Subscribe now and receive weekly newsletters with educational materials, new courses, interesting posts, popular books, and much more!
Churchill’s Sovereigns: Elizabeth II
“…I regard it as the most direct mark of God’s favour we have ever received in my long life that the whole structure of our new-formed Commonwealth has been linked and illuminated by a sparkling presence at its summit.” —WSC to the Queen, 1955
In my innocence I had not realized how pervasive is the influence of the Royal Society of St. George; for I see on the wall before me the portrait of the Queen early in her reign by Denis Fildes, and behind me a study of the elderly Churchill by Egerton Cooper. Thus I find myself in the position described by A.E. Housman, who is said to have remarked just before his translation from the University of London to Trinity College, “Cambridge has seen many strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk and Porson sober. It is now destined to see a better scholar than Worsdworth and a better poet than Porson, betwixt and between.”1
To speak to you about the Queen and Mr. Churchill (as he still was when she came to the throne) is to dwell simultaneously upon several planes. There is the personal relationship between a monarch coming unexpectedly to the throne in her mid-twenties and a Prime Minister of vast age and experience, less tempestuous and mercurial than he had once been. Then there is a much longer perspective, for as Churchill liked to recall, he had many a time enjoyed drinking the health of the Queen’s great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, when he was a young officer, determined to live as near as humanly possible to the eye of the storm, and then to write about his experiences.
Beyond that lay something ancestral and subconscious, for Churchill was a historian in more senses than one. He had made much history, and written a great deal of it; he had devoted no less than four volumes to his distinguished ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough, and from that process learned—to the eventual profit of this country and many others—of the perils and frustrations of coalition warfare.
In the two years before his return to office in September, 1939, he had given himself to what eventually became A History of the English-speaking Peoples, and with a serious purpose beyond the immediate task of making enough money to pay for his handsome style of life at Chartwell; for he believed the fate of mankind would rest largely in the hands of those peoples and that despite crises, misjudgments, blunders, reverses, the British had behaved well towards the rest of the world.
Churchill’s Royal Relationships
He was not ashamed to refer to the “grand old British race, which had done so much for mankind and which had still so much more to give.”2
In sum, for Churchill the monarchy represented not only the apex of our society and constitutional arrangements, but a focus for the loyalty and aspirations of many millions; and with a startling suddenness, the role of that monarchy had to be reinterpreted in the present Queen’s reign to embrace a world-wide Commonwealth.
Churchill had revered Queen Victoria from afar; he had enjoyed, without always approving entirely, the company of King Edward VII; he respected highly the gruff probity of King George V; he had—to his credit, for it was evident that nothing but political damage could result—placed a high premium upon his loyalty to King Edward VIII. Later, musing upon that monarch’s unsuitability for the heavy duties of the throne, Churchill once said “Morning Glory”—thinking of those flowers which flourish and fade in the forenoon. To King George VI and his Queen he had drawn very close during the war, and his admiration for the two of them knew few bounds. “Your Majesties,” Churchill wrote to the King, “are more beloved by all classes and conditions than any of the princes of the past.”3
Amidst all the austerities and bleak hardships of Britain in the early years after the war, Churchill received with joy the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming marriage. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” he remarked, echoing Shakespeare, “and millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel.”4
And then there were horses. Churchill had taken to racing late in life, under the inspiration of his son-in-law Christopher Soames, whereas the taste seems to have been acquired by the present Queen in her early youth. A few months before Churchill came back to office as Prime Minister for the last time, she invited him to lunch with her at Hurst Park. In the same race were running a horse in the Royal colours, appropriately and indeed unexceptionably named Above Board, and Churchill’s horse, known with a tinge of political incorrectitude as Colonist II. By a small margin, Colonist II won. To a less adroit correspondent, this fact might have provided some slight embarrassment in the composition of a letter of thanks for the luncheon. Not a bit of it in Churchill’s case. “I wish indeed that we could both have been victorious,” he wrote to Princess Elizabeth, “but that would be no foundation for the excitements and liveliness of the Turf.”5
When she and her husband left for a prolonged tour of Canada and the United States in 1951, Mr. Attlee was still Prime Minister; by the time of their return, Churchill had come back to 10 Downing Street. He had a wonderful gift of magnification, of capturing the unexpected word or phrase, of putting events into a broad context. To the Princess he said at Guildhall upon her return, “Madam, the whole nation is grateful to you for what you have done for us and to Providence for having endowed you with the gifts and personality which are not only precious to the British Commonwealth and Empire and its island home, but will play their part in cheering and in mellowing the forward march of human society all the world over.”6
Queen Elizabeth II
I had the honour to work for Sir Anthony Eden, who told me that one morning early in 1952 Churchill had rung him up with the words, “Anthony, imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen.” This was the Prime Minister’s way of breaking the news of King George VI’s death. In bed at Downing Street, Churchill sat alone in tears, looking straight ahead and reading neither his official documents nor the newspapers.
