Love, Loyalty and the Occasional Bollocking: What Queen Elizabeth II Is Really Like as a Grandmother

She may not have rushed to meet Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's baby, her eighth great-grandchild, but the queen enjoys very particular bonds with all of her grandkids and their families

By Natalie Finn May 08, 2019 10:00 AMTags
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UPDATE: The queen and the Duke of Edinburgh met their great-grandson Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor on Wednesday.

There's a new royal baby in town and his great-grandmother will be delighted to meet him. Soon.

The short delay isn't personal—Queen Elizabeth II doesn't really dart around for anybody and, at 93 years old and with a 97-year-old husband at home, the longest-reigning British monarch ever has earned the right to do things at her leisure. That includes visiting the firstborn son of her rumored favorite grandchild.

But of course they were officially "delighted" by the baby's arrival on May 6, just as the queen personally told reporters she was "delighted" when she arrived at the hospital to see Prince William just hours after he was born in 1982. (William is second in line to the throne, after all.)

The queen is also not just the boss of her whole family the way many matriarchs are; rather, she is literally their boss, royalty being their business. In turn, the well-being of her family also happens to be inextricably linked to the well-being of the United Kingdom, and inevitably over the years work has come first at times, as it did Tuesday when she and her consort, Prince Philip, remained at Windsor Castle for the Order of Merit service. A packed schedule also kept her away the day of grandson Prince Louis' christening last year, so favorites are not being played.

To be sure, the blurring of lines between family and duty (and propriety...and tradition...) has made for some complicated relationships within the House of Windsor, but at the same time, their bonds are also tighter than most. One for all and all for one, etc.

And though Britain's royals are famously undemonstrative in public, behind the scenes—where they have a chance to behave like regular people, preparing roast chicken and watching Game of Thrones—is a whole other story. It may be the queen, as head of The Firm, who has set the overarching tone for all of them when it comes to public decorum, but she's also been "Granny" for 40 years.

Royal Family at 2019 Easter Sunday Service

In addition to eight grandchildren, she and Prince Philip now, with the arrival of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's baby boy, have eight great-grandchildren. A full house indeed, so it's lucky that Buckingham Palace has 52 bedrooms should the family ever need to consolidate.

Now, this granny isn't spending much time baking cookies or stitching samplers, nor despite having passed on countless duties and patronages is she even retired, but she is a person to have a cozy chat with, sometimes—for the older kids—with a gin and tonic in hand. Although at times, it can be hard to tell which came first, the protocol or the closeness.

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"Granny actually knew right at the beginning, she was one of the very few people," Princess Eugenie, daughter of the queen's son Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, shared with the BBC when she got engaged to Jack Brooksbank in 2018. Precious, yet also a little bit mandatory—technically, once you're beyond sixth in line to the throne, you don't need the queen's permission to marry, but surely hope for her blessing wasn't far from Eugenie's mind. 

On her wedding day, the bride wore the Greville Emerald Kokoshnik tiara, featuring a 93.7-carat emerald, on loan from the queen's collection. The monarch also was in charge of the more-glamorous-than-usual borrowed portion of the ensemble for her grandsons' wives: Kate Middleton joined the family wearing the queen's diamond and platinum Halo Tiara, while Meghan sported the Queen Mary Diamond Bandeau Tiara last May.


Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank's Royal Wedding Photos

"Lots of my friends say, 'Oh she's just the best style person there is, you know she looks great in her clothes,'" Eugenie once told Tatler appreciatively. "The style is something that is very unique to her."

"It is incredible to be able to meet her through [Harry's] lens," Meghan told the BBC after her engagement to Harry was announced in November 2017, "not just with his honor and respect for her as a monarch, but the love he has for her as a grandmother. So when I met her, I had such a deep understanding and incredible respect for her. She is a remarkable woman."

"And the corgis took to you straight away," Harry quipped, referring to Granny's beloved dogs.

Prince Charles has said that his mother and father weren't the warmest of people, a revelation his sister, Princess Anne, has quibbled with, but it's pretty common for people to have a more relaxed time of it, or possibly even relate to children better, as grandparents. Apparently royalty is no exception.

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Philip was stationed in Malta with the Royal Navy for the first two years of Charles' life and his wife, who didn't become queen until Charles was 3 and Anne about 1 1/2, spent months at a time abroad with him.

"Not indifferent so much as detached," Charles described his mother to biographer Jonathan Dimbleby in the early 1990s, a description that Anne said "beggared belief."

Ironically, Charles was very close to his maternal grandmum, the Queen Mother, but he's been chided in the past by Prince William for not spending more time with his grandchildren. The Prince of Wales has been making efforts to be around more lately and relishes his time with Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louisbut a future king's schedule is as packed as the current queen's, and includes more trips out of the country: he said on Tuesday from Berlin that he and Duchess Camilla were looking forward to meeting Harry's son upon their return to England.

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No matter how much duty is wrapped up in their day-to-day interactions, Charles' boys will always have a particularly special relationship with the queen.

