How Queen Elizabeth II was taught to rule

The daughter of a second son, she got the best start of all—a happy childhood. Then, from her father, struggling with great zeal and small strength, and from her mother, affectionate and serene, she learned the often tiresome tasks of queenship
Pierre Berton

This story, written by Pierre Berton, was published on April 15, 1953. Read the story in our archives.  

In 1953, a year after Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, Maclean’s ran a series—marking her official coronation—by acclaimed author and historian Pierre Berton, entitled The family in the palace. It’s an intimate portrait of the private and public princess turned Queen. You can read more of the series here.

IT IS a tragic but inescapable fact that, for most of history, the heirs to the British throne have with one exception been so out of step with one or both of their parents that it has had a marked effect on their character and personality.

In the past century this has been demonstrably true. The Hanoverian Georges squabbled acrimoniously among themselves in private and espoused opposing political parties in public. Victoria, who followed them, delivered such a snub to her mother on acceding to the throne that the two were hardly on speaking terms for years. Edward VII reacted so violently against his father’s disciplined upbringing and his mother’s scorn that he became the living antithesis of the age that bore her name. George V bore no resemblance to his father whom he held in such awe that there was little rapport between them. And between him and his sons, Edward VIII and George VI, there was a lack of understanding that had for each violent and unhappy consequences.

The one exception has been Elizabeth II. The equanimity of her childhood has produced in her a tranquility that has not been the most notable attribute of her predecessors. Though she still has some of the shyness and bottled-up nervous tension that has always been characteristic of the family, though she has traces of a naïveté that is the inevitable result of the necessarily confined existence of royal princesses, she still comes to the throne better adjusted and better equipped than any British sovereign in recent history.

This happy circumstance is no accident. Part of it springs from the fact that George VI was a second son and was therefore (a) able to marry a commoner who had about her a serenity not usually found in the inner circles of royalty and (b) able to rear his children, in their early formative stages, in a manner considerably closer to normal than is usual with royal offspring. Part of it springs from the set determination of both parents to make their children equal partners in a contented family circle.

Some, though not all, of the personality of the parents has rubbed off onto Elizabeth. She has her mother’s composure, though not her effervescence. She has all of her father’s stubborn devotion to the job, less of his equally stubborn temper. (Margaret, on the other hand, appears to have both the effervescence and the temper.) And she has the sense of duty which both of them sought to instill in her, less by word than by example.

This example can be seen glowing brightly between the rather stilted lines of some of her early speeches as Princess. She told a mother’s union: “I do not think you can perform any finer service than to help maintain the Christian doctrine that the relationship of husband and wife is a permanent one not to be broken because of difficulties and quarrels.” To a Church of England youth council she said: “For better or for worse the roots of our daily lives are planted in our homes…” To a child welfare association meeting: “The need of every child to be surrounded by love and security is now well known.” To a medical group she referred to: “… the happiness of home and family life on which the true worth of a nation depends.”

It was the home life of George VI and his family that secured the crown after its greatest trial. The public caught occasional rewarding glimpses of it. One day a traveler in the Highlands came upon the whole family picnicking at Loch Muick shortly after the King’s accession to the throne. The King, in khaki shorts and open shirt, and the two Princesses in their little kilts were out in the water looking for pebbles. The Queen was seated on the shore doing some needlework. It was a minute or two before the witness to the scene realized that this was indeed royalty at play.

For the royal parents were proud of their children. They took their holidays together as a group. Each morning at nine there would be a romp in the bedroom. Except for the war years, they always had lunch, tea and dinner together. When the girls were little, George and Elizabeth had no compunction about getting down on their knees and playing bears. Elizabeth’s first remark, when she was told that she was to have a new sister, was: “Now there will be four bears instead of three.”

The bond between the King and his eldest daughter had always been public knowledge. He talked to her as an equal and when he returned from his Canadian tour in 1939 he could hardly take his eyes from her. Margaret he tended to spoil for she was not destined to be Queen. No matter how late the night before had been, Elizabeth always had to rise early next morning to fulfill her duties. Margaret could plead a cold and stay in bed. The King was unruffled by criticism of her dusk-to-dawn parties. “You’re only young once,” he would say, “have a good time.” For he himself had not always had a good time as a boy.

