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'Our anchor of stability in a changing world': MPs and peers share their treasured memories of the Queen

'Our anchor of stability in a changing world': MPs and peers share their treasured memories of the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II, June 2015 | Alamy

Lord Lisvane, Baroness Cox, Lord Craig, James Sunderland, Baroness Smith and Lord True

18 min read

Six parliamentarians recollect Queen Elizabeth II's personal charm, warmth and dedication

I was fortunate enough to meet The Queen on a number of occasions, and I have happy memories of her valuing people, of her wit, and of her charm and warmth. On the day on which the Houses presented their Diamond Jubilee Addresses, I had the pleasant task of presenting 50 of my staff to Her Majesty and, as we moved along the line, I presented the master leadsman in the Estates Department. “How nice to see you again,” she said. “You did your apprenticeship at Windsor, didn’t you?” To remember an apprentice in this way after more than 40 years was extraordinary.

As to her wit: some time ago, with my colleague Rhodri Walters from the Lords, I wrote a book called How Parliament Works, and I sent a copy to Buckingham Palace as a courtesy. The next time I met The Queen it was at a time of some parliamentary chaos. “I thought the book was good”, she said. “But are you quite sure that you got the title right?”

To remember an apprentice in this way after more than 40 years was extraordinary

And as a recollection of her charm and warmth, I will always remember when she invited me to one of her “little lunches” – informal lunches at Buckingham Palace, with just The Queen, the Duke, and half a dozen guests. I was on the Queen’s right and as we sat down to lunch she said: “Now, I’ve been meaning to ask you; do you think we should have a written constitution?” This was a very fast ball to be bowled in the first over, and all I could say was “Well, Ma’am, it’s rather difficult to answer a question about the constitution when I’m sitting next to part of it.” At which she roared with laughter, my cross-examination was suspended, and we talked about anything and everything (with some superb mimicry from her) for the rest of lunch.

Lord Lisvane is a crossbench peer and former clerk and chief executive of the House of Commons

I will never forget the enormous privilege of having afternoon tea with Her Majesty.

I was a junior minister and this brought the awesome responsibility of being part of a schedule in which one was given responsibility for “being the Queen” on occasions when she could not be present. One did not serve as a representative but served as Her Majesty and was treated accordingly.

I will never forget her inspirational graciousness, kindness, and warmth

This phenomenal responsibility was preceded by an invitation to tea with the Queen. I will never forget her inspirational graciousness, kindness, and warmth.

These are characteristics widely appreciated in countless tributes and they testify to her personality which has generated such justified and profound admiration, appreciation, and affection.

Baroness Cox is a crossbench peer

It was my privilege to meet the then future Queen Elizabeth II for the first time in 1947. It was less than two months after she made that famous vow on her 21st birthday while accompanying the King and Queen on their state visit to South Africa.

She was of course still a Princess and attending one of her early royal solo engagements. The occasion was the centenary celebrations at my school, Radley. The Archbishop of Canterbury had preached in chapel. The warden and others had made speeches of welcome and thanks, some in Latin.

The school prefects, of which I was one, entertained the Princess, less than four years our senior in age, to tea in our study. No masters were present; we had her all to ourselves. I plied her with a choice of meringues and biscuits. She asked if the meringues were “the puffy out sort”. I doubt, in wartime Britain or just after, if I had even seen a real meringue let alone eaten one. Sensing my hesitancy, she opted for a biscuit.

I plied her with a choice of meringues and biscuits

We also presented her with a box of chocolates. Radley’s archive still holds the receipt, making clear that this sweet offering cost all 15 of us not just 16s 8d but a whole week of our sugar ration. Also in that archive is a copy of part of her handwritten letter to a friend, describing her day at Radley. She wrote: “The tea with the prefects was very enjoyable, and certainly a great change from some of the rather dull teas one has on official occasions. This one couldn’t have been more fun.” 

She was indeed famous for her sense of fun, as well as for her immense sense of duty and responsibility. 

Lord Craig of Radley is a crossbench peer

Ours is not to reason why but the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is that moment we knew and feared would happen. As the bedrock in our lives for so long, the loss of this most beloved global icon is deep, palpable, and impossible to put into words.

