Elizabeth the Queen | Sally Bedell Smith

Summary of: Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch
By: Sally Bedell Smith


Step into the majestic world of Queen Elizabeth II in Sally Bedell Smith’s ‘Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch’. From her historic coronation day, navigated within complex political dynamics, to building relationships with a succession of prime ministers, you’ll witness the Queen’s role in moments of triumph and crisis. This riveting summary unfolds her personal and professional life, intimately capturing struggles with family and marital issues, and her ability to maintain composure and authority in the face of danger. Delve into this phenomenal journey that profoundly encapsulates Elizabeth’s grace, determination, and unyielding dedication to her people.

The Queen’s Coronation Journey

On a chilly, rainy day in 1953, amidst a struggling Britain recovering from WWII, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in a historic ceremony filled with a range of emotions. Walking in the footsteps of her great-great-grandmother, wearing a crimson velvet Robe of State, and with Winston Churchill cheering her on, she was anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury before finally being crowned the queen of the United Kingdom, inspiring her nation in the midst of adversity.

In 1953, the streets of London buzzed with anticipation as crowds filled Trafalgar Square, Oxford Circus, and Buckingham Palace, eager to witness the once-in-a-lifetime coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This event revived hope for a nation reeling from shortages, WWII’s aftershocks, and concerns about the Cold War’s communist expansion.

Elizabeth’s journey to the crown began over a year earlier when her father, King George VI, passed away in his sleep. Immediately, she inherited the throne, prompting Prime Minister Winston Churchill, known as the British Bulldog, to proclaim the dawn of “a new Elizabethan age.” Encountering Elizabeth at the age of two, Churchill recognized an “air of authority and astonishing reflectiveness” in her, which she carried into her reign.

On coronation day, the youthful queen, just 25 years old, arrived at Westminster in the extravagant Gold State Coach, clad in her great-great-grandmother’s diadem and a white satin gown. With grace and poise, she had the crimson velvet Robe of State placed on her shoulders by the maids of honor. With an effortless air of command, she checked in with them, asking, “Ready, girls?”

Inside the Abbey, the ceremony began in earnest as Elizabeth stood next to King Edward’s Chair and was presented to the 7,500 esteemed guests within. She then pledged herself to the laws of Great Britain and its territories during the sacred coronation oath.

The anointing, an integral part of the ritual, saw Elizabeth shed her regalia, crowning diadem, robe, gloves, and jewelry and don a simple, pleated white dress. The Archbishop of Canterbury then anointed her with holy oil, preparing her to serve her people until her last breath.

Next, the queen was robed in a 36-pound, gold cloth garment, embodying the divine protection bestowed upon her. Watching the coronation unfold was her young son, Prince Charles, who whispered with awe to his grandmother, “Look, it’s Mummy!” Elizabeth’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, on the other hand, struggled to contain her tears, feeling both the weight of her sister’s duty and the loss of her father.

As the last step, Elizabeth was presented with her regalia, including gold bracelets, a coronation ring, jeweled scepters, and an orb adorned with precious stones. The archbishop consecrated the solid gold crown, holding it high before placing it on her head. This act signaled the crescendo of the ceremony, with cannons booming in Hyde Park and the Tower of London and vivacious cries of “God Save the Queen!” echoing through the Abbey.

That day, Elizabeth II emerged as the United Kingdom’s new monarch, inspiring a beleaguered nation and proving herself as a symbol of strength, resilience, and majesty.

Navigating Prime Minister Relations

Queen Elizabeth II has, over the years, forged relationships with a diverse array of prime ministers. The Queen’s role demands both adaptability and steadiness, establishing connections with each leader regardless of political alignment. Stories highlighting her relationships with Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, and Margaret Thatcher demonstrate the balance she maintained, retaining mutual respect and sometimes friendship with each prime minister, even when faced with difficult situations.

The uniquely constant role of Queen Elizabeth II demands that she maintain a relationship with every prime minister during her reign. One such relationship of special importance was with Winston Churchill. Their comradery was built upon shared experiences and common interests like horse racing, and their weekly meetings served to strengthen this connection.

