Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II turned 96 on April 21. Because of the English weather, King George II created the “official” birthday as June 2, reliable sunny days good for parades like Trooping of the Color. Last Feb. 6, The Queen celebrated 70 years since she ascended to the throne at age 25 — same age, incidentally, as Elizabeth I in 1558, who reigned for 45 years.
Elizabeth’s long reign, now the subject of the Netflix series “The Crown,” has provided insights and some intimate moments that my American friends find quite revealing. When they ask if it is accurate, I politely remind them of dramatic license often used to emphasize a point. There are some noted historians who have publicly criticized glaring errors in the series. No matter, as what comes across is her deep sincerity and commitment to royal duty.
Behind ‘The Crown’
Why is it Americans seem to love royalty? Article One, section 9 of the United States Constitution bans “titles” of any kind. She has been criticized for sending her children away to school at an early age, but that is not unusual. In the upper echelons of the English class system — which is still rife — children are sent away from age 8 to be educated. Prince Charles, her oldest son and heir, who should have gone to Eton, instead went to Gordonstoun, his father Prince Philip’s high school where the boys run four miles over the Scottish Highlands before breakfast and take cold showers twice a day. Charles wrote essays about his terrible experiences there and sold them to the press, to his father’s chagrin, setting up a lifelong enmity between the two men. Charles’ boys, William and Harry, were sent to Eton — openly breaking with the late Duke of Edinburgh’s tradition.
My late writer friend at The Guardian, John Grigg, formerly Lord Altrincham, was assaulted by a man in the street for criticizing the queen. John wanted to give up his inherited title and rushed an Act through Parliament saying he could. Two other Lords joined him: Anthony Wedgewood-Benn and Prime Minister Lord Alec Home. John was upset with the men advising Her Majesty and said so in print, but the bully boy did not make that distinction when he knocked John to the ground in London. Today, few hereditary peers sit in the house of Lords; most are now retired party politicians with peerages that only last a lifetime.
A setback for the queen came on Aug. 27, 1979, when Prince Philip’s famous uncle, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, was assassinated. A brilliant World War II naval commander and the last viceroy of India, he advised Elizabeth on foreign affairs, saying of her: “She is a very savvy lady on this subject; the glue that holds the Commonwealth together.’’
Alistair Cooke was my chief of bureau at The Guardian’s New York office. The queen invited him for lunch at Buckingham Palace in 1985. He was seated at the queen’s right hand. Halfway through the meal, she leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Mr. Cooke, you’ll never believe where I listen to your Sunday morning BBC radio talk.”‘
“I have no idea, ma’am,” he replied.
Again leaning over and again with a whisper, the queen said, “In my bath, before I go to church.”
The queen was criticized by the public for her “stand-off” attitude to the Diana and Charles situation. Surely it was between the two adults. Diana thought so and aired her grievances publicly in a BBC interview. A divorce followed. The queen’s late nationwide broadcast at the time of Princess Diana’s tragic death spoke of her beauty and the caring she had for her two boys. A very unusual thing expected of a mother-in-law, even a queen, but she chose to do it, her advisers realizing how very popular Diana had been in Britain.
Closer to home, it must have been a wrench for her to ask her second son, Prince Andrew, known as her favorite, to hand over all his military titles, honorary presidencies and the H.R.H. prefix for his scandalous association with Jeffrey Epstein, the Palm Beach procurer of young women. Two million pounds of the massive settlement has been paid by the queen to the Virginia Giuffre nonprofit “Speak Out” fund. Andrew’s annual privy purse pension is $27,000.
Once and future queen?
The queen’s recent visit to Westminster Abbey for Prince Philip’s remembrance service showed a lady very much in charge, slightly stooped with age, standing like the rest, but still a remarkable example of a woman doing her duty by her late husband of 67 years.
In my last visit to England, 2002, my wife and I saw the queen up close. She looked radiant. An old friend was driving us south out of Manchester City where I was born to have lunch at a Cheshire pub. The traffic lights changed to red, my friend said he had to pull over and stop because the queen was coming into the city to merge two universities. We saw her magnificent Rolls Royce appear on the horizon of the dual carriageway; all her traffic lights magically changed to green. And there she was, but 10 feet away on the other side of the road. Busily engaged in conversation, she turned to wave to us. My American wife waved back! Her presence was felt immediately, the lighting in the back of the Rolls Royce showed her off to great advantage.
Some of you may remember that in her 70th-year broadcast, the queen quietly slipped in the hope that when Charles ascends to the throne the public will refer to Camilla Parker-Bowles, his second wife, as his “queen consort,” brushing aside the controversy that surrounded the late Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, in 1936. Edward was determined to make Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American with social ambitions, his queen. The Archbishop of Canterbury blocked the marriage. Then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin promised him 80,000 pounds a year if he would abdicate, which he did.
Was the Queen hinting at her possible retirement? This is the first time in 70 years she will have missed distributing the Royal “Maundy Money” to the aged poor of London and the opening of Parliament. Come on, ma’am, you’ve had a good run. It is time to give Charles and Camilla a chance. Imagine you’ll have a front-row seat at your son’s coronation in Westminster Abbey.