1953 – Transition
Can the events of one person’s life capture the history of an era? Yes, of course they can, especially if that person is Elizabeth Alexandra May. I was 7 years-old at the beginning of 1952, and if I had been asked who she was, I would have had no idea. My parents were resolutely indifferent to the royal family. George VI was a sickly and rather uninspiring figure, and without having a television his two daughters, Elizabeth, (Elizabeth Alexandra May), and Margaret, remained largely invisible to me. All that changed in early in the year, when Princess Elizabeth and husband Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh, were in Kenya on their way to visit Australia and New Zealand. Early on 6 February the king died, and Elizabeth immediately became queen. Philip was the first to tell her later that day. So began the reign of a fascinating, impressive and somewhat isolated woman, who accepted the responsibilities, protocols and formalities of her role, while determined to keep her personal life as private as she could.
Unlike Queen Victoria, who relied on her Lord Melbourne for her first few years as Queen, it was obvious from the very first day Elizabeth was her own woman, and would make her own decisions. She made it clear she would be titled Elizabeth, and one of Elizabeth II’s early public actions was to decide the royal house would not bear the Duke of Edinburgh’s name, which would have been in line with the familiar practice of a wife taking her husband’s surname on marriage. On 9 April 1952 Elizabeth issued a declaration: Windsor would continue to be the royal name. Perhaps as another indication of the future, the Duke was rather grumpy, “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.” It wasn’t quite the end of things to do with names. Later Elizabeth agreed the surname Mountbatten-Windsor could be used by those of her children who didn’t have a royal title (in the event, Andrew and Edward).
By 1953, I certainly knew about Queen Elizabeth II. It was almost impossible to avoid stories about her, her background and her forthcoming coronation. However, it was many years later I learnt more details about her early life, (mostly now known through a television series?). Born in 1926, she was the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York, followed by Margaret four years later. That she would end up Queen of England seemed improbable back then. George V was on the throne, and his eldest son, Edward, was next in line. Although she was third in line, that presumed two things in the future: that Edward didn’t marry and have children, and that George, her father, didn’t have a son. Now it’s history: George V died, and her uncle became King Edward VIII. Elizabeth was now second in line, after her father. Later in 1936, and famously, Edward abdicated to marry a divorced American, Wallis Simpson. Once more, the US was causing trouble for the UK! Without a brother, Elizabeth was the ‘heir presumptive’.
Previously not much in the public eye, her life suddenly changed. She’d been privately tutored, with her sister, by a governess, Marion Crawford. Now she learnt constitutional history from a Vice-Provost of Eton, and French. Her mother, Elizabeth, made sure she wasn’t entirely alone. A 1st Buckingham Palace Girl Guides group was set up so she could join with girls her of her own age. Managing public and private lives was tricky. Marion Crawford retired in 1947, but three years later wrote about the two princesses. She had crossed a line, and, upset, the royal family cut off all contact. She died 38 years later, after bouts of depression, even ignored on the day of her funeral, a vivid illustration of the dangers of writing too openly about palace life.
During the war years, the royal family were mainly based at Windsor Castle. Those years saw the start of Elizabeth’s public life. In 1940, 14 years old, she made her first radio broadcast on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, speaking to children evacuated from cities: “We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers, and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well.” [i] Three years later, Elizabeth had her first solo public appearance visiting the Grenadier Guards. Before her 18th birthday, her father ill, she was appointed a Counsellor of State. However, she still found ways to avoid too many palace restrictions. In late 1944, she became an honorary member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she trained as a driver and mechanic.
Much later the public found out her life had other moments of freedom. At the end of the war, Elizabeth and Margaret mingled anonymously with the VE Day crowds celebrating in London’s streets. She later revealed, “We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves … we were terrified of being recognised … people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.” [ii] Unrecognised, but not quite carefree, either.