When she went up a Princess and came down a Queen at Treetops in 1952, Her Majesty was aware of the service that lay ahead, not only as Head of State and the Commonwealth but as Head of the Armed Forces too. Having already become Colonel in Chief of the Grenadier Guards at the age of 16, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force would soon bear her standard too and it's impossible not to mention the Household Division, Guards Division, Royal Engineers and so many of the other Army units for whom she was also one of their own. And I cannot think of a single person for whom the mantra “serve to lead” could have been more perfectly applied. Her sailors, soldiers and aviators truly loved her and rightly so.

Having led soldiers on operations I know from my own experience that servicemen and women do not proudly serve their country, or even pay the ultimate sacrifice, just because the prevailing government asks it of them. Nor is it to follow orders, out of camaraderie or even from a sense of glory, but because of their oath of allegiance and loyal service to the Crown. And the glue that binds military service at sea, on land and air is the democracy, freedom and sovereignty of our great nation and the monarch who steadfastly watches over it.

In my own constituency of Bracknell, the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst proudly occupies its leafy corner of Berkshire. Three times a year, the Queen, or her representative, would preside over the Sovereigns Parade, where officer cadets commission into the army. I can remember my own commissioning in 1993 as if it was yesterday and the Queen was always a regular feature, leading from the front and smiling at the achievements of others.

And who could forget that fine day in December 2006 when she attended Prince William's Commissioning Parade alongside her beloved Prince Philip, King Charles, the Queen Consort and of course Cadet Prince Harry Wales? Indeed, the iconic oil painting from that special moment still hangs imposingly above the famous steps at Old College.

The Queen was always a regular feature, leading from the front and smiling at the achievements of others

Beyond Sandhurst, Her Majesty had a broader association with the people of Bracknell. Most recently, she opened the Lexicon Shopping Centre in 2018, visited Wellington College in 2009, the Transport Research Laboratory in 1995, the Victuallers School in 1994, the Lookout Centre in 1991 and the Royal Meteorological Society in 1978. In fact, she formally visited the constituency from neighbouring Windsor on at least 20 other occasions during her life. On one memorable occasion when unveiling a new oak tree at Windsor Great Park, she even joked with her team that they had planted it in the wrong place. Her wonderful sense of humility, humour and mischief was never far away and her like we will never see again.

It is clear too from the deep grief shared by so many that she loved her country, her family, the Commonwealth, her people, and all those who had personal contact with her. She was also loved by them. And the people of Bracknell will always be proud to have known her.

Lastly, I visited the Lexicon in Bracknell last week to sign the Book of Condolence, near to the very spot where she had opened it four years earlier. I spoke to constituents who were saddened by her passing. And some I met were also visibly overcome by grief and loss, uncertain for their own future. But it's ok to not feel ok at this profound time. It’s ok to mourn her passing as well as celebrate her life. It's ok to feel a deep sense of foreboding and it's ok to feel wretched as the Queen was very special, one of a kind, and universally loved.

So, to finish my short tribute if I may, I would just like to offer one simple sentiment – above all else – on behalf of the good people of Bracknell, Crowthorne, Finchampstead, Sandhurst, Wokingham Without and beyond. Your Majesty, thank you for your lifetime of selfless service and for setting an example that we can all continue to aspire to. Long Live the King!

James Sunderland is Conservative MP for Bracknell

That we should feel not just grief and sadness but shock at the passing of our Queen at the age of 96 is extraordinary. It is not just our nations that are deeply shaken. Across the world, from great leaders to schoolchildren, we all feel that we have lost something special from our lives. It was so finely illustrated over the last week as, around the globe, lights dimmed, flags were flown at half-mast and national monuments were illuminated.

As the most recognisable face in the world, Her Majesty has been a fixed point at the core of our national life. As the world has changed almost beyond recognition during the 70 years of her reign, through her experience, her character and steadfast sense of duty, the Queen was able to remain a constant and unwavering presence while still ensuring that the monarchy adapted to the challenges of the modern age. It was not just her longevity and the span of history she lived through but how she represented and served the nations of the UK and the Commonwealth that have earned such admiration and affection.