Occasionally, the informality of private life brought public embarrassments. Once, during a discussion when George VI was entertaining guests, Margaret impulsively cried, “Oh, don’t be a fool, Daddy!” The King’s face froze. A few moments later Margaret, her features white and embarrassed, made an excuse and left the room. She had forgotten that her father was also King.

It was a family whose tastes and recreations were simple. They liked, in the evenings, to play canasta from special packs which had the royal monograms on the back, or a simpler card game called Racing Demon which involved a lot of running around the table. They preferred the simplicity of Royal Lodge, with its pink stucco and its plain unpolished oak furniture, to the musty regality of neighboring Windsor Castle. Here, on week ends, where there were no state servants in livery, the Queen herself would don an apron and cook the evening meal. They preferred the isolation of Birkhall, a white-washed seventeenth-century building that is the most secluded of the royal Deeside residences, to the tartans and turrets of nearby Balmoral. To Birkhall would come Miss Annie Shande, a folk-dance expert from Aberdeen, to play the piano while the Princesses and their parents danced. A visitor to one of these gatherings remembers the King, who was then Duke of York, and his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, their coats off, their faces flushed, dancing like madmen until they could dance no more, then slumping onto the floor exhausted.

Elizabeth II was reared to a simple country existence. Her father was a man who had once told his gardener to stop calling him Your Royal Highness because he was sick of hearing it; who confessed to an acquaintance that he was “not palace-minded” and who had agreed to plunge into the task of inspecting factories on the condition that there wouldn’t be “any of that damn red carpet.” Once, when young Elizabeth answered the phone with the words “this is royalty speaking,” she was given a severe dressing down.

For her parents were people of some humility. The King’s favorite book was Pilgrim’s Progress, the whole family went to church faithfully and the Princesses learned the ancient Scottish collects and psalms.

Once, during the war, the King’s secretary wanted to show General Eisenhower and General Mark Clark around the grounds of Windsor Castle. The King and Queen promised to stay indoors so that the visitors could move about freely without protocol. But they forgot about the whole thing and were walking, hand in hand, around the grounds when they spied the military party in the distance. They quickly got down on their knees behind a hedge and crawled away.

The very tightness of the family circle brought to the children a dependence upon the parents unusual in royal families. Long after her marriage Elizabeth was still consulting her mother almost daily on small details of her household. And on her first visit to Balmoral, after she was Queen, it was noticed that she stepped aside and let her mother precede her into the little church at Crathie. Margaret was so broken by her father’s death that she could hardly touch food for days afterward and has stuck closely to her mother’s side ever since.

Although their tastes and habits dovetailed so neatly together, the personalities of the royal parents were really quite disparate. To the Queen Mother life has always been a broad and gently winding highway down which one can proceed leisurely and gracefully. To her husband it was a cliff up which one struggled with raw and bleeding fingers, never wholly sure of reaching the top.

All his days he struggled. He struggled with his own emotional makeup: with his inherent shyness, with his ungovernable speech blockage, with the irritability of his temper. He struggled with the frailty of his physique: with influenza, pneumonia, dyspepsia, ulcers, arterial sclerosis, Buerger’s disease, and the cancer that finally killed him. He struggled with his destiny: with the memory of his brother, which haunted and tormented him in the early years of his reign; with the complexities of a job for which he was never prepared; with the responsibilities of kingship in the most difficult decade his realm had ever suffered. But most of all he struggled with his own fear of failure; and in this he emerged victorious.

