Chapter 17

Thoroughly Modern Monarch: Elizabeth II

In This Chapter

● Following the reign of Elizabeth II

● Discovering how the royal family came to terms with the mass media

● Examining the monarchy’s finances

● Showing how the monarchy survived scrutiny and scandal

Elizabeth II (1952-present) came to the throne after the death of her father, George VI, when Britain was still recovering from World War II. She has steered the monarchy through more than half a century of change, during which the royal family has been exposed to some of the most searching publicity in its history.

As a modern constitutional monarch, Elizabeth II has little power to make policy or change the way her country is governed. She’s proud to be above party politics, and when she opens Parliament every year, she makes a speech in which she presents the policies of her government, whatever its political colour. But her weekly audiences with the Prime Minister can be very influential. Every premier of her reign has said how much they value her advice, based as it is on the kind of long experience of many governments that no politician can ever hope to have.

Queen Elizabeth’s experience, together with her devotion to her work, are the unchanging features of her reign. But the monarchy has also seen new developments since the queen has been on the throne. On a worldwide scale, the most important has been the final disappearance of the British empire and its replacement with the looser Commonwealth of Nations.

On a more intimate level, the most significant change has been the monarchy’s relationship with the media. Elizabeth and her family have had to cope with the regular intrusion of television cameras into their lives, the development of a dedicated team of royal photographers who follow the royal family wherever they go, and a series of former royal staff members who have published behind-the-scenes stories about the royal family.

The family life of the queen and her children has been scrutinised most closely of all. Under George VI, the monarchy had come to define itself as a family - the king and queen with their two daughters seemed a perfect and happy family unit. Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and their four children seemed to follow suit - until the children grew up and experienced a series of hurtful marital breakups. The resulting scandals damaged the monarchy’s image and gave ammunition to those who wanted to abolish the monarchy altogether. But the queen herself has remained aloof from the scandal. No one questions her dedication to her work, her country, and her people.

Education of a Princess

Princess Elizabeth was educated at home, by a governess, just as any upper-class girl of the Victorian or Edwardian era would have been. Her governess, Marion Crawford, had planned to work with deprived children, but ended up teaching Elizabeth and her sister Margaret the subjects (English, history, geography, maths, Bible study, drama, and music) that they would need for a rounded, if basic, education. A specialist tutor came in to give them French lessons, too.

As heir to the throne, Elizabeth also had instruction in the history and structure of the British constitution. For these lessons, she travelled from Windsor Castle to nearby Eton College - the public school that she may well have attended full-time had she been a boy - to be taught by the vice-provost, Sir Henry Marten.

From Marten, Elizabeth learned the harsh truth of modern monarchy: Parliament rules the country, and the sovereign is a largely symbolic figure who has to take his or her place in the complex web of activities that brings new laws from their first conception to the statute book. She was taught all about the roles of the civil service, of Members of Parliament, and of the Prime Minister.

Elizabeth also found out how the monarchy had changed over the years. Her ancestor Queen Victoria had ruled over a world empire. Elizabeth’s grandfather, George V, saw this empire beginning to dissolve and countries such as Canada and Australia winning their independence while also keeping the sovereign as head of state.

In addition to these formal lessons, the future queen also learned by watching her father, George VI. The king influenced his daughter in a number of ways:

Sense of duty: George did not want to become king, but he accepted that it was his duty to do so. Unlike his brother, Edward VIII, he would never give up the throne.

● Work ethic: George put his all into the job of kingship. He did the paperwork thoroughly, spent long hours on charitable work, and sacrificed months of his life on royal visits and tours. Again, this work ethic was in contrast to his brother, who had neglected many of his duties, especially the regular briefings from government.

● Devotion to service: Both George and his daughter saw monarchy in terms of serving their country.

● Charitable work: George was devoted to helping his chosen causes, and Elizabeth, too, felt that charitable work was an important part of the role of both the monarch and the royal family.

Elizabeth saw her father spending hours reading the boxes of documents that came from the Cabinet for his attention. And she saw a man who, though he had little real power, was immensely well informed about everything that was going on in what was still called His Majesty’s Government. And Elizabeth saw another thing, too. This accumulated knowledge gave the king a unique insight into everything the government did. And so, when the Prime Minister of the day came for his weekly meeting with the king, the premier went away feeling that he’d had a well-informed conversation with a respected adviser. When she became queen, Elizabeth, too, would strive to be a valued confidant to a succession of Prime Ministers.

