From the Archives: Chairman of the Board
Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.
In the bleak winter of 1952, photographer Ron Chase happened to take a shot that instantly became one of the most iconic images of royalty ever produced. The photo shows three women approaching St. George’s Chapel of Westminster Abbey, where the body of the late King George VI lay in state. The women are dressed in mourning, and they constitute an inadvertent and sadly stunning tribute to the late monarch: poor out-of-his-depth George VI is being sent off by three Queens of England.
Pundits seized on the image immediately as a symbol both of royal continuity and of waiting change. There in the center, taller than the other two, stands the elderly Queen Mary, the granite lines of her pale face betraying no
emotion over losing a third son (Prince George and little Prince John had gone first). Nearest the viewer, standing in profile, is the solid figure of the late king’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, somehow conveying strength even in her devastation, the round features of her face caught in mid-sob. And behind the two, almost seeming to peek out from the background, is the new queen. Next to her grandmother, who knew Queen Victoria and saw the British Empire when it ruled the world, and next to her mother, who helped both her beleaguered people and her overwhelmed husband to endure the worst days of the worst war the world had ever seen, this pretty young third figure seems almost a girl (“only a child,” as her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, remarked when he first heard the news). The image stands as a shorthand representation of the past, the present, and the future.
Princess Elizabeth had been on a royal tour of East Africa with her husband Prince Phillip when she learned of her father’s death, and she reacted from the first instant with a total public self-control that was far more like her grandmother than either her mother or her illustrious great-great-great grandmother Victoria. She did not cry or even tear up in front of any witnesses, nor did her voice or hand shake – she began studying state papers at once. When asked what name she would use on the throne, she replied, “Why my own, Elizabeth, of course.” Her address to her council upon her return to England was clear and note-perfect, making graceful concessions to the untried nature of her youth but showing nothing but professionalism.
She had been preparing for the role since 10 December 1936 when her uncle David, King Edward VIII, had abdicated and the throne had gone to her father. When the situation was explained to her younger sister Margaret and herself, she’d said, “That means one day I shall be queen,” and from then on, the girl and young woman in the anecdotes and reminiscences tends to disappear, replaced by a monarch-in-training. The vivacity that had previously characterized both Elizabeth and Margaret all but vanished from the public persona that began to harden in place in the older sister. She made no attempt to emulate the cheer that had made her mother the idol of the nation. From the first, her model seems to have been her grandmother – the rigorous application to formal duties, the somewhat remote dignity, the personal reserve bordering on austerity … all were traits the older members of the public had come to associate with Queen Mary. The old queen had insisted that she be among the first to kiss her granddaughter’s hand upon her return to England – a torch seemed to be passed.
On 2 June 1953, the second Queen Elizabeth came to the British throne at the same age as the first, but it was a very different Britain, and a very different throne. Elizabeth II was either Queen or Commonwealth leader of over 600 million people – a number that would have defied the imagination of Elizabeth I. And the change in the power of the throne would have been even less comprehensible to any Tudor monarch: Elizabeth I could crack a stick over the shoulder of a courtier who displeased her, or could banish such a courtier without hope of recall. Elizabeth II’s royal prerogatives are famously three: she has the right to be consulted by, the right to encourage, and the right to warn the governments formed in her day. But her role as constitutional monarch is supposed to be free of any hint of partiality toward any of those governments – were she actually to exercise any one of her three prerogatives, her ministers would fall out of their seats from shock. At the very beginning of her reign, Winston Churchill (somewhat fancifully, unsuccessfully trying out rhetoric about a “second Elizabethan Age”) quipped the essential formula: the Queen could do no wrong, and her ministers could be sacked.
This formula dictated a life for the young sovereign that was entirely composed of court functions, building dedications, traditional ceremonies like the Trooping of the Colour or the opening of Parliament, and a round of annual speeches so anodyne as to be virtually interchangeable. Schools were to be addressed; visiting heads of state were to be feted; goodwill tours were to be carefully planned and executed; honors were to be bestowed, with a smile for the good and the grasping alike. Elizabeth became the living embodiment of a virtually lifeless figurehead performance, and since she grants no interviews, interested onlookers for sixty years have been tempted either to speculate about her nature (each one of the many biographies of her have been, at heart, epic feats of such speculation) or to equate her with the monarchy itself. Seldom has a world leader of any kind been so thoroughly subsumed in the impersonal lineaments of leadership itself. In 1991, biographical speculators Charles Higham and Roy Moseley seemed to come to the same conclusion, only more effusively:
She had secured the past as much as she could: she could look back, after a reign of thirty-eight years, on a powerful and united Commonwealth, held together most importantly by her pure and unsullied image of objective leadership, and she could reflect upon the fact that, for all of the storms around her, she had never betrayed her father, the human being who meant more to her than anyone in the world, in his dreams for her. Like the Queens of legend, she had not broken the rules, or the spells that had descended upon her. She was, at a time when the very word seemed anachronistic and strange, Majesty.
Her intimate friends are left to protest that Elizabeth II is an extremely personable, funny, even chatty woman of remarkable charisma and intelligence. Her subjects never see this side of her, and so she is easy to caricature as a figure almost as stiff and pompous as Queen Victoria herself – whose intimate friends protested much the same things about her. Victoria becomes a “we are not amused” punch-line, and Elizabeth II’s dignity gets lampooned to great comic effect in movies like The Naked Gun. The sixth sovereign queen of England became the first to rule without any public personality at all.
