She is the beloved constant in our public life, an example of reliability. We see her every day – on the stamps, on the coins, in the media. Yet we actually hear very little from her.
Aside from Christmas Day rituals and the occasional state opening of parliament, plus the odd ribbon cutting ceremony or state banquet, the Queen prefers to keep her own council. Her unofficial motto may be, “I have to be seen to believe it.”
But that doesn’t extend to the sound of her own voice. Compared to so many of her counterparts, she is a refreshingly quiet head of state.
That is why, for most of her government, her one-off statements were few and far between. From the day she came to the throne until 2020, the number of additional television speeches – also known as ‘special addresses’ – could be counted on one hand.
Royal expert Robert Hardman, the queen who is now in her 95th birthday, said on average a speech about once every 15 years inspired by sudden events. Pictured: The Queen brings her Christmas Day message in 2018
Three were inspired by sudden events: the First Gulf War, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. One was inspired by a well-rehearsed monument of its own: the 2012 Diamond Jubilee.
In other words, she took about one every 15 years on average. Then came this year. In 2020, we’ve had two in as many months – her coronavirus address in April, followed four weeks later by her speech “Never give up, never despair” on the 75th anniversary of VE Day. If we recorded her special audio address in between – her very first Easter broadcast – we have had three.
For a prince now in her 95th year, that is truly remarkable. Not only does it underline that she remains a hands-on sovereign, ably supported by the longest-serving heir to the throne in history, it also reminds us of the crucial role that the royal family and, in particular, the queen continues to play in our public life.
There has been a crisis that has taken the monarchy out of one of the most important elements of the job: meeting the people. But instead of looking marginalized or remote, the royal family is not only central, sometimes it feels like they’re keeping the whole show on the road.
And that’s the theme of a brand new primetime ITV documentary, The Queen: Inside The Crown, coming Thursday. I will declare an interest because I appear in it, as I did in the large network series that preceded it.
It was fascinating, however, to see how history has repeated in recent weeks, as we have once again seen a troubled nation turn to its oldest institution in times of grave uncertainty.
Robert revealed that the new documentary reflects on the house guests the Queen has had to welcome on behalf of her government. Pictured: The Queen with Ronald Reagan in Windsor during the 1982 Cold War
The program is not aimed at small children, but at work. It examines many of the key moments that shaped the Queen and her government. They contain wonderful inside stories from the coronation.
At one point, a bridesmaid, Lady Anne Glenconner, remembers her disgust when a gust of wind blew her shawl off on her way to a dress rehearsal, revealing her dress (then a state secret) to the world.
The film looks at the way the Queen is expected to welcome some of the most horrible house guests on her behalf.
Among the worst were President Mobutu of Zaire and his imperious wife, aptly named Marie-Antoinette, who smuggled a dog into Buckingham Palace in violation of strict quarantine laws.
But it is the monarch’s role as a source of national reassurance that comes back time and time again. We were reminded of this during the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe – VE Day – earlier this month. Nothing had been reported about the outpouring of emotion on May 8, 1945.
What did people do after almost six years of war? They went straight to Buckingham Palace to see the king – their king.
Cynics and republicans could have imagined that this kind of admiration has long since faded, exhausted by the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, eroded by the royal troubles of the 1990s, and finally obliterated by the dawn of a new millennium.
Robert claims that the Duke of York’s interview with Newsnight and the resignation of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex overshadowed reports of a flu-like virus in March. Pictured: The Queen and Charles during Braemar’s Highland Games
In the 2019 turmoil caused by Brexit, there were times when the political class seemed to have completely forgotten the monarchy.
Then a series of internal crises followed, most notably the Duke of York’s fierce interview with Newsnight, followed in early 2020 by the quasi-abdication of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Their return, before a last round of engagement in March, was big news and even obscured reports of an annoying flu-like virus creeping west from Asia.
The disease eventually spread to national awareness when the government announced a new policy not to shake hands. How we chuckled at the sight of politicians bumping elbows at official events.
Terrible duty she never had to do
One of many files and documents that underline the Queen’s importance in a crisis is the secret speech she never gave. If she had, most of us wouldn’t be here today.
As, as the Thursday documentary shows, this text, which I discovered in the National Archives at Kew, was a pre-prepared speech to a country under nuclear attack written in 1983 during one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War.
The documentary reveals a secret speech (photo) that the Queen never gave
Just like in 2020, she had to reminisce about the war.
“Our brave country must prepare again to survive against great expectations,” it says.