In her remarkable 21st birthday speech, she dedicated her life, be it long or short, to our service and, as she said, to make us “more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world”.

She saw that commitment as a joint endeavour, as she added: “But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me.”

And we did. That is why we mourn her loss so deeply today.

When Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born, few could have predicted the life ahead of her. Her father King George VI’s succession to the Throne was sudden and unexpected. Despite feeling unprepared, his general devotion and commitment to his country, to the Commonwealth and all its people earned him great warmth and admiration, particularly during the trauma of the war years. The then Princess Elizabeth also readily absorbed her new responsibilities. We should not underestimate the impact of her first public broadcast, at the age of 14, on the BBC’s Children’s Hour to those evacuated overseas during the Second World War.

Her Majesty later qualified as a mechanic and driver with the women’s branch of the British Army, the ATS. Apparently, the government did not approve, believing that her most important training should be as heir to the Throne, not as a mechanic, yet her determination in insisting that she wanted to serve her country was an early sign of the great Queen she would become. And, having served in the ATS, on VE Day the two Royal Princesses were as excited as anyone. Her Majesty later spoke of joining the crowds in Whitehall, where they mingled anonymously with those linking arms and singing. In a world without mobile phones or selfies, I wonder how many thought that the two young women celebrating with them looked just like the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

Her sense of fun enhanced her reputation as a monarch who connected with and understood her people

It is wonderful how she reached across the generations. My parents and grandparents would speak of her and her father’s dedication to the country during the war. As the first monarch of the television age, she and the Duke of Edinburgh ensured that her coronation was the first ever to be broadcast across the world, as she pioneered the Christmas Day televised message. She connected with and was visible to each new generation in a way no monarch has ever done before, even when having to resort to Zoom during the pandemic. Her arrival at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, where she appeared to be parachuted into the stadium with James Bond, was as surprising as it was delightful, and the nation was just enchanted by her sharing of tea and marmalade sandwiches with Paddington Bear for her Platinum Jubilee.

That sense of fun enhanced her reputation as a monarch who connected with and understood her people. Of her 15 prime ministers, the first was born over a century before the last. At their weekly audiences, she was so much more than a willing confidante with absolute discretion. Her experience gave her a knowledge and an intuitive understanding of domestic and international issues. At home and abroad, she presented the best of us. President Barack Obama, one of the 14 US presidents of her lifetime, said: “Queen Elizabeth II embodied the special relationship.”

But she was so much more than a figurehead. Her historic visits to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 and Northern Ireland in 2012 were of global significance and further proof of her diplomatic skills. It is enormously valued that Her Majesty never spoke publicly of her views on a political or policy issue. She maintained a dignified privacy of thought and displayed strict impartiality. If it was frustrating at times, it never showed.

As Head of State, she symbolised that our common values are greater than any divisions. Many in the House of Lords have memories of meetings with Queen Elizabeth that they treasure and have shared. More importantly, up and down and across the country – indeed, all over the world – people who met her, spoke to her or just saw her in person are also sharing their memories. Our affection for Her Majesty is not the demanded affection of deference to a monarch of the past, but is freely given for a monarch who, in an era of great change and some turbulence, provided precious stability and continuity. Although we are united in sorrow, we are also united in pride and in celebrating the life of a remarkable Queen.

It is the end of a great Elizabethan age. We send our very sincere condolences to all members of the Royal Family on their profound loss, especially to His Majesty.

Baroness Smith of Basildon is a Labour peer and shadow leader of the House of Lords

I ask myself how people will conceive of life without Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the heart and focus of our nation’s love and loyalty. For millions of people, she was the mother of our nation and the literal embodiment of the United Kingdom, which she so cherished. The shock will be immense and the grief unmeasured – as we already see. Even people in their 70s have never known life without her. She was our anchor of stability in a changing world and our exemplar of conduct and courtesy – one who, from the highest position in the land, showed us day by day the virtues of dignity, civility, humility, truthfulness and service.