It happened that the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, who described this scene, had previously held the same office with Princess Elizabeth. “I had not realized how much the King meant to him,” we find in Mr. Colville’s diary. “I tried to cheer him up by saying how well he would get on with the new Queen, but all he could say was that he did not know her and that she was only a child.”7
This was merely a momentary expression, uttered at a moment of profound sadness, and not one by which Churchill would have wished to stand once his spirit was less troubled.
It is a measure of his longevity in politics that when he proposed the motion for Addresses of Sympathy, he could remind the House of Commons that he had been present whenever such a motion had been moved in the past—in 1901, in 1910, in 1936. It now fell to Churchill to describe the Queen as a fair and youthful figure, princess, wife and mother, “heir to all our traditions and glories, never greater than in her father’s days, and to all our perplexities and dangers, never greater in peacetime than now. She is also heir to all our united strength and loyalty.”8
The new monarch was ascending the throne, he remarked, at a moment when tormented mankind stood poised uncertainly between worldwide catastrophe on the one side and a golden age on the other. In speaking of catastrophe, he had in mind the enmity between the west and Russia, and the awful prospects opened up in the age of atomic and nuclear warfare; whereas if only a true and lasting peace could be achieved and if “the nations will only let each other alone,” undreamed-of prosperity, with culture and leisure ever more widely spread, might come to the masses of the people everywhere.9
Churchill adored the Queen. You will perhaps think the language unsuitable or even a little disrespectful; but no lesser expression will do. Gazing at a photograph in 1953, the one which shows her in a white dress and with long white gloves, displaying that enchanting smile which lights up her face as if a blind had suddenly been raised, the Prime Minister mused, “Lovely, she is a pet. I fear they may ask her to do too much. She is doing so well.”10
And again a week later, as he contemplated the same photograph, “Lovely, inspiring. All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part.”11 Thereupon he immediately began to sing from the hymn “Yet nightly pitch my moving tent/A day’s march nearer home.” (If you object that this piece of information seems scarcely relevant to my theme, I merely rejoin that historians are sticklers for completeness and love going off at a tangent.)
Her First Prime Minister
The Queen wished to confer the Order of the Garter, which he had declined when offered in 1945, upon Churchill. He had then felt that it would be inappropriate to receive such a distinction upon the morrow of his rejection at the General Election; whereas in the summer of the Coronation, the moment seemed more propitious. Her Private Secretary broached the matter with the Prime Minister in persuasive terms. This time, Churchill capitulated without much resistance but with a good deal of emotion. Then he said with a grin, “Now Clemmie will have to be a lady at last.”12
Churchill travelled far less than he had done during the war and when Parliament was sitting would normally wait upon Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace each week. Her Private Secretary remained in an ante-room, unable to hear the conversation but catching peals of laughter. “Winston generally came out wiping his eyes,” Sir Alan Lascelles once recorded. “‘She is en grande beauté ce soir,’ he said one evening in his schoolboy French.”13
In those final years of office, Churchill had combined rearmament and the strengthening of NATO with a prolonged effort to build some kind of bridge to Russia. He repeatedly postponed resignation and endured some sharp passages with his colleagues in consequence. By the spring of 1955, he knew it was time to go. A few days after his departure, the Queen wrote in her own hand from Windsor to say that while her confidence in Anthony Eden was complete, “it would be useless to pretend that either he or any of those successors who may one day follow him in office will ever, for me, be able to hold the place of my first Prime Minister, to whom both my husband and I owe so much and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful.”14
We may think of Churchill as an amiable or even reverent agnostic, who conceived of himself not as a pillar of the church but perhaps as a flying buttress. He did not invoke the Deity casually or cynically, a fact which confers its own interest upon his touching and heartfelt reply to the Queen:
Our Island no longer holds the same authority or power that it did in the days of Queen Victoria. A vast world towers up around it and after all our victories we could not claim the rank we hold were it not for the respect for our character and good sense and the general admiration not untinged by envy for our institutions and way of life. All this has already grown stronger and more solidly founded during the opening years of the present Reign, and I regard it as the most direct mark of God’s favour we have ever received in my long life that the whole structure of our new-formed Commonwealth has been linked and illuminated by a sparkling presence at its summit.15
Thus the monarchy signified for him something of infinite value, at once numinous and luminous; and if you will allow the remark in parenthesis, ladies and gentlemen, do you not sometimes long for someone at the summit of our public life who can think and write at that level?
