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Queen Elizabeth II: A Look Back at One of the Most Enduring — and Successful — Monarchs

14 minute read
Catherine Mayer

You sense her approach before you see her. There’s a straightening of shoulders among palace staff, a determined clip of shoes on polished floors, and another sound, harder to place, like autumn leaves blown across tarmac. Then a pack of corgis and dorgis — dachshunds crossed with corgis — comes skittering into view, their nails percussive on the sections of parquet not muted by rugs as they surge ahead of their diminutive owner.

One of the first things people notice about the Queen is how closely she fits their expectations, whether she is accompanied by a retinue of corgis or of courtiers, is dressed down in dowdy daywear or gussied up in silks and tiara. The second is how tiny she is. Today’s second longest-serving monarch (after Thailand’s King) may look too petite to shoulder her extraordinary mass of accrued experience and global celebrity. Yet in other respects she is exactly as we imagine her: regal and serious-minded, familiar yet enigmatic.

(For more, get TIME’s new book: The Royal Family: The House of Windsor, Past, Present and Future)

The great 19th century essayist Walter Bagehot wrote of the monarchy, “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.” This precept still holds, perhaps more so than ever in an age of disposable celebrity. The Queen does not make herself available for interviews and has no intention of ever doing so. Her enduring popularity — and the longer-term survival of the constitutional monarchy — rests on a notion rarely articulated in our egalitarian times: that she and her heirs are special, set apart, above the hoi polloi. In at least some respects, that otherness isn’t just a notion. On closer observation, the Windsors, especially the monarch’s generation and her children’s, turn out to be quite unlike most Britons, much less the peoples of the farther-flung Commonwealth realms that still bend the knee to Elizabeth II. The rarefied environment the royals inhabit makes them see things differently — and sometimes not at all. Prince Andrew, on a 2004 visit to China, told students at Peking University that U.S. culture had exerted little influence on British culture. The students looked back at him, bemused, perhaps more aware than their English visitor of how American TV, pop music and fashion have shaped the tastes and cultural output of his country for generations. The royals’ upbringing means they do not always naturally connect with the people that they are taught they are born to serve. But connect with them they must.

Only rarely has the Queen badly misjudged public sentiment. In 1966 she was criticized for being remote and out of touch when she did not rush straight to the South Wales town of Aberfan after a landslide of coal waste buried a school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. She drew negative comment again for missing the funeral of 10-year-old Joanne Flannigan, the first service for a local victim of the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. “Broken-hearted Britain watching TV needed to see their equally grieving monarch,” wrote columnist Jean Rook in the Daily Express. The movie The Queen dramatized the sovereign’s most serious misstep of all, when she delayed her return to London to lead the national mourning after the 1997 death of her former daughter-in-law.

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Diana, unlike the Windsors, was plugged into the demotic, democratic world outside the palace gates. As celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee encourage us to look back over the second Elizabethan era, it is tempting to see the monarchy and its matriarch as relics, preserved in a sticky aspic of nostalgia and sentiment. That would be to underestimate an institution that, against all odds, is quietly thriving and a sovereign who, at 86, is more influential than for many a decade. Her leadership has steered the monarchy through crises and social upheaval. She has built an organization highly skilled at change management. And now it is preparing for the biggest change it will ever have to manage: one day to manage without her.

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The Figurehead Is Not What She Seems
Though the Queen herself may seem ageless, there are aspects of palace life that positively creak. Honorary positions at court still include an official called the earl marshal, charged with arranging the sovereign’s funeral and overseeing the coronation of the sovereign’s successor. Watching 12 bagpipers process around the crystal-laden table at a state banquet or noticing that most of the British women attending have accessorized their evening gowns with sashes and family jewels reinforces the notion that Buckingham Palace is only that — a palace, a living museum. In fact it is the corporate headquarters of one of the world’s best-known brands and one of the pillars of Britain’s unwritten constitution. Look past the footmen and valets and flummery, and one finds an organization run at least as professionally as many multinationals.

