On September 16 last year, eight days after Queen Elizabeth died, I watched as her four children stood in silence at Westminster Hall, heads bowed, keeping their vigil at the four sides of their mother’s coffin.
As they stood there, totally still, members of the public continued to file past — silently, steadily, some stopping briefly to salute or bow or curtsy, some genuflecting or making a sign of the cross.
David Beckham wiped away a tear as he paid his respects after queuing for more than 12 hours. When he reached the coffin, the footballer slowly bowed his head and stared at the ground.
I was watching with a member of the Order of the Garter, who’d been installed only months before. That day, the Queen had not been well enough to walk in the traditional Garter Day procession, but she’d helped the peer into her robes.
‘Lord Butler was trying to help, but the Queen said, “I’m not sure he knows what he’s doing,” and came to the rescue. She was extraordinary,’ recalled the peer.
On September 16 last year, eight days after Queen Elizabeth died, Gyles Brandreth watched as her four children stood in silence at Westminster Hall
Kate, William, Harry and Meghan made a joint appearance outside Windsor Castle to view the flowers for Queen Elizabeth ll and to greet members of the public
The Duke of Sussex, Meghan, King Charles III and Camilla observed the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it was transferred from the gun carriage to the hearse at Wellington Arch
Elizabeth had known her grandson was writing a memoir, and there is no evidence that this caused her distress
She was by no means alone in that sentiment. Another visitor to the vigil by the King and his siblings was HRH The Duke of Kent, 87, an ever-dutiful second-rank royal and now the oldest surviving grandchild of George V and Queen Mary.
He told me he was feeling the Queen’s death very much. ‘It didn’t really get to me until then,’ he said. ‘Watching the lying-in-state — I found it quite overwhelming.’
Chopped lamb’s liver for the corgis
One of Elizabeth II’s chefs, Graham Newbould, told me that when he worked for Her Majesty in the 1980s, he was instructed to serve ‘penny sandwiches’ at tea time — so called because they are almost round in shape, like an old penny piece.
According to Newbould, the Queen told him that the corners of the sandwiches had to be cut off because ‘tradition has it that anyone presenting pointed-edged food to the sovereign is trying to overthrow the monarchy’.
The chef also told me that Her Majesty liked ‘simple, elegant food, portions not too big and not too small, and definitely no garlic’.
She had traditional tastes — except at Christmas.
Surprisingly, she was not keen on mince pies or Christmas pudding, so at Sandringham, according to Newbould: ‘I could be quite bold, with, say, a pina colada mousse with a raspberry coulis.’
The chef was also expected to find food for the royal dogs: tripe for the gun dogs, but for the cherished corgis chopped-up boiled lamb’s liver or rabbit with rice and cabbage.
Famously, when Elizabeth II’s third prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was asked what was the greatest challenge facing any statesman, he is supposed to have replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’
The publication of Prince Harry’s autobiography, Spare — and the six-part Harry & Meghan Netflix television series that came before it — were definitely ‘events’ in the ongoing story of the House of Windsor.
Both appeared after the death of Elizabeth II — but she had known her grandson was writing a memoir, and there is no evidence that this caused her distress.
In fact, her attitude to royal memoirs had changed over the years and she ‘understood’ her grandson’s desire to tell his own story.
That doesn’t mean, however, that she would have been happy with the result. Quite the contrary.
As you may recall, the scandalous and scurrilous elements of Spare included: Harry taking cocaine at 17; Harry trying ‘magic mushrooms’ and hallucinating in a lavatory; Harry losing his virginity in a field behind a pub to ‘an older lady’ who used him ‘not unlike a young stallion’; Harry killing 25 members of the Taliban, whom he viewed as ‘chess pieces’ taken off the board; Harry describing his frostbitten ‘todger’ and being advised to apply Elizabeth Arden cream to it, the smell of which reminded him of his mother.
Prince Philip had always actively counselled against this kind of public revelation. And much as she was devoted to Harry, it would have appalled Elizabeth II, too.
As for Prince William, he was infuriated by the stuff about tensions between him and his brother and, more so, about those between their respective wives, Catherine and Meghan.
Privately, William echoed his grandmother’s line following the notorious Oprah Winfrey interview: ‘Recollections may vary’ — adding: ‘In this instance, they most definitely do.’
Did the same apply, as far as Charles was concerned, to his younger son’s remarks about Camilla? In Spare, Harry reports that both he and his brother had agreed to welcome Mrs Parker Bowles into their family on the condition that their father did not marry her.
She had ‘sacrificed’ Harry ‘on her personal PR altar’ to improve her own public image, he claims, and leaked ‘minute details’ of a conversation she’d had with William to the press.
Harry even maintains that Camilla ‘played a role’ in his mother’s death because she was ‘pivotal’ in the disintegration of his parents’ marriage.
