Here, as we celebrate the 63rd year of Queen Elizabeth’s reign this week, we walk in the footsteps of Kate Middleton, the woman who would be queen.
Originally published in Zoomer magazine, June 2012
I’m lying in bed in my London hotel room. It’s a bright and balmy March morning, the crocuses and daffodils that grace the window box on my private terrace are in glorious bloom, and any moment breakfast will be brought to me by a footman dressed in formal morning suit. Did I say footman? I meant bellman – or did I?
You see, this isn’t just any bed in just any London hotel. No sir or madam: my body is lying snug atop a giant fluffy mattress fit for a queen. And given the fact that said mattress is in The Goring Hotel, that is not a pun. The Goring is the oh-so-discreet five-star hotel where the then Kate Middleton spent her final night as a singleton last April 28 before marrying Prince William, the man who will one day become king.
As I stroll to Buckingham Palace, I can’t help but wonder what goes through the Duchess’s mind, or anyone involved in the Royal Family, as she or he turns the corner and sees the castle gates and, through it, the pebbled Quadrangle and that famous balcony – scene of many a historic royal wave and a kiss or two. My purpose is less romantic.
I’m here to get the details on the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, followed by a tour of the staterooms. If you’re an anti-monarchist, best to stop reading now. But for the rest of us, the Jubilee is a time to honour Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who by all accounts – even the naysayers – has fulfilled the promise spoken on her 21st birthday in 1947: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”
Thankfully, her life and her reign has been long indeed. Long enough so far to have seen the appointments of 12 British prime ministers, 12 presidents of the United States and 11 Canadian prime ministers. Currently she is patron of approximately 600 charities and, at 86, to still be carrying out hundreds of official engagements as Head of State, Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Head of the British Armed Forces. And that’s not even touching on how she’s had to juggle her own scandal- ridden family matters throughout.
But perhaps the most anticipated event is later that afternoon with the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, where 1,000 boats carrying approximately 30,000 people will be afloat. According to the pageant master there will be every sort of watercraft from royal frigates to tall ships to fishing trawlers to paddle boats, with the jewel in the crown being The Spirit of Chartwell, the royal barge that will carry the Queen and members of the Royal family as Handel’s Water Music is broadcast along the river. And if that wasn’t uite enough pomp, there will be a floating belfry to ring the Royal Jubilee Bell met with church bells sounding off along the Thames. Then, after loyal subjects sleep off the Pimms and pints, the BBC Concert at Buckingham Palace sounds off on June 4 in front of 10,000 lucky residents who won a lottery to attend.
I feel like a lottery winner myself as I’m given a tour of the staterooms, which are the areas of the palace open to the public when the Queen is not in residence. Our group is escorted by knowledgeable guides and reminded that photography is strictly banned, as is lingering too long in one spot, whether to gaze at any of the dozens of fine art portraits or to imagine the ballroom stretched to capacity with the court in full dress – a temptation matched only by the vigilance of the staff who shoo you onward. So on we go, through the State Dining Room with its table of Spanish mahogany, polished to such a shine that tablecloths are never used, allowing the reflective twinkle of candlelight off its surface to illuminate the room. A large portrait of King George IV – who began the palace in 1825 – looms overhead. Despite the keen eyes of the palace guards, I manage to stroke the table’s smooth finish before moving into the Blue Drawing Room where guests might retire for après-dinner coffee. It is in this room that the Queen has honoured many people with an MBE or OBE. Indeed, all the staterooms (which house Rembrandts and Vermeers among other masters) are used as reception rooms and are linked by giant wooden doors to host larger events and also overlook the gardens where Her Majesty’s garden parties take place.
Not that I’m without guile. As media, we are allowed this glimpse inside palace walls while Her Majesty is safely ensconced in her private rooms across the courtyard. As we enter the White Drawing Room, it is explained to us that a large mirror on one wall conceals a secret door to the private apartments – just like you seen in films. A fleeting temptation to break away from the group and see how far I could get runs through my mind. Our group was surely large enough that one missing journalist would go unnoticed. Due to my best behaviour genes as well as the tightened security, ramped up for the Jubilee and also in response to that ill-fated break-in of 1982 when the Queen had to confront an intruder, I keep walking like the nice Canadian that I am.