Prince Philip

Elizabeth’s young life wasn’t all constitutional history and preparation for rule. For one thing, she fell in love. She first met Prince Philip of Greece in 1939, when he was 18 years old and she was a mere 13. They were related because they both shared a great-great grandmother in Queen Victoria. They hit it off at once, at their first meeting, but the age gap between them and Philip’s naval service in World War II kept them apart. They exchanged letters, though, as cousins might, and as the years passed, they grew closer. By 1944, they were in love.

Philip's background

Prince Philip’s grandfather was William of Denmark, who had become king of Greece in 1863. He had relatives in virtually every European royal family and had Danish, German, and Russian blood in his veins. He needed all the royal connections he could muster; when he was still a baby, his father, brother to King Constantine of Greece, was kicked out of his country because he was implicated in some military defeats, and the family had to rely on the support of relatives. Philip spent his childhood in various places - Paris and then schools in London and Germany - and saw little of his family for much of this time.

Isolation from his family gave the young prince a self-sufficient character that helped him on the way to a successful career in the Navy. In 1941, Philip was mentioned in dispatches for his part in the Battle of Cape Matapan, and the following year, he began to take part in the dangerous work of escorting convoys of merchant ships along Britain’s east coast - a stretch frequently under attack from fast German torpedo boats.

The royal couple

Elizabeth’s parents liked Philip, but were keen that Elizabeth should wait until she was older before marrying. The royal betrothal was not announced until July 1947, eight years after the couple first met. The wedding took place in November of the same year.

The royal marriage was a success because of the differences between the partners, as well as their similarities. Elizabeth, for all her experience of meeting people around the world, was and is a shy person, someone who keeps her emotions to herself and prefers to avoid argument and confrontation. Philip, by contrast, liked to speak his mind and didn’t mind offending people in the process.

Soon after they were married, Elizabeth’s father, George VI, became ill. From 1949 onwards, it was known that the king’s illness was related to his smoking, and in 1951, lung cancer was confirmed. Against this sad backdrop, Elizabeth, with Philip at her side, began to take over some of the work that the king would have done in younger and healthier times - for example, touring Canada in 1951.

Another tour was planned for 1952, and Elizabeth and Philip flew to East Africa on their way to Australia and New Zealand. But they never got further than Kenya because on 6 February 1952, the news reached them that the king had died. Philip’s support was invaluable to Elizabeth as the couple and their party returned to London to begin the preparations for the king’s funeral and the start of the new reign.

In the years immediately after their marriage, the loving couple produced two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. From early on, the two children spent several periods apart from their parents - Elizabeth’s royal duties and Philip’s naval command often dividing up the family. As a result, Charles and Anne saw a lot of their grandparents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Their closeness to their grandmother was to continue for the whole of that lady’s long life. Two further sons, Princes Andrew and Edward, arrived a few years later.

● Prince Charles: The queen’s eldest son was born on 14 November 1948, a few days before his parents’ first wedding anniversary. Prince Charles has developed his role as Prince of Wales, building up his princely estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, and founding charities in his areas of special interest, including architecture, the environment, and education.

(For more about his life and work, see Chapter 18, The Prince of Wales.)

● Princess Anne: The royal daughter was born on 15 August 1950. In her teens and 20s, Anne was a prize-winning horsewoman, representing her country as a three-day-eventer in the Olympic Games. Later, she devoted herself to a range of charitable work. Anne is widely seen as one of the most hard-working members of the royal family.

● Prince Andrew: The queen’s second son was born on 19 February 1960. Prince Andrew pursued a career as an officer in the Royal Navy, seeing active service as a helicopter pilot during the Falklands War of 1982.

● Prince Edward: The youngest son of the queen and Prince Philip was born in 1964. Prince Edward broke with royal tradition by resigning his commission in the Royal Marines and working in the arts, at first in the theatre and later in television.

The New Elizabethan Age

In the 16th century, Elizabeth I had been one of the most successful of all British monarchs (see Chapter 13). She had defended her island nation against invaders, developed its influence around the world, and presided over a period of great artistic and literary achievement. When Elizabeth II became queen in 1952, everyone had high hopes that she preside over another great reign.