He concedes that his father found happiness in his second marriage, and says that he wanted the couple to be happy. But he also wonders if Camilla would be ‘less dangerous once she was happy’.
Little wonder, perhaps, that — beyond the fact of the book — Charles was distressed by what Harry had to say about his beloved wife.
That said, visiting Windsor and Buckingham Palace and Clarence House in recent months, it has been clear to me that the Harry and Meghan saga, while causing irritation and frustration — and some sadness for the King — has not preoccupied the senior members of the Royal Family in anything like the way it appears to have gripped and fascinated the world’s media.
The Queen’s attitude to royal memoirs had changed over the years and she ‘understood’ her grandson’s desire to tell his own story
Queen Elizabeth smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her husband Prince Philip
Queen Elizabeth II on a walkabout to celebrate her 90th Birthday on April 21 2016
Following the example of Elizabeth II, they are focusing on the job of monarchy and taking ‘the long view’.
In the months after the Queen’s death, I spoke to many people who had known her. One of these was her 16th Piper, who remembers being gently teased by Her Majesty because of his height.
Has one met you before?
Elizabeth II visited the Coronation Street set twice — in May 1982 and July 2021.
On both occasions, the cast members lined up to meet Her Majesty included William Roache, now 91, who has been playing the character of Ken Barlow in the soap opera since the first episode was broadcast in 1960.
Roache told the Queen that he first saw her in person when she visited Jamaica in 1953, when he was in the Army, serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
The Queen told me once, smiling: ‘That often happens. When you meet someone, they spend all the time you’re with them telling you all about the time you last met them.’
He is 5 ft 6 in tall and revealed that ‘she once joked that I was the first pipe major to hold the post whom she didn’t have to look up to.’ He did not mind at all. He liked her sense of humour. Once, a brisk Scottish wind lifted his kilt in front of Her Majesty, ‘briefly exposing’ him as ‘a true Scotsman’.
Later in the day, he recalled, ‘while I was escorting Her Majesty, she asked me if it had been a particularly cold morning’.
Scott Methven will not forget the late Queen. When his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2017, ‘she pulled it out of the bag for me,’ he said.
The Queen arranged for his two young children to be looked after by royal nannies while his wife was in hospital and arranged for a basket of strawberries and muffins to be sent to the nurses who were caring for her.
As Elizabeth II put it so succinctly in her final year: ‘People matter and it is our relationship with one another that is most important.’
Many, including the wife of the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, spoke to me of how kind and considerate she was, even in potentially trying circumstances.
Hughes was a friend of the Queen Mother, and they used to go fishing together in Scotland. Elizabeth II knew him less well but very much liked and respected him.
In 1992, he wrote a poem which he presented personally to her on the 40th anniversary of her accession. She later admitted to not fully understanding the poem.
Towards the end of his life, in 1998, when Ted Hughes was only 68 but seriously ill with cancer, he was awarded the Order of Merit and went to Buckingham Palace to receive it from the Queen.
‘The conversation that ensued seemed for the most part a strange monologue from Ted,’ recalled his wife, Carol, who went with him. ‘The monologue allowed little space for the Queen to participate or respond, but she listened intently and courteously throughout. Her sensitivity to his situation was very apparent, and for that I will be forever grateful. Ted died 12 days later.’
Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Duke of Edinburgh were pictured with Wallis Simpson in May 1972
Queen Elizabeth arrives at the Royal Ascot at Ascot Racecourse, Ascot in 1973 wearing a lime green dress and matching hat
To those in her intimate circle, Elizabeth II was the most devoted and loyal of friends. A few months ago, I had dinner with Tyrone Plunket, 9th Baron Plunket, nephew of the 7th Baron, Patrick Plunket, Elizabeth II’s Deputy Master of the Household and close friend — though not, as some (who should know better) still allege, the father of Prince Edward. Tyrone repeated the old joke about his uncle, who served in the Irish Guards.
The day I sang a Salad Days duet with the Queen
A few years ago, I sang the beginnings of a duet with the Queen.
It was a fragment of a song from the 1950s musical Salad Days: ‘If I start looking behind me and begin retracing my track, I’ll remind you to remind me we said we wouldn’t look back.
‘And if you should happen to find me with an outlook dreary and black, I’ll remind you to remind me we said we wouldn’t look back.’
In fact, towards the end of her life, the Queen did not mind looking back. ‘To look back is not necessarily to be nostalgic,’ she said. ‘Winston Churchill, my first prime minister, said that the further backward you look the further forward you can see.’
A few months before her death, she took time to look back in a personal way, sitting looking at reels of old ‘home movies’ that she and her parents had shot over the years.
I know she thought carefully about what she wanted to say, and I think that what she said shines an even clearer light on to the workings of her inward mind.
