PENNY JUNOR: The Queen loved Gary Barlow and howlers in Downton

The Queen loved Gary Barlow and always took great delight in spotting the historical howlers in Downton: PENNY JUNOR reveals a side of the Monarch that very few had the privilege to see

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When the Queen was nearing her 60th birthday, her then Press Secretary rang her from the intercom on his desk at Buckingham Palace and told her Queen Juliana of the Netherlands had just abdicated. 

Juliana was 71 and had been on the throne for 32 years. ‘Typical Dutch,’ said the Queen disparagingly and hung up on him. No one was ever brave enough to make any comment of that nature again. 

Her faith in God was deep. She believed that He appointed her and the Crown was a symbol of that calling. She believed she had a duty to discharge with her life and she never wavered in that sense of duty. 

The Queen grew up in the happiest and securest of families. Her parents adored her and, although they employed nannies to take care of her, they devoted a surprising amount of their time to the young Elizabeth, known as Lilibet (right), and her sister Margaret, four years her junior (front) pictured with her cousin Margaret Rhodes

Because of the extraordinary woman she was, and the way she conducted herself, her influence was greater, arguably, than that of any other woman alive. By her commitment, poise, courage and diplomacy she made the British monarchy the envy of much of the world. 

The Queen grew up in the happiest and securest of families. Her parents adored her and, although they employed nannies to take care of her, they devoted a surprising amount of their time to the young Elizabeth, known as Lilibet, and her sister Margaret, four years her junior. 

Her father, Bertie, Duke of York, was second in line to the throne but his public duties were far lighter than they would be today and her mother did very little charity work. Their home, at 145 Piccadilly, and his young family were Bertie’s refuge from the world. He adored Elizabeth and brought her copies of AA Milne’s books and they would endlessly recite her favourite poem together, Changing The Guard At Buckingham Palace. 

It was her doting grandfather, George V, who decided that Lilibet should be Elizabeth’s nickname within the family, so tickled was he by her attempt as a small child to pronounce her name. 

She called him ‘Grandpa England’, and at his insistence would sit next to him at family meals. Most people were frightened of George V, but not Lilibet, although she knew better than to turn her back on him. Even as a very small child she would curtsey to him and, after wishing him goodnight, would toddle backwards out of the room. On Sunday afternoons at Sandringham, he would take her to see his racehorses at the Royal stud. 

It was this grandfather who fostered her life-long passion for horses and for racing. According to the historian Kate Williams, he would even play her favourite game of horsey with her. The Archbishop of Canterbury once found him on all fours pretending to be a horse, ‘shuffling on hands and knees along the floor, while the little Princess led him by the beard’. 

She had a collection of 30 or so toy horses, each a foot high on wheels, and each with bridles and saddles that she polished. At night, she took off their tack, fed and watered them and lined them up in neat rows outside the nursery. Dogs were her other passion and she grew up surrounded by them. 

It was her intention as a child to marry a farmer, so she could have lots of ‘cows, horses and dogs’. This happy and carefree life came to an abrupt end in 1936, when Elizabeth was just ten years old and all thoughts of marrying a farmer evaporated. 

On the afternoon of December 10, she and Margaret were at home when she became aware of noisy crowds gathering outside the front door calling for her father and shouting God Save The King. 

Her uncle, Bertie’s brother David, King Edward VIII, had abdicated so he could marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. 

That afternoon, her father, ill equipped as he was, became King George VI, and with no boys in the family, she became heir to the throne. Her destiny was now, one day, to be sovereign. Her great good fortune was in meeting and falling in love with Prince Philip. He was a controversial choice of husband, but she knew her own mind and was not to be put off. 

Her great good fortune was in meeting and falling in love with Prince Philip. He was a controversial choice of husband, but she knew her own mind and was not to be put off.

And he turned out to be the very best of consorts. A close family friend once said of them: ‘There are some people who don’t need many friends and those two, they’re just a real love story, taking tea together every day, talking about everything. He might take out a letter and read it to her or crack a joke. 

They just adore each other.’ Lord Charteris, who worked for the Queen for 27 years, summed up the success of the union: ‘Prince Philip is the only man in the world who treats the Queen simply as another human being. ‘Strange as it may seem, I believe she values that.’ Behind the public face, the Queen had a wicked sense of humour. 

