Malcolm Barker: Long to reign over us – yet the Queen is still an enigma

Elizabeth II will this week become our longest-serving monarch. Despite decades in public life, she remains a private figure who has never granted an interview to the media.
Elizabeth II will this week become our longest-serving monarch. Despite decades in public life, she remains a private figure who has never granted an interview to the media.
Have your say

NEXT Wednesday, at about 5.30pm according to Buckingham Palace calculations, Queen Elizabeth II will overtake her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s record of 53 years and 216 days as our longest serving monarch.

The Queen is not making any great thing of it. For Her Majesty and Prince Philip the day means yet another official opening, this time the 30-mile Border Railway, connecting Edinburgh Waverley station and Tweedbank, not far from Melrose and Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford.

The Queen’s accession came on February 6, 1952. Her father, King George VI, had been shooting at Sandringham the previous day, and went to bed as usual. When his valet went to rouse him at 7.30 the following morning, he found the King dead in bed. This meant there could be no precise time for the start of his daughter’s reign. In contrast, the death of Victoria’s predecessor William IV, in 1837, was timed to the very minute.

Third in the list of long reigns is that of George III (59 years), who, despite bouts of madness and the loss of the American Colonies, plainly loved England, and was respected as “Farmer George”. For the fourth-longest occupant of the throne of England it is necessary to go back to the 13th Century.


Henry III acceded at the age of nine in 1216, and died aged 65. Historians rate him “ineffectual”. Put that alongside the madness of King George, and the mourning weeds and reclusiveness adopted by Victoria after the death of her consort Prince Albert, it is plain that those of us now in our 80s have been privileged to live not only through the longest reign, but also the most successful, with many years of peace, stability, and incomparable advances in health, wealth, nutrition and general well-being.

The news of the King’s death, broken to the new Queen by her husband Prince Philip during a tour of Africa, must have been a devastating blow to the young wife and mother who was then aged only 27. She had, however, lived for some years with the knowledge that one day she would be required to take her father’s place.

King Edward VIII, her Uncle David, abdicated in December 1936 after The Yorkshire Post and the Bishop of Bradford had contrived to break the news of the King’s infatuation with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British public quickly signalled their disapproval, dubbing her “that woman”.

Soon after the abdication broadcast, Princess Margaret, Princess Elizabeth’s younger sister, saw a letter to their mother addressed to “Her Majesty the Queen”. Margaret asked her sister if she would be the next queen. “Yes”, said Elizabeth. “Some day.” “Poor you,” said Margaret. There was no way out. Even if Uncle David and Mrs Simpson had contrived to produce a child, neither the British public nor the Government would have accepted the infant as heir.

Thus began the odyssey of Queen Elizabeth II. She has proved a truly remarkable woman, instantly recognisable around the world, but in another sense quite unknown, for she has somehow invested herself with a carapace of secrecy.

Scores of books have been written about her, and countless magazine and newspaper articles like this one (which a former editor of The Yorkshire Post would have described disparagingly as a think-piece).

The Queen has been blessed in many ways, with a sustaining Christian faith, a long and happy marriage to a devoted husband, and with sound common-sense which she has applied to the preservation of her privacy.

She had an early lesson in the need to be wary. In 1950 and 1953, former Royal Governess Marion Crawford, known to the family affectionately as “Crawfie”, published her books, The Little Princesses and Happy and Glorious. The only intimate record of the princesses’ childhood and the conduct of the household was thus placed in the public domain.

The Windsors were outraged by what they regarded as a breach of trust, and since then censorship has been imposed on would-be purveyors of inside stories of Royal life. The Queen has never granted an interview, though she did talk about her love of horses to Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the distinguished racing commentator who passed away at the end of July, for a television documentary in the 1970s.

She has never let slip adverse comment, and has only two entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1992). Very rarely her inner thoughts are revealed. A Channel 4 TV documentary about Prince William of Gloucester (1941-72), broadcast on August 27, recorded that in reply to a letter from him seeking advice about his love affair with a twice-married Hungarian model, the Queen wrote, “Follow your heart.”

She may have had in mind the anguish of Princess Margaret at the break-up of her romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend. Later she must have watched in sorrow and dismay as the marriage of Prince Charles was ripped apart in public.

Quite recently there was a hoo-ha about some old pictures of the young princesses attempting Nazi salutes in the 1930s.

We who were children at that time will recall that Hitler, with his absurd strutting demeanour and his ridiculous salute, was then a figure of fun, much imitated in playgrounds. The princesses joined in the mimicry, and it was ludicrous to pretend there was more to it than that.

Alan Titchmarsh, commissioned by the BBC to write Elizabeth: Her Life in our Times for the Diamond Jubilee, concluded that she was an enigma, and opined that this in its own way had contributed to her status as sovereign. Some kind of spell seems to have been cast on him, for although he sat next to the Queen at lunch and says she talked relatively freely he was unwilling to reveal what was said. That may be a Royal effect. I can remember chatting to Her Majesty at a reception at Leeds Town Hall during one of her tours of the West Riding, but now cannot recall a word of the conversation.

Walter Bagehot, the 19th Century constitutional authority, wrote of the monarchy: “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”

Under our Queen, the magic and mystery prevail.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.