For eight decades she has been as intriguing as she has reassuring, from the schoolgirl Princess broadcasting out of Windsor in wartime Britain to steadfast monarch.
But what do we really know of the Queen and what makes her tick?
There is the public side, the unerring sense of duty and obligation, of course; and then there are the glimpses of the private Elizabeth, the countrywoman devoted to her horses and her dogs. Yet all we truly understand is what she chooses to let us see.
Then, occasionally, something unexpected about her emerges. Such a moment was reached with the serialisation in the Daily Mail this week of The Windsor Diaries, a compelling and revealing insight into the teenage life of the then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret.
The diaries — written by the sisters’ closest childhood friend Alathea Fitzalan Howard — provide a fascinating profile of the young woman destined to wear the crown, and the values which she formed and still follows.
For eight decades the Queen has been as intriguing as she has reassuring, from the schoolgirl Princess broadcasting out of Windsor in wartime Britain to steadfast monarch
These are not just standards of behaviour, but principles of integrity and decency which have governed her life. And underpinning it all, is the importance of family.
How perceptive a witness then was the young Alathea, a kinswoman of the Duke of Norfolk, who was three years older than the girl she knew as Lilibet.
After one ‘blissful’ summer’s day in 1942 spent with the two Princesses and their parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), she writes enviously of ‘four people who mean everything to each other, whose lives form one spiritual whole, independently of the aid of all outsiders, or even relations’.
In another entry, she notes almost forlornly of the royal sisters, ‘they are happier alone with their parents than with anyone else on earth’.
This was the template for Elizabeth’s life as both a Sovereign and a mother.
The Windsor Diaries is a compelling and revealing insight into the teenage life of the then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret written by the sisters’ closest childhood friend Alathea Fitzalan Howard
For someone whose own life experiences were, in many ways, as narrow as the Princesses, Alathea’s judgments about the future Queen’s character are remarkable.
She is, she declares of the young Elizabeth, the ‘most ungossipy person I know’, adding: ‘Placid and unemotional, she never desires what doesn’t come her way; always happy in her own family, she never needs the companionship of outsiders; she never suffers, therefore she never strongly desires. If only she could be drawn out of her shell, she who has so much at her feet, who can be so gay and amusing.’
Later she writes that Lilibet ‘doesn’t seem to need friends and is careless with the ones she has, though quite unconsciously’.
This is Alathea almost uncannily describing the scrupulousness Elizabeth has employed as monarch. Surely this has been as much about self-protection, while also respecting that tradition of not allowing too much daylight on royal magic — something that subsequent generations senselessly ignored.
Yet, despairing of the terms of their friendship, Alathea complains to her diary: ‘I love her and miss her when I don’t see her — but she doesn’t miss me. Why should she? She has PM (Princess Margaret) — she doesn’t need me.’
At times Elizabeth had her sister’s very happiness in her hands, from the fallout over Margaret’s love for the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend, to her divorce from the serially unfaithful Earl of Snowdon. But the affection and loyalty between the two never faltered.
More than once Alathea wonders about the competing qualities of the two sisters: ‘Margaret is far and away more the type I would like for the future Queen, she has the frivolity and irresponsibility that Lilibet lacks, though one couldn’t call either of them dull.’
She is at her most observant with those astute asides about Elizabeth’s reserve, shyness almost, which is still so recognisable today. Here, she is describing a function at Windsor Castle, where 14-year old Elizabeth had to receive a company of RAF officers, shaking hands with them all.
‘Lilibet finds making conversation very difficult, like me, but she did very well as she had to stand by herself for over an hour talking to each one in turn. She insisted on bringing the dogs in because she said they were the greatest save to the conversation when it dropped.’
That childhood reticence never departed. As royal portrait painter Michael Noakes told me at the time of the Queen’s 90th birthday: ‘Sometimes she has to gather herself together before she can face going into a room where she knows everyone will be looking at her. When Prince Philip has seen that happening, he has taken over and made sure everything is OK. He likes to say he can make people laugh within 15 seconds.’
For someone who has had to spend so much time on public display, she did, for many years, develop a way of hiding her true feelings and suppressing her emotions. In simple terms, this was often a way of avoiding an issue.
This is exactly what she did with the domestic crises of the 1990s involving Diana and Fergie — to Philip’s frustration, who was often urging her to come off the fence and do something.
There is the public side, the unerring sense of duty and obligation, of course; and then there are the glimpses of the private Elizabeth (pictured with her father King George VI, mother Queen Elizabeth, and sister Princess Margaret), the countrywoman devoted to her horses and her dogs
Now, for the first time, we know that this trait was visible all those years ago. After a night at Windsor Castle, Alathea writes: ‘Lilibet is funny in some ways — v. matter of fact and uncurious and above all untemperamental. But one can’t have everything.’ Later she observes: ‘Lilibet is unusually set in her ideas for 15; none of her friends could ever influence her. For one thing she never lets herself come to know them enough.
‘If she were not so placid and unimpressionable, no doubt I would have at least interested her with my thoughts, so vastly different from her own.’
The diaries also reveal other qualities that have shaped the Queen’s life, notably thrift: ‘They [the Princesses] make a point now of having hardly any [new] clothes, which I think is ridiculous.’
Crawfie, the royal nanny Marion Crawford, regrets that Elizabeth has ‘no taste’, Alathea writes. Another friend says it is a shame that the Princess is not encouraged ‘to read more cultured books’, complaining that Royal Family conversation revolves ‘round the dogs and the latest radio joke’.
More from Richard Kay for the Daily Mail…
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- VIEW FULL ARCHIVE
On the childhood crush the young Elizabeth had for Philip, one delightful entry describes her dancing round the room with a photo the young naval officer sent her for Christmas 1944.
But what emerges is that Lilibet was not the one-man woman she is so often painted as. At least two other men caught her eye: Guards officer Hugh Euston — later the Duke of Grafton — and (at least according to Alathea’s mother) the Marquess of Milford Haven, who was to be Philip’s best man.
After a castle dance with young commissioned officers, including Euston, the two friends vied for the attention of the handsome soldier. ‘PE [Princess Elizabeth] asked me how many times I danced with him and said she was rather hurt because he only had
the first one with her because he was asked to and then not again,’ Alathea wrote. The following day Lilibet discloses that she’d ‘stolen’ a letter of thanks the officer had written ‘and was going to keep it!’.
Only once did these two credulous young women talk frankly about affairs of the heart. In an entry from June 1942, Alathea writes: ‘She wondered if she’d ever marry, and I assured her she would, and she said if she really wanted to marry someone she’d run away, but I know she wouldn’t really — her sense of duty is too strong, though she’s suited to a simpler life.’
Alathea regrets that Elizabeth does not have her sister’s charm, ‘chattering and telling the latest jokes’, but writes of the thoughtful Princess: ‘I fell to wondering what fate awaited this girl, who was in character and tastes so much simpler than I. Will she stand out in history as another great Elizabeth, or will she merely be a commonplace puppet in a rapidly degenerating monarchy? She seems to have no desire to win fame for herself.’
How observant — and how lucky we got the right sister as Queen.