‘My grandma is incredible,’ says Prince William in candid interview with author and journalist Robert Hardman24 September 2011
For the past two years, the Mail’s Robert Hardman has been granted privileged access to the world of the Queen.
The result, in his magisterial new book Our Queen, which we serialise exclusively today and next week, is the most in-depth and revealing royal portrait in years.
In part one of this unmissable series, Prince William talks intimately and at length, for the first time, about his remarkable grandmother.
‘My grandma is incredible’: Prince William pays tribute to the Queen as she approaches her Diamond Jubilee
By Robert Hardman
The engagement had just been announced. Catherine Middleton had given her first television interview, with Prince William sitting proudly by her side. And it was now time to plan the wedding.
Eager to include all their close friends in the great day, the young couple began to draw up the guest-list. But they found they had been pipped to the post: Buckingham Palace was there first.
ONE’S ROYAL RITZ
‘I came into the first meeting for the wedding, post-engagement,’ Prince William tells me in a poignant and thoughtful interview about his grandmother, his first to an author.
‘And I was given this official list of 777 names — dignitaries, governors, all sorts of people — and not one person I knew.’
He chuckles as he recalls his own sense of helplessness. ‘They said: “These are the people we should invite.” I looked at it in absolute horror and said: “I think we should start again.”’
Guided tour: William showed the Queen around his RAF base in Anglesey earlier this year
Eventually, he realised there was only one person who could resolve the issue: the Queen herself.
‘I rang her up the next day and said: “Do we need to be doing this?” And she said: “No. Start with your friends first and then go from there.” And she told me to bin the list.
‘She made the point that there are certain times when you have to strike the right balance. And it’s advice like that, which is really key, when you know that she’s seen and done it before.’
The list was duly ‘binned’. And Prince William absorbed the latest of many useful lessons from his grandmother in striking that delicate balance between ‘personal’ and ‘duty’.
On other wedding matters, however, he rapidly learned that there was absolutely no room for manoeuvre. For instance, he says: ‘I wanted to decide what to wear for the wedding.’
As a commissioned officer in all three Services, and a serving member of the Royal Air Force, the Prince certainly had a few choices. Except that he did not.
‘I was given a categorical: “No, you’ll wear this!”’ he says.
This time, it was his grandmother who was laying down the law. Having just appointed Prince William to the position of Colonel of the Irish Guards, his most senior military appointment — and one of her Guards regiments to boot — the Queen was quite clear that her grandson should be getting married in his Irish Guards uniform.
‘So you don’t always get what you want, put it that way,’ the Prince says, laughing again. ‘But I knew perfectly well that it was for the best. That “no” is a very good “no”. So you just do as you’re told!’
In any case, as a serving officer in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, he could hardly disobey an order from the Commander-in-Chief.
Bond: William and the Queen watching Trooping the Colour in 1989
Only one other monarch has marked 60 years on the throne. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, however, was a celebration of imperial might, featuring a reclusive Britannia figure.
As we approach the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the mood is entirely different. We see Queen Victoria in Highland seclusion and set in aspic. We see Queen Elizabeth II walking dogs or watching a dancing display somewhere in the South Seas. She is a ‘now’ person, not a ‘then’ person.
And unlike the Queen Mother, the Queen — now 85 — has never been viewed by the public as a twinkly-eyed granny.
She’s a global leader whose reign not only spans 12 British prime ministers, but also 12 American presidents and six Popes.
As one Commonwealth leader says, she’s so firmly established on the world stage that she’s no longer seen as merely British, or, indeed, as merely human.
And, as Prince William acknowledges, you’d have to be approaching the age of 70 to be able to recall any other face on the banknotes and postage stamps.
As I’ve seen time and again for myself, during two decades of following the monarchy professionally, the Queen’s regal aura remains as powerful as ever, reducing the most distinguished visitors to the Palace to a bag of nerves. It is intriguing to learn that she commands the same reverence among her heirs and successors.
‘Even within the family, it happens,’ admits Prince William.
‘I say to people: “She’s my grandmother to me first and then she’s the Queen.” Words that come from her, I take very personally and I really appreciate.’
The future monarch certainly considers himself extremely lucky to have both his father and his grandmother to consult. Indeed, no trainee sovereign has ever had so much experience on which to draw.