In a way, it seems absurd to compare the 20th century with the 16th century. The role of the monarch had changed hugely, from personal ruler to constitutional monarch. Britain had also gained and lost a huge empire in the intervening years, giving the nation a very different role in the world. Yet some similarities existed. Not so long ago, Britain had fought off invasion threats during World War II. Although Elizabeth II’s empire had diminished, she was still one of the world’s leading powers. And the recent Festival of Britain had shown what Britain had to offer culturally. It was a time of hope and optimism, symbolised by the coronation of Britain’s young new queen.

The coronation

To prepare adequately for the ceremony and make sure that all invited heads of state and representatives of nations could attend, Elizabeth II’s coronation was not scheduled until June 1953. The royal family had more than a year to get ready for the event, and Elizabeth’s coronation was one of the most carefully planned in history.

There was one sticking point, though. Elizabeth herself did not want the ceremony to appear on live television. Film cameras could record the event for showing in cinemas around the world. A radio commentary could describe the coronation to millions. Film can be edited, and radio allows the ceremony to be described at one remove. Live television, on the other hand, reveals any small error as it happened and would make public the queen’s taking of Holy Communion, something she saw as a private moment.

When it was announced that the TV cameras would not be allowed into Westminster Abbey, a national outcry in the press and questions in Parliament occurred. Few knew that it was the queen herself who was so opposed to TV coverage. Behind the scenes, though, Elizabeth was persuaded to change her mind - provided that the cameras were kept away at the private moments, such as her anointing and taking of Holy Communion.

In the end, therefore, the TV cameras were allowed in. TV ownership was still a rarity in 1953, but many bought sets especially for the occasion, and many more crowded into their neighbours’ living rooms to see the coverage. As a result, more people felt that they were closer to the queen than before, and the televised coronation was a triumph.

The episode also revealed more than one important thing about Elizabeth II. Her initial unwillingness to appear on TV showed her shy side and her suspicion of the new. But the young queen also demonstrated that when she had to, she could compromise and take the monarchy, whose traditions she regarded so highly, on to new ground. This adaptability was to help the Windsor dynasty survive upheavals much more severe than the one surrounding the coronation.

The beginning of the reign

The start of any reign experiences defining moments and decisions that show what kind of ruler the new monarch will be. Queen Elizabeth’s reign began with an argument about the royal dynastic name and an international tour that in their different ways showed her priorities as ruler. A few years later, these arguments were followed by a disaster that revealed a lot about the queen’s character and how she saw her public role.

The royal name

One of the knotty problems that the royal family faced when Elizabeth became queen was exactly what it should call itself. Because Elizabeth had married Philip, she should in theory take his name, Mountbatten, and the name of the dynasty should change, too.

But the government of the day didn’t see things this way. They were strongly convinced that the royal family should keep the name of Windsor. It wasn’t hard to see why. The name Windsor had been adopted by George V at the time of World War I as a replacement for his Germanic family name (Saxe-Coburg) because it felt wrong for the king of Britain to have a German name when the country was at war with Germany. So Windsor had a patriotic ring. In addition Windsor was the name of Windsor Castle, the royal family’s oldest and most romantic residence. The Castle, with its 1,000 or so years of history, seemed to stand for royal tradition at its strongest.

So Windsor it was. Philip, for one, wasn’t pleased. Like most men of his generation, he wanted to give his name to his children. Custom was on his side, after all. And in the 1950s, a child’s name indicated its paternity. If your children had a different name, people would think they weren’t actually your children. Philip was hurt and angry and tried to get the royal name changed to Mountbatten. In spite of his forceful arguments, the government and the queen’s Windsor relatives prevailed.

Things improved for Philip a few years later. First, in 1957, it was announced that the consort, known to date as the Duke of Edinburgh, would be given the title of Prince. Second, in 1960, the queen reached a compromise about the family name. Princes and princesses in the line of succession would still be known as Windsor, but any grandchildren outside the direct line of succession would be called Mountbatten-Windsor. Prince Philip’s family name would continue.

The Commonwealth tour

Shortly after the coronation, Queen Elizabeth and her consort set off on a tour of the British Commonwealth. It was an epic journey, taking six months and allowing the queen to visit Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and numerous South Sea islands.

The Commonwealth tour introduced millions of people around the world to ‘their’ queen. Many of these citizens were the people of the colonies that still formed part of the shrinking British empire. But there were also many dominions, countries that had been granted independence but which still chose to recognise Queen Elizabeth as their head of state.