Harry and William were staying with her at Balmoral on Aug. 31, 1997, when they got the news that their mother, Princess Diana, had been killed in a car crash, and she and Philip put the boys ahead of all other concerns in those first critical days—so much so that seemingly the entire U.K. mistook them closing ranks for indifference. The queen also arranged for Anne to bring her children, Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall (née Phillips), to Scotland to help keep their cousins occupied.

"She felt very torn between being the grandmother to William and Harry, and her queen role," William remembered in the 2017 BBC documentary Diana, 7 Days. "And I think she—everyone—was surprised and taken aback by the scale of what happened and the nature of how quickly it all happened."

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He was 15 and Harry was two weeks shy of his 13th birthday.

"At the time, you know, my grandmother wanted to protect her two grandsons, and my father as well," William also recalled. "Our grandmother deliberately removed the newspapers, and things like that, so there was nothing in the house at all. So we didn't know what was going on."

Looking back, he was grateful to have had "the privacy to mourn, to collect our thoughts, and to just have that space away from everybody."

"It was a case of how do we let the boys grieve in privacy but, at the same time, when is the right time for them to put on their princes' hats and carry out their duties to mourn not just their mother, but the Princess of Wales...and a very public audience," Harry told biographer Angela Levin in 2017, describing how it felt to have to walk behind his mother's coffin with William and their father, grandfather and Diana's brother, Charles Spencer, in the funeral procession to Westminster Abbey. "When we go out and do things like that and not completely break down you have to put on a bit of a game face."

At the time, the queen also relaxed the rule that forbids multiple generations of successors to the throne to fly on the same plane and allowed Harry and William to fly back to London from Scotland with their father. When she finally addressed the nation on Sept. 5, the day before the funeral, the queen said she was speaking "as a monarch and a grandmother."

Harry joined William at Eton in 1998 and they would frequently go for tea with their grandmother at nearby Windsor Castle, and their grandparents were in the audience when William had a small role in a school production of The Tempest. Even as a teenager, William particularly looked up to the queen, appreciating her as a "strong female influence" in his life that was indispensable in the years following his mother's death.

Meanwhile, the monarch, along with Charles, had impressed upon the media the importance of letting her grandsons have their privacy at school—a pact the press sort-of stuck to until they were 18. (The queen gifted William with a personalized coat of arms for his 18th birthday.)

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Though she employed nannies that were so involved in her kids' upbringing that they became lifelong friends of Charles and his siblings, she also loved shooting her own home movies of her children playing. For decades, time spent in the country—be it at Balmoral, Sandringham (where they spend Christmas), or Windsor Castle—has remained her ideal setting for family time.

And hands-on family time at that.

"It's the most beautiful place on Earth," Princess Eugenie said in the 2016 ITV documentary Our Queen at Ninety. "I think Granny is the most happy there, I think she really, really loves the Highlands... Walks, picnics, dogs—a lot of dogs, there's always dogs!—and people coming in and out all the time. Family-wise we're all there, so it's a lovely base for Granny and Grandpa to be—for us to come and see them up there, where you just have room to breathe and run."

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Remembering how one day he and cousin Peter Phillips crashed their quad bikes into Zara's go-kart and hit a lamppost while racing around the grounds at Balmoral, William said his grandmother immediately "came running across the lawn in her kilt. She came charging over and gave us the most almighty bollocking."

In an interview with journalist Peter Archer upon the occasion of his 21st birthday, William said that the queen had basically taught him everything he knew about being a monarch, and that being one was about "helping people, and dedication and loyalty."

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In 2009, when William and Harry broke off from their father to have a household of their own, it was the queen who suggested veteran diplomat Sir David Manning as their senior advisor, thinking it would behoove them to have "a gray-haired man in the room."

"William is like his grandmother," Jamie Lowther-Pinkington, William and Harry's former private secretary, told royal biographer Sally Bedell-Smith for her 2017 book Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life. "He gets on with his duty, dedicates himself to doing the job. He is not flashy, not an entrepreneur, not a ruffler." Of feathers, presumably.

In fact, the queen is so pleased by how William's life has turned out that it has "changed her life," the monarch's first cousin Lady Elizabeth Anson told Bedell-Smith, explaining that the queen could see "continuity" in the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their children.

"All we can do," said Lowther-Pinkington, "is plan for the desired end state, which is William coming to the throne respected, credible, and connected." Though, by then, he added, "there will be gorgeous George. People are much more interested in glamorous princes than glamorous kings."

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It's probably in part due to all of her commonalities with William, including a shared stoicism, that the queen has a soft spot for Harry, who was only 12 when Diana died and whose screw-ups and scandals as a young man were given far more ink than anything his brother did.

Loving a naughty joke as much as the next person, the queen would be quite tickled by some of Harry's antics, such as when, at her request, he recorded an outgoing message for her new mobile phone and went with, "Hey, wassup? This is Liz! Sorry I'm away from the throne. For a hotline to Philip, press one; for Charles, press two; for the corgis, press three."

