Monday, 30 November -0001

The Queen uncovered

This year, the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, but what is she REALLY like? Who are her friends? And is she religious? In this extraordinary essay, the late Nigel Nicolson paints an unmissable portrait of the world’s most enigmatic woman…

Written by Nigel Nicolson

There is a curious contradiction in what we know about the Queen. In one sense she is the best-known person in the country. Her activities are recorded almost everyday, sometimes at length; sometimes only in the unread Court Circular. She is frequently the central figure on television and radio, and a new 600-page biography of her is published every five years.

In another sense we scarcely know her at all. She never says anything in public that is not anodyne and written by someone else. She never gives interviews. Ex-courtiers have been known to lift a corner of the veil, invariably to her credit, and microphones have eavesdropped on snatches of her conversation in greeting an ambassador or talking to a horse, but always inoffensively. That she can do no wrong is one reason why she remains obscure. Lytton Strachey wrote, 'A few faults are indispensable to a really popular monarch... What we need is a book entitled Queen Victoria, By A Personal Acquaintance Who Dislikes Her'. No such book will ever be written about Queen Elizabeth. She has no evident blemish. It will not be the same with her successors. It was to their advantage that Prince Charles, aged 16, was caught sipping cherry brandy in a Stornoway pub, and that Prince Harry, at the same age, gave an illicit party at Highgrove while his father was away.

queen-and-famThe Queen as wife and mother, with the family at Windsor in the 1960s

The Queen's personality appears to us straightforward, uncomplicated, very British. We have been reminded in recent years by the replay of old newsreels how lovely she was as a young woman. The Duke of Wellington, who saw her at her first opening of Parliament, was struck by her 'astonishing radiance, her lovely teeth, hair and eyes, and that amazing quality of skin. Then add the wonderful voice and the romance, and you have a deeply moving effect'. Her figure was excellent, aided by superlative clothes and jewels. Her distinctiveness was asexual – noli me tangere – but without hostility. Her greatest public gift was her smile. She's been seen to laugh, but only once to cry (at an Armistice celebration in November 2002), to be capable of irritation (especially at unpunctuality), but not of anger. She keeps much in reserve. Was she, as a young woman, shy? If so, shyness can be overcome, and the Queen overcame it, substituting reticence.

She was curious about the world from which she was excluded. Elizabeth Longford recalls that she would stare out of the window as she was being painted by Annigoni, wondering aloud what all those people in The Mall were like and what they imagined her to be like. Something of that mood is caught in his famous portrait, her favourite – as it is of the public. She wears the robes of the Garter loosely, naturally, like a dressing gown, and looks ahead with serene determination.

queen-at-racesAt the races with Lord Carnarvon

In her later years she has retained this calm. Her portrait by the late Lucian Freud (2001) does an injustice not only to her appearance, but to her character. He made her cross and domineering, when she is neither. She is Annigoni grown up, considerate, efficient, dutiful and private.

To meet her is not like meeting any other celebrity. I once saw a man so overcome by her presence that he curtsied to her instead of bowing, and when he explained to me his odd behaviour he giggled, as if to suggest that it was all good fun, when he was simply remembering his embarrassment. We do not know how to behave in her company, how to handle 'Your Majesty' in the third person ('As Your Majesty probably knows...'), what subjects of conversation are permissible, and whether one can interrupt or disagree.

Mrs Delany, an intimate of George III and Queen Charlotte, on introducing the novelist Fanny Burney to the Queen, advised her, 'I do beg of you, when the King or Queen speak to you, not to answer in mere monosyllables. The Queen often complains to me of the difficulty with which she can get conversation, as she not only has to start the subject but commonly entirely to support it.'

queen-rainThe Queen caught in the rain in Cheshire, 1968

It is the same today. Royalty inspires awe, and awe ties the tongue. The Queen's manner loosens it. Many things are happening daily, and have happened in the course of a long life, which are subjects of mutual interest; and while the guest's disparity in rank can never be far from his mind, he grows in confidence under her attentive gaze. 'Attentive' is the right word. She encourages more than stimulates. She is not formal. In talking to strangers, she refers to her husband as Philip and her son as Charles. She oils the wheels of conversation, but for her it cannot be much fun.

She has few close friends beyond the Court, and it is due to them and their families that she is not restricted to a closed circle. Her secretaries, such as Michael Adeane, Rupert Nevill, Martin Charteris and Edward Ford, were clever men, and ladies-in-waiting like Countess Euston and Baroness Susan Hussey are intelligent women. Their wide experience and many outside friendships broadened the social range of the Court. I knew only one of them at all well. He was Patrick Plunket, Deputy Master of the Household. Only three years older than the Queen, his charming looks, ease of manner, good humour and knowledge of the world and its absurdities made him her special favourite. He was also a considerable connoisseur, a Trustee of the Wallace Collection and of the National Art Collections Fund, and a great organiser of social functions.