We are nearly back to 1953. Elizabeth had met Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark three times, in 1934, 1937, and in 1939. They were ‘second cousins once removed’ (distant cousins might be easier to say). As determined in this as in other things, and then only thirteen, she knew she was in love and they began exchanging letters. Their engagement was officially announced in July 1947. They must have known it would cause controversy: he was foreign, ‘poor’ and had German links through his wider family. Immediately, Philip renounced his Greek and Danish titles, converted to Anglicanism, and became Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, using his mother’s British family name. Before their wedding, he was made Duke of Edinburgh. When Charles was born, King George VI agreed to their children using the style and title of a royal prince or princess, not otherwise possible as Philip was not a royal prince. Such matters matter!
As the mourning period for George was coming to a close, his mother, Queen Mary, was clearly failing. She told her granddaughter to go ahead with the planned coronation and ignore any time for mourning, even if she died just before it took place. Mary died on 24 March, and the coronation went ahead on 2 June. Just four days earlier, Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the peak of Everest, the first to climb the world’s highest mountain, and the news arrived in London on the morning of coronation. It was an appropriate omen. The UK was emerging from the dark days after the war, the country was enlivened, the new monarch was young and popular, and the UK was back achieving firsts. It was beginning of what was quickly described as the New Elizabethan Era. Britain was back!
Watching the coronation at Westminster Abbey on television did little to convey the enormity of the event. While much of London was out along the route from the Abbey to the Palace, the rest of us were glued to our screens listening to Richard Dimbleby’s hushed commentary. If you’ve never seen it, there is part of the BBC broadcast on YouTube, covering the time in the Abbey. [iii] It is an extraordinarily moving pageant, rich in history and tradition, and an emotional experience, too. Watching the events now, you see a young woman, effectively alone, even though assisted by ladies-in-waiting and the ‘Mistress of the Robes’. Following an arcane set of rituals, surrounded by dozens of mostly elderly men, she is the centre of attention in a carefully choreographed process for nearly three hours. She seems too young, too slight, and yet you can see she is in control, a reminder, once again, that she is her own woman, focussed and confident.
Little did we know at the time, though we might have guessed it, but the arc of Elizabeth’s life from her coronation to today is the arc of the UK, from youthful exuberance through to cautious, circumscribed isolation. As Queen, Elizabeth has lived through nearly seventy years of change sustaining a monarchy, a sense of history, and the public’s respect for the symbols of tradition.
For the first few years, it seemed Britain had been restored to its former position in the world. The country celebrated, and excitedly anticipated what was clearly going to be a successful future. While some aspects of the older Britain lingered on, with conservative behaviour, dress and attitudes, change was on its way. Fairly quickly, the children of the baby boomers began to seek something different. If the rest of the world was dealing with wars, nuclear bombs, racial segregation and freedom marches, the UK remained relatively peaceful, and sustained by rock-n-roll, teenagers began seeking freedoms. By the 1960s, London began ‘swinging’.
Two examples capture the emerging decade. In late 1959 the British Motor Corporation had introduced the Morris Mini-Minor, the ‘Mini’, designed by Alec Issigonis. Just 10 ft long, and intended to carry 4 passengers, it very quickly it became the car to own, while a new sport, seeing how many people you could cram into a mini, caught on with students. Around the same time, Mary Quant, with model Twiggy, burst on the fashion scene. Quant was one of those credited for the miniskirt and hot pants. Fashion became both provocative and fun, encouraging young people to dress to please themselves and treat fashion as a game. When I look back, it was the television series, The Avengers, that captured the early 1960s for me. Patrick Macnee was Stead, the impeccable gentleman spy, always with his trusty umbrella, and accompanied by his female sidekick Emma Peel. Initially played by Honor Blackman, it was Diana Rigg, in her slinky catsuits and super-short miniskirts, who became a 1960s icon, defining the look of the swinging 60s. She was as important as a Mary Quant or Twiggy because television gave her a bigger audience. The style was almost fetishistic, with leather black polo necks, PVC jumpsuits, low-rise hipster trousers, flat boots and everything with exposed zips. Yes, she was exciting!
