Photos, L to R: Queen Elizabeth II on her way to her first State Opening of Parliament as monarch, Nov. 4, 1952. (Douglas Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images); The Queen at the 2006 State Opening of Parliament on Nov. 15, 2006 in London. (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images); Inset: 'The Queen: Her Life' by Andrew Morton
The Queen: Her Life
Veteran royal biographer Andrew Morton dishes on his new book about Elizabeth II, his depiction in Season 5 of "The Crown" and King Charles / BY Leanne Delap / December 2nd, 2022
There are, in the main, three kinds of royal biographers: the historians who adhere to academic rigour; the hagiographers, who document the minutiae of royal lives with studied deference; and the hacks, who go for the jugular, looking to orchestrate as many gotcha moments and tabloid bombshell reveals as possible.
Andrew Morton is in a class of his own. Since the moment he published Diana: Her True Story in 1992 – which revealed the depth of her unhappiness with Charles, detailed her suicide attempts and struggles with bulimia, anxiety and depression, and led to the implosion of her marriage – Morton has been synonymous with getting the inside scoop. He has, by dint of that pop-culture moment, become a biographer who is part of the royal story itself. Though it was not revealed at the time, the book was produced with the full co-operation of the Princess of Wales, and his character even makes an appearance in The Crown (more on that later), with a dramatic depiction of his cloak-and-dagger reporting.
Morton’s latest book, The Queen: Her Life, has landed just in time for Christmas. This is not a book full of bombshell revelations; it is a thoughtful look at the main character in a family Morton has spent a lifetime covering. At 69, he is no longer exchanging envelopes with courtiers from secret royal sources. The library was his secret weapon here, and the institutional insights he built up over nearly four decades on the royal beat allow him to tell this story through his own, unique lens.
Originally timed for next spring, it was rushed into print after the death of the sovereign in September. He had already finished it, so the rush was all on the production side, he says in a phone interview from his home in Pasadena (he splits his year between the U.K. and California).
The story of the Queen’s life was a natural follow-up to 2020’s Elizabeth & Margaret, his look at the 20th-century heir and the spare. But Morton’s investigations into royal lives and the institution is deep and varied: among his works are three more Diana books, biographies of William and Catherine, Sarah Ferguson, Prince Andrew, Meghan Markle, Wallis Simpson, books about Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace, and a book about the Windsors and the Nazis (17 Carnations). He has also focused on American-style celebrity, writing biographies of Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Monica Lewinsky, but royal copy is definitely his sweet spot.
The Queen is the biggest game in the biography game, and Morton was just as shocked as the rest of us when she died at 96. “Even though, rationally, you saw she was getting more frail, emotionally you thought she was going to live forever. I also felt that with the Queen Mum living to 102, there was every chance the Queen might, too.”
He is honoured to have been a professional observer of Elizabeth II, particularly in her later years, “the most successful and enjoyable part of her reign.
“It was the most interesting; there was nobody telling her what to do. Her mother was a backseat driver for a long time. I deal with that in the book. It is worth emphasizing, that [the Queen Mother] was an extravagant Edwardian lady, who always wanted to put on the brakes.” When Philip, her sounding board, retired in 2017, it freed her to follow her own instincts.
There is one photograph that sticks with Morton, which reveals everything about her relationship with her mother. “There is a shot, later in life, of the Queen with her hands in her pockets,” just one of many things the Queen Mother forbade. “It’s incongruous. One of the richest, most influential women in the world, and her aim was simply to put her hands in her pockets.”
In the book, he says it shows just how constrained her early life was. “She and sister were prisoners in the palace, not just during the Second World War, but before that. You see a picture in the book of Margaret and Elizabeth in fancy dress with other children. That was rare. Normally they were left to their own devices, with nannies and governesses.”
All in the Family
Nonetheless, Elizabeth’s family was a close and happy one, and “that ideal of closeness was very much a part of her make-up.” Family and friendship, he says, were two abiding characteristics. “Still, she married the first man that came across her path. There must have been a psychological need to escape the palace – the fur-lined trap – to be themselves.”
The chapter on young Elizabeth’s courtship with Philip is really quite romantic; it is in contrast to the turmoil Morton chronicles in the next chapter, involving all the people arrayed against the union, the Prince being a pauper, and so closely associated with the German side of the family. “Philip faced quite a headwind to be accepted. Tommy Lascelles [the advisor to three kings and, later, the Queen] felt he was too brash and sure of himself, too European and on the make.”
