Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II

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9780743235594: Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II
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A study of the British monarchy provides a journalistic view of the Windsor family and discusses the scandals, crises, and tragedies that have afflicted the royals, as well as Elizabeth's role as a constitutional monarch.

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About the Author:

Robert Lacey, historian, journalist, and bestselling biographer, has written fifteen previous books, including the national bestsellers Majesty; Ford: The Men and the Machine; The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa'ud; and most recently The Year 1000. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

"As your Queen, and as a grandmother"

It was on a cool September Thursday at Balmoral that Queen Elizabeth II realised she would have to change course. She had read the newspapers over breakfast that morning, digesting their angry sermons with the long-practised pensiveness which caused her eyes to narrow. Her jaw would firm slightly as her thought processes started, shifting her chin forward a fraction -- a signal to her staff to think one more hard thought before they opened their mouths. Then, soon after nine o'clock, the phone calls from London started.

Diana had died the previous Sunday -- the last day of August 1997 -- and it had been pressure and decisions ever since. Helping the two boys had been their grandmother's first priority, applying her own therapy in times of trouble -- lots of exercise and fresh air.

"We must get them out and away from the television," said the queen as she clicked across the mournful images of the princess being run non-stop on every channel. "Let's get them both up in the hills."

The fact that they were all together as a family, away from everything, in the rugged beauty and peace of Scotland, had seemed such a blessing at first. Peter Phillips, Princess Anne's bluff and burly rugby-playing son, had gone out with William and Harry on the moors each day, jollying them along with stalking and the odd fishing expedition -- plus lots of mucking around on the brothers' noisy all-terrain motorbikes. The two young princes both loved the outdoors. In that respect they were very much Charles's sons.

The weather had been balmy, with just a hint of autumn crispness, and the whole family had driven out most evenings in the Land Rovers to eat. Ever practical, ever-tinkering, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is the proud deviser of a bulky, wheeled contraption that is the centre of these cherished rituals -- a picnic trailer. With the grilling rack and pots and pans stowed neat and ship-shape enough for the naval officer he had been, and padded drawers for carefully segregated types of fortifying alcohol, the wagon is towed to the shooting lodge selected for the family barbecue. No staff are present and the royal paterfamilias becomes chef.

In that first week of September, the duke's barbecue wagon had come into its own as never before. Cooking and carving and cleaning up afterwards, the shared chores and rituals of the self-help meal had kept the whole family busy and had helped create the feeling there was something everyone could do. It was practical therapy.

At fifteen, William had seemed to take it bravely, on the outside at least. But he was insisting that he would not walk behind the coffin at the funeral. Not quite thirteen, Harry had been more obviously upset. Was everyone quite sure Mummy was dead? he was heard to enquire. Could it not be checked to make sure there had not been a mistake?

Gently helping the brothers to cope was, like everything royal, more than just a private, family matter. If the two young princes did walk through the streets in London on Saturday, their composure would be the pivot on which the whole occasion turned.

Working out the details of the funeral had been the other big job since Sunday -- the style of the service, the length of the route, as well as the role that William and Harry would play. There had been family arguments in the small hours as the bad news came through. The Spencers -- Diana's mother, brother, and two sisters -- had wanted a private funeral, a small family affair, and to start with the queen herself had agreed. But by Sunday evening it was clear it would have to be a full-scale ceremony in Westminster Abbey, and since Monday the fax machine had been processing hymn sheets and processional time-tabling non-stop. Princess Margaret disapproved, but the queen mother had got quite excited about the prospect of listening to Elton John.

Then came all the fuss about the flag.

Downing Street was the first to sense that something was awry. Sitting in his media command room at No. 10, Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's press spokesman, caught a cable television news bulletin that worried him. It was Wednesday morning, and the long lines of mourners waiting in the Mall to sign the condolence books for the princess were spending as many as five hours looking through the trees towards Buckingham Palace.

People were not just signing their names when they got to the head of the queue. Most wanted to pen some special tribute of their own, and after half a day on their feet everyone wanted to sit down.

"In retrospect," says an official of the Lord Chamberlain's Office, "it was clearly a mistake to have supplied chairs."

Some people were spending as much as half an hour over the page composing their essays. So the lines waiting outside in the Mall grew longer, and as people shuffled slowly forward, they had been struck by the absence of any flag flying at half-mast over the queen's principal residence.