The tour was a success. It introduced the Commonwealth to the new queen and showed the queen’s affection for the countries of which she was head. As her reign continued, it became clear that the family of nations that made up the Commonwealth was something that the queen held especially dear. Ever since this landmark tour, Elizabeth has tirelessly promoted the Commonwealth and regularly meets with the leaders of its countries, many of whom have come to respect her advice, just as British Prime Ministers have done.

Staying out of politics

Another defining moment of the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign was the Suez crisis of 1956. The Suez Canal in Egypt had been controlled by England since the 1870s, when the then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli bought about half the shares. The Canal became valuable to Britain because it gave easier access by sea to her colonies in the east, especially India.

But in 1956, Egypt seized the canal, robbing Britain of its sea link with India. Britain’s Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, did a secret deal with Israel and France to send in troops and recapture the canal. International pressure, however, forced Britain and her allies to withdraw. The crisis brought Britain into disrepute and damaged the economy. Eden resigned the following year.

The repercussions left Britain without a Prime Minister and in a fix, for the following reasons:

● No election was due, so a new Prime Minister had to be chosen from amongst the leaders of the ruling Conservative party.

● Most Conservatives wanted Harold Macmillan.

● Many political pundits wanted R A Butler.

● In a situation like this one, the queen was meant to select a new Prime Minister. However, she was also meant to be above politics.

● In practise, the queen listened to Conservative bigwig Lord Salisbury, who asked his colleagues and put forward Macmillan as the preferred candidate.

The queen went with the flow and plumped for Macmillan, but was accused by the press, who mostly preferred Butler, as taking part in a stitch-up. But now that historians know the whole story, they know that what Elizabeth was really doing was staying as far outside politics as she could, and letting the politicians make up their own mind.

Around the same time as she was coping with the aftermath of the Suez crisis, the queen also had to face some severe criticism from the press about her style. Lord Altrincham, who owned and edited a magazine called the National and English Review, described her speeches as ‘prim little sermons’. He said the impression given by Elizabeth was like ‘a priggish schoolgirl’. His criticisms were directed mainly at the speeches the queen made, not at her personality, but Altrincham was denounced in the popular press as unpatriotic. Both people and newspapers rallied behind Elizabeth.

The Aberfan disaster

Crises and problems test the monarchy like nothing else, and one of the biggest tests for the young Elizabeth II came with the Aberfan disaster in 1966. On 21 October that year, one of the vast heaps of mining spoil that dotted the landscape of South Wales collapsed, burying much of the village of Aberfan. The avalanche engulfed the village school, and 116 children were killed, as well as 28 adults.

How should a monarch respond to this kind of tragedy? King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, had had no doubts. They saw it as part of their duty to visit the scene of a tragedy and to talk to the survivors. They had seen that their presence usually helped people who were coping with a tragedy - if the king and queen were grieving with them, then, in a sense, the whole country was sharing their grief.

The response of their daughter was rather different. She was all too aware that the presence of royals anywhere created extra work for their hosts, and she was concerned that her presence would distract people from the important tasks of searching for survivors or treating the injured. What good would the rather theatrical gesture of visiting the survivors do?

The queen did not rush down to South Wales, and some people criticised her for staying away. So, eight days after the disaster, she made the trip to Wales and saw the devastation for herself. Newspaper photographs of her sad face showed that she was grieving along with everyone else. People appreciated the visit, and the queen saw the difference it made.

Public Monarch

Episodes such as the Aberfan disaster (see preceding section) showed the importance of the queen’s public role. People were fascinated by seeing her, as if some of the magic associated with medieval kings and queens was still attached to her person. If they couldn’t see her in the flesh, people increasingly had the opportunity to see her in the papers and on television. The media were becoming more and more interested in the monarchy, and the late 1960s and 1970s saw a number of episodes - the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, a ground-breaking television programme about the royal family, and the queen’s Silver Jubilee - where the media gave the monarch and her family closer scrutiny. The royal family came into the living rooms of the nation as they never had before.

The Royal Family programme

In 1969, Prince Charles reached 21 and came of age. Media coverage of the prince - who was by now a student at Cambridge University - reached fever pitch, as newspapers and television companies strove to tell people what kind of life he was leading, how he was being prepared for his future role as king, and what they thought his character was like.