‘My relationship with my grandmother has gone from strength to strength,’ he says. ‘As a shy, younger man it could be harder to talk about weighty matters. It was: “This is my grandmother who is the Queen, and these are serious historical subjects.”
‘As I’ve got older, she’s become an even more important part of my life, so it’s much easier. And obviously, with the wedding, she was a massive help.’
Close: Both grandmother and grandson could barely suppress their smiles as the Queen inspected
Sandhurst graduates in 2006
Today, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, plus nine office staff, all work out of a small terrace house which had previously been earmarked as accommodation for the Lord Chamberlain.
Guests are greeted by a bust of the Queen and a portrait of Edward VII, next to a very ordinary kitchen where the royal residents and the staff share a coffee machine, a kettle and a table covered in newspapers.
There is an easy informality and a bustling sense of purpose as young assistants trot between floors bearing correspondence or dress samples.
If the Duke of Cambridge is between official engagements, visitors are as likely to bump into him wearing chinos, open-necked shirt and tank top as to find him in a suit and tie.
Space is tight, though. This may be the headquarters of the most famous young couple on earth, but they don’t just share the same first-floor study with each other.
They share it with Prince Harry, too. And because there is room for only two desks, the trio are reduced to what, in modern officespeak, is known as ‘hot-desking’. ‘It’s not a problem as they’re hardly ever all there at the same time,’ explains a member of the royal household.
It’s a small, close-knit operation without the trappings of larger royal households — equerries, ladies-in-waiting, orderlies and so on.
And at this stage in his life, this is precisely how the next monarch but one likes to keep it as he adjusts to a new, enhanced role in the royal machine.
Relaxing: The pair were pictured together at the Highland Games in 2006
The Queen is always available to him for advice. ‘There’s no question you can ask, and no point you can raise, that she won’t already know about — and have a better opinion about,’ he says.
‘She’s very up for that sort of thing. And for me particularly, being the young bloke coming through, being able to talk to my grandmother, ask her questions and know that there’s sound advice coming back is very reassuring.’
But, equally, he is conscious of both the huge demands on her time and her firm belief in learning through experience.
‘It’s very much the case that she won’t necessarily force advice on you,’ he says. ‘She’ll let you work it out for yourself. She’s always there for a question or two, for whatever it is you might need.
‘But, just as she probably had to do, she feels that you have to work it out for yourself, that there are no set rules. You have to make it work. You have to do what you think is right. And she’s a prime example of that. She had to carve her own way, and she’s done it fantastically for 60 years.’
The new Duke and Duchess followed her example as they prepared for their first major overseas tour together during the summer — to Canada and California.
Having ‘made it work’, Prince William went to see the Queen on his return. ‘I prefer to do a “post-debrief” than a “pre-debrief,”’ he explains. ‘It’s a bit easier and there are no hidden expectations.’
Earlier this year, he must have anxiously awaited the royal ‘post-debrief’, after travelling across the world — at the invitation of two prime ministers — to meet victims of Australian floods and New Zealand’s recent earthquake and mining disaster.
His visit was high profile, of course, but the style was deliberately low-key, with a minimum of protocol, as he met and consoled many distraught people and passed on messages to and from the Queen.
‘I felt so strongly about going down there,’ says the Prince. ‘Because if it was someone you knew or people you cared about, which I do, you’d want to be down there consoling them. They’re a good bunch and they’ve had a horrendous time: Christchurch got destroyed.’
Celebration: The Queen gave William invaluable advice at the time of his wedding to Kate Middleton
The five-day trip was arranged at short notice and the Prince was back on duty soon afterwards.
‘I slept for quite a bit and then I went straight back to work,’ he says, referring to his job as an Anglesey-based RAF search-and-rescue pilot.
‘Then the Queen sent me the most wonderful letter saying “Congratulations” and “Well done, you did well down there”, which meant a lot to me. It’s funny, but when you get a letter from her or a bit of praise, it goes a long, long way, more so than anyone else saying “well done” to you. It’s mainly because there’s such gravitas behind those words.’
If he is touchingly proud of his grandmother’s letter, it’s not least because he knows that she has travelled farther and met more foreign leaders than all her predecessors put together.
He’s particularly enthusiastic about the Queen’s latest milestone — her state visit to the Republic of Ireland, in May this year. She had never visited Britain’s closest neighbour before.
By any standards, it was a diplomatic watershed, a genuinely historic exercise in reconciliation and friendship. And the Queen was visibly thrilled: it was almost as if she was saying: ‘This is the point of me.’