The tour continues through the Green Room, site of Cecil Beaton’s famous Coronation Day photographic portraits of the Queen, and finally down the Grand Staircase, where I run my hand down a railing polished by the palms of kings and queens, princes and princesses and all manner of royalty and aristocracy. Then, just like that, it is over, and we are escorted across the expansive pebble Quadrangle, an impressive drive that has been the site of countless arrivals by horse and carriage, out the front gates and left to stare up through the wrought iron at the lighted palace like the commoners we are.
Which brings me back to the Duchess of Cambridge. A friend of mine who resides in London had the good fortune to attend an earlier media reception at the palace where both the Queen and the Duchess were in attendance. My friend was outraged that the young woman was surrounded by people, while on the other side of the room Her Majesty had an audience of only two or three. “There’s the Queen practically alone, while Kate is the star,” my friend scoffed. “Kate has nothing to say!” I didn’t wish to argue but I couldn’t help but think that the Queen might be happy, if not a little relieved, that her family’s role in public life is on an upward swing, and that’s in large part due to the stylish, if not outspoken, Duchess.
The wedding also breathed fresh air into less obvious places and into less famous faces. Take one particular insider at Westminster Abbey, which was founded by Edward the Confessor in the 1040s. The Abbey walls have seen the coronation of 38 sovereigns, beginning with William the Conqueror, and the weddings of 16 royal couples, including Queen Elizabeth II (at the time, she was Princess Elizabeth) and, of course, Wills and Kate. As I was toured through the Abbey by a verger named David, a very charismatic man in his 50s, he beamed with great pride when telling me that he was the man who escorted Prince William and best man Prince Harry from the Chapel of St. Edmund to the High Altar. He was clearly a fan.
And this resurgence in popularity of all things royal is not lost on the folks who run the non-profit organization Historic Royal Palaces, a group that manages the Tower of London, Kew Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House and Kensington Palace on behalf of the Queen. Kensington Palace reopened to the public in March after a £12 million (approximately C$19 million) restoration. The permanent exhibit, Victoria Revealed, seeks to explore the life and reign of Queen Victoria, who grew up within the palace walls and includes jewelry, her wedding dress and letters in her own handwriting. To coincide with the Diamond Jubilee, a temporary exhibit that runs until November explores the 1897 celebrations of Queen Victoria’s own Diamond Jubilee as she was the first British monarch to reach this milestone. The State Apartments have also been given a new twist for visitors by showcasing previous monarchs such as Queen Mary II, who died in the palace from smallpox at the age of 32 and whose childlessness was a cause of her great unhappiness, and the life of her sister, Queen Anne, who reigned for 12 years and gave birth to 18 children, though sadly none survived. There is also a Diana installation with five of her dresses, the entry walls to which are covered in wallpaper patterned with artist drawings of key moments in the Princess’s life.
Or she could simply read this extract from the Queen’s 1953 coronation speech: “Throughout all my life and with all my heart, I shall strive to be worthy of your trust. In this resolve, I have my husband to support me. He shares all my ideals and all my affection for you. Then, although my experience is so short and my task so new, I have in my parents and grandparents an example which I can follow with certainty and with confidence.”
Those words seem as fitting today as they were then. The Queen was only 27 when she spoke them, the Duchess is only 30 now. Yet the Duchess could easily say the same about her husband, Prince William, whose guidance she has now and will continue to have when he is one day crowned king. She has been well prepared for the role of her life. When she gave her first public speech in March, one could see her, albeit with a voice tinged with nervousness, channelling the dignified composure of Elizabeth II.
As I make my way back to The Goring and one last night spent in aristocratic splendour, the sun begins to set on Buckingham Palace, and the twilight casts a glow across the balcony high above the Quadrangle. I imagine the Queen and the future Queen standing up there and waving to the June crowds gathered outside its gates to celebrate Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. God save the Queen.