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The Young Elizabeth, Seen Through a Child’s Eyes

The diaries of Elizabeth’s wartime companion illustrates the special burdens faced by royalty—and Elizabeth’s fitness to bear them

· 13 min read
The Young Elizabeth, Seen Through a Child’s Eyes
An Imperial War Museum photo of HRH Princess Elizabeth observing military exercises in May, 1944. 

The Queen was always there in my world, first as a princess, and then as the monarch. I grew up in an era when monarchies were common, “empire” not nearly so pejorative a word as “communism,” and Canada’s intimate relationship to the Crown—something my cousins in the United States, then being so much more impressive than Canada in almost every other way, did not have—a point of pride.

I saw her in person once, in 1959, when I was 17, during a six-week tour she and Prince Philip made of all Canada’s provinces and territories. I was one of thousands of flag-wavers lining the route of their Toronto motorcade. They were in a convertible limo with the top down. For a second, I was that close to her, and I fancied her eyes met mine as she waved to the crowd. My heart jumped. She was radiantly beautiful.

I don’t mind if you sneer. All I can say is that royal mania was something of a contagion for (anglo) Canadian girls of my generation. In her 2019 autobiography, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin recounts her “crush” on the sovereign from age seven onward. So my fangirl devotion wasn’t unusual (although I did not actually keep a scrapbook of every newspaper article the Queen appeared in, as McLachlin did).

Queen Elizabeth II passing by Toronto’s Old City Hall during a 1959 visit. 

In retrospect, I can see the extreme oddity of my own Queen crush, and it has nothing to do with the evils of colonialism. I was a middle-class Jewish girl, the daughter of first-generation Canadians whose parents had emigrated from Poland and Rumania to escape antisemitism. What had I, who had never yet set foot in England, to do with the monarchy? But there it was. Perhaps being hooked on royalty made me feel more Canadian than my parents and grandparents, and that’s what I wanted to be.

Nowadays, it is of course increasingly seen as “more Canadian” to deride the monarchy. I used to argue with ardent republicans about the monarchy’s worth, but it’s a futile use of one’s time. The only way to prove the monarchy’s worth would be to abolish it, and let the negative effects of its absence speak for themselves. I don’t apologize or feel guilty about my monarchism, or about my continuing fascination with the royals. All in all, it’s a harmless fetish.

If, in 1923, Alathea Gwendoline Alys Mary Ward (née Fitzalan-Howard) had been born a boy rather than a girl, she would have been next in succession to the Duke of Norfolk. (Edward Fitzalan-Howard, the 18th and present Duke of Norfolk, is overseeing plans for the Queen’s funeral, as tradition dictates.) Her sex having disqualified her, with the title passing to a third male cousin, Alathea (1923–2001) was on that account a bitter disappointment to her status-obsessed mother, who reportedly never bestowed affection or even more than passing attention on the girl, apart from the odd compliment on her choice of garment. In order that her mother had maximum freedom to pursue her own interests and social pleasures, Alathea was often dumped on a curmudgeonly grandfather’s doorstep for long stretches of time, including the war years.

Alathea Gwendoline Alys Mary Ward, photographed in 1948, at age 24.

Life in her grandfather’s home—Cumberland Lodge, now home to a charitable foundation—was rather dreary. But it did offer what Alathea considered to be a spectacular advantage. It was situated in Windsor Great Park, within walking distance of Royal Lodge, where King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were, for their wartime security, locked down with their two adolescent daughters, Princess Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret.

Since Alathea was one of the few aristocratic youngsters in the area, she was frequently invited to Royal Lodge, where she took drawing and dancing lessons with the princesses, attended Girl Guide meetings, enjoyed picnics, charades, pony tending, meals, the viewing of home movies with the family, and even occasional sleepovers.

Alathea kept a diary of those years. In fact, she kept a diary for 64 years, never missing a day. She died in 2001, bequeathing all 64 volumes—one per year—to her niece-by-marriage, Lady Isabella Naylor-Leyland, who in 2020 published a pared-down edition of the five war years as The Windsor Diaries, 194045.

On the whole, Alathea’s residency with her grandfather was circumscribed by rather dull domestic routines, although now and then the reality of war would shatter the tedium. On November 5th, 1940, for example, she writes about making jam puffs and drop scones with the princesses at Cumberland Lodge. On November 6th, she is woken by an air-raid warning, “two ghastly whistles through the air,” and she spends the night shivering in the cellar. In the morning, she hears that a home very near the royal family has been hit, and one of the sons killed. “Oh! Dear God preserve us from this terrible fate, which surely we cannot have deserved.” But she was able to compartmentalize these intrusions. The following day, November 7th, she writes, “Grandpa brought back my dancing shoes. I was mad with joy. They are silver ones, from Harrods.”

Long stretches of time might go by with no communication from her mother. When word came, it was as often as not a withering put-down: “I had a letter from Mummy saying she thought I have a vague, puffy look when in a crowd.” Occasionally, she would cut herself “to give vent to the wild, furious misery that tore at my heart.”

