LONDON – At the peak of the latest crisis facing the House of Windsor, which saw Prince Harry and Meghan announce, via Instagram, their decision to quit their roles as senior royals, it was Queen Elizabeth II who took hold of the spinning wheel, to steady the family – and protect the royal brand.
At 93, an age when many matriarchs would be among the dearly or nearly departed, or elbowed aside to allow an ambitious younger generation to run the show, the queen remains firmly in charge — of both a sprawling, often problematic family and the monarchy.
It was the queen who convened the meeting at her royal estate in Sandringham this week to deal with Harry and Meghan, Dutchess of Sussex. And although her son and heir, Prince Charles, reportedly assisted, afterward it was the queen who issued her very personal statement to sort out the matter.
Of all the thinly sourced tabloid narratives about feuding royal houses and their woes, the one with zero traction is that Elizabeth is losing it.
She is the epitome of cool under pressure, able to move from one challenge to the next, said Penny Junor, a royal historian.
“She remains the ultimate professional,” Junor said. “She’s very good at crises.”
Elevated to the throne at age 25 in 1953, after the death of her father, King George VI, Elizabeth vowed to serve her country for her whole life, be it short or long, and that is what she is doing.
Some like to dismiss her as a stodgy anachronism, in her sensible shoes and with her sensible handbags. Yet by all accounts, the queen remains a keen player, a sturdy negotiator who has worked with 14 prime ministers during her reign, from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson.
In the past few months, she has ushered former prime minister Theresa May offstage, allowing her to retain her dignity, and welcomed Johnson into power, even if he misled her about his reasons for wanting to suspend Parliament. And she has presided over the opening sessions of not one but two Parliaments, giving two Queen’s Speeches, with nary a misplaced word.
Johnson on Tuesday said he was “absolutely confident” the royal family would find the right solution for Harry and Meghan.
“My view on this is very straightforward: I am a massive fan, like most of our viewers, of the queen and the royal family as a fantastic asset for our country,” Johnson told a BBC morning show.
During a period when Britain has pinned its hopes on an advantageous post-Brexit trade deal with the United States, the queen has hosted a gushing President Donald Trump three times – at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace – and deftly passed him off the last round, for tea with Charles and his wife, Camilla.
There were rumors recently that 71-year-old Charles might step up to assume the elevated role of prince regent, perhaps when the queen turns 95. Palace sources quickly nixed those reports.
Elizabeth has dealt with the dimming star of her husband, Prince Philip, 98, who used to serve as family enforcer but who has retreated from public duties due to ailing health. Philip was hospitalized twice last year, and he gave up driving after colliding with another vehicle.
As for the queen, her physical stamina remains remarkable. Although she has lost the last of her beloved corgis, she still walks her dorgis, a corgi-dachshund mix. She drives herself on the grounds of her estates. She also rides horses – well, a large pony called Carltonlima Emma – even in the rain.
She dons her gloves and kerchief, wrapped around her helmet of a coif, puts on the tinted shades and gets on with it.
The House of Windsor is a century old – renamed from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha by George V in July 1917. It is one of the longest-living still-working monarchies in the world. It has helped the nation carry on through two world wars and the blitz, followed by the loss of empire, the hollowing-out of Britain’s power.
It is worth noting that many of the challenges Elizabeth has faced have been generated by the family itself – through a long litany of affairs, divorces, sketchy financial dealings and drunken mischief.
The royal family saw itself especially wounded by the messy divorce of Charles and his former wife Diana, and Elizabeth II initially failed to appreciate her subjects’ sorrow and anger after Diana’s death in a car crash in 1997. The queen eventually got her tone right, and pivoted, to allow not for a state funeral but close: a royal ceremonial funeral, with all the pomp and ceremony the palace could bestow.
Just weeks before the Harry and Meghan crisis, the queen was required to deftly handle – by quiet expulsion – her 59-year-old ne’er-do-well son, Prince Andrew, who during a BBC interview explained his stay at pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s New York mansion by saying “it was convenient.”
Andrew also claimed he had no recollection of a woman who claims she was sex-trafficked to him at age 17 – and who appears with him in a damning photograph.
The queen saw to it that Andrew withdrew from public duties. But she appeared riding beside him on horseback after his humiliation – suggesting that no one in the family is beyond redemption, royal watcher Junor said.
The queen, in a highly unusual and personal statement on Monday, announced that she and her royal family were “entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life” – a signal that she “got it.”
But Elizabeth II also stressed there would be a “period of transition” during which her grandson and his wife would split their time between Canada and Britain.
Many royal observers saw a bit of genius in that – that by offering a “cooling off” period to the young royals, the queen was giving them a chance to decide in favor of a less dramatic break.
Robert Lacey, a royal biographer and author of “The Crown: The Inside History,” noted that she managed to sound caring and supportive, a loving grandmother to her Harry and his wife, but “also took the lot of them and shook them by the scruff of the neck, and said: Get this sorted in days, not weeks.”
“What can we say about her toughness? A lot,” Lacey said. “She’s firmly in charge.”
“She’s has had to take control of things – yet again,” said Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. “She’s the steel hand in the velvet glove.”
“I suppose it’s what this queen has always done,” Seward said. “She’s never known anything else.” Duty and honor – and family first.
Seward said that it’s helped “that she’s looked after.” Meaning the queen doesn’t pay bills, stand in line, cook supper or make the beds.
And so after almost seven decades on the throne, this queen remains sovereign, the boss, the titular head of state – and a moral authority, as the supreme governor of the Church of England. She is not the pope of the Anglican tradition, but she is a Christian evangelical, devout, and in her remarks, often mentions Jesus by name.
Her weekly photo op? Attending church.
Documentary filmmaker Denys Blakeway, who produced the 2017 television series “House of Windsor,” was asked how the family has managed to remain in power for so long.
He told The Daily Mail, “By looking after its image, ensuring that those who don’t step up to the mark are expunged and by making sure the ideals of George V – duty, service and discretion – are observed, often ruthlessly so.”
In her Christmas address, aired on British television and watched by millions, the queen spoke both of the importance of reconciliation, saying “small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome long-held differences and deep-seated divisions to bring harmony and understanding.”
She added, “The path, of course, is not always smooth, and may at times this year have felt quite bumpy, but small steps can make a world of difference.”