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Book Summary: Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch

Elizabeth the Queen (2012) is a brisk yet in-depth exposé of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Tracing key moments in her life, big and small, lighthearted and tragic, it pulls back the curtain on a most singular figure. Elizabeth II is at once a woman who struggled to balance her roles as both mother and monarch; a leader who learned to embody dignity and diplomacy; and the calm epicenter of the drama that ever swirls around her closest relations.

Who is it for?

  • Royal watchers and anglophiles
  • Americans interested in British politics
  • Biography lovers

Drop in on some of the most significant moments in the life of Queen Elizabeth II.

Britain has changed a lot in the last 70 years. Go back to the early ’50s, and you’ll find a nation still repairing after the destruction of the Second World War. A nation where rationing was still in place. Back then, Britain was an industrial world power – and it still had an empire, albeit one that was being slowly dismantled.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and the difference is huge. Britain is a multicultural society. It’s a world leader in culture, not heavy industry. The British Empire no longer exists and Britons are no longer deferential to authority; politicians are mocked and laughed at. In short, Britain now is almost completely different from Britain in 1952. Well, apart from one key aspect: Queen Elizabeth II.

For over 70 years, the Queen has had to balance on a knife-edge. She must, on the one hand, be extraordinary –⁠ almost superhuman –⁠ existing as she does as a living symbol of British history and tradition. Yet, on the other hand, she must be human –⁠ almost, but not quite, like one of her subjects.

The Queen’s role is a unique one in modern society. She reigns, but she doesn’t rule. She can’t vote, appear as a witness in court, or change her faith. But despite her lack of tangible power, she influences her people by example, living out the principles of unity, service, and dignity. In this summary to Sally Bedell Smith’s biography, Elizabeth the Queen, we’ll reveal key instances in which the Queen has done just that, from her coronation in 1953 through her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Book Summary: Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • what it’s like to be crowned Queen;
  • how Elizabeth reacted to an intruder in her bedroom; and
  • why Annus Horribilis was so horrible.

Chapter 1: Becoming Queen

Hundreds of thousands of spectators thronged together in the wind, rain, and cold one morning in 1953. They stood cheek to cheek alongside some of London’s most famous landmarks –⁠ Trafalgar Square, Oxford Circus, Buckingham Palace –⁠ to see a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The event was, of course, the coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth II.

More than a year earlier, Elizabeth’s father, George VI, had died in his sleep. At that very moment, Elizabeth became Queen. In response, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had heralded the forthcoming era as “a new Elizabethan age.” Churchill’s message reinvigorated the public at a time when Britain was struggling with shortages, destruction leftover from World War II, and fears of communist expansion in the Cold War.

And Churchill was a major presence during Elizabeth’s coronation preparations –⁠ even, perhaps, her most ardent cheerleader. The British Bulldog had met Elizabeth when she was just two years old, declaring that he sensed from her “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.”

Elizabeth has carried that air of authority with her throughout her reign, which began on that blustery day in 1953. She was whisked to Westminster in the extravagant Gold State Coach wearing her great-great-grandmother’s diadem and white satin coronation gown.

The maids of honor fitted her with the monarch’s crimson velvet Robe of State, with its eighteen-foot-long train trimmed with ermine and gold lace. As they began picking it up to carry it behind her, Elizabeth looked over her shoulder and asked, “Ready, girls?”

She was then led into the Abbey, where she approached and then stood by King Edward’s Chair, the one on which she’d sit to be crowned. The archbishop began the “recognition,” which presented her to the 7,500 distinguished guests. After that, she swore the coronation oath, in which she pledged to honor the laws of Great Britain and all its territories and realms.

Next, it was time for the most spiritual part of the ceremony: the anointing. Elizabeth’s robe, gloves, jewelry, and diadem were removed. She was helped into a plain white shift with a pleated skirt. This gave her the appearance of youth and vulnerability –⁠ and indeed, Elizabeth was just 25 years old.

The Archbishop of Canterbury poured holy oil from a gold ampulla into a silver-gilt spoon and anointed Elizabeth. Then, coronation robes weighing 36 pounds and made of stiff woven gold cloth were placed on her. These were garments meant to signify that God had sanctified her to serve her people until death.

From the crowd, Elizabeth’s first child, the four-year-old Prince Charles, watched with wide eyes. He sat between his grandmother, the Queen Mother, and his aunt, Elizabeth’s younger sister, Princess Margaret. “Look, it’s Mummy!” he said to his grandmother, who looked on with an expression of sadness mixed with pride. Meanwhile, Margaret held back tears. She felt as if she was losing her big sister to this all-important duty, so soon after losing her father, too.