Most of her writing in those years is devoted to Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, whom she refers to as PE, Lilibet or L; and PM or M, with K and Q for George VI and his wife Elizabeth (widely known as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother). Although she had crossed social paths with them on other occasions prior to the war—she had been at Elizabeth’s 10th birthday party, we later learn—Alathea’s feelings for the royal family become more intense in these newly intimate circumstances. She loves them with an ardour that seems to arise in equal measure from awareness of her privilege in being welcomed into the most inner of inner circles in the realm, and from the poignant contrast the royal family presents to her own loveless upbringing.

In an early entry, she writes, “I changed for Guides … we played in Royal Lodge most of [the] time. Crawfie [Marion Crawford, governess to the two princesses] and the princesses are the one spark of youth and vitality here for me … They are friends now, which they never could have been really but for the war. So, the war has done something for me, which I shall always look upon with gratitude.” A few months later, recounting the joys of an overnight stay with the princesses, she writes:

I can never deny that I love all the honour and ceremony involved in a royal visit but besides that I am very happy there. I think it is because there is a nursery. I have always loved a nursery life. Moreover, in that Castle, with its gilded rooms and corridors, there is an atmosphere of happy family life that I myself have never known. Ironically enough … it is the first Lady in the Land who has won my affection before my own mother … oh, dear Lord, do not let it all fade with my childhood.

These allusions to the nursery and her present “childhood” (she was 17!) tell their own tale of wishful regression to security in the embrace of loving adults. (When she left after this visit, Alathea recounts, Crawford “kissed me with open arms.”)

Marion Crawford with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

The king and queen treated Alathea with genuine warmth. The queen never forgot her birthday, and sometimes gave her valuable gifts, including fine jewellery, which Alathea would wear with a feeling of incandescent pride. “Q” would compliment Alathea on her clothes and hair, which made the girl swoon with pleasure. The less expressive, but considerate king, out walking his dog, once stopped to chat with her for a few minutes, and “then I came home feeling very happy.” Every small gesture of kindness by these social gods brings out the bliss and pain of Alathea’s existence, leaving her neediness shimmering on the page.

Alathea begins to dream that someday she will be invited to become Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting (an office dating to Medieval times). In fact, she admits “that has always been my ardent desire, and I do feel now that it is very possible but I should like always to be Lilibet’s friend whatever happens.”

These selected quotations cast Alathea as something of a gushing sycophant. But there is another side to Alathea that adds some spice to her observations. She was, in spite of her emotional circumstances, an aristocrat in her own right; and one often has the sense that she considers her Howard lineage (whose nobility dates to the 15th century) somewhat grander than the Windsors—a line of the two-century old House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which itself was constituted as a cadet branch of the positively ancient House of Wettin. (In a rather hostile address to the royals at Princess Diana’s funeral, Diana’s brother Charles gave the impression he felt the same about the Spencers vis-à-vis the Windsors.)

Alathea disapproved of her mother, but she had absorbed her social judgmentalism—even of royalty—by osmosis. Here she is, for instance, in a haughty flight that is, unbeknownst to her, flattering of her target: “Lilibet [now 15] said she’d had her hair permed—it looked v nice in front but too stiff behind. She told me that Philip, her beau, had been for the weekend and that I must come and see him if he came again! She said he’s very funny, which doesn’t sound my type actually—the only thing that does bore me about the royal family is that they all will tell a [joke] that they’ve heard on wireless, etc. No one else I know is in the least interested in those sort of silly jokes, but then the K and Q and the princesses are v simple people.”

One eventually forms the impression that Alathea is not quite so in love with Elizabeth as she claims to be, much preferring the more merry (and “naughty”) Margaret. Or perhaps it is simple envy of Elizabeth’s baseline serenity, a state that Alathea continually aspires to, but fails to achieve. A therapist could have a field day with this entry: “[Lilibet] never desires what doesn’t come her way; always happy in her own family, she never needs the companionship of outsiders; she never suffers, therefore she never strongly desires … Margaret is far and away more the type I would like for the future queen—she has that frivolity and irresponsibility that L lacks.” (It is, of course, far from clear why anyone would want a monarch who exhibits “frivolity and irresponsibility.”)

Alathea could not see (or did not admit) that her preference for Margaret was based solely in the fact that the younger girl showed her overt affection, while Elizabeth, although always exquisitely polite and pleasant in her manner, did not. Later, attending Margaret’s 10th birthday party, Alathea confides to her diary, “Going to Margaret’s birthday is a treat I never anticipated and it means all the more to me since I went to Lilibet’s tenth birthday over four years ago at Royal Lodge. How different she was from what M is now—so much more serious and grown-up and yet not nearly so sweet and attractive.”

Like her mother, Alathea is obsessed with appearance and protocol. For Elizabeth’s 14th birthday party, her first real social event at Windsor Castle (to which the family had by then moved from Royal Lodge, five kilometers to the south), Alathea wore “my green skirt and striped blouse.” The princesses “had lovely pale blue dresses.” The whole family was “charming,” but alas, there was “no proper birthday cake.” One day, Crawfie brings them to tea at Cumberland Lodge. “They wore the same as they did when they came last February, which I thought unnecessary (bricky coats and skirts and striped jerseys). They always seem to wear their nicest clothes at home.” And “I can’t bear [the princesses’] Aertex shirts [loosely woven cotton] … they always look frightfully ordinary.”