This approach has pitfalls, of course. When tragedy strikes, sympathy congeals around personalities, not court functions. The terrible photos of Windsor Castle on fire in 1992 were accompanied by shots of the Queen seeming stunned and bedraggled in her kerchief and spectacles – for one brief moment, she looked exactly as anybody would look, while standing on the sidelines watching their house burn. The public got that glimpse into her private reactions – and then no more. By the time she’d come around to mentioning the fire – in a speech alluding to her “annus horribilis” – she was already making it sound like something that had happened in the reign of Charles II. Royal biographers like Sarah Bradford (writing in 1996) have done their best with this:
Elizabeth has been through family troubles in the past few years which would have shattered someone more emotionally fragile than she is. Worst of all for her as a private person, and also as one with the reputation and preservation of the monarchy so close at heart, has been the public exposure, the almost daily trawling through the dirty linen (literally as well as figuratively). For her personally there has been just one consolation. The events of the annus horribilis and its aftermath have drawn her and her husband even closer together.
No pitfall was deeper than the one into which the whole monarchy stumbled in 1997 when Princess Diana died. She had been the glamorous and doe-eyed wife of the Queen’s heir apparent, Prince Charles and even after the couple divorced, she remained phenomenally popular with the British people. When she died in a car crash in Paris, England gave vent to a massive and telegenic outpouring of public grief. The gates of every royal building in London were deluged in a sea of bouquets, ordinary citizens wept in the streets – and the Queen handled it all with a stubborn maladroitness worthy of Richard Nixon. At first she refused to cut short her holiday at the royal retreat in Balmoral, Scotland (the official explanation was that she’d decided to shield Diana’s two young boys from the media circus of the London press). Then she resisted the idea of flying the royal standard over the palace at half-mast (cluelessly doctrinaire, the Palace pointed out that the position of the flag was only meant to signal whether or not the queen was in residence, not what her particular mind-frame might be). Then she stalled on the idea of making a televised address to the nation. And then there was the address itself – as mechanical as backhoe, and as obviously insincere as a reminder-card from the dentist. It’s the plainest mark of the high regard the British people generally feel for the monarchy that they didn’t summarily abolish it in 1997.
The popularity of the monarchy rebounded even from the Diana debacle. The Queen had made her gesture, and as she advanced in age her lifelong steadfast qualities came to be viewed more as loyalty to tradition than as a stubborn lack of imagination. Increasingly she seemed like a rock around which the rest of the royal ‘firm’ was floundering and sinking. All her children married and then divorced; her mother and her sister died; her grandchildren found themselves in one brushfire media scandal after another (including her grandson Prince Harry dressing as a Nazi at a costume party and, in response to media outrage, innocently asking if Auschwitz were the name of a ski resort). In the midst of everything, the Queen carried on, a daintily smiling presence at an unending string of garden parties and veteran anniversaries. A steadily increasing stream of royal biographies flowed from the presses, ranging from the featherweight and preposterous (the overwhelming majority) to the insightful, the best of which was Ben Pimlott’s 1996 volume The Queen (updated in 2002), with his carefully inarguable conclusion:
But she liked to think, and she could have been right, that many of her subjects saw in her somebody at heart similar to themselves; prosaic, unpretentious, the kind of person who in the words of a sympathiser goes around the house turning out the lights the children had left on. She liked, too, to think that the reputation for honesty of purpose which made foreigners see in her a distillation of the national identity was one her people were happy to embrace. She looked forward to her Golden Jubilee – the first since Victoria’s magnificent imperial celebration in 1887 – without trepidation, or expectations of any kind. She would take it as it came. She was aware of what she thought she had achieved. She was constant, in a shifting world.
To repeat: Pimlott was speculating. Neither he nor any other biographer has ever been made privy to what the Queen liked to think, nor what she looked forward to and how, and this leads even the best of them into a chummy inanity for which less reserved members of the royal family in turn mock them. To write that a Queen of England looks forward to her Golden Jubilee without ‘expectations of any kind’ is to write foolishness merely because you haven’t been instructed to the contrary, and royal biographers do it all the time. When discussing the dangers of the job, another of Elizabeth’s biographers wrote “It simply does not occur to her that anyone should wish to kill her.” Small wonder the royal “Firm” has cultivated such a contempt for the press.
While these biographies have been increasing, the royal mystique at their heart has been decreasing. Long ago, Walter Bagehot had famously warned against letting too much daylight in upon the magic, and as one royal biographer put it, “If Bagehot had not existed, the Windsors would have had to invent him.” In this respect, the late 20th century has been positively flourescent: the Queen began cutting costs; the Queen began divulging the extent of her private holdings; the Queen began paying income tax. What timid magic there remained in the monarchy increasingly seemed invested in this one woman alone, who never seemed to change, hardly seemed to age, and who had recently announced in a public address at age 70 what she had told her ministers when she first got the job: that she’d stay in it for life – no abdicating like her uncle.
Such an announcement gives an ironic underscoring to that image of a mother going around the house turning out the lights, and it raises obvious questions about the House of Windsor’s future. The Queen is in her mid-80s and likely shares her mother’s unquenchable vitality – and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother lived to be 102. If the Queen doesn’t abdicate, she could rule another 20 years, which would put her heir in his mid-80s when he came to the throne … an unthinkable prospect about which all monarchy-watchers (foremost of which by necessity are the royals themselves) must now think.
We’ll turn to that heir – His Royal Highness Prince Charles – in our next chapter.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.