Wearing the gold robes, Elizabeth was presented with her regalia, which included gold bracelets, a coronation ring, jeweled scepters, and an orb topped by precious jewels. The archbishop blessed the solid gold crown, held it aloft, and then placed it on her head. Cannons exploded in Hyde Park and the Tower of London, while shouts of “God Save the Queen!” rang out from the abbey. Elizabeth II had officially become the United Kingdom’s new monarch.

Chapter 2: The Queen’s Prime Ministers

The nature of the Queen’s role is simultaneously one of change and constancy. She remains on the throne regardless of who leads parliament. As such, she’s had to develop relationships with all of the prime ministers who have held office since her reign began.

The first and most significant of them all was, of course, Winston Churchill. After Elizabeth’s coronation, her already close bond with Churchill grew even closer. They connected over their shared experiences during World War II, and both loved breeding and racing horses. These topics were commonly on the table during their weekly Tuesday evening meetings.

Churchill yielded his premiership at the age of 80, in 1955, having steadily grown more feeble and prone to memory lapses over the years. During his farewell dinner, he toasted the Queen as a “young, gleaming champion” of “the sacred causes and wise and kindly way of life.” Afterward, Elizabeth wrote in a letter to Churchill that no other prime minister would “ever, for me, be able to hold the place of my first Prime Minister.”

After and including Churchill, Elizabeth’s prime ministers were a string of Conservatives: Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Alec Douglas-Home. Labour –⁠ the UK’s leftwing party –⁠ didn’t win the premiership until Harold Wilson in 1964.

The Queen is obliged to disregard the prime minister’s political leanings. However, Wilson’s divergence from his predecessors’ views did create some humorous moments. After Wilson implemented a policy called “Social Contract” for labor unions, one of the Queen’s men suggested that would be a good name for one of her young horses. The look she gave him in response was bleak.

Despite Wilson’s apparent mismatch with the institution of the monarchy, he “would have died for her,” within three months of meeting the Queen, according to the Queen Mother. While Churchill was something of a father figure to Elizabeth, her relationship with Wilson was more of a friendship. He found, to his surprise, that he could relax around her, and that she was genuinely interested in hearing what he had to say.

Years later, in 1978/79, the UK experienced what became known as the “Winter of Discontent.” The prime minister, James Callaghan, struggled to revive Britain’s stagnant economy. Temperatures plunged to some of the coldest on record, and a high volume of strikes crippled the country. Even the gravediggers went on strike. It was, therefore, no surprise that in the 1979 general election, the Conservative Party won handily, making Margaret Thatcher the new prime minister –⁠ and the first female to hold that role. Perhaps Thatcher had been right when, 27 years earlier, she’d written that Elizabeth’s accession could help remove “the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places.”

Thatcher and Elizabeth had quite a bit in common. For starters, they were born within six months of each other, which made it easier to relate. Plus, they were both mothers and at the same time professional, hard-working women who’d found ways to thrive in male-dominated spheres.

However, there were also points that kept them distant from one another. Thatcher lacked the Queen’s sense of humor, and she tended to dominate conversations and lecture at people, which the Queen disliked. Both women were reluctant to discuss their feelings, which meant they could never quite form a deeper, more personal bond.

Thatcher was deeply deferential to the monarch. According to diplomat Charles Powell, “No one could curtsy lower than Margaret Thatcher.” Even so, she found herself at odds with the Queen just three months after taking office.

At that time, the white minority government of the British territory Rhodesia was under threat from majority Black guerrilla forces led by Marxist Robert Mugabe. Worried about the potential threat the guerrilla forces posed, Thatcher tried to dissuade the Queen from attending a proposed peace conference there.

Elizabeth, however, insisted on attending. She always sided with the Commonwealth, even if she could never say so directly. And she feared that other African countries would try to leave the Commonwealth unless the Black majority forces led by Mugabe could be allowed to take charge of the Rhodesian government. She visited several of those countries, including Tanzania, Malawi, Botswana, and Zambia, before making her way to the conference in Rhodesia.

The night of the conference, she stayed up until midnight speaking with the various heads of state. One of the Nigerian delegates stated his belief that the Queen’s intervention convinced the organization, “which was on the point of possibly splitting up… to compromise.”

Behind the scenes, she continued speaking to the African leaders privately in her bungalow. She conveyed sympathy for them and displayed genuine knowledge of their problems. This impressed the leaders and made them feel as if she truly did care. In doing so, the Queen brought down the temperature of the situation and enabled Thatcher to better facilitate the Lusaka Accord, which called for a constitutional conference in London later that year. The Queen’s presence had made it happen.