At 96, she acknowledged that ‘the years have slipped by so quickly’. There was no point in regretting the passage of time, she said, and talked instead about the benefits of taking ‘the long view’.
She added: ‘I have lived long enough to know that things never remain quite the same for very long.’ Change is inevitable: ‘No one can make history stand still. Events change with startling speed.’
But — and this was important: ‘In my experience, the positive value of a happy family is one of the factors of human existence that has not changed . . . Faith, family and friendship have not only been a constant for me, but a source of personal comfort and reassurance.’
It is clear: with our late Queen, it always came back to her three fundamental values. Through good times and bad, she relied on her faith to guide her.
And on family and friendship, she was categorical: ‘People matter and it is our relationship with one another that is most important,’ she said.
‘He was a soldier much loved by his men,’ adding, ‘Yes, he was gay but, to be honest, I don’t think much ever happened in that department.’
Elizabeth II certainly loved Patrick Plunket as a friend. When he died in 1975, unusually she attended both his funeral at the Chapel Royal and his memorial service at the Guards’ Chapel.
He is buried in the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore, the Royal Family’s private graveyard in Home Park near Windsor Castle, and the Queen built a memorial to him — a small pavilion with four columns.
Elizabeth II liked to see Tyrone Plunket because he reminded her of his uncle.
Tyrone showed me some lovely pictures that he had taken of himself and Her Majesty on his iPhone not long before she died.
At 6 ft 4 in, he towered above the diminutive monarch, but both were smiling broadly. ‘She was always so lovely,’ said Tyrone, ‘always so positive.’ He told me that whenever he went to visit and Prince Philip was being irascible, the Queen would smooth things over. He recalled on one visit taking a jar of home-grown honey to give to the Queen and a jar of homemade marmalade for Prince Philip.
Philip looked at the jar of marmalade disparagingly. The Queen stretched out her hands. ‘I’ll have both then,’ she declared.
Coronation Day, May 6, 2023. I walked into Westminster Abbey with John Warren, the racing manager who advised Elizabeth II over many years and, memorably, was photographed laughing at her side at one of the happiest moments of her life: in 2013 when her horse, Estimate, won the Ascot Gold Cup.
He told me that the Queen never liked to sell any of her horses: ‘She loved them, she wanted to keep them all.’ But, he added, cheerfully, the inevitable slimming down of the royal stables under Charles and Camilla is going well.
After a small mishap — I tried to sit in the seat reserved for the American singer Lionel Richie — I found my place. On my immediate right was Sir Michael Peat, 73, accountant, former Keeper of the Privy Purse and Treasurer to Elizabeth II, and later, for nearly ten years, private secretary to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.
Because I know him a little, we chatted. Sir Michael particularly remembered the Queen’s useful economy of phrase.
When Ronald Reagan’s helicopter landed on the lawn at Buckingham Palace and made a considerable mess of it, Her Majesty remarked, ‘Well, that won’t be happening again.’
Whenever anyone (including the Duke of Edinburgh) came up with a bright idea or a proposal for change that wasn’t to Her Majesty’s liking, she’d say, ‘I think that’s one for the next reign, don’t you?’
The music in the abbey was wonderful (mostly British), with a dozen new pieces specially composed for the occasion, all of it carefully chosen and curated by the new King, and performed by a range of world-class orchestras, ensembles, choirs and soloists, occasionally interrupted by a loud cougher seated close to us.
Fortunately, just as close was the Oscar-winning actress Dame Emma Thompson, who burrowed into her handbag repeatedly, finding cough sweets to pass down the line.
Processing down the abbey, Floella Benjamin, sometime children’s television presenter and now member of the House of Lords, bore the Sceptre with Dove (‘representing spiritual authority exercised chiefly in mercy’).
A man places a Paddington Bear plush on top of the flowers placed in honor of Queen Elizabeth II
Flowers on the hearse carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it arrives at Windsor Castle for the Committal Service in St George’s Chapel on September 19 2022
The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II travelled down the Long Walk as it arrived at Windsor Castle for the Committal Service at St George’s Chapel
King Charles III and members of the royal family followed the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign’s orb and sceptre
One of Elizabeth II’s last decisions, made not long before her death, was to appoint Floella to the Order of Merit.
The Queen had met her — and read her autobiography — and been struck and moved by the way she and her family dealt without rancour with the racism and other challenges they faced when they came to Britain from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1950s.
At last, the King and Queen arrived. The Queen had three of her grandsons and her sister’s grandson as Pages of Honour.
The King’s pages included his grandson, Prince George of Wales, wearing black trousers instead of the traditional white knee breeches, at his own request.
The moment of the crowning was moving — and a little alarming. Would the crown stay in place?
King Charles III had not practised wearing his crown in the run-up to his Coronation for as many hours as Elizabeth II did in the run-up to hers.
