The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II
Few in Britain will forget the events of the week following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales—from the early Sunday morning bulletins of her accident to her lake isle interment at Althorp the next Saturday, after a cross-country funeral procession to rival that of Eleanor of Castile (1290). The court being stricken dumb, it fell to our foreign secretary, Robin Cook, to announce the news of the car crash from Beijing. That was the first anomaly in a week that blended atavism with novelty, a week that at times seemed to presage revolution of a sort.
“She was the People’s Princess,” said Tony Blair, coining a phrase which proved the slogan of the hour. I asked one of Blair’s ministers who had thought it up. He suggested perhaps Alistair Campbell, Blair’s ingenious press secretary. I see now that Ben Pimlott uses it about the Queen when she was Heiress Presumptive in 1947: “Since it was an egalitarian, democratic era, much ingenuity was exercised in presenting her as a people’s princess.” We Britons are an ingenious lot. By calling Diana the People’s Princess, Blair seemed to earn the right to lead the people in their grief.
That grief had a fair percentage of anger in the alloy, as I found on the Monday when crossing St. James’s Square. A woman carrying a bunch of flowers asked me the way to Buckingham Palace and, in an attempt at a little gallantry, I began to retrace my steps in order to point her in the right direction. But I could see she wanted none of it and she soon shook me off. She was extremely agitated, perhaps furious. She hadn’t asked to be shown the way. All she needed was the briefest of instructions. She looked like a Mothers’ Union stalwart, a pillar of some small community, a terror when she gave you a piece of her mind. I wanted her to give me a piece of her mind, so I could see what it contained.
At that stage, we were still under the misapprehension that Diana’s accident had been caused by the paparazzi. That she had been “literally hounded to death” was the premise of the week’s grief and of its anger, which only after a few days began to turn against the court, or to include it in its scope. But if you were a Mothers’ Union stalwart—that is to say a defender of traditional family values, a devotee of the monarchy and the Church of England—you would have at least two reasons to be particularly shocked by the Queen. Two years ago, when Diana gave her famous television interview in which she cast doubt on the idea that Charles would ever become king, the Queen wrote separately to Charles and Diana urging them to seek an early divorce. Many Anglicans believe that the head of the Church, the Defender of the Faith, should never have done that. Of course she was exasperated (Pimlott tells us she decided to set her view down on paper because she had learned that “bulimics re-write history in 24 hours”) but if the Church of England will not remarry divorced parties, the head of that church should never have urged divorce.
The second reason why a devout monarchist might be shocked by the Queen is that she gave instructions that Diana, after her divorce, should no longer be included in the regular formal prayers for the royal family. Most people found the withdrawal of Diana’s title to royal highnesshood particularly vindictive, but most people do not go to church on Sundays. It is the ones who do who would be most often reminded of that act of revenge-by-protocol. What kind of Christian orders her subjects to cease praying for someone?
The outcry against the royal family, which finally obliged the Queen to make those gestures of public contrition (addressing the nation, appearing on the streets), came from monarchists, not from anything remotely resembling republicans. The same people might well, a week earlier, have been somewhat scandalized by Diana’s behavior. After all, she had chosen the boyfriend most calculated to shock the court, had taken her sons on holiday with a man whose corrupting of Parliament had been part cause of the downfall of the Tories, she was teasing the press with hints of an impending marriage, and, with brilliant symmetry, was just looking over the old Paris house of the Windsors. It was all most ingeniously provoking.
None of this could be held against her in the week after her death, although there were plenty of people who felt, in private, that had she lived a year longer she would have forfeited any remaining respect. But the script that played in public was written by Diana herself: the Royals are a cold-blooded, unfeeling lot, and totally dysfunctional; Charles cannot possibly now marry Camilla Parker-Bowles, and he cannot become head of the Established Church if he is openly living in sin; the best thing would be for the succession to skip a generation. And this last line of thought, this looking to the youngest generation and saying “There lies our hope!” this investing of innocence in two children who have no doubt already been well educated in the workings of the most bitter emotions—this theme brought electrifyingly to its climax in Lord Spencer’s funeral pledges to his dead sister, delivered across her coffin straight into the eyes of the aghast Windsors—all this has a significant element of replay.
One wonders if the Queen and Princess Margaret, looking at the young princes in the week the nation “took them to its heart,” said to themselves: we were once in just that position—and look what happened to us! For they were indeed the William and Harry of their day, the focus of dynastic daydreaming. Pimlott quotes a commentator from 1936, the year of Edward VIII’s accession, arguing that meddlers should not push the King into matrimony: “They do not realize how many of their fellow-subjects would, however respectfully, feel half sorry at such an event, however auspicious. It might deprive us of Elizabeth II.” And the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, in the same year, when the King was giving cause for unease, described a visit to the Duke and Duchess of York:
The children—Lilliebet, Margaret Rose and Margaret Elphinstone—joined us. They sang some action-songs most charmingly. It was strange to think of the destiny which may be awaiting little Elizabeth, at present second from the Throne. She and her lively little sister are certainly the most enchanting children.
Elizabeth was ten at the time. People were already looking at the safe, married, dull, reliably philistine Duke of York, her father, and thinking: if only we could have him, then in due course we would be sure of having her.