If he insisted his daughters have a normal upbringing, it was because he himself had not had one. He was a shy child and his shyness was increased by lack of boyhood companions and a father who felt that frailty was inexcusable. George V had a habit of firing blunt rapid questions at his sons. In the presence of the sailor King young Bertie became tongue-tied. He was so shy he would sit alone in the dark by himself rather than ask a servant to light the gas. He was born left-handed but the ageing pastors and ministers who tutored him forced him to use his right. All this combined to give him a stammer that made his every public utterance a painful and embarrassing ordeal. It was noticed in later years that when he did something with his left hand he did it well: (He played left-handed tennis so well he was able to compete at Wimbledon.) And though he stammered uncontrollably around the palace, when he got away from those gilded environs and out to sea he stammered not at all.

He Couldn’t Say Good-by 

It was the spectre of this nervousness that caused him to train his daughters in public presence through madrigal singing societies and yearly pantomimes at Windsor Castle. He marveled at the results. “I don’t know how they do it,” he would say. “We were always so terribly shy and self-conscious as children.” Watching Elizabeth taking the leading role in a Christmas pantomime, he asked again: “Where does she get her poise? I was always terrified of getting up in public.” In his days as Duke of York, whenever his car halted, he would pull the blind down in case somebody in the crowd might recognize him. “I never get used to it,” he would say.

His stammer consisted of an inability to say certain words, especially on formal or public occasions. At Privy Council meetings it was a near impossibility for him to get out the single word “Approved.” Yet when the council was done he could stand around and chat easily with his ministers. At his Duke of York’s camps, where he mixed public-school boys with those from the industrial classes, he could laugh and chaff easily. But when the time came to leave he could not get out the single word “Good-by.” As a result there were those who thought him rude. “I know people have said that I have a bad manner,” he would say. “But it’s just that I couldn’t speak to them.” Ironically, two of the words which he had the most difficulty with were “king” and “queen” and he generally referred to his parents as “Their Majesties.” His nervousness always showed through the quivering of a muscle in each cheek, especially during ceremonies of high emotion or when the National Anthem was being played.

He took a great interest in his speech problem and it did not embarrass him to talk about it objectively. Once he was introduced to a man who had only one vocal chord. “I’ve got two,” said the King, “but they’re not much bloody good to me.” He once confessed to a high prelate that he never knew how to start a conversation. “That is a less serious problem than your father’s, Sir,” came the dry answer. “He never knew how to end one.”

In the end, he managed to win the struggle with his stammer. He spent long hours with Lionel Logue, the speech expert, going over every word of his coronation responses until he was able to go through them without falter. Yuletide broadcasts, which completely ruined his Christmas Day, had the same meticulous attention, Logue sitting with him in the studio whispering to him, just before he went on, “Now take it quietly, Sir.”

But his greatest helpmate was his wife. It is hard to imagine how he would have got through fifteen years of Kingship without her. This remarkable woman, who at the age of three had the self-possession to dance before igers and whom Sargent called only completely unconscious sit-still I ever painted,” has an inward serenity that is enduring and an outward presence that is dynamic.

Of all the family she alone understands the function of the Press. As Queen she was adept at swiftly posing husband and daughters into compact and informal groups that delighted photographers. If a flashbulb failed to go off she always noticed and repeated the pose. Her sense of public relations never left her and, as a result, she has played a vital part in the humanization of the monarchy. Once, in Auckland during a royal tour, a woman called on her to stop and look at her twin babies. She did so at once, called her husband over, and the two of them peered into the pram at the sleeping infants. Again, in Capetown, she and the King were about to get into the royal limousine when she noticed the crowd watching from behind a barrier. The Queen swiftly crossed the road and began to talk to the people. It was noticed that she made a point of speaking to Negroes.

She has her mother’s character. The Countess of Strathmore was a strong, serene, immovable woman completely unperturbed by the perpetual family turmoil that went on around her. She had ten children and nine of them lived. They were all brought up in Glamis Castle where Macbeth reigned. This gloomy fortress, with its hangman’s room, its grey lady who walks by night and its Glamis monster lurking in a remote tower, did not in the least worry the imperturbable Bowes-Lyon family. They simply laughed the ghosts out of existence. Lady Strathmore proudly kept books of press clippings about Glamis spirits. Her daughter Elizabeth amused herself by secreting dummy ghosts in guests’ beds.

