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Elizabeth II

Statue of Elizabeth II in Windsor Great Park

In his study of kingship, A.M. Hocart suggests that coronations of monarchs in all cultures contain religious rituals that point to a common primitive origin (see A.M. Hocart Kingship Chapter 4). As other writers have suggested, this origin might lie in the desperate years of the most recent ice age, 20,000 years ago. At around this time an egalitarian hunter gatherer society appears to have switched to a hierarchy. Olga Soffer, in describing this new type of society, suggests that religion evolved to maintain hierarchy and to protect the position of leaders. Religion was useful in protecting leadership because "sacred information is the easiest to control". Sacred information has to be taken on faith. By definition it cannot be checked. By associating themselves with religion, leaders tended to put themselves above simple judgments of competence (see The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve P 317). A link between religion and leadership became ingrained in human societies. Leaders were often viewed as gods, or later in history, appointed by God. The echo of this link remains. The Westminster Abbey coronation ceremony which was used to crown Elizabeth II in 1953 involved the splashing of holy oil taking place under a shielding canopy. This canopy is a physical manifestation of the illusion and mystery on which monarchy has depended for so long. The life and reign of Elizabeth II is a story of the surprising endurance of an ancient method of leadership in a changing world.

Princess Elizabeth was born on 21st April 1926 at 17 Bruton Street, London, during the chaotic days of the General Strike. At Buckingham Palace where Elizabeth's grandfather King George V was pacing worriedly about, the guards had swapped their ceremonial red uniforms for khaki battle dress. For a while it seemed that serious social breakdown might occur. But in the midst of crisis there was the welcome distraction of a royal birth for the king's second son. Elizabeth was daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, Albert and Elizabeth. As daughter of George V's second son, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne. George V's eldest son and heir was Edward, Prince of Wales, and although at this point Edward had no wife or children, any children he might have in the future would take precedence over Elizabeth. At this point, then, a sense of Elizabeth's destiny being mapped out was not so strong. Nevertheless interest in her was high. Immediately the little princess had to play a dual role. She was not expected to be unsettlingly bright or able. Her education was designed carefully to avoid turning her into a "blue stocking". Elizabeth was expected to be reassuringly "ordinary," and standard anecdotes reflected this. However, the little girl was a princess who by definition was a special person. So to fulfill this second, contradictory need, there was also an image of young Elizabeth as an unusually bright, generous and happy child. As her biographer Ben Pimlott says: "These contradictory versions - the ideal and the archetype - were held simultaneously and provided the frame on which every narrative of the princess's childhood was built, including the anecdotes of those close to her" (The Queen by Ben Pimlott P 11-12). Society needed a person who was special without seeming to have any particular competence which could be challenged. She had to be special in an undefined way. Already "royal" qualities were meant to be of a different order.

The Yorks had a second daughter, Margaret in August 1930, and while the bachelor Prince of Wales went partying, the York family settled down at 145 Piccadilly to become the "royal family". Difficulties with Elizabeth's birth meant that her mother was never going to have many children, which produced a family group which was to become so typical over the following decades. The modest father, practical mother, two well groomed and well mannered children. It was the 2.4 children family model, which reflected trends towards smaller families, and given the role of royalty in setting fashions, perhaps contributed to it. And yet in being so ordinary the royal family still had to be special. This continuing contradiction is perhaps best illustrated by a 3/4 scale model of a Welsh cottage created by unemployed miners in south Wales for the girls to play in. This house, called Y Bwthyn Bach, was displayed at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1932, and then placed in Windsor Great Park. The girls played normal childhood games in their house, pretending to cook and clean. But Y Bwthyn Bach itself was an incredibly expensive toy. This was a royal toy, an "oriental extravagance" as Pimlott puts it, but also a place where ordinary games were played. The contradiction of Elizabeth's childhood, and her future life were held in this little cottage. Y Bwthyn Bach still survives in the grounds of the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park, which is a private royal residence. A copy is also on public display at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnel Green, London.


Windsor Castle

The settled life of the Yorks was to change in 1936. In January of that year, George V, "Grandpa England" as Elizabeth is supposed to have called him, died. His eldest son, the party loving Prince of Wales, then became Edward VIII. The short reign of Edward did not outlast the year, foundering on Edward's insistence that he marry divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward VIII's abdication was announced on 10th December 1936, followed by the dramatic succession of Elizabeth's father to the throne, as George VI. The family moved out of 145 Piccadilly into Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth seems to have maintained a steady equanimity through all this, which continued as the threat of war gathered. By 1940, with Europe's defeat by Germany, and the threat of invasion of Britain real, the princesses were sent to Windsor Castle. Dungeons served as air raid shelters. It was at this time that young Elizabeth began to take on a public royal role. On 13th October 1940 Elizabeth made her first broadcast, aged 14. This broadcast was designed to cheer up children who had been evacuated to Canada and the United States, and also to influence adult opinion in the United States, which at this time was holding back from offering help to a beleaguered Britain. The message ended with these words: "My sister is by my side and we are both going to say goodnight to you. Come on Margaret!", "Good night" said a smaller voice. "Good night, and good luck to you all" (quoted Pimlott P59). This broadcast made the front pages of all the New York newspapers. Radio stations reported switchboards jammed with listeners asking to hear the message again.