Sensibly, the Archbishop of Canterbury took his time and did his best, though he did not seem to get the placing of Queen Camilla’s crown quite right.
She had to adjust it to keep it firmly in place.
As we began to file out of the abbey, I took a selfie with Emma Thompson and congratulated Andrew Lloyd Webber on his Coronation Anthem.
‘Was it hummable?’ he asked. ‘The King wanted it to be hummable.’
‘It was hummable,’ I said.
‘Are you sure?’
In the nave, I bumped into Robin Janvrin, Elizabeth II’s private secretary at the time of her Golden Jubilee.
‘The King has asked me to be a lord-in-waiting,’ he told me, proudly.
‘That’s wonderful,’ I said. ‘What does that involve?’
He laughed. ‘I’m waiting to find out.’
Queen Elizabeth II and Camilla pictured at the Ceremonial welcome in Buckingham Palace Garden for US President Donald Trump
When we reached the Great West Door, Lord Janvrin paused and touched my arm: ‘Think back 20 years — we could never have imagined this day happening as it has, could we? . . . King Charles and Queen Camilla! Extraordinary. Wonderful.’
Charles insisted on Camilla’s title
From the moment of King Charles’ accession, Camilla wore the title approved by her late mother-in-law: Queen Consort.
Over the years, I do not think Camilla has been much concerned about the matter of titles.
Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, I do not believe it has ever been her ambition to be Queen.
She has accepted her lot in life: endured the bad times and been grateful for the good.
By custom long established, a British king’s wife is called his queen, and, naturally enough, King Charles always hoped his wife could be known as Queen Camilla.
Twenty years ago, the public would not have accepted it. Today, for most people, it’s not an issue.
The title ‘Queen Consort’ was a useful halfway house. Apart from anything else, it helped differentiate Camilla from her late mother-in-law.
But within three months of Elizabeth II’s death, it was apparent to the senior members of the Royal Household that dropping the word ‘Consort’ from the new Queen’s title would be something almost everyone could live with — and that the King would welcome.
There was no need to make a formal announcement. She would be known as the Queen Consort until the Coronation, but from the moment of crowning she would be the Queen.
The first official use of the name ‘Queen Camilla’ came on the invitation to the Coronation itself — a beautiful card issued ‘by command of the King’.
‘Is this what the late Queen would have wanted?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ he answered, beaming. ‘She always wanted the best for everyone.’
Any mishaps were minor. The Princess Royal wore her uniform as Colonel of the Blues and Royals featuring an upright red feather in her cap — and her feather appeared to obscure Harry’s view of the ceremony as well as the viewing public’s view of Harry.
Prince Andrew had been booed by a small number of ill-wishers in the crowd as he was driven to the abbey, but he was grateful to be allowed to wear his Garter robes and to be included in the family photographs taken at Buckingham Palace after the event — though not in the pictures taken for public release.
Harry did not feature in the formal photographs at all.
The following night, there was a Coronation concert. I know Camilla would have liked the Rolling Stones to perform at it (and was ready to write to Sir Mick Jagger by hand to invite them).
But the BBC were in charge of producing the show, and their aim was to provide something for most tastes — a bit of ballet, a bit of opera, a moment of Shakespeare, and lots of mainstream rock and pop, including Olly Murs, Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Take That. There was no place, it seems, for the Rolling Stones.
The truth is that the Coronation was a triumphant success, and the principal author of its success was the King.
Charles III was much more hands-on with the content and management of his Coronation than Elizabeth II was with hers.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, I had a conversation with Prince Philip about his son.
‘And what about being at odds with Prince Charles?’ I asked.
‘People say how different you are. I think you are remarkably similar, in mannerisms, in interests . . .’
The Duke of Edinburgh interrupted me. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but with one great difference.
The truth is that the Coronation was a triumphant success, and the principal author of its success was the King
Charles III was much more hands-on with the content and management of his Coronation than Elizabeth II was with hers
Prince of Wales and Catherine, Princess of Wales on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla
‘He’s a romantic — and I’m a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently.’
I accepted the Duke’s view then. But now — having seen Charles at closer quarters in recent years — I realise I was wrong.
Our new King is indeed a romantic. He is a visionary and an idealist. He loves poetry and music. He loves art and nature. He wants to live in a kinder, more just, more caring world.
But he is a pragmatist, too. He knows that turning dreams into reality calls for planning, organisation, commitment and (as often as not) a lot of cash.
He is the best prepared new monarch in our history, and a complete workaholic.
Once, his wife took me into his study to discuss some charitable endeavour. His desk was piled high with books and papers.
He was there but we could not see him for the mountain of paperwork surrounding him.
In the 12 months since his accession, I don’t think he has put a foot wrong — despite distracting noises off from Montecito.
Adapted from Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait by Gyles Brandreth (Michael Joseph, £25). © Gyles Brandreth 2022. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid until September 16, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.