Queen and Commonwealth
Sir Winston was by no means mistaken in drawing attention to the Queen’s role within the Commonwealth. He could not have foreseen how quickly governments in this country, as distinct from many millions of individual citizens, would cease to feel any serious interest in the Commonwealth. Indeed, it is not clear that the association could have survived in a recognisable form but for the Queen’s unfeigned commitment to it.
We have failed in knowledge, by which I mean that we have been far too ready to accept one-sided accounts of our relations with countries in every part of the Commonwealth. And we have failed in self-belief, for if we cannot be troubled to defend ourselves against assertions that Empire was nothing more than a cloak for greed and extortion, we should scarcely be surprised if others multiply such allegations, sometimes on the most grotesque scale.
Now we need an exercise of constructive imagination, to realize what our Commonwealth connections can do not only for us but for a much wider community. Though much has been lost beyond retrieval, a good deal remains. To give fresh life to those connections, to promote better understanding between countries and friendship between races, is of supreme importance. Perhaps that fact is now a little more apparent than it was, say, ten or twenty years ago. It is a task in part for politicians, but also for all of us; and, given the Queen’s identification of herself and the monarchy with Commonwealth over a span of sixty years, for the coming generation in the Royal Family.
When Churchill, still Prime Minister and nearing the age of eighty, looked upon the Queen’s picture in a newspaper, he murmured “The country is so lucky.” Exactly so; we should be less shy of acknowledging the fact.16
Featured Image: Churchill bids good-night to the Queen after a final dinner at Downing Street, 4 April 1955, the night before he retired as Prime Minister. In the doorway are Lady Churchill and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. (Official Biography, Vol. 8)
Professor Dilks is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull, author of The Great Dominion: Winston Churchill in Canada 1900-1954 (2005), and biographer of Neville Chamberlain. This text is based on his address to the Royal Society of St. George, City of London Branch, on 6 February 2007.
1 There are many versions of this story in print, but the most reliable is in R.W. Chambers, Man’s Unconquerable Mind (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939), 380-81.
2 On the resignation of Anthony Eden as Foreign Secretary, 20Feb38. In Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (London: Cassell, 1948), 102.
3 WSC to King George VI, in Churchill, Their Finest Hour (London: Cassell, 1949, 554.
4 Churchill’s capacious memory produced his quotation of Shakespeare (Troilus and Cressida, iii. 3), House of Commons, 22 October 1947, in Churchill, Europe Unite (London: Cassell, 1950), 168.
5 WSC to Princess Elizabeth, 20 May 1951, in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 6, Never Despair 1945-1965 (Hillsdale College Press, 2013), 613.
6 House of Commons, 19 November 1951, in Churchill, Stemming the Tide (London: Cassell, 1953), 194.
7 John Colville, The Fringes of Power (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 640.
8 WSC, House of Commons, 11 February 1952, in Churchill, Stemming the Tide, 244.
9 Ibid., 245.
10 WSC to Lord Moran, 18 February 1953 in Moran, Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: The Struggle for Survival 1940-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1966), 425.
11 Ibid., 429.
12 D. Hart-Davis (ed.), King’s Counsellor (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006), 344.
13 Ibid., 340.
14 The Queen to WSC, 11 April 1955. Gilbert, Never Despair, 1126.
15 WSC to The Queen, from Sicily, 18 April 1955, ibid., 1127-8.
16 WSC to Lord Moran, 4 November 1953 in Moran, Struggle for Survival, 528.