Queen Elizabeth's diplomatic skills were pushed to the limit during the state visit of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1978

By Phil Boucher
May 22, 2020 02:53 PM
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her expertly honed diplomatic skills. Yet even a head-of-state with decades of experience has their breaking point.

While the British monarch, 94, has welcomed the likes of Vladimir Putin, Syrian leader Bashar-Al-Assad and Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe to Buckingham Palace during her record-breaking reign, no visitor has tested the Queen's legendary patience as much as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who had a four-day state visit to London with his wife Elena in 1978.

As with all state visits to the U.K., the decision to wine and dine Ceaușescu at Buckingham Palace was made by the British Government.

Nicolae Ceaușescu waves to the London crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth
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Yet even before he arrived in Britain, the communist dictator — who led Romania from 1965 until his execution in 1989 — was deeply unpopular with the U.K. public.

"The press started to question the foreign secretary," Robert Hardman revealed in the new ITV documentary Our Queen: Inside the Crown, which aired in the U.K. on Thursday, adding that the media even asked ‘'why are we inviting this monster to come to Britain?"

Ever conscious of performing her duty as monarch, the Queen and Prince Philip greeted the Ceaușescu's at London's Victoria train station, then joined them on an open-top carriage ride back to Buckingham Palace.

Despite the outward display of warmth and friendship, however, it led to just about the most less-than-regal moment in the Queen’s long reign.

Queen Elizabeth and Nicolae Ceaușescu pass through the gates of Buckingham Palace
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"On the occasion when they were staying she took the corgis out for a walk in the palace gardens and she could see the Ceaușescus coming the other way,” adds Hardman.

“She thought, 'I really can't face talking to them,' so the first and only time in her life, she actually hid in a bush in the palace gardens to avoid her guests."

Nobody knows if Ceaușescu spotted the Queen hiding in the foliage. It is clear, however, that the British government was made crystal clear that the monarch disapproved of the state event.

The rear garden at Buckingham Palace
Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty

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"The Queen puts up with many different people, but Ceaușescu was too much for her,” former British Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen adds in the documentary. "She made it quite plain she didn't like that visit!"

It's not just Ceaușescu who caused the Queen problems during a state occasion. Five years earlier, the visit of President Mobutu of Zaire also strained her diplomatic skills when it emerged that his wife Marie-Antoinette had smuggled her pet dog through customs for the visit.

“President Mobutu of Zaire was definitely a low point," adds Hardman. "The Queen was very unhappy about that."

U.S. President Carter, who visited Buckingham Palace during an economic summit in May 1977, also caused a stir during his trip.

Midway through meeting the royals, Carter leaned over and kissed the Queen’s mother on the lips, prompting her into "taking an abrupt step back and saying that nobody had done that since her husband (George VI) died," adds historical novelist Sarah Gristwood in the documentary.