Stuck in traffic outside the Royal Ascot races this past summer, His Royal Highness the Duke of York looked tensely at his watch and flat out panicked. Ordering his personal detective to shove aside some NO ENTRY signs and clap a magnetic flasher onto the roof of his Jaguar, Andrew varoomed up a one-way street the wrong way, forcing oncoming motorists for a mile to mount the curb. A local police officer later denounced Andrew as a “selfish road hog” and promised to haul him into court if he did it again. An abject apology was offered, with an explanation: He was in grave danger of arriving at Windsor Castle late for lunch with Mom.
Andrew has plenty of company under her sway. It was the Queen who, over the last two years, reportedly orchestrated Princess Anne’s current nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as president of the Save the Children Fund. The Princess Royal’s name was put forward by several African nations friendly toward the Crown.
Admittedly, Elizabeth is a figurehead, a constitutional monarch who reigns but does not rule. Yet no one, including four decades of British prime ministers, trifles with the prim-looking 64-year-old known at Buckingham Palace as The Boss. Part of her power is ex officio: It is bad form to contradict Her Most Excellent Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
But much of Elizabeth’s authority arises from the immovable force of her character. This is the monarch who at 27 overrode the objections of advisers and ordered her coronation to be televised because, she said, “I have to be seen to be believed.” Who continued to appear in public and ride in open cars after her husband’s favorite uncle, Lord Mount-batten, was assassinated by an IRA bomb in 1979. Who, riding sidesaddle, expertly calmed her mount and smiled with a reassuring wave of her hand after a disturbed 17-year-old fired blanks at her at close range during the Trooping the Colour ceremony in 1981. And who in 1982 coolly kept a disturbed intruder talking on the edge of her bed until she could summon help. Harold Macmillan, the ’50s Prime Minister and a gent of the old school, used to watch her with awe. As she stood unwilting in the African heat he once observed, paraphrasing a remark Elizabeth I once made about herself: “She has the heart and stomach of a man.”
Those qualities were instilled in her from the beginning. Soon after her birth, the Princess was left with nannies for six months while her parents toured Australia and New Zealand. She grew up during the London blitz and matured in the ensuing period of austerity. The world’s wealthiest woman still wanders around Buckingham Palace turning off lights. The heat is kept low. And when one of her favorite dogs killed a hare, the Queen carefully picked it up and presented it to the kitchen staff. “We can eat this,” she announced.
There were no objections; there never are. When Elizabeth II rings, a staff of 300 jumps. Last year she lent her commanding presence to 488 engagements in the U.K., from state banquets to hospital visits to such ceremonies as the opening of Parliament. Wherever she ranges, from Windsor to Balmoral in Scotland and Sandringham in Norfolk, she is followed by stacks of red leather boxes brimming with state papers sent daily from Whitehall and Downing Street. When the Queen is in London, the PM calls on her every Tuesday to brief her for half an hour on government business. Though not a quick study, Elizabeth is assiduous, has a phenomenal memory and frequently embarrasses ministers by knowing more about the issues at hand than they do.
To outsiders, this overloaded schedule can seem like so much regal show business, a performance to divert the public from the eclipse of empire. Why else would “the Sov,” as she is also known, travel like a potentate out of Hans Christian Andersen, packing her favorite feather pillows and a special white kid-leather toilet seat? Or have a hook hidden under various dinner tables, so that she does not have to suffer the indignity of bending down for her purse? But to the British this is not Masterpiece Theatre, it is the culmination of 1,000 years of national history. And we ex-colonials get worked up over a bicentennial.
Elizabeth’s hold on her subjects begins with her family. When as a 13-year-old she encountered a dashing cadet during her visit to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, she instantly decided that he was Midshipman Right. Five years later she had not changed her mind, to the distress of her father, King George VI. It was not a matter of bloodlines: Prince Philip of Greece was a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. But the King believed that “Lilibet” was too young and inexperienced to be so certain. He took her on a three-month tour of South Africa—long enough, he thought, to make her forget that adored photograph in her room. George VI might as well have tried to hold back the tides. In the end, he relented. Britain’s sceptered marriage has survived for 43 years.
Not that it didn’t require tact and tenacity. When the Princess ascended the throne, Philip, the former naval commander, abruptly became an unemployed shadow, forever compelled to walk behind his wife. “Constitutionally, I don’t exist,” he once joked. Victoria Regina had included her revered consort, Prince Albert, in meetings with ministers, and he had been allowed to read the Queen’s daily batch of state papers. Not so Philip. He grew restive, and soon took to hanging out with a group of raucous cronies. His piercing blue eyes had customarily roved in the direction of attractive women, and when he went solo to Australia in 1956 to open the Commonwealth Games, rumors ran rife.
Other monarchs might have staged tantrums or highly publicized reconciliations. Elizabeth was too shrewd for that. When her husband returned four months later, she named him manager of the royal estates. It was an ideal outlet for his ego and energies; he stayed close to home, applied himself, and within a few years the properties were turning a handsome profit. Philip’s passion for efficiency later brought time and motion studies to Buckingham Palace and computerization to both the Sandringham and Balmoral estates.
