One of the Queen’s great achievements has been to preserve, for most at least, an allure of fascination for the monarchy. Like a jigsaw puzzle with too few straight edges, the story of her life, her personality and character has been pieced together using the memories and anecdotes of those who have been in her company.
Many pieces of the jigsaw have emerged through photographs and royal memorabilia in episodes of Antiques Roadshow, now pulled together to commemorate the milestone of her becoming the nation’s longest serving monarch.
A dutiful insistence on letter writing is revealed. Take the letter of thanks she wrote to Harold Mayhew, the BBC’s superintendent of lighting who was responsible for the first live Christmas broadcast in 1957. Mayhew helped select the Queen’s dress for the black and white broadcast because tone of fabric, rather than colour, was all-important. Hearing that Mayhew was described by colleagues as a bit grumpy, she playfully addressed the card to “Dear Mr Grumps”.
Or the note she sent to the King’s Lynn vet who tended her pet corgi Susan – an 18th birthday present – just before the dog’s death in January 1959. “Dear Mr Swann,” she wrote. “I had always dreaded losing her as I had had her since she was six weeks old, but I am so thankful that her suffering was so mercifully short.” Susan’s descendants are the corgis that the Queen still exercises today.
Charles Collingwood, The Archers’ Brian Aldridge, revealed that his godmother, Adria Irving-Bell, came to the rescue when Princess Elizabeth learned of her father’s death – and her own destiny – while on holiday in Kenya in 1952.
Fiona Bruce at Balmoral for the Antiques Roadshow royal special
Because Palace officials knew how ill George VI was, the 74 pieces of luggage included a suitcase of mourning clothes. “But to their horror, when they opened it they found there were no long black gloves for the young Queen to wear,” says Collingwood. “So my godmother stood up and said, ‘Why don’t you have mine, ma’am?’. And those are the gloves she is seen returning to Britain in.”
Well known for her love of horses, the Queen is also something of a pigeon fancier. When Len Rush, the keeper of the royal lofts at Sandringham, struggled to make the twice-daily bike ride to tend the pigeons, she suggested that he moved the lofts to his own back garden and made regular visits to his modest home. “She would have coffee with him and he’d got two china cups and saucers specially kept for her and the lady in waiting,” a friend recalls.
“But he had a piece of cotton tied around the handle of the cup that he gave to the Queen so that no one else drank from it. I jokingly said to him, ‘I hope you take the cotton off before you serve the Queen’, and he said ‘No, of course not, I’d get them muddled up’. So Her Majesty, if she watches this programme, will know why the cotton was round the handle.
At the Coronation in 1953, Lady Jane Rayne was one of the six maids of honour attending the Queen at Westminster Abbey. She revealed that the ladies’ long gloves concealed phials of smelling salts. “Thank goodness we had them because we had to stand for a long time – and we hadn’t eaten. One of the maids of honour suddenly felt very faint and luckily the person to her right, with great presence of mind, whipped out the little bottle and she took a big sniff and somehow got through the rest of it.”
The Antiques Roadshow Royal special is on tonight (Sunday 13th September) at 7.30pm