“I have never forgotten the sadness and pride I felt as my sister and I sat around the nursery wireless set listening to my father’s inspirational words on that fateful day in 1939. I never imagined this solemn and terrible duty would one day fall for me. ‘
The speech (right) says Prince Andrew is one of the people in action now and continues: “The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle, not even the pilot sniffing the air above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology.
So a nuclear bomb. “But whatever horrors await us, the qualities that have contributed to the preservation of our freedom twice during this sad century will once again be our strength.”
This particular “special” address – dated March 4, 1983 – was written by top officials, not the Queen.
That is very clear: it is far too self-centered and defeatist to get out of her own pen. It was prepared for a top-secret government exercise in planning a nuclear war.
As the only person meant to know all state secrets, we can assume that the Queen knew about it.
It felt eerily appropriate to study the text outside Windsor Castle during this final closing. With barely a soul to see, Windsor felt strange and dystopian. Still, there was something deeply comforting about the sight of the Royal Standard flying high.
There was something rather endearing about the Prince of Wales’ elegant solution to the problem: a ‘namaste’ print on the Hindu-style palms.
When the Royal Family gathered at Westminster Abbey for the annual Commonwealth Day service on March 9, the world press also gathered, although the story was not the royal response to the virus.
It was that this was the last major official engagement for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. But by the end of that day, the stock market had seen the biggest drop since the 2008 financial crisis.
Thursday’s documentary reminds us how quickly everything changed. Two days later, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a gigantic package (or so it seemed at the time) of £ 30 billion in measures to deal with the effects of the coronavirus.
Still, the Queen still held audiences – with a new high commissioner and senior naval and military figures. A week later, she received a newly appointed bishop to honor, just after two weeks of isolation from a trip to an Italian coronavirus hotspot.
There was nothing rushed at the time. The royal family has a duty to remain calm and carry on. It is what we expect.
And when government leadership turned to home isolation, the royal family was obliged to follow suit. So on March 19, the Queen gave in to ministerial advice and left Buckingham Palace for her private apartments in Windsor Castle.
As the program makes clear, her departure came before the virus spread on a larger scale – something we can all be thankful for.
The Queen and Prince Philip would then remain in Windsor. I remember back then some commentators wondered how the royal family would adapt to closed life considering the point of royalty is to shine brightly in public.
The Times noted sharply that while the monarchs of Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Spain and the Netherlands had all addressed their peoples, “The Queen is silent.” It was left to the younger generation to communicate via social media.
Yet the queen knew exactly what she was doing. The power of her statements is rooted in their scarcity. If she had decided to speak too early in the crisis, she was expected to speak again – and again. She was patient.
Although she didn’t know, her decision to address the country on April 5 could hardly have been better on time. By this time, the Prince of Wales had already succumbed to the virus with mild symptoms, while the Prime Minister was hit much harder.
The documentary reflects the country’s urgent need to hear. The royal commentator, Wesley Kerr, recalls, “While we waited to hear the Queen’s speech, there was an atmosphere of terror, of concern and concern.” Biographer Penny Junor describes the nation as “out of control.”
On April 24, nearly 24 million people watched the Queen’s speech. Pictured: then Princess Elizabeth and Margaret addressed the children of Britain in 1940
It was impossible to expect the Queen to predict the future or offer platitudes. Instead, she delivered one of her government’s major speeches.
Locked-up families sat en masse around their televisions on a Sunday evening to watch their monarch, just as they might have gathered around the radio to hear her father at the outbreak of war in 1939.
Nearly 24 million would watch her live on television, while millions more would hear her online. The preparations had been strict. A BBC camera had been rigged in Windsor, disinfected, left overnight and disinfected again before being operated at a healthy distance by a single cameraman with mask and gloves. There were no disturbing photos of portraits or family photos. The setting was royal but simple.
The point of royalty is to shine brightly in public
“I hope everyone can be proud of the way they have responded to this challenge in the coming years,” she told us.
“And those who come after us will say that the British of this generation were just as strong as everyone else.”
She repeated this point again in her VE Day post, saying, “We are still a nation that brave soldiers, sailors and pilots would recognize and admire.”
In her speech on April 5, the Queen reminded us that in 1940 – at the age of 14 – she made her very first broadcast in the same place. In other words, this was the 80th anniversary of her speech to the nation – a reminder of how long she has been doing her duty.
Pictured: The future Queen and Philip are announced after their engagement in 1947
And her farewell conclusion – “We will meet again” – was exactly the subdued yet comforting tone we had to leave.
As all contributors to this film (myself included) perceive, this address was both perfect and moving. What gave it an extra dimension was the timing. Because when the address ended – with a final shot of the daffodils under Windsor’s Round Tower – dark news came through. The prime minister was so sick that he had just been hospitalized.