By now, Queen Elizabeth and her family were used to the media. They knew what it was like to be filmed on state occasions and royal visits, to be written about in the press, and to have photographs of themselves relaxing at home published in magazines. But most of this coverage was of public events and even the at-home pictures were carefully selected. The royal family had no sense in which people knew about life inside Buckingham Palace or could overhear the conversations that the queen had with the people she met at receptions or state occasions.

The BBC’s film Royal Family was designed to fill these gaps. Directed by prominent BBC documentary maker Richard Cawston, it presented an intimate portrait of the royal family, including such sequences as:

● Footage showing the queen and her children enjoying a family meal at home, in which all the conversation could be heard.

● Scenes showing the royal children relaxing and at play, including a famous sequence in which the string of a cello played by Prince Charles broke, hurting Prince Edward and reducing him to tears.

● Eavesdropping scenes in which the viewer could hear conversations between the queen and her guests.

● Scenes of the royals at work, talking to staff and dealing with paperwork.

A committee consisting of palace staff, BBC people, and Prince Philip oversaw the whole production. The committee came up with ideas and vetted the film that was shot. Anything unacceptable to the royals wasn’t included - and some of the royals’ favourite activities (taking part in blood sports, for example) were omitted, because many viewers would have found them offensive.

Not surprisingly, the result was rather bland by modern standards. However, in 1969, it set the world on fire. Never had people got so close to the ruling monarch. Never, they felt, had they come so near to understanding their characters. And that was the real revelation. The queen had previously come over in public as a rather distant personality, lacking her father’s common touch or her mother’s flair. Now her subjects realised that she wasn’t a cold fish. In private, she enjoyed a joke with the best of them. She was human, like everyone else, and Royal Family did a good job in helping people to appreciate this fact. The film became an instant hit, was repeated several times, and was popular on foreign television, too. The media monarchy had made a great leap forward.

The new Prince of Wales

The year 1969 was a big one for the monarchy in the media, because it was also the year in which Prince Charles was made Prince of Wales, in a high-profile ceremony that was broadcast on live television. The title Prince of Wales dated back to the beginning of the 14th century, when Edward I gave his son, also Edward, the title (see Chapter 8).

Since then, many, but not all, elder sons of the monarch have been made Prince of Wales, and a special prince-making ceremony, called the investiture, was developed. Prince Charles’s investiture took place in July 1969. In spite of the rather odd false-medieval ceremony, threats from extreme Welsh nationalists, and concerns about how the young prince would perform, the event was another media success for the monarchy, watched on live television by millions of people.

The Silver Jubilee

In 1977, Elizabeth II had been queen for 25 years. She had slowly developed her approach to the monarchy, honing her media skills and supporting good causes from local charities to the queen’s beloved Commonwealth family of nations. The queen was a generally popular figure and the authorities decided to celebrate her 25-year stint on the throne with a Silver Jubilee like the one that marked 25 years of George V’s reign in 1935.

Many Britons felt that there wasn’t much to celebrate. Inflation, an industrial slump, and high unemployment had made the 1970s a tough time for many. Some were doubtful about the tact of holding a royal celebration. The doubts ranged widely:

● What was it for anyway? Many people were unsure what a Jubilee was and thought it was marking 25 years of the royal marriage or some other event.

● Was it too extravagant? With many people unemployed, spending lots of money on a gigantic party seemed frivolous or even immoral. Couldn’t the money be spent some other way?

● What about democracy? Left-wing groups, such as the Socialist Workers’ Party, campaigned against the Jubilee, and even moderates doubted whether the monarchy should be celebrated so extravagantly in a country that was meant to be a democracy.

● Did anyone really care? In the face of the arguments for and against the Silver Jubilee, some simply didn’t care whether it was held or not.

In spite of all the misgivings, the Jubilee was a popular success. The monarchy owed its triumph to several different factors:

● Support on the ground: Support for the queen at a grass-roots level emerged in a series of around 12,000 street parties held up and down the country to celebrate 25 years of the reign. These parties, organised by bodies such as local Women’s Institutes, brought communities together. As a result, when people felt good about their communities, they felt good about the monarchy, too.

● Personal respect for the queen: Britons are very good at distinguishing between the monarch and the monarchy. Even many republicans have enormous personal respect for Elizabeth II, because they admire her dedication and hard work. They may not like the job she does, but they can see that she does it well.