As for the boss, she may have inherited her job, but she’s a natural. The Queen “would make a good CEO,” says one official. “Though she is interested in the details, she doesn’t get into the weeds.” Prime Minister David Cameron agrees: “A vital skill for a CEO is the ability to see the bigger picture, and she’s certainly got that. I see her once a week to discuss the issues of the day, and I’ve noticed her knack for placing them in the broad sweep of events. Perhaps that’s what 60 years in the job gives you.”

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By the time Elizabeth II ascended the throne, the empire her father had reigned over was shrinking, as former colonies cast off British rule, many opting for Commonwealth membership instead. The Queen, now head of the Commonwealth, handled the transition with the unblinking ease of someone schooled by childhood experience to appreciate the impermanence of even the most solid-looking edifices. (During World War II, German bombers scored seven direct hits on Buckingham Palace.) That sensibility has also enabled her to understand that while Britons consent to the monarchy now, they may not do so in future.

The turbulence of 1992 reinforced that point. Her two older sons’ marriages failed, and Britons struggling through an economic downturn wondered why their taxes were subsidizing feckless royals. A fire at Windsor Castle set the seal on what she termed her “annus horribilis.”

But, as she almost always does, the Queen rose to the challenge, continuing a process of upgrading the running of her household and the quality of her advisers and opening the royal finances to more scrutiny. She volunteered to pay income tax for the first time and backed a cost-cutting regimen that has enabled the budget for her household to remain static for the past two decades.

(PHOTOS: Highlights of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 Years on the Throne)

The Queen’s goal is what palace insiders term “imperceptible change,” modernizing without risking dilution of the royal brand. The changes in the way it communicates are stark. The Queen’s Christmas message was first televised in 1957. (“That it is possible for some of you to see me today is just another example of the speed at which things are changing all around us,” she said.) Since 2006 it has been podcast. After the launch of a royal YouTube channel in 2007, the British Empire 2.0 has gone on to colonize Facebook, Twitter and Flickr with royal pages and feeds. (More than half a million people Like the British Monarchy page on Facebook.) These were not decisions slipped past the Queen, but part of a communications strategy developed in close consultation with her.

The Queen has occasionally allowed documentary makers to film her but has never much enjoyed the results. Elizabeth R, shown in 1992, probably came closest to pleasing both the monarch and the television executives, with its carefully choreographed behind-the-scenes glimpses and some deadpan commentaries by its eponymous heroine.

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The Royal Family, broadcast in 1969, the first TV documentary to portray the Windsors off duty, drew U.K. audiences of 23 million and a further 350 million worldwide. A fragment released for a Diamond Jubilee exhibition shows why the Queen may well have been right to withhold her permission for it to be broadcast again in its fascinating entirety. The Queen is seen making her family laugh by describing her own battle not to laugh at a formal occasion (“It is extremely difficult sometimes to keep a straight face,” she says) and scrambling to make small talk with Richard Nixon, another public figure who would soon learn to regret the recording of private conversations. Decades later, the Queen’s daughter Princess Anne dismissed the 1969 documentary as “a rotten idea. The attention that had been brought on one ever since one was a child, you just didn’t want any more. The last thing you needed was greater access.”

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The Queen can be flinty, even intimidating, though diva-like histrionics have never been part of her repertoire. “She is ultimately a practical and levelheaded person. You know the standards that you’ve got to achieve, and you know you’ve got to achieve them all the time with her,” says an official. In his recent biography Diamond Queen, Andrew Marr described what typically happens to those who disappoint. “She never argues, she just looks at the person very blankly,” a source told Marr. “The corners of her mouth don’t turn down. It’s not a hostile look. It’s just a complete blank — and it’s devastating.”

Talking to the Queen quickly reveals her to be sharp of mind — and tongue. She is interested in politics but not obviously partisan. She has held weekly audiences with every Prime Minister from Winston Churchill on. Neither monarch nor ministers reveal the precise topics discussed, but many Premiers — and there have been 12 during her reign — have spoken of her wisdom. “What I found to be her most surprising attribute is how streetwise she is,” Tony Blair told another biographer, Robert Hardman. “Frequently throughout my time as Prime Minister, I was always stunned by her total ability to pick up the public mood and define it in the conversations I had with her.” David Cameron cites “her huge knowledge of other countries. She has traveled incredibly widely, and that shines through in conversation with her. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Canada or Tuvalu, she’s been there and knows the issues.”

