The Queen’s Coronation: A Portrait of the Queen


Her Majesty The Queen, wearing the Ribbon and Star of the Garter with a pale pink evening gown of needlework lace over tulle. Her diamond necklace was a wedding present from the City of London, and the diamond drop brooch on her shoulder is a family heirloom. The diadem of diamonds and pearls is of great age, and was reset for Queen Victoria.

The second Elizabeth comes to the Throne uniquely fortunate among English Queens, because of the unremarkable background of her youth, which allowed her to grow up as a normal girl of her time – for normality is the first virtue of kings and queens, who have to be first and foremost the representatives of the central character of the people they are to rule. With this serene, clear-eyed young wife and mother one may contrast Queen Mary I, acceding embittered after the persecuted years of her mother’s undeserved disgrace; Elizabeth I, grown watchful, wary and hard by walking in danger of her life amid the savage intrigues of Tudor religion and politics; Mary II, gentle and high-hearted, but completely eclipsed by her masterful husband; Anne, the tired matron, haunted all her days by the memory of her desertion of her father and the gnawing conscience that told her she had usurped her brother’s throne; Victoria, kept in the nursery till the very moment of her accession, in the vain hope of shielding her from knowledge of her uncles’ vices, which had all but brought the Crown into the dust before ever she could put it on. For all the ill omens that overhung their inauguration, most of these queens reigned gloriously; we may well hope that their successor, who has gone to her crowning under personal auspices so much brighter, may be destined to add still greater lustre to the ancient Crown.


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By contrast with these less fortunate princesses of the past, the path of Elizabeth of York led her by smooth and steady stages towards her high destiny. It was perhaps to her advantage that, as with her father and grandfather before her, there was no expectation in her childhood that she would ever be summoned to the Throne; for thus her parents could more easily fulfill their determination to let nothing set their daughters apart in nursery days from the carefree existence of other children born to high rank but private station. To King George V, who was not by nature a child-lover, his first grandchild in the male line was the solace of his old age – “sweet little Lillibet” as he calls her in his diaries. She was old enough at his Silver Jubilee, which was celebrated when she was nine, to gain half consciously a sense of that deep mutual affection uniting the Royal Family with the people which was so memorably demonstrated on that moving occasion; and again, in the mourning for him so few months later, to perceive obscurely that the sharing of grief as well as joy strengthens such a bond. The Queen may well be unaware of any difference herself; but to those who remember the modest surprise of the old King at the enthusiasm his appearance among his subjects aroused, and the lines of anxious diffidence on the face of his son at the beginning of every Royal function, their successor wears an air of surer confidence, a quiet reliance upon the love of her people, which has sustained her as long as she can remember, which can be trusted not to fail her in any ordeal, and which without affectation she returns.


The stresses and agonies of the Abdication were scarcely to be comprehended by a ten-year-old; and though at her father’s coronation she showed that she could already play a part with youthful dignity in a great pageant, she was not yet being encouraged to think of herself as a future Queen. The realisation of her exalted future came to her gradually, during the years of the second World War; and even that great catastrophe indirectly worked good for the princess, by causing her at the darkest hour of the conflict, in 1940, to be kept away from the centre of danger in London and sent with her sister into comparative safety at Windsor Castle. Consequently, during the critical years from thirteen to eighteen, her education could proceed in a seclusion almost undistracted by those constant ceremonial claims which in normal times disturb even the schoolrooms of the daughters of kings.


It was an education which some would consider a little old-fashioned. The directing mind throughout was that of the princesses’ mother, who is not herself addicted to book learning, and has no great faith in it as a principal equipment for life. She desired her daughters to acquire the accomplishments and graces that enable young ladies to move creditably in any society, but not to aim at the erudition that made, for instance, Queen Elizabeth I something very like a bluestocking. In the later stages, as the probability of the birth of a Prince of Wales receded, there were introduced into the heiress’s curriculum special subjects necessary to the training of a queen, chief among them the history and geography of the British Commonwealth and the growth and practice of the constitution.

In general it may be said that what the princess acquired from her governesses and tutors in these formative years, and what her mother always intended she should acquire, as rather an enlarged power of appreciation than any compendium of accumulated information. It was early discovered that she had inherited the Queen Consort’s natural aptitude for music, and she was given every opportunity to learn both to play and to sing. She learnt French so thoroughly that the President of the Republic, with courtly exaggeration, could later on congratulate her on speaking it better than himself. Having shown a gift for acting, she was encouraged to take leading parts in a series of pantomimes and other light-hearted entertainments organised at Windsor – not quite without an ulterior motive in the minds of her elders, who by thus accustoming her to appear before an audience succeeded in eradicating that tendency to shyness which had been a handicap to her father and seemed at one time to be showing itself in her.