After Churchill, Elizabeth worked with Conservative leaders such as Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Alec Douglas-Home before the left-wing Labor party took power under Harold Wilson in 1964. Despite the queen’s loyalty to remaining neutral in political matters, adjusting to Wilson’s divergent views necessitated the development of a different kind of relationship. Over time, their interactions evolved into genuine friendship, with Wilson discovering that he could unwind around the monarch.

Years later, when the UK faced the “Winter of Discontent,” James Callaghan’s struggles as prime minister led to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 ascendancy to the position, making her the first female to serve in that role. Both Thatcher and Elizabeth shared several commonalities, being of similar age, mothers, and women who endured in male-dominated spheres. However, disparities in temperament and communication styles kept their bond from deepening on a more personal level.

Despite her loyalty to the English monarchy, Thatcher found herself at odds with the queen over the issue of Rhodesia’s white minority government facing threats from Robert Mugabe’s Black guerrilla forces. Queen Elizabeth maintained a deep commitment to the Commonwealth and recognized the need to incorporate the sentiments of African countries within its membership. While Thatcher advised her against attending a peace conference in Rhodesia, the queen insisted on her presence, engaging with several African nations and the heads of state, eventually managing to avert a potential dissolution of the Commonwealth.

The Queen’s efforts in Zimbabwe, as with previous interactions, underscored her genuine concern for the lives and struggles of people across the world. Her subtle guidance and influence ultimately allowed Thatcher to more effectively promote the Lusaka Accord, leading to a constitutional conference in London later that year.

Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth has navigated the complexities of political relationships, displaying an ability to connect with each of her prime ministers and remain steadfast despite their varied ideologies. The cases of Churchill, Wilson, and Thatcher illustrate how she’s risen to the challenges of her position, forging effective working relationships and showing compassion for the concerns of her people and the broader global community.

The Queen’s Unshakable Calm

In 1981, Queen Elizabeth II displayed her unflappable demeanor during her birthday parade when six gunshots rang out, and she calmly settled her startled horse. A year later, during a visit from Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Queen efficiently took control when President Reagan began to ride towards the water. Her calm demeanor surfaced again when an intruder trespassed into her bedroom, where she engaged him in conversation until help arrived.

The year was 1981 and Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed a sunny celebration on her birthday parade, sitting proudly atop her black mare, Burmese. The equestrian gift courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been a great companion. The parade had come only weeks before the royal wedding of her son Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, creating an air of excitement amongst the public. Despite the difficult upbringing Diana had experienced, which led to emotional instability, the people fell in love with her immediately.

On that day of the parade, the Queen demonstrated her mastery of horsemanship as she gracefully practiced sidesaddle. Accompanied by Charles and Philip, they proceeded with the Household Cavalry members. However, an unexpected incident occurred just before 11:00 a.m. as six gunshots echoed from the crowd. Though startled, the Queen managed to keep her composure and quickly calmed her mare. The crowd was relieved when it was discovered that the shots were blanks, and the perpetrator was arrested.

The Queen’s calmness under pressure was further demonstrated during the visit of President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at Windsor Castle in June 1982. In a friendly gathering, the Queen and President Reagan embarked on a picturesque horseback ride, she riding Burmese and he, an eight-year-old stallion named Centennial –⁠ both without helmets. As they traversed the stunning landscape, Reagan became absorbed in greeting the onlookers, ultimately steering his horse towards the water. However, Queen Elizabeth quickly intervened, taking charge of the situation by grabbing the reins and leading his horse to safety.

That memorable horseback ride marked the beginning of a deep and genuine friendship between the British royal family and the Reagans. Barely a month later, Queen Elizabeth faced another unprecedented encounter –⁠ this time within the confines of her private chambers. Awakened early by a slamming door, the Queen was confronted by a barefoot man named Michael Fagan, who was holding a shard of glass and bled from his hand.

Remarkably, Queen Elizabeth maintained her composure and engaged Fagan in conversation about his troubles. As they talked, she pressed an emergency button to summon assistance. Despite the distressing nature of the event, the Queen remained preternaturally calm. Eventually, the Queen led Fagan to a nearby pantry where they found a chambermaid and a footman with the royal corgis. While the footman distracted Fagan with a drink, the police arrived to apprehend him.

Through these extraordinary events, Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated time and again her unshakable calm and unwavering resolve as a leader –⁠ always being the eye of the storm in the most unpredictable of circumstances.

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