British Royal Family

The Queen: Secrets of her Reign

In her 95th year, despite being in lockdown, Queen Elizabeth II is as present and powerful as ever. Juliet Rieden uncovers the courage, humour and intense loyalty of this inspirational leader for our times.

By Juliet Rieden
It's 9am at Windsor Castle and outside her day-room window Queen Elizabeth II is serenaded with bagpipes. It may sound like a scene from Camelot, but there actually is a much coveted position of Piper to the Sovereign – currently held by Pipe Major Richard Grisdale from the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
And in fact, the tradition is a bit more modern than King Arthur; it was established in 1843 by the Queen's great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who loved the romance of the Scottish woodwind instruments.
I am reliably informed that Her Majesty is either finishing breakfast or at her work desk when the pipes blow, and even in COVID-19 lockdown, the soulful strains sing out and continue for an exacting 15 minutes each day.
It's a charming ritual that plays out in Windsor, Buckingham Palace and Balmoral – wherever Her Majesty lays her crown! Ancient tradition mixed with the glittering grandeur and magic of royalty is what sets the monarchy apart from us, creating a world we love to gaze on.
But what has kept the Queen running the show as Britain's longest reigning monarch has been also ensuring a strong connection with the people.
That golden thread has been more crucial than ever as Her Majesty remains in lockdown, protected in Windsor Castle by a fiercely loyal team of around 22 core staff, all of whom have willingly given up the chance to be with their own families for three weeks at a stretch in order to serve their Sovereign and her Prince.
It's a well-oiled machine that works on a rotation system so that all staff are tested and isolated to ensure that the "HMS Bubble", as it's dubbed, is 100 per cent safe for all concerned.
Here, in the world's oldest and largest occupied castle, founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, home to 39 monarchs for more than 900 years, Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh are spending more time together than they have for years.
Most days the Queen goes horseriding with her Head Groom, Terry Pendry. Appropriate measures are taken – saddles disinfected, social distancing observed – as the passionate horsewoman throws herself into the exercise she loves best in the private Royal Park on the Windsor Estate.
Their advanced years put the Queen and Duke into the "vulnerable" bracket, so of course they must answer government edicts to stay at home.
Her Majesty is 94, her husband is in his 100th year and no-one would reproach the Monarch for taking her foot off the pedal.
Instead, she has done the opposite, using television, video calls and social media to lead the country and the Commonwealth through the biggest challenge of the 21st century.
Even at the grand age of 94, Her Majesty still enjoys horse riding, and continued to do so while in isolation this year. (Press Association)
It's an impressive evolution, proving this great-granny can pivot to a new strategy and that her leadership, far from being the stuff of crenelated castles, is forging fresh relevance.
Aside from the annual Christmas message, broadcasts from Her Majesty are rare. Indeed, prior to the coronavirus, the Queen had put out special broadcasts only four times – in the Gulf War in 1991, following the deaths of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997 and her mother in 2002, and thanking the nation for Diamond Jubilee tributes in 2012.
But in the space of a few months the Queen has delivered two televised addresses, an Easter message, led a video tribute with her family to mark International Nurses Day and, as The Weekly goes to press, plans are in place for Her Majesty's first public Zoom call.
It's in collaboration with Care UK to celebrate Carers' Week and, if all goes to plan, will involve Her Majesty and daughter Princess Anne talking to carers around the UK.
On top of this, a busy schedule of remote engagements is filling the Queen's diary, including some recognition at Windsor of Her Majesty's official birthday, usually celebrated with the pageant, The Trooping of the Colour.
The tone of the Queen's speeches has been spot on, mixing personal sentiment with experience and wisdom, and her VE Day declaration "Never give up, never despair" hit a chord around the world.
It was decided that due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic The Queen's Birthday Parade, known as Trooping the Colour, would not go ahead in it's traditional form at Buckingham Palace and Horse Guards Parade, but a small military ceremony would take place at Windsor Castle instead. (Getty)
"I thought they were two very powerful addresses and reminded us of just what monarchy is all about," royal biographer Penny Junor tells me.
"The last time people really understood its value was during the war when the King and Queen refused the advice to leave London for their safety, and instead stood shoulder to shoulder with those Londoners who were being bombed and losing homes and loved ones.
No one really knows whether they can trust politicians but they feel they can trust the Monarch, and, in my view, she showed signs of true leadership in both these addresses."
The Times newspaper's royal correspondent, Valentine Low, agrees. "The war will have been on the Queen's mind when she made the first broadcast because of the impending VE Day anniversary.
Furthermore, the idea that the nation – and indeed, the whole human race – was facing a serious, widespread threat that affected everybody prompted inevitable comparisons with wartime.
"The Queen has an ability to sum up the national mood and to speak in an inspiring way without overdoing the rhetoric or seeming false or contrived. It is something which no current politician has."
While politics are off limits for royals, the role of empathetic leader has been very evident in the Queen's addresses and has trickled down in the fevered activity from the rest of the royal family.
Royal biographer Christopher Wilson says the Queen has certainly come into her own in the past few months.
"Those references to the war allowed her to remind the nation that she, as Sovereign, has been around longer than most of the population has been alive.That she is above day-to-day politics, and a figure of history, someone to turn to if people have lost faith in their politicians."
WATCH BELOW: A young Queen Elizabeth II makes her first televised address. Article continues below.
"There's a great debate here in Britain, as in other nations, as to how well the coronavirus pandemic has been handled, and she's saying, if you have lost confidence in your politicians do not lose confidence in the future of your nation."
"She's speaking over the heads of politicians directly to the people, a message of reassurance and comfort."
This increased visibility of the Queen has also let the public see her in a new light. "The Queen's tone has become more personal as her reign has progressed and I think we've seen that here," says Vanity Fair royal correspondent and author Katie Nicholl.
"While in the past the Queen's speech has been formal and rather stiff, her recent addresses have felt more relaxed and inclusive."
"All great monarchs try to pull the same magician's trick, of appearing to remain the same while moving with the times," adds Wilson.
"If you listen to the way the Queen talks, for example, she's drastically modified her accent from the tortured aristocratic vowels of yesteryear – but you wouldn't notice on a day-to-day basis, because the change was so gradual."
"When Elizabeth was growing up, Britain still had an empire and thought of itself as one of the biggest players on the international stage."
"She now presides over a vastly reduced group of states, and has had to learn to go with the flow of history. But in essence the monarchy is largely the institution she inherited – that is one of its great strengths."