It was a frugal enough childhood. The Countess led a life of self-sacrifice, skipping social affairs to stay home with her children. They did not have a great deal of money and this had its effect on Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Years later, when she was Queen, a Hartnell emissary brought a new dress to the palace for her approval. Elizabeth asked the price. It was one hundred and fifty pounds. “Surely that’s a great deal,” said the Queen, “perhaps we might bring it down if I took it without the trimmings.” She then removed a large bow from the dress, went over to a drawer where, it turned out, she kept a great collection of bows from discarded dresses. “There!” she said triumphantly. “We can make do with one of these.” Hartnell dutifully reduced the price.

But if the Queen Mother’s childhood was frugal it was certainly gay. Hers was a musical family and she learned to play the harp and piano well. There was a good deal of practical joking—water poured on arriving guests from the turret tops—and once Elizabeth impersonated a servant, showed a group of visitors around her home and gravely accepted a tip.

Today, the serenity of her character is reflected in her tastes. The Queen Mother likes Jane Austen’s quiet novels and chamber music by Bach. She likes gentle colors. The famous powder blues and delicate peach shades of her dresses are matched by the pink and lavender exterior of Royal Lodge, the duck-egg blue and cream of her own rooms and the pale hyacinth of the hangings in the dungeons of Windsor. During the war she refused to don a uniform; she preferred to be as feminine as possible.

She brought the same serenity to the unexpected tasks of queenship. Following the Coronation she and the King went to Deeside for their vacation. She went to Birkhall, which had been her home as Duchess, to say good-by to her gardener before taking up residence in Balmoral Castle.

“The last time I saw you was in the pictures, Ma’am,” the gardener said.

“Oh, the Coronation,” replied the Queen. “An awful ceremony. A terrible ceremony!”

“It’s a wonder you and the King stick it out,” the gardener said.

“Oh, but when it’s your duty you stick out anything,” she answered with a smile.

There had been a time when she had been racked by doubts and indecisions regarding the life of duty. Bertie, Duke of York, had proposed twice, in his shy hesitant way, and she had refused him for, as she remarked later: “I said to him I was afraid, as royalty, never, never again to be free to think or speak or act as I really feel.” But in the end she accepted him. The incident is already becoming wreathed in legend. One story is that he was afraid to propose and sent a friend to do it for him and that she insisted he come on his own. Another is that at the final moment he could not find the words and had to write his proposal on a scrap of paper.

Once committed, she devoted herself wholeheartedly to her husband and her job. In the ten years following World War I the Royal Family carried out three thousand public engagements. The Duke and Duchess of York handled eight hundred of them. This meant, that once every five days the lithe Duchess and her shy husband were before the public.

She was almost always with him. When he began to stammer she would look around brightly at the crowd as much as to say: “It’s all right… it’s nothing to worry about.” Sometimes during a stoppage she would reach out and touch him and he would find the words. She had a habit of wearing sharply contrasting accessories and when he struggled for a phrase she would catch his eye, move her purse or gloves slightly, and he would carry on. And close observers would note that she would be moving her lips with his, trying to say the words for him.

She was his crutch and he leaned heavily on her. Once at a garden party an acquaintance watched them proceeding up the lines of people, greeting those they knew. The King was detained by a bore while the Queen moved ahead. Then she realized that he had been left behind and with a graceful movement she turned about, floated back, touched him by the elbow and whispered, “Shall we twinkle?”

Diamonds in the Curtains

The two parents liked to do things together. During Abdication week they went to St. Paul’s and prayed together that they should not be called upon to reign. When they realized that the burden of sovereignty was on their shoulders they took one last walk together in their garden. Later it became necessary for the new Queen to have her ears pierced to wear the valuable royal earrings. The King went along with her and held her hand during the operation. And, at the end of his days when he was confined to a motorized wheelchair, the Queen ordered one, too, so that the two of them could drive around the palace gardens side by side as they had always been.