As much time as possible was spent in the open air, and the future Queen became a confirmed lover of country life and country sports. She is an accomplished swimmer and a good though not outstanding horsewoman; she is an enthusiast for racing and has an expert knowledge of its technicalities, though for hunting she has shown no taste. In recent years during her holidays in Scotland she has taken with avidity to angling and the stalking of the stag.


Joining as she did during the war years, whenever it could be arranged, in the activities of other girls of her own age, the Princess became determined to share the war experience of her companions, all of whom were destined to some form of national service, and eventually overbore the opposition of her father – who intended to divert her at eighteen to a round of ceremonial duties – and insisted on being commissioned in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. It was a notable achievement of will-power, for the King was a stubborn character; but there is a quiet tenacity of purpose in his daughter which is generally likely to prevail against opposition. The episode is not so much significant of the Princess’s conscientious sense of duty, though she has that in the highest measure; after all, the public duties of an heiress presumptive are not less than those of a junior officer. Rather does it illustrate her constant urge to identify herself with the life of ordinary people, and her hatred of all the forces which conspire to confine royalty within a gilded cage of ceremonial. This short period of service in her father’s uniform was, as no doubt she knew, her last chance of sharing the common lot of her generation. But, removed as she soon was by the necessities of State into a sphere from which she could penetrate only as an occasional visitor into the world of unprivileged men and women, she continued to show on all occasions the keenest resolution to inform herself of the details of their daily lives, in regiment or factory, ship or home, and everywhere to place herself on terms of personal understanding with the humble people she was able to meet.


This natural and unforced interest in all things that make up the life of her subjects as human beings the Queen inherits from her father, together with the unsparing sense of duty which would in any event impel her in the same direction. From her father also she has her simplicity and directness of speech, her frankness and expectation of frankness in others, her insistence on being told the bare truth, unmuffled by courtly reticence or concealment of unpleasant things. From her mother come her warmth of heart and quick sympathy, especially for all kinds of suffering; a certain strain of romanticism, which showed itself once in girlish hero-worship and more permanently in an admiration for everything that is adventurous and forward-looking; and also a keen sense of fun. This last quality in her is sometimes doubted, mainly perhaps through a false comparison with Princess Margaret, whose wit is quicker and more mordant. The Queen is not a wit, but is easily enough dissolved into rollicking laughter by ridiculous situations or persons, though her acute sense of responsibility and her fear of hurting feelings often restrain the expression of her merriment until she is out of sight of those who might misunderstand.


She has the high courtesy of kings and queens, not so much inherited from as deliberately taught by Queen Mary, who from the earliest years took pains that her granddaughter should acquire every element of fine manners, from punctilious deference to her elders to such minutiae as stepping out of a carriage without looking down at her feet. She has inherited the remarkable memory of King George V, and can apply the gift to personalities, so that no one who has ever been brought in contact with her will thereafter be a stranger to the Queen. As with most people in whom memory is strong, her mind is of the receptive order; she acquires knowledge easily, and her industry and methodical habit of thought insure that all she learns is stored away systematically against future need. On the other hand she is not intellectually creative, nor has she much power of initiative. If this is a defect of her qualities, it is abundantly compensated by the swift energy and driving power which her husband contributes to the partnership. Prince Philip, though with a lighter touch, is likely to reproduce the stimulating effect that the Prince Consort communicated to British affairs a hundred years ago; but he in turn is perhaps a little deficient in tact and judgement, which the Queen possesses in astonishing measure for one so young.

All estimates of the Queen’s character must he subject to the qualification that in the past two years she has gone through soul-searching experiences, of which the effect may not be fully shown for some time to come. When she went to Canada in November, 1951, she was fresh from the harrowing ordeal of watching by her father’s sickbed, when for a fortnight the Crown of England had been hovering over her youthful brow. When she said goodbye to her father in January to perform her duty on the Commonwealth tour in his place, both of them – and they were deeply devoted to one another – were well aware that they might not meet again. But both had made their account with fate. When the call came to her in Kenya, the Court official who had gone to break the news of her father’s death said: “I found her quite ready.”