to match that of a global TV audience of 750 million. But within a short time, as the world knows, the dream turned sour.
The public reaction to Diana’s tragic death in 1997, so different from the quiet grief usually associated with Royal deaths, was, according to courtiers, utterly beyond the Queen’s understanding, like semaphore from a distant planet.
As anger mounted over her continued absence from London, her assistant private secretary Robin Janvrin judged her ‘composed but distressed by the way the nation assumed she did not care’. The Monarchy appeared imperilled as never before.
Yet the Queen’s return to Buckingham Palace on the afternoon before the funeral proved that she, too, like Diana, inspires powerful emotions in her countrymen. The Royal car stopped short of the Palace gates. Her expression uncertain, the Queen stepped out of the car with Philip.
A ripple of applause greeted her – polite but modest in scale. She examined the flowers in front of the railings, then made her way towards the crowds. They had not expected her car to stop and they had not expected the Queen to speak to them.
It was a lessening of tension and it found ultimate release following her live TV broadcast later that day from the Palace.
When the Queen Mother died in 2002, people clapped respectfully as the Queen’s car returned from commemorative prayers at Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace. The reaction to Prince Philip’s death was similarly affectionate. The couple are seen in 2016 at the State Opening of Parliament
Afterwards, Prime Minister Tony Blair noted ‘a certain hauteur’ in response to his suggestion that events offered lessons to be learned: he acknowledged later that the sovereign had already begun the process of reflection and looking forwards.
A change in Royal style demanded by the response to Diana’s death revealed itself in shifts of emphasis in her diary. The following year, the Queen visited a Devon pub, accepting a crate of commemorative ale for Prince Philip.
During a State visit to Malaysia, she signed a football for children. She met the cast of a pantomime in Harrogate.
She was clear that she would not be party to what she labelled ‘stunts’ – ‘I am not a politician’, she once commented – but a handful of such engagements suggested deliberate, post-Diana ‘rebranding’ by her staff.
Of his sternly unboastful grandmother, Prince William has said: ‘She cares not for celebrity, that’s for sure.’ Yet the paradox of her fame has seen her sustain for an unprecedented seven decades an extraordinary global brand.
When she was 21, Royal Correspondent Dermot Morrah wrote that Elizabeth’s parents had ‘never encouraged her to regard herself as anything but an ordinary person and as such she sees herself still.
It is her position, not her personality, that she knows to be exceptional.’ Yet many might disagree. Biographer Robert Lacey recorded a brief exchange during a Silver Jubilee walkabout in 1977 during which a young woman told the Queen: ‘We’ve come here because we love you.’
It was not the sort of statement with which she typically engages, but Her Majesty responded, saying: ‘I can feel it, and it means so much to me.’
And it was William who told his grandmother in 2012, her Diamond Jubilee year: ‘Those crowds are for you,’ in response to her stuttering, ‘Oh, my goodness. How extraordinary…’
When the Queen Mother died in 2002, people clapped respectfully as the Queen’s car returned from commemorative prayers at Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace.
It was, she said, one of the most touching things that had ever happened to her – proof that the affection she inspires was personal, no longer simply respectful.
The warmth displayed to her following Prince Philip’s death has been similarly affectionate.
‘Why me?’ she asked a friend, without disingenuousness, as she surveyed the vast crowds gathered to mark her Silver Jubilee. ‘I’m just an ordinary person.’
To many people, however, her long and faithful reign has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that as both a Monarch and as a human being, she is anything but.
© Matthew Dennison, 2021
Abridged extract from The Queen, by Matthew Dennison, published by Head of Zeus as an Apollo book on June 3 at £25. To pre-order a copy for £22.25, including free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before May 30.