The making of a monarch

Princess Elizabeth was born a week early at 2.40am on April 21, 1926, in the home of her maternal grandparents in London's Mayfair, and as soon as dawn broke the public began to gather outside, immovable even as skies darkened and heavy rain set in.
Baby Princess Elizabeth was third in line to the throne behind her uncle and her father, and certainly no one expected that she would become Queen only 25 years later. But as King George V's granddaughter, the public and media interest in the young princess was intense.
Her mother, then the Duchess of York, may not have had to endure the scrutiny Diana and Kate famously faced – presenting their babies to the world on the steps of St Mary's Hospital only hours after birth – but there were "discreet cheers" from the street outside and throngs eagerly watching for royals visiting the newborn.
Lilibet and her younger sister, Margaret Rose, enjoyed a charmed childhood, with horses and dogs and all the privileges their birthright afforded.
But then in 1936 when Uncle David – King Edward VIII – suddenly abdicated before he had even been crowned, everything changed. David had committed the then heinous sin of wanting to marry an American divorcee.
Britain wouldn't stand for it; neither would Australia or New Zealand. He had to choose and the result for Lilibet was that Papa was now King.
The tight-knit family of four had to move from their townhouse in Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace and a future of service and duty sharpened into glaring focus.
Princess Margaret later recalled that she had asked her 10-year-old sister whether this meant she would be Queen one day. "Yes I suppose it does," replied the serious-minded Lilibet.
It was a pivotal moment and we can only wonder what was going through the mind of the home-schooled princess.
The Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) arriving at a church service with Princess Margaret and then Princess Elizabeth in 1936. (Getty)
"One account claims that Elizabeth prayed furiously hard for a brother to be born," writes Andrew Marr in his biography, The Diamond Queen. If she did, the young royal's prayers weren't answered.
Certainly, had she remained Princess Elizabeth, her life would have panned out very differently. "Her hope was that she would be a countrywoman, surrounded by dogs and horses," suggests Junor.
The effect of Edward VIII's abdication on his brother's family was intense, especially for Lilibet, who would have realised the burden of her future office increasingly throughout her teenage years. But she wasn't bowed.
On her 21st birthday, while on a tour of South Africa with her parents and sister, Lilibet made a career-defining radio broadcast. She wasn't Queen yet, but she was clearly ready for the challenge.
"I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong," she announced in somewhat clipped aristocratic vowels.
"Listening to it now, there is something eerie, atavistic and mysterious about its phrases and cadences, as if a young woman was offering herself as some kind of living human sacrifice," writes Marr.
No doubt the young Princess, who married later that year, hadn't expected to be wearing the crown four years later. King George VI died at just 56, and suddenly the mum-of-two was preparing for her coronation.
In an emotional message to the nation made 12 days after her husband's death, the former Queen Elizabeth handed her daughter to the people.
"I commend to you our dear Daughter: give her your loyalty and devotion; though blessed in her husband and children she will need your protection and your love in the great and lonely station to which she has been called."
Then-Princess Elizabeth holds a baby Princess Anne as she walks the grounds of Clarence House with Philip, who holds Prince Charles, in 1951. (Getty)

