Monday, 13 August 2012

New books: The all too familiar story of the early years of Elizabeth II

One of the best books of 2011 was Philip Eade’s Young Prince Philip, an excellent account of the life of the Duke of Edinburgh up to his wife’s coronation in 1953, which added greatly to the general knowledge and understanding of Prince Philip, his family, his background and the circumstances which shaped his character.
Now the historian Kate Williams has attempted to do the same with the subject of Prince Philip’s wife. Sadly Young Elizabeth: The Making of Our Queen, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in June, is the very opposite of Eade’s study: a book which adds nothing to our understanding of Queen Elizabeth II.
The book is well-written and an easy read (326 pages in a small format), and traces the story from the births of Queen Elizabeth’s parents to how Princess Margaret dealt with the Peter Townsend crisis in the mid-1950s. The starting and ending points themselves say something about one of the book’s weaknesses, namely that the choice of what to include sometimes seems rather random and that the author appears to struggle to see what is relevant and significant and what is not.
The very well-known story of Elizabeth II’s early years is told strictly chronologically and Williams has no new facts or insight to add, nor does she offer any new perspectives. Except for the abdication of Edward VIII we hear very little about who or what influenced the young Elizabeth and shaped her character and attitudes.
Carelessness about facts, which also ruined her contribution to last year’s book about English royal weddings, seems to be characteristic of Kate Williams’s writings.
A list of all the factual mistakes of this book would fill pages. On the first page following the prologue, we learn that George VI was “the second son and third child of King George V”, but we hear no more about who this mystery elder sister might have been. His elder brother, the future Edward VIII, is said to have been born in 1893 rather than in 1894, while the birth of the future George VI in 1895 is said to have taken place on the 35th anniversary of Prince Albert’s death in 1861.
The child born on the anniversary was named Albert and only later took the name George VI, which causes Williams to mix up Albert with his younger brother George. Of the third brother, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who seems to have been dull and has been called dim-witted, but was duty-conscious and hard-working, we learn the startling new fact that he “grew up to be as dishonest and greedy as the sons of George III”.
Queen Victoria’s daughters Louise (died 1939) and Beatrice (died 1944) would certainly have been surprised to learn that, at the time of Princess Elizabeth’s birth in 1926, their brother Arthur was “[the] last surviving child of Queen Victoria”. Perhaps the author has a soft spot for Prince Arthur, for he is also accorded the honour of having been wanted for Greek King in 1863, although it was in fact his brother Alfred the Greeks desired.
There were certainly much more than twenty reigning monarchs in Europe in 1895; Emperor Wilhelm II did not agree to abdicate on 9 November 1918 but was deposed against his will; Prince George did not marry “Princess Marina of Kent”, but Princess Marina of Greece, in 1934; it was Queen Mary’s grandparents, not her parents, who made a morganatic marriage; the Sudetenland and the Sudeten Germans are consistently called “Sudatenland” and “Sudaten”; Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945, not 1 May; King Haakon did not attend Prince Charles’s christening; Queen Mary did in fact not leave absolutely nothing in her will to the Queen Mother (who actually inherited several pieces of jewellery); Edward VII was not the grandfather, but the great-grandfather of Princess Margaret; and Queen Elizabeth II did not walk in her father’s funeral procession, which also did not take place on 16, but on 15, February 1952.
Prince Philip was not born second in line to the Greek throne and his grandfather did not come to the Greek throne in 1863 “after a long and bitter war for independence with the Ottoman Empire” (that was Otto of Bavaria three decades before). And when will British writers stop repeating the utter nonsense that Prince Philip, the son of a Greek father and a British mother, “was German”? The practice whereby one acquires the nationality of one’s brothers-in-law seems to be limited to the case of Prince Philip. But then again, Williams also wants us to believe that Queen Mary was indeed a German citizen and “might, theoretically, have qualified for interning [during World War II], had she not been too old”.
To claim that Princess Elizabeth was destined to be the “most powerful woman in Europe” surely grossly overestimates the powers of the constitutional monarch of Britain. On the other hand it is also quite surprising to learn on the penultimate page that the Commonwealth is currently breaking up (it has in fact more members than ever) and that Jamaica “has expressed its desire to depart”. Republican voices have indeed been heard in Jamaica recently, but this is not at all the same as leaving the Commonwealth.
Here we have Louis Mountbatten rather than his father resigning as First Sea Lord in 1914 and it seems the author wants us to believe that Winston Churchill resigned voluntarily at the end of World War II while he was in fact, rather surprisingly, ousted by a general election. When World War II comes to an end (Williams seem to think that it ended on VE Day, forgetting that the war outside Europe went on for several more months) the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret suffers the sudden death the following Christmas of their nanny Clara Knight, who had by that time in fact already been dead for four years. By 1948, Williams has the Duke and Duchess of Windsor living serenely in Nottingham Cottage at Kensington Palace. And so on and so forth.
To add to this, titles are often wrong. Princess Mary is again and again referred to as “the Princess Royal” at times when the title still belonged to Princess Louise; Queen Mary is referred to as “the Queen” in the reign of George VI; Queen Elizabeth as “the Queen Mother” in the reign of her husband and Elizabeth II herself as “the Queen” on her wedding day, several years before the death of her father made her so. The wife of Edward VII fares worse; she is consistently referred to as “Princess Alexandra” in the reign of her husband.
There are also several contradictions. To name just one example, we learn that the Duke of Windsor was the only European royal not invited to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, but later hear that Prince Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited either.
The author is surely the person primarily responsible for these failures, but the publishers also seem to have neglected their duty to ensure the quality of the books they offer for sale. The publishers are probably also the ones to blame for the decision not to include the endnotes in the book itself, but to relegate them to a website. This solution is surely worthless, unless the reader sits in front of his or her computer screen while reading the book. And given that no website lasts forever, this also means that those who may pick up this book in say twenty or two hundred years will most likely not be able to find the endnotes. But perhaps the publishers realised that this book will have a short life.
Of the vast amount of literature about Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, some books, such as Ben Pimlott’s biography The Queen (1996) and Robert Hardman’s Our Queen (2011), stand out because of their original and significant contributions to the understanding of the second longest reigning British monarch. Kate Williams’s Young Elizabeth, on the other hand, will take its place among the many insignificant and easily forgotten books about Elizabeth II.


  1. That is indeed long list of factual errors, good sir.

    I might be willing to grant forgiveness for referring to royals by what they were later in life if that were a consistent, conscious choice of contextual reference.

    Is there anything from the story of Her Britannic Majesty's succession? It is a common misconception that the Queen got the message of her accession at Treetops, where she indeed was when the King passed away, but the message was given to her by the Duke of Edinburgh at Sagana Lodge later in the day.

    Can you recall if the book got that right?

    1. Yes, I too can forgive people for "premature" use of titles if it is done consistently and it is clear to whom one refers, but this is not the case here. For instance, the author generally refers to the current Queen of Britain as "Princess Elizabeth" or "Elizabeth" or "the Princess" before her accession, but then suddenly writes that on 20 November 1947, the Queen drove to Westminster Abbey in the Irish State Coach - which actually suggests that it was the bride's mother who was in that carriage.

      Yes, the accession is covered by the book and the author gives the correct version of her whereabouts.

  2. It always disappoints me that books such as this keep getting published. There seems, since the Cambridge wedding and the Diamond Jubilee a glut of books about the Queen, an admirable woman about whom there has been scarcely any new information revealed in many years. Obviously there is a market for it, but with such fierce competition for publishers' attention, it seems a pity there cannot be more illuminating books about other aspects of royalty.


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