Chapter 3: Calm Amidst the Storm

The Queen was sitting atop her nineteen-year-old black mare, Burmese, which had been a gift from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The year was 1981, the month June, and the Queen was enjoying her birthday parade in the sun.

The celebration came just a few weeks away from her son Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. The pair had begun a fast-paced courtship a year earlier during a house party in Sussex. The press and public alike had immediately fallen in love with the alluring, shy, charismatic Diana –⁠ but her relationship with Charles was fraught from the beginning. Diana’s difficult childhood had left her with deep scars that resulted in emotional instability, a tendency to lie, and obsessive behaviors.

For the moment, though, things were calm. The Queen had practiced her sidesaddle technique every day in the two weeks leading up to her birthday celebration. Wearing the scarlet tunic of the West Guards and a navy blue riding skirt, she sat perfectly upright in the saddle with the reins in her left hand and riding crop in her right. Charles and Philip rode behind her with members of the Household Cavalry.

But just before 11:00 a.m., as the Queen turned right toward the parade ground, the unthinkable happened. Six gunshots rang out from within the crowd. The horse cantered forward, having been startled –⁠ but the Queen remained firmly in charge. She calmly and instinctively settled Burmese by pulling on both of the reins, as guards and members of the crowd tackled the gunman. The shots, fortunately, had been blanks.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Queen would need to calm a startled horse in the midst of an important event. Almost exactly a year later, in June 1982, Ronald and Nancy Reagan had come to Windsor Castle to visit the Queen and Prince Philip as personal guests –⁠ the first American presidential couple to stay overnight at Windsor Castle. The highlight of the trip was a horseback ride that President Reagan and the Queen were scheduled to take together, which would serve as an excellent photo opportunity for the American leader.

At 9:30 a.m., the Queen and the president mounted their horses, she again on Burmese and he on an eight-year-old stallion named Centennial. Both chose to forego helmets.

The pair rode for an hour, greeting farmers in the fields and waving to onlookers. At one point, Reagan was waving so much that he began riding the horse straight toward the water. This prompted the Queen to grab hold of his reins and begin leading the horse herself. In Reagan’s words, “She was in charge of that animal!” Despite the mishap, the day was a key moment in what would become a long-lasting, deep, and genuine friendship between the British royal family and the Reagans.

Just a month later, Elizabeth once again showed her pluck in the face of danger. At 7:15 a.m., she heard the slam of a door. It couldn’t be Philip –⁠ he’d already left that morning for an engagement elsewhere –⁠ and her staff were never so careless. When she sat up in her bed, she was faced with the sight of a barefooted man wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He was opening her curtains, and he held a shard of glass in his hand. Blood dripped from his thumb as he walked over to sit at the foot of her bed.

“Get out of here at once!” the Queen shouted. But the intruder –⁠ Michael Fagan, who had, in fact, already managed to sneak into the Palace once before –⁠ began venting to the Queen about his personal problems. To keep him calm, the Queen listened patiently and commented sympathetically, all while trying to summon help using the emergency button in her room. Despite the shock of the situation, her demeanor remained preternaturally calm.

After Fagan requested a cigarette, the Queen showed him to a nearby pantry. There, she encountered a chambermaid and a footman with the Queen’s pack of corgi dogs in tow. The dogs barked whilst the footman distracted Fagan with a drink. Finally, a police contingent arrived to take him away. The Queen later described the event as surreal rather than scary. As always, she’d been the calm amidst the storm.

Chapter 4: Annus Horribilis

The Queen arrived in Washington on Tuesday, May 14, 1991, in the thick of the Gulf War. She spent three days in Washington attending 18 engagements, then visited six cities in Florida and Texas before making her way back to London. Despite the hectic schedule, the Queen would remember the time as one of peace compared to what she’d soon deal with upon her return.

By this time, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were near their tenth wedding anniversary –⁠ and the preexisting fractures in their marriage had worsened. Charles had reignited his affair with his former girlfriend, Camilla, while Diana had done the same with her former riding instructor, James Hewitt.

The tabloids were already ablaze, but the drama was poised to become a conflagration. Andrew Morton, a writer for the Sun tabloid, had begun writing a book exposing the royal drama –⁠ with Princess Diana as his secret collaborator.