On only one point did they differ and this had to do with their completely opposite temperaments. The King was a punctilious man. Like all his line he was almost fanatical about manners of dress and deportment. He liked official affairs to proceed with clockwork precision and he was angered when anything went wrong. His high-strung nature insisted on a split-second punctuality.

There was none of this timetable exactitude about his wife. She is the sort of woman who, in order to see the view properly from the royal train, could absent-mindedly pluck a priceless diamond brooch from her dress, to pin back the expensive ninon curtains, and then drift off later leaving the diamonds dangling. She had little sense of time. At the various affairs and ceremonies they attended she would drift, from person to person conversing amiably while the royal car waited and the King, gazing at his watch, danced with impatience. As the royal train neared Balmoral he would pace restlessly up and down the car listening to the voice of his wife in her sitting room chatting away with her maid. Finally he would pound on the door crying, “Ladies! ladies! Are you aware that the train is approaching Ballater?” Back would come the Queen’s gently reproving voice: “Not at all, Bertie—you must remember the clock’s fast.”

It maddened him, this casual leisurely approach to life which he found so difficult to understand. Once he was waiting for her in the great hall of Balmoral. As usual she was late and the King was pacing backward and forward on the red carpet and drumming his fingers on the pale Hungarian ash of the woodwork. Finally, in an excess of impatience he darted into an anteroom. At this point the Queen floated down the staircase, pulling on her gloves. The King popped out again into the hall to find his wife standing placidly before the great fireplace. “Oh, there you are, Bertie,” she said sweetly. “I’ve been waiting for you.” “Waiting for me!” cried the King, his nose an inch from his wife’s face—but he could say no more.

He had always been high-strung. As a child he had an ungovernable temper, so bad that he used to break pieces of furniture. He brought it under control, but even as an adult he sometimes had a tendency to throw things. Later, as illness sapped his strength, the old irritability returned, especially if the even tenor of his day was upset. Then the telltale throbbing muscles in his cheeks would signal a warning to his aides. Once, during a visit to Cardiff, a group of enthusiastic school children broke through police lines and ripped the buttons from his naval uniform. The King was so angry at this lack of discipline that he cancelled a reception at the city hall. Once he was sitting with the Queen at a ceremony involving the Lord Mayor of London. The Lord Mayor suggested a change in the seating arrangements so that the microphone would not block the Queen’s view. As they got up to change seats the King’s voice rapped out: “For God’s sake sit in the bloody seat you were told to sit in!”

Periodically, the King used to fire his valet, Thomas Lawrence Jerram. Jerram, disturbed, would go to the Queen who would tell him not to worry—the King didn’t really mean it.

For his temper cooled as quickly as it rose. Once he was returning from Aldershot on the royal train in a fury because things had not gone quite right. He was chastising his staff. They were all disaffected to him, he cried. Suddenly he looked out the window and noticed the name of a station flashing by. It was Runnymede, the name of the island where King John signed the Magna Charta. “That’s where it all began!” roared the King. Everybody laughed; frayed tempers were forgotten.

His humor, like the rest of his tastes, was of a simple kind. He enjoyed practical jokes, such as cutting off the grey flannels of visitors to his boys’ camps to turn them into shorts. He liked the ancient puns and rowdy songs of the British music halls. “How do I like my tea?” the King would ask, and answer himself, “In a cup! Ha-Ha!” He liked jazz records and got a good deal of enjoyment out of running films backward at Royal Lodge. On industrial tours he was always delighted when things wouldn’t work. “It’s because I’m here,” he’d say. Once he inspected a “foolproof” envelope-stamping machine. He pressed a button and eight envelopes promptly shot by unstamped. Once at Lloyd’s he was shown a system guaranteed to produce the name of any British ship and her captain anywhere in the world. The King mentioned an obscure vessel that had taken him between Australia and New Zealand and was delighted that they had the captain’s name wrong.