Very many years ago, she and Princess Anne were being driven down The Mall from Buckingham Palace in her official car, when a very young and inexperienced police officer pulled over the driver and asked to see his licence. 

The young man had presumably seen the car had no number plate but clearly not noticed the Royal insignia on its roof. Wanting to spare the policeman embarrassment, the drive motioned over his shoulder in an attempt to point out he had someone rather special in the back. 

The hint was lost on the policeman who blundered on. Equally keen to spare anyone embarrassment, the Queen slid down on to the floor of the car so she was out of sight, and told Anne to do the same. 

The driver continued to gesticulate until finally the penny dropped. Not many people saw that playful side of the Queen. She presented such a neutral and professional front to the world that only those who knew her well were aware of just what a delightful sense of humour she had. 

It was deliberate. She knew that what made her famous was the crown she wore on her head, not her sense of humour, her gift for mimicry or her talent on a horse. She was never tempted to confuse things. 

She was never on an ego trip. She never exploited her position, never pulled rank, never felt superior. She had surprising humility for someone who was waited on hand and foot and was the centre of attention for almost her entire life. 

She knew, instinctively, that she had to be all things to all men, that monarchy needs to be a unifying force in the country and that big personalities are divisive. Some years ago, Richard Chartres, then Bishop of London, explained it perfectly: ‘The Queen is a canvas on whom people project, as well as someone who stands for things. 

‘She appeals to those things which are beyond controversy; the basic values, she enunciates them. ‘The whole raison d’être [of the monarchy] is social cohesion pointing beyond the argy-bargy of politics to some of the deep laws, the abiding themes of all human life, love and loss, values that we all basically share.’ 

And in presenting that blank canvas, nothing got in the way, which is why her appeal was so universal, not just in Britain and the Commonwealth but in other countries she visited around the world. So it was only her family and friends, and a few others, who knew the real Elizabeth and knew she was anything but bland. She had a very quick wit, a good sense of humour and a great sense of fun. 

‘You suddenly found yourself having conversations with the Queen,’ says one former Minister, ‘that you couldn’t believe you were hearing. ‘She was extraordinarily indiscreet and very funny. Not all that often, but you realised there was another person there who was fascinating and enchanting and girlish. Every now and again I had to pinch myself to believe what she was saying and the questions she was asking me.’ She was no culture vulture, never a great fan of opera, ballet or classical music. 

So it was only her family and friends, and a few others, who knew the real Elizabeth and knew she was anything but bland. She had a very quick wit, a good sense of humour and a great sense of fun (pictured in 2012 with Prince Charles).

What she liked best, according to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson, was ‘the theatre and musicals like Show Boat, Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun. These were tunes that remained in one’s head and were very danceable to.’ Speaking in a 2016 documentary, she said: ‘The Queen is a fantastic dancer. She’s got great rhythm.’ 

She also loved singing. ‘We did a lot of singing at Kensington Palace,’ said Lady Elizabeth. ‘Nobody thought it was odd after dinner if we put on a record and all sang The Lambeth Walk, so music has always been part of her life.’ Among her ten favourite songs were The White Cliffs Of Dover by Vera Lynn and Cheek To Cheek by Fred Astaire.

A more recent favourite was Gary Barlow’s Sing, performed by the Commonwealth Band and the Military Wives, which was co-written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. She loved photography and was good at it, something she passed on to her second son, and she was an avid listener to the Sunday omnibus edition of Radio 4’s long-running series, The Archers, and its precursor on the BBC’s Light Programme that became Radio 2, Mrs Dale’s Diary. 

Among her ten favourite songs were The White Cliffs Of Dover by Vera Lynn and Cheek To Cheek by Fred Astaire. A more recent favourite was Gary Barlow’s Sing, performed by the Commonwealth Band and the Military Wives, which was co-written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. (The Queen pictured in 2012 with Gary Barlow awarding him his OBE)

She was also said to have loved period dramas such as Downton Abbey and took great delight in spotting historical errors in the show. As the years passed and her children’s marital problems and other exploits became the subject of pub quizzes, the Queen drew in her horns and became ever more enigmatic. 

The closest she came to revealing her anguish was in 1992, when she marked the 40th anniversary of her accession and admitted that the year had been an annus horribilis. 

That was the year when Princess Anne and Mark Phillips divorced, the Prince of Wales and Diana separated, Prince Andrew and Fergie separated, and Windsor Castle was partially destroyed by fire. A life spent on the world stage did not come naturally to her. 