This desire of the dynasty-minded royalist to hit the fast-forward button, to exchange the sordid or unsatisfactory present monarchy for a fantasy future, this must be very ancient indeed. In the case of the British monarchy, some things are ancient, genuinely so; others can surprise with their modernity. We always, for instance, associate the idea of Empire with the Victorian era; but the imperial rhetoric of the Mall, from the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace and its architectural ensemble down to Admiralty Arch at the entrance to Trafalgar Square, belongs entirely to this century. It is Edwardian, not Victorian, rhetoric. To be told that the Queen was born in 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, and that she and her sister grew up in a now-destroyed house at 145 Piccadilly, seems entirely wrong to me. No doubt these were considered good addresses in their day, but I would have always assumed a grander background, and certainly something more remote. According to “Crawfie,” her nanny, Princess Elizabeth reacted in horror to the news that, after the abdication, they were to move to Buckingham Palace: “What—you mean for ever?” By now she seems to have been there, indeed, for ever.
Many people in Britain saw their first television at the time of the coronation in 1953. The part of the service which viewers were not allowed to see was the anointing, which took place under the canopy and was considered too much of a mystery to be intruded on by millions. And it is, indeed, one of the truly ancient aspects of monarchy. The Archbishop of Canterbury who conducted the ritual, Geoffrey Fisher, preached a series of sermons beforehand, expounding the meaning of the liturgy. Pimlott tells us the crux of the matter:
By bringing the Queen “into the presence of the living God” at the Anointing, the service defined her special relationship with the Deity—a relationship based on self-denial. The physical weight of the Crown, meanwhile, would symbolize the burden of the demands that would be made upon her, “to her life’s end.” Sacrificing herself and bearing this burden on behalf of country and Commonwealth, she would be “giving herself and being herself at all times.”
The diminution of the temporal power of the monarchy had, Fisher preached, actually enhanced the importance of the institution, giving the sovereign, in Fisher’s words, “the possibility of a spiritual power far more exalted and far more searching in its demands: the power to lead, to inspire, to unite, by the Sovereign’s personal character, personal convictions, personal example.”
Pimlott calls this account “as unreal as it was terrifying,” and he suggests that the Anglican Church, aware of its shrinking attendance and the rivalry of other denominations, was glad of the opportunity to assert its historic relationship with the monarch. Maybe, but my own emphasis would be different. During and just after the war, there was a great deal of vigor in and around the Anglican Church, stimulated partly by the war itself. There was a sense of an Anglican revival. I could well imagine Fisher being perfectly self-confident about the preeminence of his Church, both in England and in the (often somewhat heathen) Commonwealth.
But how impossible it would be, in the event of another royal accident, to repeat Fisher’s sermons today. This is not only because “domestic fidelity” and “united homes” are impossible to associate anymore with Charles or the rest of his family. It is because Charles himself dislikes the talk of a preeminent religion. He thought about this quite seriously—he is serious—and came up with a bad idea: instead of Defender of the Faith, could he not become Defender of Faith, a king with a special role in relation to religion in general? The Anglican response was dismay at the thought of a whole row of religious leaders, crowding under the canopy to anoint the King jointly.
You can see why it will be difficult to anoint Charles and mean it, the way Fisher meant it when he anointed the Queen (he was an authoritarian character and expected her to take his words to heart). That is the great gap between then and now. The true scandal in Britain today is not that Prince Charles is consorting with a mistress. Everybody else is—the leader of the Conservative Party made it a point of honor to room with his fiancée at the party conference, and, while they didn’t go so far as to display the sheets afterward, they were making a public point about what used, decades ago, to be called the New Morality. The leader of the Liberal Party has admitted to cheating on his wife. The foreign secretary left his, only shortly after assuming office. The chancellor of the exchequer cheats nature by remaining a bachelor. The only blameless example of family life is that of the prime minister himself.
No, the true scandal in Britain (but not actually in Britain, only England), the true scandal is that there is an Established Church taking a ride on the shoulders of the state. Tony Blair apparently has no intention of seeing the Church disestablished during his premiership. Prince Charles can hardly be the one to push for change, because his personal motives are compromised. But the Church itself could decide to disestablish itself—and the issue would be swiftly resolved. Charles can have wife and crown, and the Church can mind its own business.
“‘What a marvellous way of looking at the history of Britain,’ said Raphael Samuel, when I told him about this book.” The first sentence of Pimlott’s preface is designed to ward off criticism from the left (the late Raphael Samuel having been a much- loved pioneer of the history of the working class, more associated with bellows-menders’ guilds or the class struggle in the darkest shires than with the high life of the court). Pimlott himself is one of the leading historians of the labor movement in Britain, and his plan was to produce a royal biography that wouldn’t necessarily make the intelligent reader throw up. Kitty Kelley hopes that we will throw up, or at least throw up our hands in horror. Published only days after Diana’s death, her book inevitably misses out on what would have been a climactic set piece, if the writer had been up to it. But she skims over the surface of her story, and, while many scandalous yarns are told, she never convinces us she really knows how to evaluate her sources, or cares too much whether she is believed or not. Pimlott’s account, though perfectly equable in tone and tendency, has more power to shock.
I take it that, just as the grandest public rhetoric of Empire, such as the adornments of the Mall, dates from a time when that empire was about to enter decline, so the conception and expression of the nature of monarchy, as set out by people like Fisher, was grander and more false than what had preceded it. The whole ideal was an irresponsible fantasy, doomed to this embarrassing decline. The nation and the Commonwealth were told to rivet their attention on the Queen, who would, sacrificially, live the exemplary life. Now the plea is to leave the young princes in peace, to allow them their privacy, their freedom. But the plunge into truly private life is what all the Royals have been brought up to dread.