During the war years, preparations were already underway for the next stage in Princess Elizabeth's life. Elizabeth was in her teens and a husband for her would soon be required. Suitors had to be "royal". Royal did not necessarily mean rich or powerful. Once again there was a sense that royalty went beyond normal categories of judgment. A penniless Charles II deposed by Cromwell's parliament, living in exile in the 1650s, was still treated as royal. Philip, son of the Greek royal family deposed by revolutionaries in 1923, was in a similar position. Since being driven out of Greece his family lived a chaotic life in France with very little money. But young Philip was directly related to Queen Victoria, and he was royal. He was also given help by his powerful aristocratic uncle, Louis Mountbatten. Philip was found a place in the Royal Navy, and actually met a fourteen year old Elizabeth at Dartmouth Naval College in July 1939. Philip went on to a distinguished war career in the navy, which impressed his powerful friends. After the war, with Mountbatten's help, Philip's application for British citizenship was rushed through. He also changed his name from Schleswig-Holstein-Sondenberg-Glucksberg to Mountbatten to increase his sense of Britishness. This allowed the relationship with Elizabeth to develop in an officially acceptable way. Elizabeth was quite happy with the man picked out for her, and the royal wedding took place in November 1947. The first part of their honeymoon took place at Louis Mountbatten's house Broadlands, where the couple were besieged, before escaping to Birkhall. There was then a further escape to Malta, where for a short time Philip was able to continue his navy career. A son and daughter were born here, Charles in November 1948, and Anne in August 1950. This period of relative normality did not last long. By the summer of 1951 Philip agreed to leave the navy and become a full time royal. With George VI's health declining Elizabeth took on more of his duties. In February 1952 Elizabeth took over the king's visit to east Africa. It was while Elizabeth was on this tour, in the early hours of 5th February, that George VI died at Sandringham. News reached Elizabeth a few hours later at the Tree Tops Hotel, Kenya. Princess Elizabeth was now Elizabeth II.


Westminster Abbey

The coronation with its ancient religious connotations took place on Tuesday June 2nd 1953. Immediately there was evidence of a crucial struggle that would play itself out in Elizabeth II's reign. This struggle began with pressure for television cameras to come into Westminster Abbey. The original plan was only to show the procession on television, but after much debate it was finally agreed to allow cameras into Westminster Abbey itself. For the first time in history millions of people would see into one of the great mysteries of royalty. People would now see the ceremonial canopy hiding arcane ritual. The next stage would be to see, in a sense, underneath the canopy itself. Initially great efforts were made to make sure this did not happen. In 1952 the Lord Chamberlain's office, and the British Board of Film Censors, forbade representation on stage or screen of any British sovereign more recent than Queen Victoria under any circumstances. At this time royalty maintained its mystique, continuing to represent, in an almost religious sense, a higher power. And in some ways this was as helpful as it had always been. In human society many leaders, excepting the most ferociously self important, find a loneliness in responsibility, a sense that there is nothing and no one beyond them to help them. It is not surprising then that even the most powerful of the world's political leaders, found in royalty a feeling that they were not alone. While a mysterious sense of "otherness" survived in the monarchy, there was someone beyond a politician's power to whom they could talk. During an American tour in 1957 the Queen met President Eisenhower: "She was struck by the enormous weight of the president's responsibilities... It seemed to her a dreadful life, and she was both flattered and a little shocked by the eagerness of the garrulous old man... to unburden himself to her" (Pimlott P284). Many other leaders from Churchill to John Major have commented on the relief that a chat with the Queen provided for them. Very few, left wing prime ministers such as Harold Wilson and James Callaghan included, have not found the Queens' presence a reassuring one, symbolic though it might be.


Early in Elizabeth's reign the almost mystical difference of royalty continued to be carefully guarded. Newspapers, which at this time generally had aristocratic owners, held back from stories that might cast the royals in a bad light. In 1955, under pressure from the pompous religious lobby of the day, Princess Margaret was forced to give up her relationship with divorcee Peter Townsend. There was much comment on this in newspapers, and The Times clearly felt that marrying a divorcee was unacceptable for a royal. But there was no attempt to take the lid off royal "secrets". The queen's own family was still considered a model, with two more children, Andrew in 1959, and Edward in 1964, coming along to complete the story. It was only as the years went by that a reluctance to go behind the veil of royalty began to fall away. Initially this change was accepted, and even encouraged by the monarchy itself. Between 1968 and 1969 a year long period of filming followed the royal family in their daily lives and work, on walkabout, and having barbecues at Balmoral. The resulting programme The Royal Family had a huge audience. At this point the royal family seemed to accept a need to be more open, and were trying to control the access they were providing. Soon, however, royal control would vanish. By the 1980s interest in the royal family exploded with the arrival of Diana Spencer. Diana, an ordinary girl with fittingly royal connections, was working as a nursery school teacher when a relationship with Prince Charles began. Given time the relationship would probably have fizzled out, but Charles at age thirty two was under pressure to make up his mind about a wife, both from the press and his father. While the story is obscured by claim and counter claim, it appears, to a greater or lesser extent, that Diana was chosen largely because she was considered suitable as a young, easily controlled show wife. Following a huge royal wedding on 29th July 1980, Diana would claim that Charles never stopped his affair with his long term companion Camilla Parker Bowles. Charles would claim that initially at least he did his very best to make the marriage work. Whatever the truth, the marriage was a disaster which played itself out in the full glare of cruel media attention.