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She can be forthright, and her sense of humor runs from the sly to the slapstick. On one occasion, describing the conferring of a knighthood on a well-known entertainer, the Queen pointed at the burnt-orange rug on which she and her guests were standing to indicate the once pale-skinned performer’s improbable shade of tan.

There’s a tendency to assume the royals are more fragile and pampered than ordinary folk. In fact, they often turn out to be unusually robust. Palace life can be austere, and family members are further toughened by boarding schools and the males by military training and in some cases deployments. It is also true that the microculture of palace life breeds a distinct and separate species. Chatting with TIME in 2006, Prince Andrew mused on his upbringing: “People say to me, ‘Would you like to swap your life with me for 24 hours? Your life must be very strange.’ But of course I have not experienced any other life. It’s not strange to me. [It’s] the same way with the Queen. She has never experienced anything else.”

That is not strictly true. Born in 1926 to the second son of King George V, “Lilibet” was able to enjoy a life of quiet privilege until the death of her grandfather and the unexpected abdication of his heir, her uncle King Edward VIII, who chose Wallis Simpson over destiny and duty.

From the moment of her father’s accession in 1936, she prepared for her own accession. She has cultivated no known vices, works long hours, appears more indulgent to her beloved dogs than to her children and more indulgent to them than to herself. Choosing Philip, a comparatively impoverished scion of the ousted Greek monarchy, as her husband is probably the closest she has ever come to putting her own interests first, yet even that decision turned out well. Prince Philip may not be a natural diplomat, but his pithy and politically incorrect pronouncements have added to the gaiety of nations, or at least of his adopted nation, and he has sublimated his own ambitions to supporting his wife. Prince Harry told Marr, “Regardless of whether my grandfather seems to be doing his own thing, sort of wandering off like a fish down a river, the fact that he’s there — personally, I don’t think she could do it without him, especially when they’re both at this age.”

The Queen has a close relationship with her grandchildren, especially William and Harry, in some respects closer than with her own children. She may have mellowed or even learned from the warm and impulsive Diana to be more emotionally available; she certainly made efforts to comfort her bereaved grandsons for their loss. As a young mother, she was no Diana. Her determination to serve her country meant her children put up with long absences. In 1953, the new Queen and her husband left Charles and Anne for a protracted state tour. Andrew and Edward, born after their mother’s coronation, never knew a time when their father did not trail two steps behind their mother in public, as protocol dictates. If they find themselves straddling a gap between their realities and the wider world’s, that’s hardly surprising.

As a result, none of the Queen’s offspring have enjoyed an untroubled relationship with that wider world. They can seem arrogant. They can appear spendthrift. Anne at least carved out a career as an equestrian. The younger sons lack direction. The oldest, Charles, has direction but no momentum. The Queen’s extraordinary staying power has consigned her heir to a long apprenticeship.

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Her popularity has barely flickered during crises, but she will not be around to witness the greatest challenge the monarchy faces — the succession. The loyalty she has commanded at home and in her realms — the affection she inspires — cannot be willed to her heirs like a title or a palace. Charles worries monarchists and republicans alike with his apparent desire to push the boundaries of the royal role to advocate for environmental conservation and conservative architecture. His son William might be a more popular choice, especially with his wife Catherine sharing the throne, but to tinker with the order of succession would be to raise questions about whether a hereditary monarchy should exist at all. William told Hardman that the Queen is deeply concerned about handing over the reins — and the reign. “She’ll want to hand over knowing she’s done everything she possibly could to help, and that she’s got no regrets and no unfinished business; that she’s done everything she can for the country and that she’s not let anyone down — she minds an awful lot about that,” he said. The final test of Monarchy Inc.’s savvy CEO will be whether the organization remains as strong — and as unexpectedly relevant — over the next 60 years as the one she will leave behind.

In a new book from TIME, The Royal Family: Britain’s Resilient Monarchy Celebrates Elizabeth II’s 60-Year Reign, Europe editor Catherine Mayer and colleagues look at Britain’s resilient monarchy celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign. Now available in bookstores, or go to www.time.com/royalsbook to order your copy today.

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