While she was in Dublin, the new Duke of Cambridge was on honeymoon in the Seychelles, keeping close track of events.
‘We all wanted it to go smoothly because it was such a big deal,’ says Prince William. ‘I was keeping a careful watch on the internet, hearing the odd snippet and seeing photographs. I know a lot of Irish people, and so many of them were excited about the visit that I knew it would go well.’
Whereas he can ‘nip in’ to Ireland relatively easily, he points out, the country had been off-limits to the Queen all her life. ‘She was so excited about it and really looking forward to it. It was quite sweet.
‘Normally,’ he continues, ‘with a lot of tours, there’s a certain amount of apprehension, but also “I’ve done this before”. ‘But this was like a big door opening up to her that had been locked for so long. And now she has been able to see what’s behind the door.’
Visit: The Queen’s trip to Ireland earlier this year was a ‘big deal’, according to her grandson
There were certainly plenty of personal subtexts to this tour, not least the murder of Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, by the IRA during a family holiday in County Sligo in 1979. Yet neither the Queen nor Prince Philip made any direct reference to it.
‘It’s “personal” v “duty”. There’s a big difference,’ says Prince William. ‘As far as she was concerned, in terms of the relationship between Britain and Ireland and the Troubles, it was time to move on from that.
‘What’s happened has happened, and no one wants to cover it up. We must make sure all the right things are done and that the right people are said sorry to, or vice versa.
‘But it was not about her losing Lord Mountbatten when she was younger. It was about the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is close relations between the state of Ireland and the UK. It was a great time to say: “Let’s move on. Some horrendous things have been done over the years, but let’s look to the future.”
‘The massive deal was the Queen going and cementing the fact that everyone should look for better things.’
That ‘cementing’ process was almost instantaneous. There was pan-Irish applause for the Queen’s state banquet speech (which was garnished with a little Gaelic) expressing ‘deep sympathy’ for the ‘heartache, turbulence and loss’ over all those years.
And there was even greater appreciation of the Queen’s silent gestures — her judicious selection of green dresses, her journey to the spiritual home of Gaelic culture and, above all, her bow at Dublin’s nationalist memorial to those killed in the fight for independence.
‘Ireland was fantastic,’ says the Prince. ‘She’s had so many people congratulating her on the visit. And rightly so.’
The Prince’s ready grasp of the diplomatic imperatives not only shows a wise head on young shoulders. It’s also a contributing factor to the Queen being, in the words of one bishop, ‘the happiest I have ever seen her’.
Not only is she supported by the most experienced Prince of Wales in history, but she can also take genuine pride in the calibre of the next royal generation down the line. And that clearly includes the new Duchess of Cambridge.
Family friends at April’s wedding had never seen such an effervescent Sovereign. One describes her as ‘positively playful’ that day. ‘She was literally skipping,’ says another.
Tour: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge drew inspiration from Her Majesty on their visit to Canada
While next year’s Diamond Jubilee may be an occasion for everyone to look back over the past 60 years, the star turn prefers to keep looking ahead.
As I have discovered, history is important to her, but the present is rather more important. She may be the living incarnation of a set of values and a period of history, but she has also put the Edwardian institution she inherited in 1952 through the most vigorous reforms of modern times.
This, after all, is the Monarch who expelled the debutantes, invented the walkabout, opened up the Palace, tore up the rulebook on bowing or curtseying and hosted a pop concert at the age of 76.
She has also presided over the greatest shake-up of the royal finances since the French Revolution, and quietly rewritten the royal job description for the first time since Queen Victoria.
‘She is actually more open to new ideas now than ten, 20 or 30 years ago,’ says one senior official. Or, as one of her closest confidants puts it: ‘Everything’s changed except the headscarf.’
Internal records show that, between 2005 and 2010, the amount of hospitality at Buckingham Palace rose by 50 per cent. Last year, the Queen’s list of engagements actually rose by almost 20 per cent.
As far as her grandson is concerned, ‘she’s incredible’. Already four years older than the Queen was on her accession to the throne, Prince William pauses to ponder the enormity of the task that once lay before her.
‘Back then, there was a very different attitude to women. Being a young lady at 25 — and stepping into a job which many men thought they could probably do better — it must have been very daunting. And I think there was extra pressure for her to perform.’
