Journalist Clive Irving’s clear-eyed and richly detailed new biography, The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year-Battle to Save the House of Windsor, covers the British monarch’s life from her father King George VI’s 1937 coronation, when she was 11, to her grandson Prince Harry’s wedding in 2018. Irving explains ten little-known facts about the world’s oldest reigning monarch.
At the age of 94, Queen Elizabeth II has ruled through seven decades of enormous social and political changes to her realm–and the world. In The Last Queen, I focus on the major crises of her life and how well–or not–she has responded to them. With a line of male heirs ahead, and an uncertain future for the monarchy, she will likely be the last queen of the United Kingdom.
1. The queen’s nanny caused a scandal by going public. Members of the royal household rarely go public with the reality of life in Buckingham Palace. The first to do so was Marion Crawford, affectionately known as “Crawfie,” who was nanny to the young Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret during WWII and was regarded as a member of the family. In 1949, she sold her memoirs to a woman’s magazine. It was an adoring and anodyne account, but it shocked the family and made a pariah of Crawfie. Later, both Princess Diana and Prince Charles were embarrassed by people who broke the sacred rule that nobody should cash in on their inside knowledge.
2. The queen knows what to look for if there is trouble under the hood. In February 1945, Elizabeth enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a driver and mechanic (though she was allowed to return each night to her home at Windsor Castle). She was required to learn the essentials of car mechanics and maintenance at a time when army vehicles were very basic. As a result, she later took to driving Land Rovers on her private estates because they were derived from a military jeep-like design and she was able to diagnose any problems–though that would not include changing a tire.
3. Both the queen and her sister complained that they had been poorly educated. Elizabeth’s education went deep on only one subject, the amorphous English constitution. At that time, university was thought unsuitable for the princesses, but their Victorian-style home schooling was no substitute. Later the queen said she felt the lack of a broader knowledge. Margaret was freer to develop wide cultural interests, as she had a far wider circle of friends in the arts. But at the age of 94, the queen’s life has been an education in itself, beyond that of any other monarch.
4. The queen’s sister falsely made her look cold-hearted. The first family crisis to face the queen was caused by Princess Margaret. In 1953, at the age of 23, Margaret fell in love with a handsome war veteran and top royal aide, Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was15 years older than her and about to be divorced. It was commonly believed that the queen opposed the marriage. In fact, Elizabeth was ready to allow the marriage when Margaret reached the age of 25. In 2004, when official papers of the time were finally released, they revealed that Margaret had cooled on Townsend. But the image of a fairytale romance being thwarted by officials and the queen was a myth that Margaret chose to leave in place.
5. Prince Philip bitterly fought to change the family name. For the first decade of the queen’s reign, her husband Prince Philip waged a relentless campaign to change the royal name from Windsor to Mountbatten-Windsor. It was instigated by his uncle, and mentor, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who wanted to restore the connection to the royal family’s German roots. One prime minister who tried to mediate, Harold Macmillan, was shocked by Philip’s “brutal attitude.” The queen was in tears as she tried to placate Philip. Eventually, a compromise was reached: grandchildren not in the line of succession would take the name Mountbatten-Windsor. Hence, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s son Archie is a Mountbatten-Windsor.
6. The queen’s favorite destination in the U.S. is Kentucky. During her reign, Elizabeth has spent five vacations in the Bluegrass State. This is because her greatest personal passion is horse breeding and racing. When in Kentucky, she was the guest at the homes of some of America’s richest men, who shared her passion and knowledge. One courtier present during these visits has noted that in that company “she felt very much at home…there was an atmosphere of informality and gaiety I never saw in England. Guests were all from the horse world; conversations rarely strayed from thoroughbred topics.”
7. The queen is one of the richest women in the world. She has a fortune reckoned to be about $26.5 billion, even though her father started out relatively poor. In 1931, when he was Duke of York, he had to sell his six hunting horses to save money as the world’s economies collapsed in the Great Depression. When George VI died in 1952, the government decided, in secret, that the new queen should not pay tax on her income from investments. The crown has huge holdings in real estate, particularly in central London, where the book value has multiplied many times over. Together with a portfolio of stocks managed for her by financial experts, those holdings have pushed Elizabeth to a level of riches unimaginable in 1931.
8. The queen knowingly protected a Soviet mole for 15 years. In 1979, Sir Anthony Blunt, curator of the Buckingham Palace art collection, was publicly revealed as a Soviet spy. Fifteen years earlier, British security services had disclosed his role to the queen. In WWII, Blunt had passed to the Russians a torrent of military secrets, and was part of a long-term spy ring finally uncovered by the FBI. It was a devastating act of treachery, but the British government and the queen decided to let Blunt remain in his post until a later prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, outed him. The queen has never explained her readiness to overlook Blunt’s treachery.
9. The queen had to give up her private yacht and airline. In 1954, a year after her coronation, Queen Elizabeth took delivery of Britannia, a large and luxurious royal yacht. The family also had exclusive use of two small airliners operated by the Royal Air Force and their own royal train, fitted out with all the comforts of the Orient Express. The queen insisted that the yacht should be furnished like her suite in Buckingham Palace, even down to the same telephones, rather than naval issue. Eventually, both Britannia and the royal flight had to be given up, as expensive relics of a more extravagant age. Only the royal train remains, but it’s rarely used.
10. Prince Andrew is the the queen’s favorite son. Caught in the scandal surrounding the sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Andrew has been stripped of his office at Buckingham Palace, dropped by all the charities associated with his name, and barred from all public duties. Yet Andrew has always been the queen’s favorite son, and she is still reluctant to condemn his behavior. For decades, Prince Charles has resented this, and he has now been instrumental in sending Andrew to the gulag. Charles has always felt his parents never really understood him, which is true. Andrew much more complied with their stereotypical ideal of a muscular, outward-going prince, even though he has turned out to be arrogant and shallow.