Meanwhile, the Queen’s younger son, Prince Andrew, and his then-wife Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson were busy partying in their new £3.5 million mansion. While Andrew was away, Fergie enjoyed lavish vacations abroad in Morocco, Switzerland, and France, sometimes accompanied by American millionaire Steve Wyatt. These exploits inspired an editorial in the Sunday Times which criticized the royal family for wasting public funds and the Queen for not paying taxes, a benefit she’d always enjoyed.

At Christmastime, Andrew and Fergie told the Queen that they were considering a separation. After Fergie was photographed in Morocco with Wyatt less than a month later, Andrew brought in his lawyers, and the separation was officially announced in March of 1992.

The worst, however, was still to come. June 1992 would mark the Queen’s 40th year on the throne. Under ordinary circumstances, the month would be marked by celebrations and tributes to that significant milestone.

But before any of that could get underway, the Sunday Times published its first excerpt from Andrew Morton’s book, titled Diana: Her True Story. It went into gory details about Diana’s emotional problems, portrayed Charles as unfaithful and uncaring, and painted a remote and almost alien picture of the royal family. Diana lied, insisting that she hadn’t been involved –⁠ but it wasn’t long before the truth came to light.

The day the book was officially released, Charles and Diana met with the Queen and Prince Philip. Charles said little, but Diana was in tears, continuing to reiterate that she hadn’t helped the book’s author. The subject of divorce was brought up, but Elizabeth and Philip advised the couple to stay together and learn to compromise.

The next day, Diana and Charles were requested to return, but Diana failed to show up. Instead, she packed up her things and left Windsor Castle entirely. This prompted Prince Philip to write her a letter offering marriage advice –⁠ the first of a long series of exchanges between the two. Diana seemed to genuinely appreciate Philip’s advice, yet he failed to change her mind.

The saga of Fergie and Andrew was also far from over. On August 20, Fergie was photographed lounging topless in the French Riviera with her two children and her “financial advisor,” John Bryan. Other photos depicted Bryan kissing Fergie’s toes and embracing her in front of one of the children. The display was humiliating for the whole royal family, and for Fergie most of all. She apologized to the furious Queen, and she was barred from returning to the family’s Scottish estate in Balmoral for 16 years.

Four days after the story about Fergie broke, Diana was back in the news again. The Sun published an article headlined “MY LIFE IS TORTURE,” which quoted from a surreptitiously recorded telephone conversation between Diana and a friend named James Gilbey. During the conversation, Gilbey infamously referred to Diana as “Squidgy,” and Diana made a series of disparaging and bitter remarks about the royal family.

Everything came to a crescendo on Friday, November 20, the 45th wedding anniversary of the Queen and Philip. Elizabeth was beginning an appointment late in the morning when she received a phone call from Prince Andrew. Part of Windsor Castle was ablaze. The fire destroyed or damaged nine staterooms and over 100 others. To the Queen, the fire symbolized a divine punishment for her family’s behavior. The cost of the repairs was estimated to be between £20 million and £40 million.

A few days after the fire, the Queen appeared at the Guildhall in the City of London for a luncheon honoring her 40 years on the throne. Her voice was raspy from smoke inhalation, and she was suffering from a severe cold and a 101-degree fever. In her speech, she admitted that 1992 was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” She continued: “In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis.’ ” The term was all too accurate.

Chapter 5: Diamond Jubilee

It was another bitterly cold day, with snow coating every surface in sight. The Queen was in Norfolk, England, receiving an address from a local mayor. Exactly 60 years earlier, her father, George VI, had died, passing the crown to his eldest daughter. That made 2012 Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, and the mayor’s address marked the start of the festivities honoring her long years of service. After hearing him speak, Elizabeth dropped in at a nearby school, where the children gave a performance and celebrated her with three cheers.

The following week, the Queen gave an address of her own at Lambeth Palace, her first major speech in the jubilee year. The location was significant: the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This gave the ceremony a strong religious flavor, matched by the primary guests –⁠ nine leaders from the most common faiths in Britain. As such, her address underlined her faith. Specifically, she emphasized the Church of England’s role in fostering tolerance and cooperation in an increasingly diverse United Kingdom.

After Elizabeth’s address, the bulk of the jubilee festivities began in March. Her children and grandchildren were sent around the world as her representatives, appearing at events and taking tours. They were also asked to accompany her on visits to ten regions of the United Kingdom over the course of five months. By involving her descendants so deeply in the celebrations, the Queen signaled the increasing role they would play in her royal affairs in the years to come.

The first major event brought the Queen together with Camilla, Charles’ consort, and Catherine, wife of Prince William. They met together for tea at the famous Piccadilly department store, Fortnum & Mason, which was meant to show a lighthearted, chummy side to the three women.