King George VI, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and Queen Elizabeth in a 1940 photo.

Alathea never realized her dream of being asked to be Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting. Nor did she realize another dream, of meeting the heir to a great fortune and a grand estate, where they would live happily ever after with their children. She ended up in a marriage with an Earl’s younger son that produced no children. But she did stay in contact with Queen Elizabeth until her death in 2001, and, according to her niece/editor, even contemplated leaving the Queen her jewellery at one point. Talk about coals to Newcastle.

The Windsor Diaries offer few factual revelations about the Queen’s childhood, which already had been the subject of a number of accounts by palace insiders and historians. Their novelty lies in the point of view of the observer. Other accounts of the princesses’ childhood have been published by adults, and so with an invisible editor on their shoulder as they wrote. Alathea, on the other hand, offers the unfiltered thoughts of another girl, of the same general class, close to her age, who is writing about Elizabeth, but speaking to herself alone. (It was only much later in her life that Alathea formed the wish to see her diaries published.)

There is a strong “Prince and the Pauper” vibe to Alathea’s love-resentment relationship with the princesses. Alathea was an emotional “pauper” whose unhappy state was directly linked to her sex and the iron law of primogeniture, compounded by a cold and calculating mother. By chance she is drawn into the orbit of another girl, also brotherless, but still destined for glory, simply because the rules of succession for dukedoms (exclusive male primogeniture) are different from those for the Crown (which have permitted female monarchs for centuries). Moreover, this other girl is surrounded by the fairy-tale family of Alathea’s fantasies. How could Alathea not feel at some atavistic level that Elizabeth was a living mockery of her own expulsion from what she regarded as the social paradise to which she’d been bred?

In a ruminative mood, housebound with a cold on a late December day, Alathea alludes in her diary to “the relations between Mummy and Daddy, drifting apart, each content to follow his or her own pursuits. They accept the situation as it is, and live rather as good friends than as husband and wife, which, if not all they once hoped for, is at least a great deal. But who among the nobility of any age, has ever achieved true happiness? I for one do not seek it.”

Of course, Alathea did nothing else but seek true happiness, because she had not known any in childhood. Her friend Elizabeth knew so much true happiness in childhood, she had no need to seek it, but could concentrate her energies on learning the ropes of the lifelong obligations she had so biddably embraced. And in this way, Alathea inadvertently showed readers why Elizabeth would be so well-suited to her role as Queen—even as Alathea was purporting to argue the opposite proposition. It was this perfect fit between person and role that made Elizabeth so beloved, and which drew so many of us into spontaneous public displays of rapturous admiration, including the teenage me all those many years ago.

A loving home for a child of the nobility is all very well, but it takes more than love to make a nobleman or noblewoman in the mold of Elizabeth. Personality is equally important. Elizabeth had the right one. So did her husband. A blueblood by birth, Prince Philip had, after all, to make his way in the world with practically no family at all, loving or otherwise, yet is remembered as a great royal consort.

King Charles III was raised in a stable, but not especially enlightened family on the “loving” side, with an emotionally distant mother (Elizabeth’s famous dedication to “duty” came at a cost to her children) and a father who did not hide his disappointment in what he considered to be Charles’s character deficits. It was good that Charles had so many years to come to terms with his parental issues, not to mention his tragically forced and loveless union with Diana, with all that that entailed, and get past them. I think he will make a fine king, and Camilla an ideal consort.

Charles’s own two sons had a great deal of love lavished upon them, but—again, personality—with starkly disparate results. Fortunately, it is the son with the more apt personality who will succeed to the throne.

In a pleasingly ironic twist, William and Kate moved into their new home in Windsor Great Park, the scene of their grandmother’s war years, just days before the Queen’s demise. It is a relatively small house with only four bedrooms, with no accommodation for live-in help. (The son with the wrong personality lives in a Los Angeles mansion, with 11 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms.) The Cambridges—now Prince and Princess of Wales—adopted a radically pared-down lifestyle as a deliberated choice. It is a symbol of the future king’s commitment to a different style of monarchy, one more suited to his era.

I daresay Alathea would have been appalled at William’s and Kate’s voluntary curtailment of royal privilege in their household. But I think Elizabeth saw the point of the gesture, and approved it. We modern monarchists see in this trade-off—whereby love of family and dutiful conservation of stabilizing royal protocols and unifying traditions can co-exist in harmony—a sign of assurance that Elizabeth’s death does not, as some predict (and many hope) augur the end of the British monarchy. Rather, it may well spell the beginning of a dynamic new chapter in an ongoing story that is still a long way from completion.

Barbara Kay

Barbara Kay is a columnist for the National Post. Her previous Quillette articles include Remembering Roger Scruton, Defender of Reason in a World of Postmodern Jackals.

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