On these industrial visits—he made so many that the family nicknamed him the Foreman—his sense of the meticulous always showed. He liked to see how things worked and he could not be dragged away from anything that caught his eye. On defense tours he made it a point to try out new weapons. One acquaintance noticed this quality under somewhat different circumstances during a family showing of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding presents. She had been given several beds and the King and Queen were going about, bouncing up and down on them to make sure the springs were solid.

No detail of dress or decoration was too minute to escape his inquisitive scrutiny. He was keen on shoes being shined and belts being polished and he was an admirer of the minutiae of service. He showed Field-Marshal Slim how to salute properly while carrying the baton of his rank and he ticked off Field-Marshal Montgomery for wearing two cap badges. He collected the orders of British chivalry and knew the full history of each. He had five hundred suits of clothes, his tweeds and kilts were superbly tailored and it was he who popularized the tartan dinner jacket.

Once he visited Stratford-on-Avon to watch Anthony Quayle play the title role in Henry VIII in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. At the reception afterward, while the players were being presented, it was noticed that the King’s attention was straying. Finally he turned to Quayle, who was still in costume, and said: “You know, you’re not wearing my Garter properly.” Everything came to a standstill while the King, using the royal shank as a model, gave Quayle a lesson in how to put on the Garter. Quayle took it all in, made what he thought were the proper readjustments, and the handshaking got under way again. But the King never properly got back into the swing of things. He kept looking at Quayle’s leg and shaking his head. Finally he turned to the Queen, shrugged his shoulders and was heard to remark sotto voce: “The fellow couldn’t put it on!

A mind devoted to such outward details did not have the inward capacity for intellectual curiosity. In this, George VI resembled his forebears. He did not care for ancient music or modern painting. He is supposed to have thrown a book at an aide who suggested that it would be a good thing if he were seen more often at the opera. And there was the time that John Piper, the contemporary British artist, was commissioned to paint six scenes of Windsor Castle. Anxious to get the royal reaction, Piper, who is known for the stormy quality of his work, tackled the King at a garden party. “Ah, yes,” the monarch said. “I recall the paintings. Pity you had such bloody awful weather.”

For he was an uncomplicated King, devoted to uncomplicated interests—to home movies and jazz records, color photography, grouse shooting and collections of British medals.

“Don’t Bother About Me”

It is a tribute to his courage and his stubbornness then, that this shy and unassuming man, who with his nervous temperament and his tender physique seemed so weak, should turn out in the end to be so strong. All his life he was plagued by the frailties of the flesh. At Osborne, where he trained for the navy, the twin diseases of influenza and pneumonia were visited upon him. All through his war service a gastric condition haunted him and during one nine-month period at sea he was tortured by an intense pain that stabbed at him for hours on end. Sent back to shore duty for two years, he struggled back to sea again to take part in the great Battle of Jutland. Then he was sent to hospital again and for the rest of his life he fought his own personal Jutland with himself.

In the final months of his life he knew death was certain and imminent. The hardening of the arteries that had caused his leg operation had not been checked. The cancer that had forced the removal of one lung had spread to the other. But he refused to compromise with his destiny. He continued to go out onto the moors of Sandringham and the glens of Balmoral on the forays after grouse which he loved above all else.

At Balmoral his head keeper James Gillan tried to rearrange the drives to make things easier for the ailing monarch. He would have none of it. He would insist that the party continue to breast the steep hills as they had always done, nor did he want anyone to wait behind for him. “No no! Go on—go on!” he would, say testily. “Don’t bother about me—I’ll get there sometime.” They would go on ahead and wait for him on the knoll and look down the incline at the thin figure of their King slowly but surely struggling up the hills as he had indeed been doing all the days of his years.

He struggled to the end. One evening at Sandringham he received, as he always did, the daily report from the House of Commons prepared by the vice-chamberlain. His careful mind studied it minutely, as always, and he found in it a figure which seemed wrong to him. Back to the vice-chamberlain went a prompt query. The vice-chamberlain replied that the monarch was right; a cipher had indeed been misplaced. This done, the King went to bed. It was his last official act. Next morning he was dead and the Queen whom he had so carefully reared to replace him was reigning in his stead.