It was a technical matter. The queen's presence is signalled wherever she may be -- in palace, car, boat, or plane -- by the Royal Standard, a luscious and ancient confection of heraldic lions and symbolic harpstrings that follows her everywhere, battle-standard-style, and is never lowered, even when the sovereign dies. "The King is Dead, Long Live the King."

But the tradition had developed at Buckingham Palace -- though not at any other royal residence -- that, in the absence of the Royal Standard, no other flag should fly. So while flags all round the country -- including those over Windsor Castle and over the royal country residence of Sandringham in East Anglia -- were now flying at half-mast, Buckingham Palace itself was conspicuously bare of any sign of mourning for Diana.

"I've just been watching Sky News," said Campbell in a phone call to Robert Fellowes, the queen's private secretary, who was also Diana's brother-in-law, married to her elder sister, Jane. "Now, it's just a straw in the wind, but I think they're going to make some mischief over this thing of the flag."

Rupert Murdoch's Sky News had been running dramatic vox pop interviews from the Mall in which mourners complained about the bare flagpole over the palace. It made for compulsive, angry television, and Campbell guessed it was only a matter of time before the other bulletins followed suit.

"I hear what you're saying," replied Fellowes. "But it's a curious business, the flag at Buckingham Palace. There are certain things, you know, that I can deliver straight away. But I'm not sure it's going to be as easy as it looks, even if it's right, to please the public on this one."

Fellowes rang Balmoral to pass on Downing Street's concerns to his deputy Sir Robin Janvrin, who was running the private secretary's office there, and also to the queen. But the private secretary did not argue Campbell's case very strongly.

"The alarm bells," as one participant put it, "did not jangle."

Sir Robert Fellowes, today Baron Fellowes of Shotesham in the county of Norfolk, was a royal retainer who was the son of a royal retainer. His father, the bluff Sir Billy Fellowes, had run the royal estate at Sandringham and had been a shooting companion of the queen's father, King George VI. In his time as private secretary, Fellowes had overseen some important changes in the monarchy, and there was a mildly subversive twinkle behind his horn-rimmed spectacles.

"We don't have protocol here," he liked to say when talking of palace etiquette " -- just bloody good manners."

But Fellowes had breathed tradition all his life. It was a key element in his job as private secretary, and protocol had always provided a sure fall-back in times of difficulty.

Elizabeth II felt the same only more so. For the queen, tradition and protocol represented something greater than oneself -- deep values approaching the sacred. It could be compared to how non-royal people feel at their children's Christmas carol concert or when the bugle sounds on Remembrance Day -- the tingle of nobler things. It is easy to smile condescendingly at the scarlet-tunicked and bearskin-clad Guards parading formally outside Buckingham Palace until, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on New York, these very British soldiers stand to attention while their band plays "The Star Spangled Banner."

Tradition is one of the cornerstones of the royal mystery. The most troublesome time in the otherwise tranquil childhood of the young Princess Elizabeth had been when she was just ten, when her sparky and original Uncle David had ascended to the throne as Edward VIII. Shrugging his shoulders at precedent, he had spent a hectic year insouciantly overturning tradition in his quest to make the monarchy modern, and it had ended in tears. The abdication crisis of 1936 was the darkest moment in her family's recent history.

If Prince Charles, and not his ex-wife, had died in a car crash the previous Sunday, the queen would not now be flying the Union Jack at half-mast over Buckingham Palace. She had not done it for her beloved father, George VI -- and it would not happen for the queen mother, who, despite all her personal popularity, had always understood how the institution of monarchy ultimately transcended the individual.

A personally modest spirit, the queen would certainly not expect such a gesture for herself. So why should tradition be overturned for a young woman who, Uncle David-like, had put herself before the family and had come to be the focus of such bitter and divisive trouble?

Elizabeth II had been one of the first in the family to fall out of love with Diana.

"The Queen is a very good judge of character," says one of her staff. "She was very quick in 'sussing' the less fortunate sides of the princess's personality."

The queen had tried to be fair to her daughter-in-law, taking her side on occasions in the bitter separation battle with Charles. But Diana's open sniping at what she had publicly derided as the stuffy palace establishment made her the last person for whom the queen -- or still less ...

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