An Insight into the Royal Family: Extract from The Final Curtsey

  10 Apr '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn
The Queen with Margaret Rhodes at Balmoral

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was married to Queen Elizabeth II for 73 years, and was the longest serving consort to a British monarch. Their wedding came just after the end of World War II, and the ceremony at Westminster Abbey was attended by 2000 guests. One of the bridesmaids was Margaret Rhodes (née Elphinstone), Elizabeth’s first cousin. Margaret recounts the wedding in her book The Final Curtsey, where she shares many intimate moments and anecdotes from her life alongside the Royal Family. The below extract also reminisces on Margaret’s memories with Queen Elizabeth at the Balmoral estate, where the Queen spent part of her honeymoon with Prince Philip, and wrote to Margaret saying she had married ‘the best and nicest man in the world’.

Extract from The Final Curtsey by Margaret Rhodes

On VE Day, 8 May [Princess Elizabeth wrote in her diary]: ‘PM announced unconditional surrender. Sixteen of us went out in crowd, cheered parents on balcony. Up St J’s St, Piccadilly, great fun,’ followed on 9 May by: ‘Out in crowd again — Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, walked simply miles. Saw parents on balcony at 12.30am — ate, partied, bed 3 am!’ My cousins were obviously having the time of their lives. Meanwhile I had been making occasional forays to Windsor where the Queen arranged rather more sedate small dances for her daughters, attended by young Guards’ officers stationed at the castle and in the town’s barracks. Queen Mary, rather wryly, called these boys ‘the bodyguard’. Princess Elizabeth dutifully waltzed, foxtrotted and quickstepped, and engaged her partners in small talk, but she was waiting for one man to come home from the war. She had been enamoured of Prince Philip of Greece from an early age. I’ve got letters from her saying: ‘It’s so exciting. Mummy says that Philip can come and stay when he gets leave.’ She never looked at anyone else. She was truly in love from the very beginning.

With total peace came some sobering statistics which told the price of victory and defeat. I read that over 55 million people were killed, from all sides. Then there were the spine chilling images filmed when the concentration camps were liberated. A world food shortage brought the return of rationing on a near wartime basis and there were long queues at food shops. The winter of 1947 blew in with heavy snow storms and sub-zero temperatures, meaning serious fuel shortages and power cuts. A frozen Britain lived and worked by candlelight. So the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten, newly minted as a British subject, in November that year, brightened our austerity-ridden post-war world. This time I was on the Palace balcony myself, as a bridesmaid, standing between Princess Margaret and another cousin, Diana Bowes-Lyon, gazing down on the crowds, who from that distance seemed Lilliputian. Our dresses were designed by Norman Hartnell. They were of ivory satin and net silk tulle, embroidered with syringa flower motifs.

There were eight bridesmaids, the traditional number for a royal bride. We flitted round the red carpeted corridors of the Palace waiting for the cars to take us to Westminster Abbey and I remember waving to the crowds. It was very exciting but I was shocked to learn that the price of a window view in buildings overlooking the processional route could cost up to ten guineas a head, a lot of money in those days. I know that there were some last-minute crises. The bride’s bouquet disappeared. A footman remembered taking it in and bringing it upstairs, but no one had seen it since. With the panic at its height he suddenly recalled putting it in a cool cupboard to keep it fresh — and there it was. Then Princess Elizabeth decided she wanted to wear the double string of pearls which had been a personal wedding gift from her father and mother. The pearls could not be found either, but someone remembered that they had been sent over with the rest of the wedding presents for public display at St James’s Palace, half a mile away. The Princess’s Private Secretary, Jock Colville, was dispatched post-haste and he commandeered the car of the King of Norway almost before he got out of it. At St James’s the detectives guarding the gifts thought he was telling them a tall story, but after some while he convinced them and returned clutching the pearls with only minutes to spare. There was a third mishap. The frame of the sun-ray tiara lent to the Princess by the Queen as ‘something borrowed’ snapped as it was being fitted on her head, and the Crown Jeweller, who was standing by in case of any emergency, rushed to his workroom with a police escort and repaired it just in time.

My memories of Queen Elizabeth started when I was about five with my annual visits to Birkhall, on the Balmoral estate. The house dates from the eighteenth century, and since 1930 it had been lent by King George V to the Duke and Duchess of York to use when the Royal Family migrated to Scotland for their summer and early autumn holiday. Three years earlier Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip spent part of their honeymoon there too. My cousin wrote to me from Birkhall, two weeks after her marriage describing its beauty under the December snows, the peace and quiet and how the local people left them undisturbed. ‘Scots are nice that way,’ she said. There were shooting outings, but the stalkers who, because of the eccentricity of their attire resembled a very mixed rag bag, rather took the Princess aback. ‘We were,’ she said, ‘confronted with the most scurvy-looking lot of ruffians that I have ever seen!’ Thereafter, having found her army boots and leather jerkin, ‘I looked more in keeping with everyone else.’ She added: ‘I couldn’t help wishing that a photographer would come along, just for once, as he would never have believed what he saw! I imagined that I might be like a female Russian commando leader followed by her faithful cut-throats, all armed to the teeth with rifles.’

The seclusion of Birkhall was in strong contrast to the first part of her honeymoon which was spent at Broadlands, the Hampshire home of Earl Mountbatten, where she and Philip had little escape from a curious press and public; the crowds arriving on foot, by car and by motor coach, besieging Romsey Abbey, where they attended morning service on the first Sunday of their week’s stay. Those who couldn’t get inside climbed on tombstones, and propped ladders and chairs against the walls so as to peer through the windows. One family, it was reported, even carried their sideboard into the churchyard and stood on it to watch the couple at prayer. Others queued for a chance to sit in the pew occupied a short while earlier by Royalty. The Princess in her letter told me that although she liked Broadlands, ‘we were terribly pestered by the Press, and, of course, our going to church at Romsey Abbey was a most vulgar and disgraceful affair’. However she was obviously content with the state of matrimony and in a postscript wrote: ‘I’m blissfully happy, in case you weren’t aware of the fact and I’m enjoying being married to the best and nicest man in the world.’

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