Of all the things that can be said about Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps the most surprising is this – that the small, conservative woman with her air of doughty resolution and her dowdy handbags, has presided over a new era of British monarchy.


Elizabeth’s reign has seen the House of Windsor fall to a point where many questioned whether it could survive into the next century. But then it saw the royal family rise again, coasting into the future on a whole new wave of popularity.

The House of Windsor

The House of Windsor came into being in 1917, when King George V (the Queen's grandfather) replaced the British royal family's name from the historic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Windsor remains the official name of today's royal family.

King George V

In the postwar climate of 1952, Queen Elizabeth came to the throne on a cloud of adulation, amid talk of a new Elizabethan era. But the first surprise in charting this journey is just how quickly that began to die away. By the end of the 1960s, polls suggested the monarchy was an out-of-touch anachronism. The royals reacted surprisingly readily (Prince Philip, the moderniser, said that they were fighting an election every day) and the result was a 1969 fly-on-the-wall television documentary film called Royal Family.

Opinion was divided about, to paraphrase the 19th-century British journalist Walter Bagehot, letting in “daylight upon magic”. But in fact the royals had already consciously reinvented themselves several times in recent history, from Prince Albert’s presentation of Queen Victoria’s as a family monarchy, to the early 20th-century reconstruction of The Mall, the road leading to Buckingham Palace, as an arena for huge public ceremony. And from George V’s 1917 declaration that the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha would henceforth be known by the name of ‘Windsor’, to the family’s mid-century image as an ideal of middle-class morality.

But by the late 20th century, that very ideal had begun to look irrelevant. The royal family was being assessed in the cold, hard terms of value for money. The marriages of the Queen’s children were supposed to reignite the spark and indeed, when Charles, Prince of Wales (heir to the throne), and Lady Diana Spencer announced their engagement on 24 February 1981 – then were married in July – it was seen (in Diana’s words) as a fairytale.

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When Prince William was born less than a year later, Princess Diana said later that she had “felt the whole country was in labour with me”. But her burgeoning celebrity status would prove a double-edged sword when her interests started to diverge from those of the wider royal family.

Princess Diana and Prince Charles with their newborn son Prince William on the steps of St Mary's Hospital, London, June 1982. (Photo by Jon Hoffman/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)
Princess Diana and Prince Charles with their newborn son Prince William on the steps of St Mary's Hospital, London, June 1982. (Photo by Jon Hoffman/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images)

As the 1980s turned to the 1990s, courtiers spoke of “QVS” – Queen Victoria Syndrome – whereby a population could tire of an ageing monarch and an apparently parasitic extended royal family seemingly divorced from reality. A poll in early 1990 suggested nearly half the population supporting the idea of an “eventual” abdication. By now the ‘War of the Waleses’ – the public breakdown of the heir to the throne’s marriage – was well under way.

Then came 1992: what the Queen called her annus horribilis (her horrible year – and arguably the fact that she used Latin displayed the problem all too clearly). January saw embarrassing photographs of the Duchess of York (married to Prince Andrew, Duke of York, since 1986) with Steve Wyatt, a Texas oilman; February saw Diana photographed ostentatiously alone in front of the Taj Mahal in India. In March it was announced the Yorks would separate; in April Princess Anne divorced Captain Mark Phillips; in June, Andrew Morton published the biography Diana: Her True Story.

Queen Elizabeth II making her "annus horribilis" speech
Queen Elizabeth II making her "annus horribilis" speech at the Guildhall, 24 November 1992. (Photo by Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images)

In August came the embarrassing ‘Squidgygate’ tapes – recorded phone conversations between Diana and a close friend James Gilbey; in December Buckingham Palace announced that “with regret, the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate”.

The left-wing member of parliament Dennis Skinner declared: “The royal family has just pressed the self-destruct button.” A poll showed that three out of four Britons believed the royal family was crumbling.

Not the least telling event of that year was the November fire that seriously damaged Windsor Castle and which saw a sullen nation in the grip of recession reject Prime Minister John Major’s declaration that they would pay for the repairs. The Queen agreed to pay income tax; that fewer members of the royal family would receive public funding; and that some of the palaces should open to the public. Yet within weeks came ‘Camillagate’ – publication of an all too private conversation between Charles and his mistress Camilla Parker Bowles.

In June 1994 Prince Charles, in a televised interview, admitted infidelity. An ever more gravely wounded monarchy was described by The Economist magazine as “an idea whose time has passed”. Diana’s subsequent interview on Panorama in November the following year saw her assert that Charles was temperamentally unsuitable for “the top job” – and many seemed to agree. The Wales’s divorce was finalised the following August.