● Royal accessibility: After the Jubilee service in St Paul’s Cathedral, the queen walked to the celebration in the Mansion House. It was her first London walkabout, in which she chatted with many of the people who had come to watch. The walkabout, which was widely reported, gave people real, tangible contact with the sovereign, showing her to be accessible and friendly.

Despite all the anti-royal murmurings, the Jubilee came off well and confirmed the personal popularity of the queen. The monarchy prepared to enter the 1980s on a high, and the high seemed to get still higher when it was announced in 1981 that Prince Charles was at last to get married, to Lady Diana Spencer. Britain prepared itself for the most high-profile and glamorous royal occasion since the coronation.

Annus Horribilis: A Truly Horrible Year

The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, or Princess Diana as she became, was a high point in the royal fortunes. When the royal couple walked out of Westminster Abbey on 29 July 1981, they did so to the cheers of the nation and the adulation of the media. The event was portrayed as a fairytale wedding, the culmination of a romance, and the climax of a Cinderella story.

But the good news was short-lived. Very soon, the marriage of Charles and Diana was proving fragile, and before much longer, it had turned into a battle between the prince and the princess (and their various supporters) for control of their stories in the media. (For more information about this marriage, see Chapter 18.)

For the queen - and the rest of her family - this media battle was a sad spectacle. Other people once again questioned the purpose and relevance of the monarchy. And the situation was made worse because two of the queen’s other children had also suffered marital breakdown. This chapter of disasters came to a head in 1992, which Queen Elizabeth dubbed the royal family’s ‘annus horribilis’, a truly horrible year. As well as the royal marital breakdowns, the queen also had to cope with a terrible fire at Windsor Castle and a new call to reform the royal finances.

Royal splits

The year 1992 was a crisis point in the lives of the queen’s three married children. Princess Anne got divorced, Prince Andrew formally separated from his wife, and the breakdown of Prince Charles’s marriage was publicly confirmed in a particularly lurid way. The monarchy, having defined itself as a family, found itself having to cope with family breakdown.

Princess Anne and Mark Phillips

The Windsors’ family troubles had begun several years earlier. The first solid news of these tribulations came out in 1989, when Princess Anne separated from her husband, Mark Phillips. The Phillips’s marital breakdown hit the headlines when the press printed stolen love letters to Princess Anne from Commander Tim Laurence, an equerry to the queen.

The tabloid newspapers had a field day with the split. They had never warmed to Princess Anne, who had often shown her annoyance with intrusive reporters and whose horsey and hard-working personality didn’t give them the glamour they wanted. But the queen herself was unfazed by her daughter’s relationship with Laurence - she recognised that Anne’s marriage had broken down and was rather pleased that she had found happiness with someone else.

Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York

In January 1992, a series of photographs were published showing Prince Andrew’s wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, in embarrassing poses with an American friend, Steve Wyatt. By March, Sarah and Andrew were legally separated, but the breakdown wasn’t the quick conclusion to an unfortunate episode that the royals must have hoped for.

Sarah continued to embarrass the royal family - most notably by appearing in another set of scandalous photographs in August. This time, the Duchess was pictured with another male admirer, a man called John Bryan who had been described as her financial adviser. But it was a good deal more than financial advice that was being administered in the pictures, which showed the Duchess, poolside in the South of France, topless, and apparently enjoying have her toes sucked by Bryan. How much worse could things get? It took a few years out of the limelight for the Duchess to return to respectability.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana

The way in which Prince Charles and Princess Diana split was chronicled not through stolen letters or long-lens photographs, but through intercepted phone calls. In the 1980s and early 1990s, snoopers often used radio equipment to listen in to mobile phone calls, and both Charles and Diana were victims of this voyeurism. Two bouts of this eavesdropping were published at around this time, one from Diana’s mobile and one from Charles’s. For the royal family, they made the most depressing reading of all.

● Phone tap No. 1 - Squidgygate: The tape from Diana’s mobile appeared in 1992, though it was a record of a call made back in 1989. It was published in the Sun, whose editor chose to make it public because the paper’s rival, the Daily Mirror, had had such a boost in sales when it published the pictures of the Duchess of York and John Bryan. The Squidgygate tape, as it became known, recorded a conversation between Diana and James Gilbey, a member of a well-known family of gin manufacturers who himself worked as a car salesman. The conversation, in which Gilbey called Diana ‘Squidgy’, implied that the pair were having a sexual relationship.