She was fundamentally very shy and very modest, and had she been born into different circumstances she would never have chosen so public a role for herself. She would have almost certainly lived in the countryside and pursued traditional country sports. 

She was famous for her lifelong love of corgis, but what was less well known was her knowledge about the breeding and training of gun dogs. She had kennels at Sandringham, where she continued her father’s breeding programme and produced a great many field trial champions. It was a passion, as was horse racing. But not just as a spectator or even a dilettante owner. 

She was a genuine expert. My father, the late Sir John Junor, long-time editor of the Sunday Express, was once invited, as most editors of national newspapers were, to a private lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

He was one of ten guests and found himself seated in pride of place on the Queen’s left-hand side at the table. For the first two courses, the Queen ignored him and spoke exclusively to a High Court judge on her right. He could see that across the table from him, the then Tory MP for Dorking, sitting on the Duke of Edinburgh’s left-hand side, was also being ignored and the two looked at each other and shrugged. When the pudding arrived, both the Queen and the Duke turned in unison to their left, and my father and the MP both had their hosts’ full attention for the remainder of the lunch. 

My father was utterly enchanted and amazed by how different the private woman was to the one he had met on more formal occasions. Her eyes danced, she laughed readily and they chatted as if they were old friends. The secret to his success, he was always convinced, was horse racing. 

On the way to the Palace his office driver, who was a keen racing punter, had said: ‘Ask her if her horse Height Of Fashion is going to win the Oaks.’ My father scarcely knew one end of a horse from the other, but he slipped it into the conversation and her face suddenly lit up. 

She explained animatedly that the horse’s legs were possibly too long for the Epsom course but that its chances would be decided by whether the horse ran well at Goodwood. They were off. Horse racing was her one serious indulgence – the only interest on which she spent serious amounts of money. 

A racing expert I spoke to in 2005 guessed her overall expenditure then would have been between £500,000 to £750,000 a year. She was one of the most knowledgeable bloodstock owners in the country and over the years her horses had won most of the major British races. 

The one that eluded her was the Derby. By all accounts, if she hadn’t been Queen she could have been a very successful bloodstock breeder. 

There are many people who knew the Queen well who would have said that if her children had had four legs and either barked or neighed, she would have been very much closer to them. 

She no doubt loved them all but she was not a demonstrative or a tactile mother, and not overtly maternal. 

But as is so often true in families, her relationship with her grandchildren was very much easier than it was with her children. It was certainly true of her relationship with her first-born, Prince Charles, and his sons, William and Harry. 

But as is so often true in families, her relationship with her grandchildren was very much easier than it was with her children. It was certainly true of her relationship with her first-born, Prince Charles, and his sons, William and Harry.

She had the most enchanting relationship with all of her grandchildren, and indeed great-grandchildren, and was hugely fond of them all, but there was a special place in her heart for William and Harry. When Harry became engaged to Meghan Markle in 2017, she abandoned the old protocols about only married couples being allowed, and invited Meghan to spend Christmas with them all at Sandringham. 

It must have been a great sadness to her when, just two years after their joyous wedding at Windsor, the couple, controversially, left the Royal fold and moved to California.

Their children, Archie and Lilibet, were strangers to her, and despite having been given the Queen’s childhood nickname, she only met Lilibet very briefly during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. 

But what must have upset the Queen even more than the geographical divide would have been the bitter rift between the brothers. 

She had seen their family torn apart during the bitter years of the War of the Waleses, and she had been with them at Balmoral on that terrible day when the news came through that their mother had died in a car crash in Paris. 

She had chosen to stay with them in Scotland all that week while the country, via the media, implored her to return to London, to put a face to the nation’s grief, and to show that she cared about the death of the Princess of Wales. It was not often that she put family before duty, and it was a tense time. But she felt that it was important to be there for her grieving grandsons. 

As a young mother, she had been less mindful of children being parted from their mothers. Charles was just a year old, in 1949, when Prince Philip was posted to Malta. Elizabeth flew out to be with him for a five-week holiday but rather than taking Charles with her, she left him at home with a nanny. 

When she came back, he and the nanny were at Sandringham with her parents, but rather than dashing to see her baby – as most mothers would – she stayed at Clarence House for four days attending to paperwork, then spent a day at Hurst Park racecourse, where her horse, Monaveen won at 10-1. 

