Being a member of the British royal family isn’t as easy as it looks. You can’t be political, controversial, or show emotion. And any slipup you do make will be all over the news across the globe in very short order.
The queen mother’s motto was, “Never complain, never explain,” but when words fail, actions can speak louder, and those actions can be passive-aggressive or just plain ruthless. Here are ten examples of when a royal let their guard down.
10 Taking The Saudi Prince For A Ride
Queen Elizabeth II loves to drive. She learned during World War II as second subaltern in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service as a truck driver. As queen, she is not required to hold a driver’s license.
Former Saudi ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles recalled a visit made by Crown Prince Abdullah in 1998. After lunch at Balmoral, the queen suggested a tour of the Scottish estate and directed her guest toward the royal Land Rover. The crown prince sat down in the passenger side and was shocked to see the queen position herself in the driver’s seat. She started the engine and tore around the narrow roads, chatting away to the prince as they went over the rough terrain. Eventually, the panicky prince was forced to ask her—through his interpreter—to slow down. It may be a coincidence, but at the time, women were banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
The prince survived his spin with the queen, and in June 2018, Saudi Arabia’s driving ban was finally lifted.
9 The Trial Of Paul Burrell
Paul Burrell (left above) was personal footman to Queen Elizabeth II and then went on to work for Princess Diana. The two formed a close bond, and Diana allegedly referred to him as “my Rock.” After her death in August 1997, Burrell quickly rose to fame. He became a regular on TV and took on a high-profile role with the charity set up in her name.
On January 18, 2001, Police raided Burrell’s home and found 342 items belonging to Diana hidden in the attic. The haul included signed CDs, clothing, personal letters, and photo albums. Burrell strongly denied any wrongdoing. He was charged with theft, and the trial began in October 2002.
The world’s press were out in force to report on the story. However, on day nine, the case was adjourned. The judge, Mrs. Justice Rafferty, sent the jurors home with no explanation. The following day, they were again told to stay home. Meanwhile, the queen, who had been unaware of the case, had seen a news report about the trial. She then recalled Burrell telling her that he had Diana’s possessions stored safely in his home. The police were informed, and Prosecutor William Boyce, QC, told the court there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction. Burrell was free to go.
Outside the court, he famously said: “The queen came through for me.”
This brought an abrupt end to what many predicted would be a lengthy trial full of royal secrets. A spokesman for Buckingham Palace said, “There is no question of the Queen interfering.” Diana’s possessions were returned to her family, and Burrell continued with his media career. The royal family have never commented on the case of Diana’s missing things.
8 The Queen Puts Mrs. Thatcher In Her Place
Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister of the UK. Together, Queen Elizabeth II and Mrs. Thatcher were the most powerful women in the country. The queen was often irritated by Thatcher’s habit of turning up early for their meetings and had been heard referring to her as “that woman.” When Thatcher suggested that she and the queen should match their outfits for an occasion, Buckingham Palace responded: “The Queen does not notice what other people are wearing.”
The Commonwealth countries were important to Queen Elizabeth—having spent much time on tours there. Thatcher saw it as an outdated institution. Matters came to a head in the 1980s as people became uneasy about apartheid in South Africa. The queen wanted to impose trade sanctions as a way of keeping the Commonwealth united. Thatcher disagreed.
In 1986, a headline appeared in The Sunday Times : “Queen dismayed by ‘uncaring’ Thatcher.”
The article went on to detail the rift between them. The Palace issued a denial, and the queen personally telephoned Thatcher. This was puzzling for the editor of The Sunday Times, as his source for the story was Michael Shea—the queen’s press secretary. It was unthinkable that Shea would have spoken without royal approval.
Despite this, Elizabeth grew to respect Thatcher. After Thatcher’s death in 2013, the queen made a last-minute decision to attend her funeral, even though duty did not require her to.
7 Royal Nanny Out In The Cold
The first rule of working for the royal family is: Keep your mouth shut. In 1932, Marion Crawford was employed as nanny to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Their privacy ended forever when their uncle, Edward VII, abdicated to marry Mrs. Simpson, making their father King. The family moved into Buckingham Palace, and “Crawfie,” as Marion was known, went with them.
Over the years, Crawfie became such a trusted servant to the royals that she stayed in service until 1948, when Princess Elizabeth became engaged to Phillip Mountbatten.
In 1949 the American Ladies’ Home Journal approached her for a piece they were writing on royal children. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (aka the mother of Elizabeth and Margaret) thought it would be a good way for Crawfie to earn some extra money. There was a strict understanding, however, that she would be anonymous.
The article was full of sweet anecdotes from the royal nursery and perfect for the American public. But when the magazine hit the stands, there was one glaring mistake—Marion Crawford was named as the interviewee. The queen mother was furious and instantly blamed Crawfie, saying that she had “gone off her head.”
The family severed all ties with Crawfie, who moved back to Scotland and never got over the rejection. She suffered from depression and attempted suicide twice. She kept the letters from the queen mother giving her consent to speak to the magazine locked away. Even though they could have cleared her name, she refused to release them.
Marion Crawford died in a nursing home in 1988, still hoping to hear from the royal family. In her will, she requested that all personal letters be returned to the Palace for safekeeping. The royal family have never mentioned her again or the role she played in shaping the future queen.
6 Diana’s Rage
After his divorce from Diana, Charles employed Alexandra “Tiggy” Legge-Bourke, a well-connected young woman, to help care for his sons. Tiggy’s job was to be a fun older sister rather than stern nanny, and she quickly formed a close bond with the princes. Their mother was not impressed with Tiggy’s role. Tensions grew between the two households, and soon, Diana began to suspect, wrongly, that Tiggy and Charles were having an affair. Diana seized upon a false rumor doing the rounds that Tiggy had gotten an abortion. Diana made an appearance at a staff party in December 1996, strolled up to Tiggy, and allegedly said: “So sorry about the baby.”