“The Queen”: two little words that identified her instantly in seven continents and 100 languages. Can we conceive never again hearing that voice – that kindly, gentle voice, as we heard it from that very Throne at our State Openings – giving, in her royal broadcasts at Christmas or lately during lockdown, her unvarying message of faith and hope? Her voice was warmly encouraging to so many people on her myriad daily visits to hospitals, schools and factories and all the public places in cities, towns and villages here and across all her realms and territories– indeed the whole world. No one ever questioned her work ethic; she was Queen for everyone, every place and every generation.

In a moving and unusually public remark – because Her Majesty had that diamond among virtues, discretion – Her Majesty said of the husband that she so loved, our late lamented Prince Philip, that he was quite simply her “strength and stay all these years”.

So was she to us, and to all the countries and peoples of the great Commonwealth that she herself, beyond all others, nurtured, and to which she was devoted. She was our strength and stay for 70 years – firm in her duty, wise in her counsel, reassuring in her smile and gracious in her every act, whether in stretching out the hand of reconciliation in Ireland or encouraging a timorous child hovering with a bouquet that he dared not present.

How many tens of millions of people over 70 long years have travelled, sometimes hundreds of miles, to see her, the most famous woman in the world – although that was the very last thing she would ever have sought to be? Having seen her, they were touched by her warmth and went home with joy in their hearts, secure that there was a sparkle of goodness and a spirit of good humour in the world – and, my goodness, Her Majesty had humour and wit. People were just glad that she had come to their little corner of the world; frankly, people were just glad that she was there. For as they loved the public Queen, they also loved the private Queen, with her dogs and horses and her joy in Scotland’s countryside, wherein she died. Many who came to see her were from other nations, not her subjects, on her state visits or on their visits to this country. She was our nation’s greatest magnet and our finest diplomat. None will ever have forgotten that day when they saw her, however long it was ago.

All of us, whether we knew her or not, felt that we knew her and were glad that we knew her. Of all the different things we felt we knew, the one thing we all surely knew lies in that one word: duty. Hers was a life given to duty, to the service of her peoples, service to others: unceasing, utterly selfless service given with resilience and forbearance even in the difficult times. From that moment in her 21st birthday broadcast when she declared that her whole life would be devoted to our service, through her sacred coronation oath, to what we witnessed this last week, when this quite extraordinary woman summoned the last drops of her strength to say farewell to her 14th prime minister and appoint her 15th: it was duty. Many of us make many promises, and we all fall short of them. In 1947 and 1953, Her Majesty made one great and solemn vow of lifelong service, and she honoured it without flinch or blemish for 75 years.

Therein was another quality of Her Majesty: constancy and courage – the courage that we saw when, at Trooping the Colour, a demented man fired shots at her that no one then knew were blanks. That consummate horsewoman steadied her horse and just got on with it, as her generation did. She displayed that courage this last week too, even unto the threshold of death.

All of us, whether we knew her or not, felt that we knew her and were glad that we knew her

In that very first 21st birthday broadcast, so soon after a terrible war that scorched and stole the flower of her youth, she said something else to the young people of Britain and the Commonwealth. It is often overlooked, but it should not be forgotten. She said that they must never be daunted by anxieties and hardships. Her Majesty was never daunted; she always persevered. I venture to say, with no disrespect to the first, mighty Queen Elizabeth, that here was the greatest sovereign this country has ever had.

The deepest and most poignant sympathy of the House of Lords and all our thoughts will be with all her sorrowing family and with our King, for over half a century her fellow in duty as her faithful Prince of Wales. We pray that God may now protect and preserve him as our new King. May he and the Royal Family be consoled in their grief and comforted by the boundless love with which Her Majesty has ever been and, I believe, ever will be regarded.

We in her loyal House of Lords, along with hundreds of millions of people across the world, will join in prayers for our dear, our dearest, departed Queen. We call upon almighty God, in whom she so profoundly trusted and believed, to receive, as he so surely will, her dauntless and immortal soul. Thank you, Ma’am. May you ever rest in peace, as you will ever rest in our hearts.

Lord True is a Conservative peer and Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal


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