Diana Memorial Fountain

This was now a new age in which the media no longer had any qualms about pulling away every last vestige of royal mystery. As the 1980s continued pressure grew ever more intense, not helped by ill-judged royal decisions, such as It's a Royal Knockout in June 1987. This was a well meaning attempt to give a royal twist to a lively television game show. The organiser of the event, Prince Edward stormed out of a press conference afterwards when he realised that the press were not enthusiastic about his efforts. Then in 1992 the storm broke in a remarkable sequence of disasters for the monarchy. January saw publication of photos showing Sarah Ferguson, wife of Prince Andrew, with Steve Whyatt on holiday in the Mediterranean. In February famous images of "Diana alone" at the Taj Mahal were published. In March the separation of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson was announced. There were also claims made in a book by Lady Colin Campbell about Diana's relationship with four men. April saw the divorce of Princess Anne and her husband Mark Phillips, and in May, Sarah Ferguson left her royal residence at Sunningdale Park, taking her two daughters with her. In June a book called Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton was published, which told the story of a young woman who had entered a fairy tale model family, and found it to be a myth. In August the Daily Mail published pictures of Sarah Ferguson, still married to Andrew, having her toes sucked by John Bryan. August also saw the release of the "Squidgy" tapes in which Diana was heard talking intimately with James Gilby. This was soon followed by the "Camillagate" tapes, which revealed Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in intimate and rather embarrassing conversation. Then, heightening the drama, Windsor Castle caught fire on 20th November, and the ensuing blaze caused £40 million worth of damage to an uninsured building. On November 25th Queen Elizabeth made her speech at the Guildhall in which she referred to her "annus horribilis". An agreement was now made for the monarchy to pay tax, a move planned for a while, but which seemed to have been forced on the monarchy by a concerted media campaign. Finally, on December 9th the fairytale seemed to end completely with the formal separation of Charles and Diana.


Kensington Palace

Even after all this, the monarchy still seemed secure in Britain. Republicanism continued to be a minority interest. But this might have changed at the end of August 1997 when Diana was killed in Paris. She was a passenger in the chauffeur driven car of Dodi Fayed which crashed whilst attempting to outrun press photographers on motorbikes. An incredible public reaction followed, with vast crowds gathering outside Buckingham Palace, and Diana's former home at Kensington Palace. The Queen elected to stay in Balmoral, and refused to fly the Union Jack at half mast over Buckingham Palace, because this was not indicated by precedent. The public reaction was hostile, and for a few days it did seem as though the monarchy might be irreparably damaged. The Queen realised the enormity of feeling and returned to London. She gave a televised speech after which the situation calmed down. It does seem remarkable that the monarchy should come through all of this, have so much of the old illusion stripped away, and yet continue to exercise a firm hold on the public life of Britain. The historian Stephen Heseler called the Queen "Elizabeth the Last" in 1993, a theme taken up by Jonathon Freeland in the Guardian for 21st April 2006. This all represents a body of opinion that the monarchy is fundamentally finished. But the fact is there seems little evidence that republicanism is a strong force, just as there seems little evidence in an age of science that religion will die out totally. A poll run by insurers Hiscox in April 2009, of 2000 people, put the Queen at the top of a list of celebrities and politicians ranked in terms of personal trustworthiness. This was published in The Sun newspaper, which has long been the scourge of the royal family.

People still value the monarch, and even prominent critics such as Tom Nairne continue to insist on the fundamental symbolic importance of royalty. In The Enchanted Glass of 1988 Nairne says the Windsors are "like an interface between two worlds, the mundane one and some vaster national-spiritual sphere associated with mass adulation..." (Enchanted Glass P27). The royal family might not be clever or able in any accepted way. The Queen herself in respected biographies actually comes over as a rather passive figure who tries very hard to avoid ever having to take awkward decisions. But the Windsors are not judged by normal criteria. Instead they represent a higher power which is hard to argue with in normal terms. As Nairne says, the Windsors sit at a junction between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The royal family continues the link of power and religion, and this position has been a source of institutional strength for millennia, and to some extent at least, continues to be valued today. Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre has written on accepting his CBE: "The English really are in the grip of the religious passion for monarchy. How can it change? It can't if people like me go on accepting honours" (quoted in The Firm by Penny Junor P301).

Whether the monarchy will continue, or for how long is of course impossible to say. But my feeling is that for all their cleverness people are still ruled by ancient passions, and Britain will retain its monarch for some time yet.