That was the family business. There was also the business of family. Other queens regarded the raising of children as a matriarchal matter. Elizabeth cannily ceded authority to her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. It was he who decided to send Prince Charles and Princess Anne to normal academies where they would compete with others for places at universities. A decade later, when they went off to school, the empty nest syndrome was not allowed to diminish the marriage. A second family was begun, and the Queen, by then more relaxed in her job, devoted more time to Princes Andrew and Edward.
Philip seemed to enjoy his new leash on life. He became a controversial missionary for the World Wildlife Fund and plumped for population control and other causes. And if at parties he continued to home in on the prettiest lady, gossip was confined to a whisper. He refused to share Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for racehorse breeding, but when the couple attended Ascot, he always smiled good-naturedly. It was only later the reason was discovered: Philip entertained himself watching cricket matches on TV downstairs in a lower level of the royal box.
These were not the only occasions for his independence. Unhappy with the preponderance of gay servants at Buckingham Palace (it is difficult to attract family men because of the long, live-in hours), Philip sympathized with a footman who had been caught flagrante delicto with a housemaid. “They sacked him,” complained the Duke. “He should have been given a medal.” During a Middle Eastern tour, the Queen was kept waiting by a potentate. Within earshot of his host, Philip furiously muttered, “The trouble with Arabs is, they breed.” And on a tour of Peking he warned a British student that he would “go back with slitty eyes” if he stayed in China much longer.
In another democratic monarchy, with another queen, these remarks could have raised enough dust to bury the royal couple. But Elizabeth fostered the image of her husband as an amiable curmudgeon—the Duke next door. “It’s a waste of time trying to change a man’s character,” she once declared in an Upstairs, Downstairs tone. “You have to accept your husband as he is.” Translation: You have to accept my husband as he is. Everyone did.
No monarch has ever been shrewder about the engineering of public consent. After the birth of Charles, the Queen was happy to leave the glamour to her sister, Margaret. Today the Queen allows Di and Fergie the main photo ops. Dressing in a style that can be characterized as pseudofrumpy, Elizabeth stays out of the tabloids and gets her work done with a minimum of interruptions. While her hair is done every Monday at 4 P.M. by Charles Martyn, her hairdresser for the last two decades, she reads state papers and seldom glances in the mirror. (Martyn will not comment, by the way, on plausible reports that her dark brown hair owes to a rinse called Chocolate Kiss.) In the country she does her own with a brush and a can of hair spray. As for makeup, “She could do it in five minutes,” says Martyn.
Not everyone is happy about her diffidence. “I sometimes wish she had been a bit more of a clothes person,” wistfully admits her couturier of four decades, Sir Hardy Amies. “She doesn’t care, basically. She listens to our advice, then goes off and wears shabby shoes because they’re comfortable.” But she, in fact, does care. Her outfits—the boxy, brightly colored clothes, clunky handbags, unfashionable reading glasses—are chosen with great deliberation to be unthreatening to women, unobtrusive to men and easily seen by the crowds who line her path. If she were chic, she would be French, and if she dressed to take 10 years off her age, she would be American. This Queen is British to her bones.
That means a love of silver service and afternoon tea (Earl Grey), bland food (no garlic, spices, rich sauces), sweetish white wine, jigsaw puzzles, Dick Francis mysteries and, most of all, tramps in the country amid her Thoroughbreds and her dogs. The Queen feeds her six corgis and two dorgis (a dachshund-corgi mix) herself, cutting up their meat and mixing it with biscuits in their separate bowls set out every afternoon by a footman.
Two generations ago Elizabeth’s grandmother Queen Mary spoke of the wearying royal role. “We’re not supposed to be human,” she concluded grimly. It is to QEII’s great credit that in her long-running reign she has kept her cool without losing her humanity.
Today, when verbal snipers zero in on every other royal soul, Elizabeth has risen above criticism. To be sure, there are the expected gripes about her outfits, and the Irish Republican Army will never salute. But her popularity continues unabated, and in recent times she has made some astonishing converts. In Mexico so many people turned out to see her that El Presidente cracked, “But I only ordered half a million!” Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda went on TV to praise her: “She minds about people; that is why she is great.” And during the Falkland Islands conflict, when Catholic Argentina seethed at its British enemy, Pope John Paul II visited with the Queen and told her, referring to airman Andrew, “God bless your son.”
Elizabeth Longford, biographer of Queen Victoria and wife of a former Labor cabinet minister, speaks for many when she analyzes the change in her own Anglo-Saxon attitudes: “When I was growing up, I wasn’t a particularly strong monarchist, but now I feel it is an integral part of the national life. The whole point of our Queen is that she does unite us, she stands for our history, for our ideals and for our family life. People like that and want that. For us, a monarch makes a far better head of state than an elected president.”
—STEFAN KANFER, HELEN GIBSON IN LONDON