She missed the excitement of Charles’s first step and his first word. She and the Duke went off on long foreign tours together without him, sometimes for as long as six months, and I suspect that, ultimately, those separations were responsible for the emotional distance between them. 

There was a further complication. Like all Royal babies, Charles was brought up in the nursery by a nanny, and for the first few years of his life this was a rather terrifying woman called Helen Lightbody. She ruled her domain and her charges with a rod of iron, and as a young and inexperienced mother, Elizabeth was frightened of her and kept away from the nursery. 

She waited for Charles to be brought downstairs for their allotted time together, an hour in the morning and an hour between tea and bath time. By the time her second batch of children was born – Andrew and Edward in the 1960s – a new, friendlier nanny was in post and, as a result, the Queen’s relationship with her younger sons was altogether different and very much closer. 

Charles had a rough deal all round. While concentrating on the job, the Queen left the decisions about family life and which schools the children should go to to the Duke. 

Charles was a sensitive child, which Philip found as puzzling as it was disappointing. 

Charles never felt he was good enough for Philip and, even as an adult with children of his own, he was still desperately trying, and failing, to please him. Neither the Queen nor the Duke was good at offering praise, or support. 

When the Prince of Wales’s marriage was falling apart in such a spectacularly public way, the Queen kept her distance. Only when the slanging match between Charles and Diana looked as though it might permanently damage the Monarchy did she intervene and insist they divorce. 

The focus of Diana’s anger had been Camilla Parker Bowles who, five years into his failing marriage, had effectively rescued Charles from the depths of despair. 

The Queen insisted that Charles must give Camilla up, even after his divorce from Diana, by which time Camilla was divorced from her husband, Andrew. Even after Diana’s death she was insistent that the mistress must go. 

For the first time in his life, Charles went against his mother. He declared that Camilla was a non-negotiable part of his life and I have always believed it was a good thing for the monarchy that he did, because we would be looking at a very different future today had he listened to his mother. 

Eventually, the Queen came round to their relationship, and Charles and Camilla married with her blessing in 2005. It was odd that she should have been so opposed to the one person who made her son happy. 

Particularly given that she knew and liked Camilla. She had known her for years, throughout her marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles, and they had a love of horses and dogs in common. 

But as a grandmother the Queen excelled. She had eight grandchildren, in order of age: Peter and Zara Phillips; Prince William and Prince Harry; Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie; and Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn. And 12 greatgrandchildren. 

The grandchildren all called her Granny, and all had fond memories of Christmases at Sandringham and long holidays at Balmoral. She loved them all but she was particularly close to William, who would follow in her footsteps. During his years at Eton, he would cross the bridge to Windsor for tea with his grandmother most weeks and their conversations were a source of comfort and inspiration to William, especially after his mother’s death. 

And it is the Queen, rather than his parents, that William has modelled himself on in his public life. When William was planning his marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011, the first thing his office did was speak to the Lord Chamberlain about protocol. 

Back came a list of 777 names – ambassadors, lord lieutenants, chancellors of universities – a host of people William neither knew nor cared about, who, they were told, would need to be invited. William was horrified. Westminster Abbey, their chosen venue, would be full of strangers. 

So he rang his grandmother who told him to tear up the list. ‘Start with your friends and then go from there,’ she said. ‘She made the point,’ he explained, ‘that there are certain times when you have to strike the right balance [between personal and duty]. 

And it’s advice like that, which is really key, when you know that she’s seen and done it before.’ In the run-up to the wedding, William saw his grandmother for about half an hour every week, and if they couldn’t arrange a meeting they spoke at length on the phone – often on her mobile. 

Those who knew the Queen had seldom seen her so happy as she was on the day itself. She was ‘literally skipping’ along the corridors of Buckingham Palace, where she hosted a lunch and an evening party for the newlyweds. 

After all the years of anxiety over Charles, whose bitter divorce caused such harm to the Monarchy, the fact that William had found in Kate someone he genuinely loved, as she had genuinely loved Prince Philip, must have been a huge relief to the Queen. 

Since then, she saw Kate support William in the way that Philip supported her all those years, and their children will ensure the succession into a third generation. 

She could rest assured the institution which she had safeguarded so dutifully would be in safe hands for the foreseeable future. True to her word, Elizabeth never did retire – but she did finally relax.

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