At this point, support for the monarchy was nearly at an all-time high. Thanks to the positive polls, the Queen’s planners felt confident enough to roll out regional tours in the traditionally anti-monarchist North of England, specifically in Leicester. The northern city was the most multicultural in Britain and thus presented an opportunity to celebrate the increasing multiculturalism of the nation. Performances held there included Bollywood dancers, Sikh drummers, a Zimbabwean women’s choir, Chinese umbrella dancers, and a traditional Anglican church service.

On March 20, the Queen addressed both houses of Parliament in the 900-year-old Westminster Hall. It was only the sixth time in her reign that she had done so. In her speech, she invoked Britain’s past: “the continuity of our national story and the virtues of resilience, ingenuity and tolerance which created it.” And she pledged to “rededicate myself to the service of our great country.” She acknowledged her husband, Philip’s, strength and dedication to her, as well as her children’s commitment to representing her overseas. Upon finishing the speech, the audience stood and clapped for a minute and a half. It was⁠ an acknowledgment of the Queen’s poise, diplomacy, and commitment to the nation she had for so long stood as a symbol.

Final Summary

We’ve reached the end of these summaries to Elizabeth the Queen, by Sally Bedell Smith.

In February 2022, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Platinum Jubilee, the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne. She is the first British monarch to have reigned for this long, having surpassed Queen Victoria’s record in September 2015. After she passes away, her son, Prince Charles, will take the throne, and after him her grandson, Prince William.

Even as she ages into her nineties, the Queen remains high in spirits and mental fortitude, continuing to host engagements, attend meetings, and carry out her royal duties, though her children have also taken on increasing responsibility. Though she can’t escape the drama that often swirls around her close relatives, the Queen, in true British fashion, always manages to keep a stiff upper lip.

About the author

Sally Bedell Smith is a historian, biographer, and contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine. She’s published biographies of Princess Diana, John F. and Jackie Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Prince Charles, among others. She served as the consultant for Peter Morgan’s The Audience, a play about Queen Elizabeth II and her relationships with various British prime ministers.

Sally Bedell Smith is the author of bestselling biographies of William S. Paley; Pamela Harriman; Diana, Princess of Wales; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; and Bill and Hillary Clinton. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1996, she previously worked at Time and The New York Times, where she was a cultural news reporter. She is the mother of three children and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith.


Historical British Biographies, England History, Royalty Biographies, Biographies, Memoirs, Historical, Biography, Autobiography, European World History, European Literature, British Literature, Politics

Table of Contents

ONE: A Royal Education
TWO: Love Match
THREE: Destiny Calls
FOUR: “Ready, Girls?”
FIVE: Affairs of State
SIX: Made for Television
SEVEN: New Beginnings
EIGHT: Refuge in Routines
NINE: Daylight on the Magic
TEN: Ring of Silence
ELEVEN: “Not Bloody Likely!”
TWELVE: Feeling the Love
THIRTEEN: Iron Lady and English Rose
FOURTEEN: A Very Special Relationship
FIFTEEN: Family Fractures
SIXTEEN: Annus Horribilis
SEVENTEEN Tragedy and Tradition
EIGHTEEN: Love and Grief
NINETEEN: Moving Pictures
TWENTY: A Soldier at Hearth
TWENTY-ONE: Long Live the Queen
Source Notes


NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Perfect for fans of The Crown, this magisterial biography of Queen Elizabeth II is a close-up view of the woman we’ve known only from a distance—and a captivating window into the last great monarchy.

From the moment of her ascension to the throne in 1952 at the age of twenty-five, Queen Elizabeth II has been the object of unparalleled scrutiny. But through the fog of glamour and gossip, how well do we really know the world’s most famous monarch? Drawing on numerous interviews and never-before-revealed documents, acclaimed biographer Sally Bedell Smith pulls back the curtain to show in intimate detail the public and private lives of Queen Elizabeth II, who has led her country and Commonwealth through the wars and upheavals of the last sixty years with unparalleled composure, intelligence, and grace.

In Elizabeth the Queen, we meet the young girl who suddenly becomes “heiress presumptive”when her uncle abdicates the throne. We meet the thirteen-year-old Lilibetas she falls in love with a young navy cadet named Philip and becomes determined to marry him, even though her parents prefer wealthier English aristocrats. We see the teenage Lilibet repairing army trucks during World War II and standing with Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on V-E Day. We see the young Queen struggling to balance the demands of her job with her role as the mother of two young children. Sally Bedell Smith brings us inside the palace doors and into the Queen’s daily routines—the “red boxes” of documents she reviews each day, the weekly meetings she has had with twelve prime ministers, her physically demanding tours abroad, and the constant scrutiny of the press—as well as her personal relationships: with Prince Philip, her husband of sixty-four years and the love of her life; her children and their often-disastrous marriages; her grandchildren and friends.