A new Elizabethan age

Christopher Wilson feels the most defining moment of Elizabeth II's reign was undoubtedly her coronation.
"It signalled the dawn of a new age, and the arrival of a fresh young management to an ancient and creaky institution. Everything she promised then, she has delivered on."
That new age gently opened the windows in the House of Windsor. "In very subtle ways she has brought it into the 21st century," says Junor.
"When Elizabeth came to the throne, divorcees were not allowed at court, Buckingham Palace was run by retired members of the armed forces and aristocrats, and she never entertained ordinary people.
Today, three of her four children are divorced, including the heir to the throne, headhunters find the best minds to work at Buckingham Palace and she holds regular lunches for people who are not necessarily titled but who are distinguished in their field."
"Walkabouts are also now an accepted part of royal life but were unheard of when she came to the throne."
WATCH BELOW: The Queen made Royal history recently when she participated in her very first video call. Story continues below.
The walkabout was the brain child of Sir William Heseltine, the Queen's first Australian Press Secretary, who was later promoted to Her Majesty's Private Secretary.
Heseltine served Her Majesty for 30 years and tells me, "She was a wonderful person to work for, expeditious, conscientious and loyal to those who served her."
I ask Sir William what he feels are the hallmarks of this second Elizabethan age. "I think she has succeeded very well in reasserting the close bonds between Sovereign and people.
Longevity has helped, in that everyone feels that they know her, and to some extent they do, because one of her outstanding qualities is that 'what you see is what you get'," he muses.
The Queen has also broken through the ultimate glass ceiling and while it's a stretch to suggest she's been a women's rights trailblazer, the success of her reign speaks for itself.
"She is not the first successful female queen, of course, and I don't think she has ever set herself up as a feminist, but she has clearly demonstrated that women have an important role to play and thereby I think been highly influential," says Junor.

Family drama

"The Queen has always understood that the monarchy only survives by the consent of the people," says Low. "But at the same time the Queen has been quite resolute – ruthless, even – in ensuring that it does survive."
"Witness the way she dealt with the crises created by first Prince Andrew and then Harry and Meghan: she did not waver in her determination that the institution of the monarchy came first, the individuals within it second."
The Prince Andrew scandal fuelled by his catastrophic TV interview would, I suspect, have shaken Her Majesty.
"We've always read that he's supposedly her favourite son. Is this really true? Or have journalists been guilty of simply repeating a bald assertion made a long time ago, and for which there's not a huge amount of evidence?" says Low.
"Either way, I think the Queen has had the same problem faced by parents the world over: how to deal with a wilful son who simply won't be told?"
"Andrew never listens to advice. It's also true that he has a habit, when courtiers have blocked an initiative of his, of going behind their back by appealing directly to his mother. It often works, too."
"But what is striking in the Andrew crisis was the way that she was prepared, once under pressure from Charles, to cut him loose without any compunction. The palace has, to all intents and purposes, washed its hands of him."
"The Queen has a dual role, as Monarch and mother. As Monarch, she stripped her son of royal duties because serious damage was being done to Brand Windsor. As a mother, she has stood by him and believes he is innocent," comments Nicholl.
Hot on the heels of the Prince Andrew debacle came Prince Harry asking for special support from Granny. The part-time plan that Harry and Meghan posited for their new roles was denied by Her Majesty, who wished them well in their new life in the US working independently.
The Queen has a dual role - Monarch and mother. (Getty)
"The Sussexes' decision to leave royal life has been a devastating blow on various levels," says Nicholl. "The Queen was very hurt by how they announced their departure without her blessing. By jumping the gun, the Sussexes forced the royal family into crisis mode which the Queen wanted resolved urgently.
"The Queen has been very accommodating of Harry and Meghan, bending over backwards to give them everything they wanted in the run up to the wedding and to make them happy."
"From what I am told she felt let down by how they treated her, and her relationship with Harry suffered for a while because of it, but things are better now."
The Queen's reaction was to protect the monarchy. "The Queen was sending a clear message. Firstly, that she calls the shots and secondly, that you cannot be half in and half out the royal family."
"For the Queen, being a royal means serving over self. Stripping the couple of their titles and Harry of his military appointments can't have been easy, but I think this was a warning shot to the whole family."
Nevertheless, Penny Junor feels the stain of Harry and Meghan's departure will fade. "It caused a big stir at the time but I don't think Harry and Meghan's departure will have a lasting effect on the monarchy," she says.
"Harry was unlikely to have ever had the top job and, if anything, I think their decision to live in America may have made the Queen, the Prince of Wales and Prince William come together more and focus more clearly on the future."
Queen Elizabeth II, Meghan Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex watching the RAF flypast in 2018 (Getty)