Love prevailed, and Morton contends the early years of marriage were a revelation and a taste of freedom for the Princess. The author spent time in Malta researching the book, where Elizabeth and Philip lived during his naval posting, between 1949 and 1951. When her father’s health deteriorated, Philip took an indefinite leave and never returned to his career.
“I can’t emphasize strongly enough that this was her first time allowed out,” Morton says. That taste of normal life was tragically short lived, after the King died in 1952 and Elizabeth ascended to the throne.
Morton spends a great deal of ink, appropriately, on the early days of her reign. “The first years of being queen were absolutely daunting, because she didn’t feel that she was prepared,” he says. “She was dealing with an international superstar in [Prime Minister] Winston Churchill.” There were fractious family issues, such as Margaret’s doomed relationship with Peter Townsend – whom she was madly in love with, but couldn’t marry because he was divorced – and Philip’s simmering resentment over giving up his career. Not to mention the country was at war. “There was Britain with 100,000 troops on the Korean peninsula. She was a wartime queen. She also had grief for her father, and the private life she and Philip anticipated they would have more time to live.” Malta, he says, was very precious to her.
I ask Morton how many times he met the Queen himself, and he pauses to count. “Three or four, but more than that was the time spent on royal tours. On those tours, things didn’t always go to plan, and you would see more of them.”
The Crown, on TV
In modern-day royal life, the players have to contend with social media and tabloids, as well as fictional portrayals. The Crown is an ever-present subject on Morton’s press tour, mainly because he was once again inserted into the story. Season 5 was defined by the publication of Diana: Her True Story.
One thing I noted in The Queen is that Morton describes his involvement in the publication of the Diana book in the third person. “It’s a literary conceit,” he shares now. “It has taken on a life of its own. I feel like the midwife, and now the child is a middle-aged adult.”
So, how did it feel being portrayed in The Crown? Morton was actually a consultant for that episode. “I felt they could have made more out if it, because the ramifications for the family – the finger pointing – gave Diana the opportunity to think about her future, and led to a debate inside Britain about the future of the monarchy.” He adds: “I’m not the show runner, but I would have had a bit more of that, and a bit less of the fire.”
It was a fascinating experience to tell them everything in granular detail. “In some ways, it was more dramatic than it was painted onscreen, the brooding tensions for the better part of a year.” If Diana had been caught talking to Morton, there would have been severe repercussions. “We couldn’t use mobile phones, so we used call boxes. I’ve always felt it was the royal version of All the President’s Men.”
He confirms there was indeed a break in, but it was at his home and not his office. And that Dr. James Colthurst, who was Diana’s friend and go-between with Morton, really did get sideswiped on his bike, and the original tape recordings of their conversations did go sprawling around the street.
Morton also praises Elizabeth Debicki, who played Diana. “Her portrayal, the mannerisms and inflections, brought me back 30 years. It brought it all back in quite a profound way.”
The Future King
As to the start of Charles III’s reign, Morton jumps right to the point. “I think they were very concerned about how The Crown would have an impact [and] what impact Prince Harry’s new book [Spare, which comes out Jan. 10] will have.”
He notes his daughter was one of the first to shake King Charles’s hand outside Buckingham Palace when he returned after the Queen died. “The House of Morton was well represented,” he jokes.
“I’m struck by his slightly more relaxed walkabout style. He’s been kissed a few times, and you never would have seen that before. He’s had eggs thrown at him. He handled it well.”
Morton calls the shout-out to Harry and Meghan in the King’s first speech “an olive leaf, not an olive branch.” Charles is still very much in the honeymoon period, which brings Morton back to his story about the Queen’s transition. “It was going to be a new Elizabethan age, Britain going forward at the end of rationing.” But detractors accused her of relying too much on cue cards when she spoke, and he says royal have always had to battle headwinds.
Reading the book feels like speaking with Morton, who is a charming interviewee. He is easy to talk to and, similarly, his prose flows like water. As someone who has read most of the recent biographies of Elizabeth II, what matters to me is the writer keeping me engaged. There is never that much new to learn; the outlines of the Queen’s life are well known, and she succeeded exceedingly well in keeping her private life confidential. But context, as they say, is everything, and so is outlook and tone; Morton has worked his way through the Royal Family and remains mostly unjaded and unbiased. His book is a good companion to hang out with for a few hours, and so is the Queen.