Queen Elizabeth II: mother, monarch, matriarch

Throughout her long reign, Elizabeth II has juggled being a mother and grandmother with royal duty. But with careful judgment, hard work and a mischievous sense of humour, she has forged a dynasty and inspired a nation, writes Elinor Evans...

c1952:  Queen Elizabeth II with a young Prince Charles and Princess Anne in the grounds of Balmoral Castle, Scotland. (Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images)

They might not be the first monikers to spring to mind when thinking of Queen Elizabeth II, a monarch renowned for her sense of duty and her dignified demeanour, but “Gary” and “Cabbage” are two of the nicknames bestowed upon her by her family.

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“Gary” was how Prince William knew his grandmother as a youngster, apparently confusing the word with “Granny”, while the Queen’s great-grandchildren Prince George and Princess Charlotte know the Queen affectionately as “Gan-Gan”. As for “Cabbage’, this is the fond nickname used by her husband Prince Philip – which might come from the French term of endearment, “mon petit chou”, translated to “my little cabbage”.

As matriarch of “The Firm” (the insider name for the royal family), now in her 10th decade and the oldest monarch in British history, it’s perhaps easy to forget that Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1952 at the age of just 25, the mother of two young children. Thrust into royal duties, she faced the immediate challenge of balancing the work of monarchy with the demands of motherhood, a battle which has been present throughout her reign.

Just 18 months after her accession in 1952, Elizabeth II was called upon to tour 13 countries, including Australia, over six months, without Charles, age five, and Anne, age three. The young children were famously greeted with handshakes upon the return of their parents, and though she dispensed with some of the more formal royal traditions – the children were not required to bow or curtsey to their mother – their childhoods were marked by absence. The prince and princess were largely raised in their younger years by governesses and other household staff, in the same way that Elizabeth and Margaret had been by “Crawfie”, in keeping with the manner of many upper-class families of the time. The children were required to understand that travel and time were part of the monarch’s commitment to rule.

c1965: Queen Elizabeth II plays with Princes Edward and Andrew at Windsor Castle. (Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images)
c1965: Queen Elizabeth II plays with Princes Edward and Andrew at Windsor Castle. (Photo by Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Getty Images)

It was a decade after Anne that the Queen gave birth to her third child, Prince Andrew, in 1960. Prince Edward followed in 1964, making the two sons the first children to be born to a reigning monarch since Queen Victoria. Ten years after her accession, many noted a difference in the Queen’s relationship with her two younger sons. Royal historian Robert Lacey suggests the Queen became “warmer and flexible”, able to step back a little from her duties.

Both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip agreed that their children should not be hampered, as they saw it, by the social and educational constraints of homeschooling, which had previously been the norm for royals. Yet Charles’s education was far from straightforward. Prince Philip wished Charles to be sent to Gordonstoun school in Scotland, hoping to make his son in his own image. The Queen Mother (who favoured Eton, close to Charles’s Windsor home) wrote to the Queen in 1961, saying, “it is miles and miles away, he might as well be at school abroad. He would be terribly cut off and lonely up in the far north.”

A tough education

The Queen Mother’s fears for her sensitive grandson were not unfounded. Two years after the Queen’s “annus horribilis” of 1992 (which saw the marriages of three of her children break down amid tabloid scandal, as well as a fire at Windsor Castle) an authorised biography of Prince Charles dealt perhaps the harshest blow to the Queen’s reputation as a mother. The 1994 account, written by Jonathan Dimbleby, described the bullying and “crushing loneliness” Charles experienced at school, and a childhood characterized by long periods of his mother’s absence. Charles was said to feel “emotionally estranged” from his parents and yearning for affection that, in his view, they were “unable or unwilling to offer”. The book declared Charles’s bonds of affection to be much stronger with his nanny Mabel Anderson and detailed how the Queen would spend short windows of allotted time with her son in the morning before his daily walk and before bedtime. Historian Piers Brendon has suggested that in contrast to the “tremendously affectionate, and very welcoming and warm” Queen Mother, with whom Charles had a close relationship, Elizabeth II was “a very distant mother”. 

Yet in a 2002 BBC documentary, Princess Anne said: “We understood what the limitations were in time and the responsibilities placed on her as monarch, in the things she had to do and the travels she had to make.

“But I don’t believe that any of us, for a second, thought she didn’t care for us in exactly the same way as any other mother did. I just think it’s extraordinary that anybody could construe that that might not be true.”

