Queen Elizabeth II has been impeccably present on the British throne for so long it’s hard to remember or believe that she was ever the greatest “It” girl of them all 60 years ago. “She was so young and it was so long since we’d had a queen on the throne,” an ancient debutantes’ delight recalled when I was writing The Diana Chronicles in 2007.
Aside from that rough passage when all her kids got divorced; Prince Charles whinged to his biographer that she was an unfeeling mother; and the drama of Diana’s death wrong-footed her, the queen’s infallible aura has pretty much stayed intact. That’s an achievement worth exalting, when the Brits celebrate her Diamond Jubilee and a thousand boats bob exuberantly down the Thames.
No one has been shrewder than the queen has at understanding the long game. No one knows better than she what it means to be royal. “Safer not to be too popular,” her consort, Prince Philip, told his own biographer. “You can’t fall too far.” She saw “star power” wreck the lives of not just Diana but her more camera-ready younger sister Margaret, not to mention her uncle Edward VIII, who was a popular sensation before he messed it all up and abdicated. I’m told the queen most stubbornly rejects her advisers when they suggest any playing-to-the-gallery gesture she grimly terms a “stunt.” (It’s easier to hew to authenticity when you’ve been briefed every Tuesday by 12 different prime ministers, knowing they’ll one day leave their jobs and you will not.)
It has helped, too, that like her indomitable mother who lived to 102, the queen isn’t just emotionally stoic but physically tough. All that tramping through bracken at Balmoral, all that squinting at folk dancers on interminable tours through her beloved Commonwealth would not be possible without a Guardsman’s constitution. Diana felt it was almost deemed bad manners by the queen ever to be sick.
Country life is not just a class avocation for the queen, it’s her moral center. The values of seasonal routine have kept her sane. And riding four times a week all her life has kept her safe as well as fit. In June 1981 she brought her horse under control within seconds when a stray nutter in a London crowd shot six blanks at her as she rode at the Trooping the Colour. (When another loony broke into her bedroom at Buckingham Palace and she couldn’t rouse security for a gob-smacking five minutes, she sat on the edge of her bed and coolly talked to him until a policeman surfaced.) Following the success of Stephen Frears’s movie I asked one of the queen’s private circle how accurate he felt Helen Mirren’s portrayal was of his boss. “Well,” he replied, “you remember the scene where the queen sees the stag on the moors and gazes at it mistily?” “Yes,” I said. He paused. “Well, the queen would have had it shot.”
Since the death of her mother and sister and the recovery from the Diana years, the queen’s poker face has started to relax, especially around her grandchildren, with whom she has much warmer relations than her own troubled brood. In private, she always has a dry wit ready to make fun of pompous flatterers. The smile you see on our cover (and that rarely beams in public) is said to have enslaved a former private secretary, Martin Charteris.
It is gratifying that in her later years everything seems to be coming right. Her son Charles is in a state of sedate resignation (his controversial mistress now a matronly galleon of a wife). Her grandson William married the right future queen. And Philip, let’s not forget him, has been a superb, if not always faithful, consort. This Jubilee year she can take pride in a job done well, and sometimes exquisitely—as she vowed at her coronation 60 years ago.