● Phone tap No. 2 - Camillagate: The second recording came from a conversation between Charles and his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles. It was published in 1993 and relayed a highly intimate conversation between the couple, culminating in Charles’s admission to Camilla that his ambition was ‘just to live inside your trousers’.

But even before the Camillagate scandal broke, the public had raw evidence of the marital breakdown of the fairytale marriage of the heir to the throne and the Princess of Wales. At the end of November 1992, the couple met at Kensington Palace and agreed that they should separate formally. The Prime Minister officially announced the separation in the House of Commons early the following month.

With its overtones of scandal, the breakdown of Charles and Diana’s marriage was a mess, one that would take more than a decade to resolve. For more on the story, see Chapter 18.

The Windsor fire

In November 1992 came a disaster that was in some ways just as hurtful to Queen Elizabeth as her family problems. At Windsor Castle, an overheating spotlight set fire to a curtain. Flames spread swiftly through the building, and 100 rooms, including nine of the castle’s lavish state apartments, were either destroyed or seriously damaged.

The damage was more than physical. The Windsor family, named for their most ancient home, held this place dear. The castle, a royal residence for around 1,000 years, represented hundreds of years of royal heritage, had hosted countless state occasions, and was also a private home with fond memories. The queen was devastated by the fire.

The fire only affected one corner of the vast castle, but it was still a large part of the building, and the damage was awesome:

● At the heart of the fire, roofs were destroyed, and panelling was burned off the walls.

● Elsewhere, the flames travelled through roof spaces, scorching away ceilings but doing less damage to the walls.

● Priceless objects, from chandeliers to carpets, were ruined.

● The building was further threatened because firefighters had to play their hoses on the structure for hours, saturating it.

But there were upsides, too. Most of the paintings were saved - largely through a rescue operation led by Prince Andrew. And most of the major damage was to the upper floors - brick and stone vaults stopped the flames from spreading further down.

Repairing the castle would take years and cost millions of pounds. But the castle was uninsured - how do you value priceless treasures for insurance, after all? An argument began about who should pay the repair bill.

Many people, including Britain’s Conservative government, believed that the castle was a national asset, so the nation should pay. So Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke announced that the government would find the money, which could be as much as £40 million.

But the backlash was huge. People and press - partly fed up with the royal family after all the publicity about their marital breakdowns and affairs - objected en masse. The fire was the royals’ problem, and they should sort it out. The government backtracked, and the royal family had to pay up. Not only that, but a complete review of royal finances was ordered.

Paying for royalty

Questions had always surrounded the royal finances. Back in 1971, when Queen Elizabeth had been on the throne for nearly 20 years, she negotiated a rise in the Civil List, the money paid by the government to the royal family, and during the negotiating process, the royal finances were made public as never before.

The Civil List dates back to the 18th century, when George III made a deal with Parliament. He gave up his income from the royal lands in return for a regular income from the state. In Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the Civil List has included payments to give several other members of the royal family, from Prince Philip downwards, an income. The state has also paid for other essential royal expenses (including the various forms of transport that get the family around the world). In addition, the family enjoy income from other estates that weren’t included in George III’s deal.

The 1971 negotiations revealed the true cost of the monarchy to Britain. They showed that the annual cost of the aircraft of the Queen’s Flight, for example, came on its own to more than the whole Civil List payment. So did the cost of the royal yacht, Britannia. The royal family cost the nation much more than most people realised. And unlike the rest of the country, the royal family didn’t pay income tax.

Back in 1971, when widespread sympathy abounded for the monarchy and everyone had to cope with high inflation, the royals didn’t find it too difficult to persuade Parliament to increase the Civil List payments.

But in 1992, things were different. People had had enough bad news from the royal family and weren’t willing to foot the bill for Windsor. What was more, the question of the royals’ nonpayment of income tax came up again. The time was ripe for a new look at the royal finances.

Early in 1993, as a result of the review of royal finances the previous year, Britain announced a raft of changes in the way it pays for its monarchy.

Here’s the gist of the changes:

● The government continued to fund the queen, Prince Philip, and the Queen Mother.

● The Prince of Wales continued to receive no money from the Civil List. His expenses were and are met from the considerable income generated by the Duchy of Cornwall.

● Other royals, such as the queen’s other children and her sister, Princess Margaret, had their Civil List payments paid back each year by the queen.

● The queen agreed to pay tax on her income and capital gains.