Her April speech was perfect and moving
We now know that Boris Johnson would bounce back. But I remember very well the feeling of shock associated with that news. I also remember the extent to which that shock was received by the Queen’s address.
The subliminal message absorbed by the nation was clear: at least someone is still in charge – and it’s someone we all trust.
To convey such unadulterated authority at such a bleak moment is something only the Queen can do. As the program indicates, it can do things that politicians simply cannot do. Consider the aftermath of the terrible Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017 that killed 72 people.
The Queen and an emotional Queen Mother mark the 50th anniversary of VE Day in 1995
Almost wrong for Her Majesty
It was the last state event before the world changed. On March 9, 2020 – Commonwealth Day – senior members of the Royal Family and Prime Minister joined the Queen at Westminster Abbey for the annual service in honor of her favorite organization.
Coronavirus was already on British soil, with over 300 confirmed cases and five deaths. Behind the scenes, the government made dramatic plans, but ministers advised “business as usual” for the House of Windsor.
Robert said none of the Prince of Wales whispered into the Queen’s ear at Wesminster Abbey
The big story of the day was the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex bowed to the front lines of royal duties before embarking on a new life abroad.
I was at Westminster Abbey that day and watched the royal family gather as many people as possible. It was a wonderful service with traditional hymns (Immortal, Invisible; Love Divine), a performance by Craig David and a poignant speech by champion boxer Anthony Joshua.
Nobody thought much of the sight of the Prince of Wales whispering into the Queen’s ear during a pause in the proceedings.
The only visible sign of something out of the ordinary was the deliberate attempt not to shake hands – very strange for a royal event. Prince Harry made a point of brutal “elbow thrusts” to singer David.
The Prince of Wales made his “namaste” greeting while walking along the greeting lines. The queen smiled and nodded. Nobody knew that one of the standard-bearers had already contracted the virus.
The Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister would also suffer within three weeks. It was almost a miss for Her Majesty.
The ranks of shocked and survivors were soon joined by a large number of sympathizers, volunteers and vocal activists. The atmosphere was feverish, the atmosphere ugly.
Grief and anger were expressed at politicians, the media and the authorities in general. But then, three days after the disaster, a royal car stopped outside the A40 emergency department in North Kensington.
The Queen and the Duke of Cambridge got out. For the first time since the tragedy, there was peace. The queen could not wave a magic wand or say anything prophetic. However, the state had arrived in human form.
Highest order was granted, along with compassion and a willingness to listen. Here was another example of regal authority in times of crisis. When researching my latest book, Queen Of The World, I was struck by how many times the Queen has transformed a tense situation with a few skillfully chosen words – or none at all.
That historic 2011 state visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a reigning monarch, is often remembered for the words of the Gaelic with which the Queen preceded her speech to the state banquet at Dublin Castle.
But the moment the nationalist, republican view changed, was silent the day before when she came to Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, dedicated to martyrs of independence, including members of the IRA.
There she laid a wreath. And then the prince who bows to no one bowed deeply.
The documentary not only raises the role of the Queen in the story of the Cold War, but also the role she could have played if that 45-year confrontation had become a major conflict between East and West. In 1982, when tensions were high, she welcomed U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Windsor for one of her government’s most celebrated inbound visits.
It heralded a new era of “special relationship” as the two heads of state drove around Windsor Great Park, chased by regiments of bodyguards (on horseback, on foot, and in a fleet).
That famous moment was followed by a speech in which the President deplored the horrors of communist Eastern Europe and called the Berlin Wall “a grim symbol of untamed power … that awful gray cut through the city.”
But a few years later, the Queen welcomed the captain of the opposing team to Windsor. In 1989 President Mikhail Gorbachev came for a historic lunch.
This was followed by a tour of a special British-Soviet exhibition created by the Queen in his honor. He would save political hardball for his talks with Margaret Thatcher, but this trip to Windsor was an important stepping stone in what Gorbachev called “glasnost” – his teaching of “openness” to the rest of the world.
He was so enamored with the Queen that he occasionally invited her to pay a British monarch’s first state visit to Moscow. She was on the road five years later. It would be one of many historical royal monuments during this, the longest government in our history.
And right there among the biggest of them are these latest lockdown speeches for the nation. Who knows when next time we will hear a ‘special’ address from the Queen? I think it is safe to say that we – and they – all hope that no other will be needed in the coming years.
The Queen: Inside The Crown, Thursday, 9pm, ITV. Queen Of The World by Robert Hardman is published by Arrow (£ 9.99).