Tiggy instructed top libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck to write to Diana’s solicitors demanding an apology for the offending remark. Tiggy continued to work for Charles until 1999, when she left to get married. She has remained close to Princes William and Harry.
5 The Attempted Kidnap Of Princess Anne
Princess Anne is known to be a strong character, and this was tested to the limit when Ian Ball attempted to kidnap Queen Elizabeth II’s only daughter. On March 20, 1974, the princess, her husband Mark Phillips, a bodyguard, and Anne’s lady-in-waiting were traveling in a royal limousine. Ball, a 26-year-old unemployed man from London, drove his car into the royals’ vehicle and then jumped out, brandishing two handguns. Anne’s bodyguard approached him and was shot in the shoulder. Ball then tried to get into the car, shouting, “Open or I’ll shoot!” Anne and Phillips tried to hold the door shut.
Anne’s chauffeur approached Ball, only to be shot in the chest. Ball was now free to reach into the car, and he seized Anne’s wrist while Phillips—a captain in the British Army—clamped onto her waist.
“Please come out,” pleaded Ball.
“Not bloody likely!” was Anne’s reply.
Incredibly, Ball shot a further two people—a police officer and motorist who tried to help. Finally, a passerby punched Ball in the head. As police arrived, Anne bizarrely said to Ball, “Go on, now’s your chance.” Ball fled toward a park but was caught and arrested.
On searching Ball’s rented vehicle, police found handcuffs, Valium, and a ransom note addressed to the queen. The note demanded that £2 million be delivered in person by the queen and stated, “Anne will be shot dead.”
Ball was sentenced to life in a psychiatric unit. All those who came to Anne’s aid survived and were rewarded. Anne later described her experience with Ball as “a very irritating conversation.”
4 The Death Of A Princess
On August 31, 1997, Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. The news of her sudden death caused shock around the world. The royal family was on their summer break in Scotland. Apart from a short statement, little was heard from the royals about the tragedy.
In London, crowds flocked toward her home, Kensington Palace. People laid flowers and wept openly in the streets, and there was a growing mood of anger toward the royals. Some people began to turn their attention to Buckingham Palace, where the flag was still flying at full mast. To some, this was symbolic of how Diana had been treated in life.
In reality, the queen’s flag, called the Royal Standard, is never flown at half-mast, as it represents the monarchy itself, which is continuous. When a monarch dies, there is instantly another to take their place. There was no Royal Standard flying from Buckingham Palace at that time, as the queen wasn’t in residence. Instead, it was the Union Jack, which is only flown at half-mast when a royal styled as “HRH” dies. Diana, as ex-wife of Prince Charles, had lost her HRH status in their divorce.
The media picked up on the public mood, and stories about the coldness of the royal family began to appear along with scenes of public anger. Headlines screamed, “Where is the Queen?” The Royal family stayed on holiday, and the flag stayed at full mast.
The night before the funeral, the queen made an unexpected speech on TV and paid tribute to Diana. Finally, on the morning of the funeral—without announcement—the flag was lowered to half-mast and stayed there until midnight as a last-minute mark of respect.
3 Farewell, Britannia
Some of Queen Elizabeth II’s happiest days were spent with her family on the royal yacht, Britannia. Launched in 1953, she toured the world and hosted many famous guests, including Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. Britannia was also used for the queen’s private family holidays and was the place she felt most at peace.
In 1997, Tony Blair was the new prime minister. In a cost-cutting exercise, he blocked a £17 million refurbishing bill for the Britannia. At the time, the royals were being criticized for the cost of works at Windsor Castle after a fire. Blair made it clear that he would prefer the money to be spent on public services. The royals are not allowed to air political views, and so in December 1997, Britiannia was decommissioned.
Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne stood at the dock and openly wept as Britannia was sent to become a tourist attraction next to a shopping mall in Edinburgh. Even 14 years later, the loss was still felt by the royal family. In an interview, Prince Phillip commented, “She was sound as a bell and she could have gone on for another 50 years.” This many also explain why, when Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011, the only former prime minister not to receive an invitation was one Tony Blair.
2 An Awkward Meeting
Queen Elizabeth II was very close to her cousin, Lord Mountbatten, who became a mentor to the young Prince Charles. In 1979, Mountbatten was killed when a terrorist bomb exploded on his boat in Ireland. His grandson, 14, and a local boy, aged 15, were also killed. The IRA claimed responsibility for the attack.
Martin McGuinness was a former IRA leader who later became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. In June 2012, the queen made history when, on a visit to Belfast, she met and shook hands in public with McGuinness. On their second meeting in 2016, when he asked her how she was, she responded, “Well, I’m still alive.”
1 Sitting Pretty
Marrying into the royal family can be tricky. Even if you are accepted, your family may not quite match their requirements. Famously, many in-laws quietly fade into the background. (Thomas Markle, take note.)
When Kate Middleton married Prince William, her family were thrust into the spotlight. They appeared to be a loving and close unit, in contrast to Prince Charles, who could be awkward and distant. After the arrival of his grandchildren, Charles began to feel that he was being edged out of their life. Matters came to a head when the couple chose to spend Christmas with her parents, avoiding the traditional meet at Sandringham.
Aware of his disapproval, Charles’s staff began to freeze out the Middletons, which upset William. News of the rift reached the queen, who was reportedly very fond of Kate’s family. A few weeks later in September 2016, the Middletons were invited to stay at Balmoral as personal guests of the queen.
The press turned out to photograph the royal group as they drove to a shooting party and were treated to the sight of the queen behind the wheel with Kate Middleton next to her as guest of honor. Her security team were relegated to the back seats. Game, set, and match to her Majesty.
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