This week, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II turns 90–overshadowing an even more legendary birthday to come in her own home. In June, her husband, Prince Philip, turns 95. Today I’m sharing a few of my favorite books on the couple.
This one is a few years old, but for my money it’s still the best biography of the royal couple. With extensive help from Prince Philip’s first cousins–the daughters of the Late Earl Mountbatten (who were also childhood friend’s of Elizabeth’s) we get much more of an insider’s view of the couple than in other biographies. I still highly recommend this one. Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Royal Marriage, by Gyles Brandreth. His book on Charles and Camilla is very good as well.
A book on Philip’s mother? Yes. Because if you don’t understand the bizarre story of his upbringing, you’ll never understand why Philip is steadfast in walking two paces behind and always being Her Majesty’s “Rock” for all these years. When he was engaged a courtier told Prince Philip, rather haughtily, that he’d get “used to” Windsor Castle. Philip simply replied, “yes, my mother was born here….” Put that chinless wonder in his place!
Years ago Philip was quoted as saying “Most people think Dickie’s [his uncle, Earl Mountbatten of Burma] my father anyway.” In this book we meet his real father–Prince Andrew of Greece and get an occasional glimpse of the Uncle who really took him in–George, Marquess of Milford Haven. But it is the women in this book–his mother Princess Alice of Battenberg, Alice’s mother the rather fierce but very shrewd Princess Victoria, Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven (sister of the last Tzarina) and the never-ending influence of Queen Victoria.
It’s not really fair to put two books by the same author in the list but I must. For, in this book, Hugo Vickers also debunks the book all royal biographers have relied on to tell of Queen Elizabeth’s childhood, The Little Princesses. Keep in mind, that while much of The Little Princesses is fictional, it does still quote from original sources–mainly the letters of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and of another formidable royal matriarch, Queen Mary–the present Queen’s grandmother. While Miss Crawford was the Queen’s governess–not Nanny, her nanny had also been her mother’s nanny, she could not escape the clutches of a wily pair of American journalists nor those of her very greedy husband. Crawfie, who had little say in this book, sold her good name and royal connections for money leaving her to live out her days in self-imposed purgatory. She was never acknowledged by the Queen, the Queen Mother or Princess Margaret again. Not even a wreath at her funeral. Sad story. This book is worth it for the letters. The Little Princesses.
The Queen with her parents and both sets of grandparents after her parents world tour.
It’s important to remember here that Elizabeth II is an age-mate, if you will, of the fictional Sybie and George and Marigold on Downton Abbey. Her life was the nursery, the not-very-demanding school room, tea with Mummy and Papa (and, when they were available, an early morning visit in their bedrooms as well). The rest of the er childhood was spent gliding thru the annual pilgrimages from Sandringham to Windsor to London to Balmoral to London at both the great Royal homes and the magnificent homes of the Queen Mother’s family and those of her parents’ very grand friends. Hunting, Shooting, Fishing figured large in the calendar. Horses, dogs and P.G. Wodehouse. French and ballroom dancing.It’s hardly a wonder that Princess Margaret later lamented how little education they were given.
In her time and in her “class” this was still normal up until the Second World War–though, as in Downton Abbey story lines, some people did have to give up the stately pile and make do with one of the lesser estates or even the Dower House. And, at least the younger sons had to actually take….gasp!….J-O-B-S. Yes they had to stoop to earning money. A few of the Mummies (married to younger sons) occasionally were forced to change a nappy on the servants’ half day! Those city block sized London mansions, such as Spencer House [guess whose family] or Brook House [Countess Mountbatten’s grandfather], were generally razed or about to be razed in this era. A very different world to ours. (Photo: Downton Abbey Season 5 finale. Carnival)
In his biography of the Queen Mother, Vickers shows us how much livelier and how much more into society the Queen’s mother and her husband were than their war-time personification of duty reveals. The Queen Mother especially, enjoyed the arts and loved spending time with writers and other artists. None of her time spent taking Elizabeth and Margaret to artsy-outings made it into The Little Princesses.
Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s maternal first cousin, has been there all along. While her stories add to our knowledge of the Queen, there’s nothing very shocking here. Nonetheless, I recommend it for the first-hand observations and sweet memories. The Final Curtsey.
All this week I’ll be featuring Royal posts as we count down the days to the Queen’s 90th birthday. While the biggest celebration will be in June–her “Official” birthday with Trooping the Colour and all the rest of the pageantry. Tomorrow we’ll talk about her Official birthday as opposed to the one on which she was born.