Read an Excerpt



It was a footman who brought the news to ten-year-old Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor on December 10, 1936. Her father had become an accidental king just four days before his forty-first birthday when his older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American. Edward VIII had been sovereign only nine months after taking the throne following the death of his father, King George V, making him, according to one mordant joke, “the only monarch in history to abandon the ship of state to sign on as third mate on a Baltimore tramp.”

“Does that mean that you will have to be the next queen?” asked Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret Rose (as she was called in her childhood). “Yes, someday,” Elizabeth replied. “Poor you,” said Margaret Rose.

Although the two princesses had been the focus of fascination by the press and the public, they had led a carefree and insulated life surrounded by governesses, nannies, maids, dogs, and ponies. They spent idyllic months in the English and Scottish countryside playing games like “catching the days”-running around plucking autumn leaves from the air as they were falling. Their spirited Scottish nanny, Marion “Crawfie” Crawford, had managed to give them a taste of ordinary life by occasionally taking them around London by tube and bus, but mostly they remained inside the royal bubble.

Before the arrival of Margaret, Elizabeth spent four years as an only- and somewhat precocious-child, born on the rainy night of April 21, 1926. Winston Churchill, on first meeting the two-year-old princess, extravagantly detected “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.” Crawfie noted that she was “neat and methodical . . . like her father,” obliging, eager to do her best, and happiest when she was busy. She also showed an early ability to compartmentalize-a trait that would later help her cope with the demands of her position. Recalled Lady Mary Clayton, a cousin eight years her senior: “She liked to imagine herself as a pony or a horse. When she was doing that and someone called her and she didn’t answer right away, she would then say, ‘I couldn’t answer you as a pony.’ ”

The abdication crisis threw the family into turmoil, not only because it was a scandal but because it was antithetical to all the rules of succession. While Elizabeth’s father had been known as “Bertie” (for Albert), he chose to be called George VI to send a message of stability and continuity with his father. (His wife, who was crowned by his side, would be known as Queen Elizabeth.) But Bertie had not been groomed for the role. He was in tears when he talked to his mother about his new responsibilities. “I never wanted this to happen,” he told his cousin Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten. “I’ve never even seen a State Paper. I’m only a Naval Officer, it’s the only thing I know about.” The new King was reserved by nature, somewhat frail physically, and plagued by anxiety. He suffered from a severe stammer that led to frequent frustration, culminating in explosions of temper known as “gnashes.”

Yet he was profoundly dutiful, and he doggedly set about his kingly tasks while ensuring that his little Lilibet-her name within the family-would be ready to succeed him in ways he had not been. On his accession she became “heiress presumptive,” rather than “heiress apparent,” on the off chance that her parents could produce a son. But Elizabeth and Margaret Rose had been born by cesarean section, and in those days a third operation would have been considered too risky for their mother. According to custom, Lilibet would publicly refer to her mother and father as “the King and Queen,” but privately they were still Mummy and Papa.

When Helen Mirren was studying for her role in 2006’s The Queen, she watched a twenty-second piece of film repeatedly because she found it so revealing. “It was when the Queen was eleven or twelve,” Mirren recalled, “and she got out of one of those huge black cars. There were big men waiting for her, and she extended her hand with a look of gravity and duty. She was doing what she thought she had to do, and she was doing it beautifully.”

“I have a feeling that in the end probably that training is the answer to a great many things,” the Queen said on the eve of her fortieth year as monarch. “You can do a lot if you are properly trained, and I hope I have been.” Her formal education was spotty by today’s standards. Women of her class and generation were typically schooled at home, with greater emphasis on the practical than the academic. “It was unheard of for girls to go to university unless they were very intellectual,” said Lilibet’s cousin Patricia Mountbatten. While Crawfie capably taught history, geography, grammar, literature, poetry, and composition, she was “hopeless at math,” said Mary Clayton, who had also been taught by Crawfie. Additional governesses were brought in for instruction in music, dancing, and French.

Elizabeth was not expected to excel, much less to be intellectual. She had no classmates against whom to measure her progress, nor batteries of challenging examinations. Her father’s only injunction to Crawfie when she joined the household in 1932 had been to teach his daughters, then six and two, “to write a decent hand.” Elizabeth developed flowing and clear handwriting similar to that of her mother and sister, although with a bolder flourish. But Crawfie felt a larger need to fill her charge with knowledge “as fast as I can pour it in.” She introduced Lilibet to the Children’s Newspaper, a current events chronicle that laid the groundwork for following political news in The Times and on BBC radio, prompting one Palace adviser to observe that at seventeen the princess had “a first-rate knowledge of state and current affairs.”