A leading academic declared that “Something has died – the enchantment of the British people for the monarchy.” But in its history of more than a thousand years the crown has seen a lot of deaths, and a lot of phoenixes rise from the flames. “The king is dead, long live the king,” represents not just the tradition, but the mutability of the monarchy.

If a divorced Princess of Wales was a loose cannon, then her shocking death on 31 August 1997 looked like being infinitely more damaging. As the royal family remained incommunicado at their family retreat of Balmoral in Scotland, in London the extraordinary outpouring of public grief was fueled by a flood of hostile headlines – “Show us you care,” begged the Daily Express newspaper. The Queen’s lifelong policy of a restrained, hands-off style of queenship seemed now to be serving her very badly.

A sea of floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, outside the gates of her London home. (Photo by Liba Taylor/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
A sea of floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, outside the gates of her London home. (Photo by Liba Taylor/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

But the family’s popularity began to climb again almost from the moment of its return to London – seen inspecting the mounds of flowers left by the public and breaking with tradition and protocol to have a flag flown at half mast over Buckingham Palace. The Queen broadcasted her regret “as a grandmother” and spontaneously bowed her head as Diana’s coffin passed by.

In the longer run, Diana’s death ended the divisive taking of sides and allowed the royal family to appear once more as a united entity.

The public had vented their dissatisfaction and the royals had taken it meekly. They promised to do better, effectively. So, have they? Yes, essentially.

It has helped that there have been a huge number of events in the years since Diana’s death (and the palace, with newly sharpened sensibilities, has taken full advantage). Autumn 1997 saw the Queen and Prince Philip’s golden wedding anniversary; 1999 saw endorsement for retaining the monarchy in the Australian republican referendum; the millennium saw a milestone passed and August 2000 was the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday.

Events can be either the excuse for colourful ceremony, or a trigger for sympathy. The year 2002 – just a decade after the annus horribilis – saw the deaths of Princess Margaret and then Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The Queen invited Camilla Parker Bowles along to that year’s golden jubilee celebrations; the Prince of Wales married his long-time love in 2005, in a quiet ceremony. Though she took the lesser title of Duchess of Cornwall, there was, as would once have seemed unthinkable, no public outburst of hostility.

The royals seem set on an upward path. The Queen’s longevity, once seen as a problem, has proved her strength. “Suddenly people got the point of the Queen, who had been doing her job for 50 years,” said her former press secretary Charles Anson after the golden jubilee. She is firmly established as national treasure number one – and many are even learning to view the sometimes-controversial Prince Philip differently.

The 2006 film The Queen was more blessing than curse. The public enjoyed tabloid newspaper disclosures that she stores her breakfast cereal in a humble Tupperware container as much as her readiness to be filmed with Daniel Craig – as James Bond – for the Olympic opening ceremony in London in 2012. She has after all never resisted change (although she has never sought it), and has encouraged the signs of change in her grandchildren – very successfully.

The current warmth towards the monarchy must in part be down to Diana’s sons, William and Henry (Harry), who are seen as carrying on her legacy. William and Catherine Middleton’s 2011 royal wedding was an extraordinary high point of not just national but international interest, as have been the births of their three babies, George, Charlotte and Prince Louis.

UK - Wedding of Prince William & Kate Middleton - Buckingham Palace
UK - Wedding of Prince William & Kate Middleton - Buckingham Palace (Photo by Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images)

Has the popularity of grandparents and grandchildren left Prince Charles out in the cold? Some say that it is only respect for the Queen herself that is keeping the royal show on the road – and that the next in line for the throne (and there is no precedent for skipping a generation) represents an insuperable problem for the monarchy. There are undoubtedly queries as to what will happen when the iconic figure of Elizabeth II is gone – not least to the Commonwealth, of which Charles will not automatically become head.

But even the Prince of Wales, secure in a happy second marriage, is perhaps more popular than he used to be. The release in 2015 of ‘black spider memos’ – messages that Charles sent to government ministers – raised doubts as to whether he would be able to sustain the impartial position of a constitutional monarchy. But soon afterwards his visit of reconciliation to Northern Ireland helped reclaim that moral high ground which is a traditional justification for a royal family and which, in the 1990s, they seemed to have lost.

The Queen’s diamond jubilee, and the moment in 2015 that she became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, felt like national victories. The year 2016 saw another feel-good moment, with her 90th birthday. It was once said that, “the English like queens”, and the new legislation allowing royal sons and daughters to inherit on equal terms may mean we see more of them – albeit not immediately.

The House of Windsor is well on the way to reinventing itself again and, even with its feathers clipped, the phoenix that is the British monarchy will surely continue to fly well into the 21st century.


This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's 'Royal Dynasties' bookazine


Sarah GristwoodHistorian, biographer and broadcaster

Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling biographer, historian, and broadcaster, and a regular media commentator on royal and historical affairs. Her latest book is 'The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty' (2021)