1953: Elizabeth II, Queen of England with Prince Charles and Princess Anne chatting to Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965). (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

The grand old man and the ingénue queen

The devotion between Britain’s wartime premier and its greatest modern monarch


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Winston churchill was besotted with Queen Elizabeth II: the word is precise. He worshipped and adored her. His relations with some other members of the royal family were, on occasion, complicated — not least when King Edward VII was sleeping with his mother. But for the late Queen he had nothing but an almost puppy-dog love. 

On one occasion as prime minister, after she had let drop at an audience with him that she had been slightly bored by a Royal Variety Performance at the Palladium, Churchill wrote immediately to the Home Secretary ordering: “This must not be allowed to happen again.” (History does not relate whether it had one of his Action This Day labels paperclipped to it.)

Churchill first met Princess Elizabeth of York in September 1928, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he visited her grandfather King George V, with whom he had a testy relationship, at Balmoral. He wrote to his wife Clementine that the two-year-old “has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant”. He saw little of her when she was growing up, but was one of the first to send good wishes when she got engaged to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.

As well as both being strong Francophiles, Churchill and Princess Elizabeth were interested in racing. In May 1951 at Hurst Park, they watched Churchill’s horse Colonist II beat Princess Elizabeth’s horse into second place. “I wish indeed that we could both have been victorious,” Churchill wrote to her afterwards, “but that would have been no foundation for the excitements and liveliness of the Turf.” 

When King George VI died unexpectedly on 6 February 1952, aged only 56, Churchill was devastated, weeping copiously both on hearing the news and at the funeral. Of the new monarch he told his private secretary, Jock Colville, that “he did not know her and that she was only a child”. 

Nonetheless he saw an opportunity of romanticising the country’s situation. “Famous have been the reigns of our queens,” he said in his BBC broadcast on the King’s death. “Some of the greatest periods in our history have unfolded under their sceptre. Now that we have the second Queen Elizabeth, also ascending the Throne in her twenty-sixth year, our thoughts are carried back nearly 400 years to the magnificent figure who presided over and, in many ways, embodied and inspired the grandeur and genius of the Elizabethan Age.” 

Although she was his sixth sovereign, Churchill was the new Queen’s first prime minister and old enough to be her grandfather. For all the 51-year age difference — or perhaps because of it — Churchill quickly grew devoted to her. “There was one lady by whom, from 1952 onward, Churchill was dazzled,” noted Colville. “That was the new Queen. Here was a woman whom he respected and admired more than any man.” 

A framed photograph of her, radiant on her way to open her first Parliament, hung above his bed at Chartwell. (It is now in his study.) Gazing at it, Churchill exclaimed to his doctor Lord Moran, “Lovely, she’s a pet. I fear they may ask her to do too much. She’s doing so well.” Later, he added, “Lovely, inspiring. All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part.”

With his great historical sense, Churchill soon saw himself as the modern Lord Melbourne, the Whig premier of the 1830s who had schooled Queen Victoria in politics at the start of her reign. Unlike Melbourne, who retained a Whiggish cynicism, Churchill regarded the Queen with something approaching idolatry. His last private secretary, Sir Anthony Montague Browne, said Churchill’s “position is very easily summarised: he was the staunchest royalist and he adored the Queen”.

While we cannot — at least until the publication of the Queen’s diaries many years hence — know what was said at Churchill’s weekly audiences with her, there is plenty of evidence of a genuine friendship. 

There is plenty of evidence of a genuine friendship

Colville noted how the “audiences had been dragging out longer and longer as the months went by and very often took an hour and a half, at which I may say racing was not the only topic discussed.” The Queen’s private secretary Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles remained in an ante-room unable to hear the actual conversation inside but often catching peals of laughter. As he wrote in his diary, “Winston generally came out wiping his eyes. ‘She’s en grande beauté ce soir,’ he said one evening in his schoolboy French.”

Six weeks before the Coronation in June 1953, Churchill accepted the Order of the Garter, which he had turned down when George VI had offered it after the general election defeat in 1945. “I took it because it was the Queen’s wish,” he told an old friend, Lady Lytton. “I think she is splendid.” After the ceremony he described the Queen in a BBC broadcast as the “lady whom we respect because she is our Queen and whom we love because she is herself.” Today that provides a fine epitaph for Elizabeth II.

Churchill’s devoted affection for the Queen led him to flights of purple prose she must have occasionally regarded as being laid on with a trowel. “I regard it as the most direct mark of God’s favour we have ever received in my long life,” he told her in 1955, “that the whole structure of our new-formed Commonwealth has been linked and illuminated by a sparkling presence at its summit.” 

When Churchill resigned in April 1955, the Queen asked her private secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, to tell him “that though she recognized your wisdom in taking the decision which you had, she felt the greatest personal regrets and that she would especially miss the weekly audiences which she has found so instructive and, if one can say so of State matters, so entertaining.

“Never have the august duties which fall upon the British monarchy been discharged with more devotion than in the brilliant opening of Your Majesty’s reign,” Churchill told the Queen at his farewell dinner at Number Ten on 6 April 1955. “We thank God for the gifts He has bestowed upon us and vow ourselves anew to the sacred causes and wise and kindly way of life of which Your Majesty is the young, gleaming champion.” 

If any proof were needed of the great mutual regard and affection between our greatest modern prime minister and our greatest modern monarch, one only needs to see the expression on both their faces as Churchill opens the door of the Queen’s car that night.

In February 1962, just before Churchill slipped into senility, he wrote to the Queen to say “Madam, at the conclusion of the first decade of your Reign, I would like to express to Your Majesty my fervent hopes and wishes for many happy years to come. It is with pride that I recall that I was your Prime Minister at the inception of these ten years of devoted service to our country.” 

She replied the following day: “My dear Sir Winston, I was most touched to receive your letter of good wishes on the tenth anniversary of my succession. I shall always count myself fortunate that you were my Prime Minister at the beginning of my reign, and that I was able to receive the wise counsel and also friendship which I know my father valued so very much as well.” 

On 24 January 1965, 70 years to the day after the death of his father Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Winston died. The Queen waived all custom and precedent to attend his funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. She added a message in her own handwriting to the wreath of white flowers that was placed upon his coffin: “From the Nation and the Commonwealth. In grateful remembrance, Elizabeth R.” It echoed that which Churchill had placed on her father’s coffin, simply saying “For Valour”, the motto of the Victoria Cross, and a reference to the late king’s moral and physical courage during the Second World War, and perhaps also at the battle of Jutland in 1916.

In recent years there have been some attempts, notably in Netflix’s fictional television series The Crown, to claim there were disagreements and difficult personal relations between Elizabeth II and Churchill. These are completely untrue. 

Indeed, all the evidence we have from their correspondence, from the reminiscences of their entourages and from the utterances of Churchill himself, attest that the Queen liked and admired Winston Churchill and enjoyed his company, while he was totally besotted with her. She similarly enjoyed reminding any of her prime ministers who got too full of themselves that her first prime minister had been Sir Winston Churchill, who had died before some of them had been born. 

The Queen decided Churchill should have a State funeral following his stroke in 1953. Once he had recovered, she told him so. The plans had to be rewritten several times over the next 12 years because, as Lord Mountbatten joked, Churchill kept on living but the pallbearers kept on dying. 

There is a powerful symmetry to the friendship of monarch and premier that the next State funeral after Churchill’s was to be the Queen’s own, a full 57 years later.

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