Constant companion

Key to the Queen's success has been the support of the love of her life. "It's hard to overestimate how important Prince Philip has been," says Junor.
"I think it was very hard for Philip. Nowadays it is not unusual for a man to play second fiddle to his wife, but in the early 1950s it was practically unheard of. He had a job he loved and a job he was good at."
"He could have climbed to the top, and yet he gave it all up to walk two paces behind his wife and be excluded from much of her work. Luckily, he found outlets for his talents and energy in charity work and in running the royal estates."
"Tough but pliable is probably the best description for him," adds Wilson. "I think the failure of his own royal family [the Danish Greeks] armed him, and made him wary of allowing the House of Windsor to slide into disrepair as so many did in the mid-20th century.
Philip has always protected the Queen's back, but let her do the reigning – unlike Victoria and Albert, where Albert tried to tell his wife what to think."
While his famously inappropriate jokes have raised eyebrows, Valentine Low says Philip's dry sense of humour has been a lifesaver for his wife.
"While private secretaries and household staff have come and gone, Philip has remained a constant in the Queen's life."
"They travelled the globe together, endured state visit after state visit, and carried out thousands of engagements over the years – all made more bearable by the fact that he was the one support she could utterly rely on."
"At receptions and other social functions he was also a useful foil. The Queen has never been terribly good at small talk, while Philip's breezy irreverence could always be guaranteed to lift the mood."
WATCH BELOW: Prince Charles shares how much he misses seeing his family during isolation in the UK. Story continues below.
When Prince Philip retired from royal duties in 2017, many suggested it was the beginning of a new era with Her Majesty slowly handing over to her son and grandson in preparation for her own retirement, possibly next year on her 95th birthday.
Royal commentators outlined plans for a potential Prince Regent role for Prince Charles, who would take the reins. But in the light of Her Majesty's current workload such analysis feels wide of the mark.
"I have never truly bought these reports. The Queen has already handed over some of her work, like long-haul travel and some ceremonial duties, to the Prince of Wales but I think she will keep on with everything else so long as she is fit and able to do so," says Junor.
"I think it is all about gradual transition, rather than handing over at a particular pre-ordained date," adds Low.
The Queen has been a still point in everyone's turning world and the personal qualities that have made her such an effective and beloved Monarch are all about steadfastness, duty, reliability and the decency that perhaps belongs to a bygone age.
"The Queen has a steely backbone inherited from her mother," says Wilson. "The capacity to remain modest personally when surrounded on all sides by fawning individuals.""Her mental agility comes from having to work every day, reading complex State papers and trying to make sense of them. Her physical agility comes from continuing her regular horseback rides and never over-indulging in food or drink – and not smoking!"
"I think Her Majesty's consistency is part of the secret of her success. She has put duty and service first throughout her reign. Also, she has always known that the adulation was for the office she holds, not for her as an individual, so she has never seen herself as a celebrity. And I am sure her sense of humour is what has seen her through," comments Junor.
"When she passes we will marvel, in a rapidly-changing world, how she managed to maintain such a consistent act over so very many years," says Wilson.
"She was never swayed by fashion or trends; she stuck to the core beliefs of honesty, dedication, hard work and modesty. She made mistakes but they are far outweighed by the decent, good, hard work she put in over a very long lifetime."
"Certainly she is Britain's most effective Monarch in 1000 years of history and, I would argue, its most loved."
Read this in the July issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.

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