He remains in awe of the way she managed it: ‘You see the pictures of her and she looks so incredibly natural in the role. She’s calm, she’s poised, she’s elegant, she’s graceful and she’s all the things she needs to be at 25.
‘And you think how loads of 25-year-olds — myself, my brother and lots of people included — didn’t have anything like that. And we didn’t have that extra pressure put on us at that age.
‘It’s amazing that she didn’t crack. She just carried on and kept going. And that’s the thing about her: you present a challenge in front of her and she’ll climb it. And I think that to be doing that for 60 years, it’s incredible.’
Sombre: William with his grandmother and father at the funeral of the Queen Mother
However, it’s no secret that the Queen has never greatly enjoyed the public spotlight. It was her late private secretary Lord Charteris who remarked that she ‘combines her mother’s charm with her father’s shyness’.
Prince William, for his part, is emphatic on the subject. ‘She cares not for celebrity, that’s for sure,’ he says approvingly.
‘That’s not what monarchy’s about. It’s about setting examples. It’s about doing one’s duty, as she would say. It’s about using your position for the good. It’s about serving the country — and that really is the crux of it all.’
Ruminating on the Queen’s long reign, Prince William feels that his grandmother has few grounds for regret.
‘For her, it must be a relief to know that she has furrowed her own path and that she’s done it successfully, and that the decisions she’s made have turned out to be correct. You make it up a lot as you go along.
‘So to be proven right when it’s your decision-making gives you a lot of confidence. You realise that the role you’re doing — you’re doing it well; that you’re making a difference. That’s what’s key. It’s about making a difference for the country.’
The Queen, on the other hand, sees nothing remotely remarkable in the way she approaches her role, as Jack Straw discovered in 2003.
Having spent time accompanying her around Nigeria during a Commonwealth tour, the (then) Foreign Secretary could not help reflecting that the Queen was only five years younger than his own mother. At the end of one day, he remarked: ‘Ma’am, if I may say so, that was very professional.’
‘Foreign Secretary,’ the Queen replied, ‘I should be, given how long I’ve been doing it.’
Just like her late mother before her, though, she doesn’t welcome attempts, however well-meaning, to curtail her engagements.
But does anyone in her family ever try to say to her: ‘Your Majesty, wouldn’t it be a good idea to take it easy?’
‘We all do,’ Prince William replies with a smile. ‘We all try to sit down with her. My father and her other children say it a lot to her.
‘For the grandchildren, it’s a bit difficult for us to say “take it easy” when she’s so much older than us and has done so much more. We do hint at taking some things off her, but she won’t have anything of it.
‘She’s so dedicated and really determined to finish everything she started. She’ll want to hand over knowing she’s done everything she possibly could to help, and that she’s got no regrets and no unfinished business; that she’s done everything she can for the country and that she’s not let anyone down — she minds an awful lot about that.’
And the Diamond Jubilee? ‘She’d want to keep going regardless. But it’s nice for her to know, after 60 years, that she really has made a huge difference and that people massively look up to her.
‘They see this dedication and this service. And I’d hope people would want to emulate that sort of sacrifice and dedication in their own lives.’
Like his father, Prince Charles, the Duke of Cambridge has had spells with all three Services, and he believes that his military training has given him invaluable coaching for what lies ahead.
‘It’s a very good way of understanding the position and what it takes,’ he says. ‘You know, these guys do the most incredible things the whole time. And what better place to realise how to cope with pressure and stress than serving in the Armed Forces and taking that experience with you?’
But Prince William is also the first to acknowledge that the importance of wise heads in a changing world. He has absolutely no interest in jumping the queue.
‘Without the senior members of the family who’ve seen and done it all,’ he says, ‘the junior lot wouldn’t be relevant. You need to have the balance and the experience.
‘It’s like a rugby team. If you’re picking for the World Cup final, you’re picking experience with youth. Everything is better off having that balance and that mix. I think that, especially, goes for the monarchy as well.’
For the time being, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge seem determined to make the most of whatever vestiges of a private life they can retain.
And the Duke appears very happy to forge a conventional career in the Armed Forces rather than ponder any new royal role — let alone that of King.
‘I try not to think about it, to be honest,’ he says. ‘As I’m flying along in my helicopter through the mountains of Wales, I try desperately hard not to think about it. That can wait until I’m a bit older.’
See Related: Why Tony Blair wished he hadn’t made the Queen cry
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