Throughout her girlhood, Elizabeth had time blocked out each day for “silent reading” of books by Stevenson, Austen, Kipling, the Brontës, Tennyson, Scott, Dickens, Trollope, and others in the standard canon. Her preference, then and as an adult, was for historical fiction, particularly about “the corners of the Commonwealth and the people who live there,” said Mark Collins, director of the Commonwealth Foundation. Decades later, when she conferred an honor on J. K. Rowling for her Harry Potter series, the Queen told the author that her extensive reading in childhood “stood me in good stead because I read quite quickly now. I have to read a lot.”

Once she became first in line to the throne, Elizabeth’s curriculum intensified and broadened. Her most significant tutor was Sir Henry Marten, the vice provost of Eton College, the venerable boys’ boarding school down the hill from Windsor Castle whose graduates were known as Old Etonians. Marten had coauthored The Groundwork of British History, a standard school textbook, but he was hardly a dry academic. A sixty- six-year-old bachelor with a moon face and gleaming pate, he habitually chewed a corner of his handkerchief and kept a pet raven in a study so heaped with books that Crawfie likened them to stalagmites. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who would serve as Queen Elizabeth II’s fourth prime minister, remembered Marten as “a dramatic, racy, enthusiastic teacher” who humanized figures of history.

Beginning in 1939, when Elizabeth was thirteen, she and Crawfie went by carriage to Marten’s study twice a week so she could be instructed in history and the intricacies of the British constitution. The princess was exceedingly shy at first, often glancing imploringly at Crawfie for reassurance. Marten could scarcely look Elizabeth in the eye, and he lapsed into calling her “Gentlemen,” thinking he was with his Eton boys. But before long she felt “entirely at home with him,” recalled Crawfie, and they developed “a rather charming friendship.”

Marten imposed a rigorous curriculum built around the daunting three- volume The Law and Custom of the Constitution by Sir William Anson. Also on her reading list were English Social History by G. M. Trevelyan, Imperial Commonwealth by Lord Elton, and The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot, the gold standard for constitutional interpretation that both her father and grandfather had studied. Marten even included a course on American history. “Hide nothing,” Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, private secretary to King George VI, had told Marten when asked about instructing the princess on the crown’s role in the constitution.

Unlike the written American Constitution, which spells everything out, the British version is an accumulation of laws and unwritten traditions and precedents. It is inherently malleable and dependent on people making judgments, and even revising the rules, as events occur. Anson called it a “somewhat rambling structure . . . like a house which many successive owners have altered.” The constitutional monarch’s duties and prerogatives are vague. Authority rests more in what the king doesn’t do than what he does. The sovereign is compelled by the constitution to sign all laws passed by Parliament; the concept of a veto is unthinkable, but the possibility remains.

Elizabeth studied Anson for six years, painstakingly underlining and annotating the dense text in pencil. According to biographer Robert Lacey, who examined the faded volumes in the Eton library, she took note of Anson’s assertion that a more complex constitution offers greater guarantees of liberty. In the description of Anglo-Saxon monarchy as “a consultative and tentative absolutism” she underlined “consultative” and “tentative.” Marten schooled her in the process of legislation, and the sweeping nature of Parliament’s power. Elizabeth’s immersion in the “procedural minutiae” was such that, in Lacey’s view, “it was as if she were studying to be Speaker [of the House of Commons], not queen.” Prime ministers would later be impressed by the mastery of constitutional fine points in her unexpectedly probing questions.

When Elizabeth turned sixteen, her parents hired Marie-Antoinette de Bellaigue, a sophisticated Belgian vicomtesse educated in Paris, to teach French literature and history. Called “Toni” by the two princesses, she set a high standard and compelled them to speak French with her during meals. Elizabeth developed a fluency that impressed even Parisians, who praised her for speaking with “cool clear precision” on her visit to their city in 1948, at age twenty-two.

De Bellaigue worked in tandem with Marten, who suggested essay topics for Elizabeth to write in French. The governess later recounted that Marten had taught the future Queen “to appraise both sides of a question, thus using [her] judgment.” In de Bellaigue’s view, Lilibet “had from the beginning a positive good judgment. She had an instinct for the right thing. She was her simple self, ‘très naturelle.’ And there was always a strong sense of duty mixed with joie de vivre in the pattern of her character.”