He loved parties, added gaiety to formal occasions and, if he saw the Queen looking lonely at a ball, 'would scoop her up and dance with her'. He could say to her without impertinence, 'Oh you can't possibly wear that hat!' and she would argue with him about it. He had a happy way with people.

Once, my brother and I arrived to lunch with him at his Victorian house in Kent, and stood outside gazing at its grim exterior. Patrick came out and said, 'I know exactly what you are saying. You are wondering how Patrick can live in such a horrible house. But come inside.'

cryingIn tears at the Remembrance Day service in 2002, the year her mother died

It was beautiful. He had wonderful taste and possessions. When he died of cancer in 1975, aged only 52, the Queen regarded his death, said one of her ladies-in-waiting with only slight hyperbole, as 'one of the greatest tragedies of her life'. He was the one person outside her family who could talk to her on equal terms.

If she has a fault, it is the narrowness of her interests. When everything and everyone is available to you, there is a superfluity of opportunity, and you are spoilt for choice.

She does not enjoy intellectual talk. She has never enjoyed opera, ballet, or classical concerts. She appreciates her fabulous possessions, but they have always been there, and always will. They are agreeable decorations, like the furniture and bibelots, and excellent subjects for conversation. It is said that she rarely reads a book.

She is a countrywoman. She feels relaxed in country clothes and following country pursuits, gathering a train of corgis – an unattractive breed, except to their owners – and watching her horses. Her knowledge of them is more than a hobby. It is an expertise.

Her closest friend in racing, Lord Porchester, later Lord Carnarvon, said that she would have made a wonderful trainer, with her profound knowledge of breeding, stabling, and 'the way a horse moves'. She has won every classic except the Derby. It is a specialist sport and, in spite of its popular appeal, elitist. Thoroughbreds are the aristocrats of their kind and the great racecourses – Ascot, Goodwood, Epsom, Longchamp – are like 18th-century parks. Few people have so determinedly developed a childhood interest into a lifelong passion. It adds gravitas to her private life.

I once saw her by chance at Tours in France, where she went for an equine weekend. I was standing in the little airport when a Caravelle fluttered in with a Union Jack flying from its nose. There were more gendarmes than public to meet her. We watched a large Rolls-Royce being given its final polish and the Royal Standard straightened. It was a decoy, for security. The Queen suddenly appeared from behind the airport buildings in a tiny Austin and was driven rapidly to the stables.

I witnessed a similar scene in Kentucky in the USA, again by chance, and there the routine was even more discreet and the security even tighter.

Both occasions were so unobtrusive, so seriously, so privately done, that I saw her in a new light, dedicated to the science she had made her own.

Her courage is beyond question. There was the incident in 1981, when a 17-year-old man fired blank shots at her as she rode down The Mall to the Trooping The Colour, and she was unflinching, holding her horse steady. A more notorious incident occurred in the following year, when Michael Fagan managed to penetrate Buckingham Palace deeply enough to stand at her very bedside. He woke her up, and engaged her in conversation about his family. The Queen got out of bed, put on her dressing gown, pointed to the door and shouted at the intruder to get out, but he didn't. It took two calls on her alarm system to alert the police. She was very angry, but not in the least scared.

queenandusfrontjacketThe episode led to the Home Secretary's offer to resign (refused by Margaret Thatcher), and added greatly to the enjoyment of press and public, who were delighted by her conduct, and by the exceptional glimpse it afforded them of her domestic arrangements.

Whether she is deeply or conventionally religious is something that few people can know about any other person. From her early youth, religion was urged upon her. She was to become Defender of the Faith, and the Faith was Protestant. With her parents she attended church weekly. Some stirring of satiety is illustrated by her reply as a child to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he invited her to join him for a walk around the Sandringham garden: 'With pleasure, but please don't talk to me about God. I know all about Him already.' And in her diary she wrote of the King's coronation, 'At the end, the service got rather boring, as it was all prayers.'

One is entitled to assume that religion has come to mean more to her in later life – a refuge in adversity. The Church was a symbol of stability, like the Crown itself, but equally open to change and challenge. Because she was so often the central figure in its ceremonies, she identified herself with it, and it gave her comfort.

But the greatest influences in the Queen's life have been her immediate family – her parents, her sister and her husband. It was her upbringing that endowed her with a sense of duty, her conservatism – and her Britishness

The Queen & Us: The Second Elizabethan Age by Nigel Nicolson is published by Bedford Square Books, price £6.99: www.bedfordsquarebooks.com

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