● Inheritance tax would be paid on all the queen’s bequests, except those to the heir to the throne. The exception was to ensure that key crown properties, such as Sandringham and Balmoral, would not have to be sold off to pay inheritance tax.

These reforms did a lot to make the royal finances more acceptable, even though some critics still objected to the exemption from inheritance tax on the ruler’s bequests to her heir.

Tragedy and Change

The royal separations and the other events of 1992 were thrown into sharp perspective by the still more terrible news that came on 31 August 1997, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris (see Chapter 18). This deep personal tragedy profoundly affected Diana’s two sons, Princes William and Harry, the Princess’s family, the Spencers, and, of course, her former husband and in-laws.

In addition to coping with the personal grief, the monarchy had the task of responding appropriately to the death of a very popular member of the family who had become estranged from them. The royal family has traditionally relied on protocol and precedent to guide them through difficult situations. But nothing like Diana’s death had ever happened, so the family had to make up the rules as it went along, trying to satisfy media expectations, to respond to the extraordinary public sadness at Diana’s passing, and to cope with their own grief at the same time.

Getting through this tough time, though, eventually helped the royal family. The queen and those around her have learned to adjust and respond to the challenges of life in the 21st century.

Media and monarchy

After the death of Princess Diana, the nation mourned. But the press looked in vain for signs of grief from the royal family. The queen and some of her close family were at Balmoral, where they were coping with their own sadness - and no doubt trying to comfort Charles and Diana’s two sons. Meanwhile, at Buckingham Palace, not even a flag was flying at half-mast.

The reason for the lack of a flag was clear to the palace authorities, who were just following the rules about when to fly flags at the palace. The royal standard flies at Buckingham Palace to indicate that the monarch is in residence. No monarch, no flag. Simple. But the press didn’t see it this way. No flag looked like a deliberate act of disrespect, and they objected.

The complaints about the flag seem trivial in retrospect, but at the time, they highlighted the apparent remoteness of the queen and the rest of her family. The queen and her staff realised that they had to make the royal grief more public, and a number of measures brought the monarch closer to the people:

● A special service was held at the church near Balmoral, mentioning the Princess’s death. On their way back from the service, the royals stopped to look at the memorial flowers that had been left at the gates of Balmoral.

● Princes Andrew and Edward, who were in London, made a public visit to the Chapel Royal, where Diana’s body was lying in rest, to pay their last respects. (Prince Edward had already visited the chapel privately.)

● The queen and the rest of the family who were at Balmoral were flown quickly to London. The queen and Duke of Edinburgh stopped to look at the flowers on their way through the gates of Buckingham Palace.

● The queen made a live broadcast to the nation paying tribute to Diana and saying how she made ‘many, many people happy’.

These changes showed how the monarchy could adjust to difficult circumstances. When the need arose, the monarchy could cast off old protocols, and the queen and her staff could invent new ways of dealing with situations.

Threats and tensions

In the 21st century, people are just as fascinated by the monarchy as they have ever been. Many media stories cover the monarchy, recounting everything from official visits to exposes of the private lives of royal family members.

But fascination also brings its problems. The royals are news, and a number of people have tried to exploit this fact by breaching royal security in various ways. There’s nothing new about this type of betrayal. For example, the queen was disturbed by an intruder in Buckingham Palace in 1982. But a rash of incidents hit the headlines between 2001 and 2004:

● The fake sheikh: In April 2001, a reporter from the News of the World newspaper, disguised as a sheikh, arranged a meeting with Sophie, Countess of Wessex. The Countess promised that if the sheikh employed her PR company, he’d get all sorts of advantages from her royal connections.

● The gatecrasher: In June 2003, comedian Aaron Barschak dressed himself as Osama Bin Laden and gate-crashed the 21st birthday party of Prince William at Windsor Castle.

● The fake footman: In November 2003, it emerged that a journalist, Ryan Parry from the Daily Mirror newspaper, got a job as a royal footman at Buckingham Palace. He took photographs of private areas of the palace and was in post when President Bush was visiting the queen.

● Batman: In September 2004, Jason Hatch, a protester from the group Fathers for Justice, dressed as Batman and scaled one of the walls of Buckingham Palace.

No one came to any harm during these stunts, but one thing became clear. The royal household had to improve its security. The monarch, more than ever accessible to the people, also had to be protected. And so the old tension, between the ruler as public figure and private person, continues to occupy the minds of the royals and their staff into the 21st century.

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