Meanwhile, over at Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth lived in two worlds. The outside world, the one that took up most of her time and energy, was being Queen, head of the Commonwealth, and a head of state holding meetings with others. Politics and government were her life, and service was her role. She has been scrupulous in keeping her views private. [iv] Her daily schedule has changed little in more than sixty years. It’s exhausting. She receives and reviews a daily ‘red box’ of important documents from her Cabinet and from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She meets the Prime Minister weekly, usually on a Wednesday when parliament’s in session. A major task for a twenty-seven year old, and demanding at any age, she continues it today.
She was Queen when the UK joined with Europe, and as it departs with ‘Brexit’. Once the head of a country with international power, she now heads a small, largely inconsequential and isolated nation, fractured and internally riven, a country still coming to terms with its place in the world. Despite challenges, she saw the peaceful unwinding of an empire with few disasters, and was central to persuading former colonies to keep allied with Britain. She’s an accomplished diplomat, carefully keeping private her personal political beliefs. I doubt we’ll ever know them. A speech to the UN 2015 revealed a little of her views: ‘sweeping advances have come about not because of governments, committee resolutions, or central directives – although all these have played a part – but instead because millions of people around the world have wanted them.’
It is not surprising to see Elizabeth’s reign illustrates the arc of Britain’s history, since she has been at the very heart of it. However, it is in that other world, her private life, that she has also exemplified broad changes in the UK. That story began in 1953, when Margaret sought approval to marry, a repeat of events which had impacted Edward VIII. The Royal Marriage Act required the Queen’s consent, and the Church of England would not agree to the remarriage of a divorced man. Margaret considered stepping away from her place in succession to the throne, but didn’t.
From that moment on, Elizabeth’s family life mirrored how society was changing. Margaret married Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960. In a decade of sexual freedom and casual liaisons, Margaret was not immune, and had several indiscreet affairs. Her marriage collapsed, her health deteriorated from smoking and drinking, and she died in 2002. There were other family issues. Charles, supposedly advised by his great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, pursued affairs in the 1960’s and 1970’s, eventually marrying Lady Diana Spencer. Next his marriage ended, and Diana died in a car crash in 1997, the one notable time when the Queen underestimated national sentiment, and the public’s love for their ‘Princess’ Diana. Family upheavals continued. Anne married, divorced and remarried. Andrew married and divorced, and ended up as a playboy with dubious morals. Only Prince Edward broke the mold: he married and is still married! As with her public role, we have little idea as to how Elizabeth regards her private life. Is she disappointed in her children’s antics? Probably. We do know she has an abiding passion for horses and horseracing. She also inherited her mother’s love of corgis, yet, once again, she has shown her determination, ensuring that no corgis will survive her death. [v] As we had learnt in 1953, she is her own woman.
The monarchy could have disappeared with the empire, or been weakened by marital scandals in the 1990s. Despite this, it appears the majority of the public still support the crown, and hold the Queen in obvious affection. She has preserved the monarchy through her humility and devotion to her role. While in recent years she often appears as a lonely old lady, that love is still there: many British people seem to want the second Elizabethan Age to keep on going.
How will this story end? Elizabeth will be followed by her son as the next king. Seen as dull, somewhat out of touch, and clearly fond of rather odd pursuits and preferences, many hope his reign will be relatively short, and he won’t damage the prestige Elizabeth has accumulated. In the normal course of events, he will be followed by his son, William, who shows every sign of being modern, sensible, thoughtful and caring. The monarchy must keep adapting, but there is every reason to believe William will continue the process his mother has managed so well, balancing history and rituals against modernising a feudal system, out of touch with a modern egalitarian world. The UK must be hoping he’ll successfully lead it through the next transition.
[i] BBC, 13 October 1940, retrieved for Wikipedia on 22 July 2009
[ii] Cited in several histories of Elizabeth.
[iv] Interesting to compare with James Mattis, who recently ended his commitment to be silent: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/james-mattis-denounces-trump-protests-militarization/612640/
[v] The Queen stops breeding corgis ‘as she doesn’t want to leave any behind’, Daily Telegraph. 14 July 2015. From Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_corgis