Consider her private secretary surprised when he called the queen and got her voicemail.

Angela Levin wrote in her 2017 book Harry that even the queen "stretches boundaries to make him happy."

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Joining his regiment in Afghanistan for army service in 2007 involved the queen acknowledging that her grandson wanted more than anything to be able to serve his country, followed by intense meetings about where he should go and how to keep him safe without isolating him from his fellow troops. His stay was cut short after 10 weeks after an Australian publication revealed his location, but he returned for a 20-week tour in 2012.

"She was very pro my going then," Harry later recalled having his grandmother's support, "so I think she's relieved that I get the chance to do what I want to do. She's a very good person to talk to about it. Her knowledge of the army is amazing for a grandmother—I suppose it's slightly her job."

In 2016, four years after she appeared in a sketch with Daniel Craig that was played during the Olympics Opening Ceremony, followed by a look-alike parachuting into the arena, Harry got the queen to join him in a video promoting the Invictus Games. Again, she was a natural.

"You could almost see her thinking, 'Why the hell does nobody ask me to do these things more often?'" Harry told Hello! "She is so incredibly skilled she only needed one take. Meanwhile I was like a gibbering wreck. I was more nervous than anyone else."

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"I think in public we can see that the Queen does let her guard down a bit with Prince Harry," Grant Harrold, Charles' former butler, said in a 2019 documentary for Discovery Networks-owned Quest Red, a digital channel in the UK. "There's a very special relationship."

Harrold added, "Sometimes, I wonder if maybe he reminds the queen a little bit of Prince Philip. You know, with that wonderful, let's say, the kind of glint in his eye."

You could see that glint when Harry, in the 2018 documentary Queen of the World, assured the interviewer, "If you suddenly bump into her in the corridor, don't panic. I know you will. We all do!"

Such is the case when your grandmother is the Queen of England: love, affection and admiration goes hand in hand with the teeniest bit of fear and intimidation. But mostly those first three things.


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"I absolutely adore my grandmother," Harry told Levin. "The queen has been fantastic in letting us choose what we'd like to do. She tells us to take our time and really think things through. I admire the queen hugely and of course had no option but to agree to help her relieve her load. It has, though, stopped me having a career of my own."

Such is the rub when you're a full-timer, as are Harry, William and their wives.

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While they're not what's known as full-time royals, Eugenie—who's also director at an art gallery—says that she and sister Princess Beatrice, both of whom do attend official engagements and have their share of patronages, "try to support Granny and Grandpa in any way we can."

Beatrice was tasked in 2012 with overseeing the renovation of the playhouse where the queen and her late sister, Princess Margaret, used to play as children—the spot became a "big family treat" for subsequent generations.

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"We've been lucky enough to play here," Beatrice said, "and cousins, and second cousins...You know Granny's a great-grandmother now, so we can have Savannah come and play in here as well, and more great-grandchildren."

Since then, Savannah Phillips, the now 8-year-old daughter of Peter and Autumn Phillips and the queen's first great-grandchild, has been joined by sister Isla (2012); Prince George (2013), Princess Charlotte (2015) and Prince Louis (2018); Zara and Mike Tindall's daughters Mia (2014) and Lena (2018); and now, Harry and Meghan's son, whose name should be announced soon.

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For such a large family, the cousins see each other often, with the queen's various homes serving as central gathering places.

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An avid horsewoman who invoked a race result in her toast to Charles and Camilla at their 2005 wedding, the queen has bonded with subsequent generations over sports, especially equestrianism. Zara Tindall has followed in her mother Anne's stirrups as a competitive rider and won silver in the team event at the 2012 Summer Olympics, while the queen oversaw riding instruction for her youngest grandkids, Prince Edward and Countess Sophie of Wessex's children, James, Viscount Severn, and Lady Louise Windsor.

Multiple generations of the family can usually be seen at the annual Royal Windsor Horse Show and Royal Ascot, both of which the queen attends every year. Louise, 15, has also taken up carriage driving, a favorite pastime of Grandpa Philip's, and was spotted last year helping Savannah and Isla get the hang of it on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

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As usual, more than two dozen family members gathered for Christmas at Sandringham in December, and the loquacious Mike Tindall shared that he felt he had a lot to live up to, fashion-wise.

"The queen loves bright colors," the former pro rugby player said on House of Rugby after the holiday. "That's why she wears all those amazing colors that she does wear, because she thinks dark colors are for sad times."

"It's quite a strange day because if you're from up north, normally I'd spend my whole day in my boxer shorts," Mike quipped. "So by the time I'd normally have gotten up, I've been to church twice. It's strange for me, with not really a massive church-going background. So yeah, it's completely different. I've never had to take as many outfits anywhere."

Roughly 50 members of the family came to Christmas lunch, and Zara had presents for everybody, her husband also shared, calling her "incredible" at buying Christmas presents.

Taking care of everyone in one fell swoop does run in the family, after all.