Elizabeth’s mother had an enormous influence on the development of her character and personality. Born Elizabeth Bowes Lyon to the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, she had grown up in an aristocratic Scottish- English family of nine children. In 1929, Time magazine had pronounced her a “fresh, buxom altogether ‘jolly’ little duchess.” She read widely and avidly, with a particular fondness for P. G. Wodehouse. Somewhat improbably, she was also a fan of Damon Runyon’s stories about New York gangsters and molls, once writing to a friend in the author’s vernacular: “The way that Dame Pearl gets a ripple on, there was a baby for you-Oh boy.”

Queen Elizabeth taught her daughter to read at age five and devoted considerable time to reading aloud the children’s classics. As soon as Lilibet could write, her mother encouraged her to begin the lifelong habit of recording her impressions in a diary each night. During her father’s coronation in 1937, the eleven-year-old princess kept a lively journal, “From Lilibet by Herself.” “The arches and beams at the top [of Westminster Abbey] were covered with a sort of haze of wonder as Papa was crowned,” she wrote. When her mother was crowned and the white-gloved peeresses put on their coronets simultaneously, “it looked wonderful to see arms and coronets hovering in the air and then the arms disappear as if by magic.”

At an early age, Elizabeth’s parents began arranging for her to sit for portraits. She would repeat this ritual more than 140 times throughout her life, making her the most painted monarch in history. For the royal family, portraits have long been an essential part of image making, helping to shape the way the public sees its regal icons. When asked if she kept her portraits, the Queen replied, “No, none. They’re all painted for other people.”

Hungarian Alexius de László, a widely admired society portrait artist, was hired to capture Lilibet in oils for the first time. She was just seven. László found her to be “intelligent and full of character,” although he conceded she was “very sleepy and restless.” Aristocratic matrons enjoyed the company of the smooth-talking sixty-four-year-old artist, but Elizabeth thought he was “horrid,” as she recalled years later with a grimace. “He was one of those people who wanted you to sit permanently looking at you.” The resulting ethereal image-a favorite of her mother’s-shows the young princess in ruffled silk, with blond curls and wide blue eyes, holding a basket of flowers. Yet her unsmiling expression betrays a whiff of exasperation.

The second artist to capture Elizabeth’s image was another Hungarian, sculptor Zsigmond Strobl, who had eighteen sessions with her from 1936 to 1938. She was older, by then the heiress presumptive, and eager to chat with the Hungarian journalist who joined the sittings to help her pass the time in conversation. Being painted or sculpted from life reinforced the virtue of patience. As Queen she would also find her sittings to be an oasis of uncluttered time when she could unwind, connect with a stranger in a private and unthreatening way, speak expansively-sometimes quite personally-and even crack jokes. “It’s quite nice,” she said during a sitting before her eightieth birthday as she flashed an impish smile. “Usually one just sits, and people can’t get at you because one’s busy doing nothing.”

A favorite topic during the Strobl sculpting sessions was the world of horses, which had become Elizabeth’s full-blown passion as well as another opportunity for learning. Her father bred and raced thoroughbreds, continuing a royal tradition, and he introduced her to all aspects of the equine world, starting with her first riding lesson at age three. By 1938 she began learning how to ride sidesaddle, a necessary skill for the yearly Trooping the Colour ceremony celebrating the sovereign’s birthday when she would be required to ride in a red military tunic, long navy blue riding skirt, and black tricorn cap at the head of a parade of more than 1,400 soldiers.

Her twice weekly riding lessons helped her develop athleticism and strength and taught her how to keep a cool head in moments of danger. She experienced the uninhibited joy of vaulting fences and cantering across fields and through woodlands-sensations that would temporarily liberate her from the restrictions of her official life. Although she tried foxhunting while in her teens-first with the Garth Foxhounds in Berkshire, then with the Beaufort Hunt in Gloucestershire-she was already captivated by breeding and racing.


“An excellent, all-embracing new biography.” – The New York Times

“[An] imposing, yet nimbly written, biography [that] dwarfs the field . . . a most satisfying and enjoyable read, one to be savored at length.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Fascinating . . . After sixty years on the throne, the monarch of Britain is better known for her poker face than for sly wit or easy charm. Yet in biographer Sally Bedell Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen, Her Majesty sparkles with both.” – More

“[A] smart and satisfying book.” – Los Angeles Times

“A fresh and admiring look at Elizabeth II, a woman whose life has been chronicled in numerous books, but perhaps never with such intimacy.” – Richmond Times-Dispatch

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