Reigning grandmother

If the Queen’s reputation as a mother has been characterized as distant by some, there is a more palpable fondness for her eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. From the birth of her first grandchild – Peter Phillips, the son of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, born in 1977 – the Queen has taken on a new persona; the dutiful grandmother who inspires by example. “I’ve always been very close to my grandmother, and we speak often,” Peter Phillips told The Telegraph in 2016. “She has been an inspirational person throughout my life.”

The Queen and her grandson and heir, Prince George of Cambridge. (Photo by Chris Jackson - WPA Pool / Getty Images)
The Queen and her grandson and heir, Prince George of Cambridge. (Photo by Chris Jackson – WPA Pool / Getty Images)

In 2018, Princess Beatrice told of how her grandmother “goes out into the community with a genuine curiosity as to how she can be a force for good in the world”.

Though duty evidently comes first, there’s also an enduring sense of fun that she shares with those close to her. Many royal sources recount how the Queen is an excellent mimic, and particularly fond of impersonating former prime ministers and US presidents she has known through the years (some favourite impressions are reported to be René from TV show ’Allo ’Allo! and Labour politician Tony Benn). One royal aide, Angela Kelly, shared how the Queen has “a wicked [mischievous] of humour”.

The Queen has proved herself an adept grandmother in the 21st-century online world too, no more evident than when
she joined her grandson Prince Harry in 2016, recording a sassy comedy video message to US president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama in order to promote the Invictus Games.

At Christmas, even as her descendants start their own families, the Queen remains at the centre of the royals’ festive celebrations, bringing together the whole family at her Sandringham residence. At 6pm sharp, the tradition is for adults to exchange cheap joke gifts and Prince Harry can clearly get away with a little extra cheekiness towards his grandmother. On one such occasion he gave the Queen a showercap with the slogan: ‘Ain’t life a bitch’.

Elizabeth II’s ancestor Queen Victoria was notoriously meddlesome in the marriages of her grandchildren – as ‘Grandmama Queen’ she felt uniquely placed to orchestrate the marriages of her 42 grandchildren, manoeuvring them into seats of European power.

The current Queen does hold the power to exercise control over her descendants’ marriages­—though not all; the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act means only the first six royals in line to the throne require the monarch’s permission to validate their marriages. So in 2018, Princess Eugenie could marry without the Queen’s consent (though it’s unlikely that she wasn’t consulted), whereas Prince Harry still had to obtain the monarch’s permission. This the Queen duly bestowed, writing in her official capacity: “My lords, I declare My Consent to a Contract of Matrimony between My Most Dearly Beloved Grandson Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales and Rachel Meghan Markle.” 

It’s clear though that her grandchildren still value the Queen’s approval beyond an official seal. And it seems that a sure way to impress the monarch is by getting on with her beloved corgis. “For the last 33 years, I’ve been barked at,” Harry told the BBC ahead of his 2018 wedding. That apparently wasn’t the case for the Duchess of Sussex. “This one walks in,” the prince joked, indicating his bride-to-be, “Absolutely nothing. Just wagging tails.”

The Duchess of Sussex wore the Queen’s grandmother Queen Mary’s platinum and diamond bandeau tiara for her wedding in May 2018. (Photo by Aaron Chown / POOL /AFP via Getty Images)
The Duchess of Sussex wore the Queen’s grandmother Queen Mary’s platinum and diamond bandeau tiara for her wedding in May 2018. (Photo by Aaron Chown / POOL /AFP via Getty Images)

The Queen has also publicly shown her support and welcome to her grandsons’ wives by lending them two significant family heirlooms for their weddings. The Duchess of Sussex wore the Queen’s grandmother Queen Mary’s platinum and diamond bandeau tiara for her wedding in May 2018. The Duchess of Cambridge wore the Queen’s Cartier scroll tiara, purchased by the Queen’s father King George VI and given to Elizabeth on the princess’s 18th birthday.

Long to reign over us

More than seven decades after starting her own family, it’s clear that the Queen has imbued her dynasty with her own strong sense of duty and service. She remains the figurehead of the family, an inspiring example by which to measure their own public activities.

Despite the familiarity, the Queen is still able to keep her family on their toes. In 2018, Prince Harry gave the following advice to a group of visitors to Buckingham Palace: “If you suddenly bump into her in the hallway, don’t  panic. I know you will. We all do.”

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Elinor Evans is the Deputy Digital Editor at HistoryExtra