Queen Elizabeth II Kent Amethyst Royal Brooch

Through his books, documentaries and articles, Richard Hardman has slowly been working his way toward a full biography of Queen Elizabeth II. Our Queen (2011) is a deeply researched analysis of how the monarch has modernized an ancient institution while Queen of the World (2018) looks at the monarch on the world stage, a role she’s held far longer than any other current world leader. 

Now, Hardman is back with a perceptive and witty biography of the woman most of the world know simply as the Queen. His biography, Queen of Our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II, is so deeply researched that he found nuggets from her life that previous biographers never uncovered. With so much royal news breaking in recent years, he found himself updating the book right up to deadline; indeed, news of Prince Andrew’s civil settlement with Virginia Giuffre, who accused him of having sex with her when she was 17 and with Jeffrey Epstein, came out a week after the manuscript had been shipped to the printers. 

I talked with him recently about the Queen, her family and his book. What follows is an edited transcript. 

Your three books seem to be working from the outside toward the centre of the monarchy, the Queen herself. Why do a biography now? 

I felt that, at 70 years, it was time to stand back and look at the whole thing. There is a tendency of us royal writers to fixate on whatever the drama of the present happens to be. It’s certainly been a bumpy two or three years but you have to look at the broad canvas to get the full picture. 

I was lucky enough to get access to some of her father’s papers in the Royal Archives. I didn’t have high hopes, I thought they’d be “lunch with the prime minister, dinner with the secretary of state” but actually they are very revealing and honest. And they explain a lot about her, and so much of her early life explains her later life. 

So I wanted to put the whole thing together. It certainly ended up a bit longer than my publishers expected  — they talked about an accessible book of around 250 to 300 pages but I’m afraid, like everything else in lockdown, it got a bit bigger. 

Can you talk about how the Queen is commonly perceived, and what you observed? 

You’ve got her all-out critics—you don’t hear so much from them now but you did in the 90s and 00s—that she was weak and disengaged. 

Then you’ve got the agnostics who say, “She never put a foot wrong, but never put a foot forward.” 

But it’s when you go behind the scenes and talk to people that you realize she has been proactive. She has made a difference, deliberately so. 

This jubilee is not just a celebration of longevity; there have been moments when she’s been forced to make tough decisions and she’s made them, she hasn’t ducked them. 

And another thing that comes through time and again is that she’s not a panicker. There have been moments when she’s been slow to act at particular points—the week after Diana’s death or the slowness in forcing the issue with the declining marriage of the Prince of Wales or the royal finances, those sorts of things, people can say that she could have moved faster. But it’s very hard, indeed it’s impossible, to find any example—I couldn’t anyway—in her reign in which she’s been impetuous, in which she’s rushed into something, when she’s panicked. She doesn’t do that. 

I think it was [former press secretary] Charles Anson who said, she’s got very good shock absorbers. And [former prime minister] John Major told me that her default mode in a crisis is stillness. His view is that it goes back to her father. Her father’s maritime instincts are, “Well, this is a storm and this shall pass … so batten down the hatches and ride it out.” And that has been her position on any given crisis. And I suspect including the current ones. 

 At the same time, you show in your biography that her attitude toward her family shifted in the 1990s from being an ostrich with one’s head in the sand to taking a firm hand when needed, such as correcting the record when Diana suggested that she’d been coerced into giving up her HRH. How about now? 

I think she is very much in control. And these have been tough decisions of late, very personal ones. 

She has moved fast. And I think everybody, especially the Sussexes, were astonished by the speed with which she moved when the whole Megxit episode surfaced. When that bombshell [email from Harry and Meghan announcing they were stepping back from royal duties] came out at around 6 p.m. midweek, I remember being in the office. And then, within two hours max, we had a response from HM. 

Pretty much within a week the issue had been resolved. She called together the relevant parties and they reached a decision.

It was pretty similar with Andrew [and his scandalous relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy convicted pedophile]. One could argue that the whole saga had been allowed to go on far too long—people were concerned in the palace about this relationship back in the 00s, well over 10 years ago. Nonetheless, after he’d done his interview with Newsnight in November 2019, there was a very swift response. 

I thought the palace would just not comment and say it was a private matter and leave it at that but actually what happened is that one of the reasons she was so cross with Andrew, as I say in the book, is that he’d chosen to do this interview in the middle of an election campaign and that is a no-no in royal terms. You don’t wipe the democratic process off the front pages. 

Within a day or two of this catastrophic interview the whole question of Andrew suddenly surfaced in a leadership debate on TV, at which point the Queen was, “Right, I’ve got to do something now. We can’t have one [member] of the royal family becoming an election issue.” At that point, with Charles’s support, she said, “Public duties over.” 

Andrew issued this statement, “I’ve asked the Queen for permission to step back…” And yet, within maybe a day, you had Andrew letting it be known that he was heading out for an engagement in Bahrain on the weekend. 

And we all thought, “Oh god, it’s backsliding already” and as soon as Prince Charles woke up [he was in New Zealand] there was a very firm counter-statement out by the palace that he’s not going to Bahrain for the weekend. And that’s that. 

What we see in 80 years is a greater capacity to move. I don’t think she’s been an imperial ostrich—that was the nickname of the Queen Mother. That was her way of dealing with anything unpleasant. 

When you’re monarch, you can’t be too ostrich, you have to face up to things. 

The Queen was escorted by Prince Andrew to the memorial service of Prince Philip in March. Do you think he’ll have such a prominent role for the Platinum Jubilee role even though there was such a negative reaction by the public? 

That all took us by surprise on the morning of, that he was going to have this high-profile role. It had all been very carefully planned weeks in advance. I think the settled view is that, come on, this is his father’s memorial and … he’d come into the service with his daughters in the correct pecking order and that was fine. 

Suddenly at the last minute it turns out that he’d been lobbying quite hard the previous week and over the weekend and clearly she was happy with it. There were a lot of people at the palace who thought this was going to cause trouble and distract from the main purpose of the event. But she went along with it, at this occasion.

I would be surprised if that’s the case at the Jubilee because the Jubilee is a two-way celebration between monarch and people and it’s about her, and it’s not about the rest of the family and it’s certainly not about the Duke of York. 

Can we talk about the Netflix effect on the monarchy; polling shows many, especially young people, believe The Crown is true and that’s where their facts about the Windsors. You mention or discuss the fictional drama on 16 pages of the biography. What are your thoughts on the effect of The Crown on the monarchy as episodes come closer and closer to real life? 

I think where they had a hit in the nostalgia and retro phase of the project and it’s become much more uncomfortable as it’s aged into living memory. 

My book is the first full bio since The Crown. I didn’t set out to write a corrective, but apart from inaccuracies that pop up throughout [the drama], it’s the broader debate as to what are the ethics of dramatizing the whole life of someone who is not only still alive but still doing the same job.

That I think is questionable. 

There are a number of people whom I meet who refuse on principle to watch it, including many at the palace. [Former PM] Tony Blair says he hasn’t watched it; I’m quite sure the Queen hasn’t. 

I think some of the family has; of course Prince Harry has as he’s talked about it. Princess Anne said she hadn’t watched it but she said she was amazed to discover that the actress who plays her took three hours to do her hair, saying “It takes me 15 minutes and I do it myself,” which was very her

The pandemic allowed the Queen to move behind palace walls in a natural way. Now, increasingly, she’s not coming out. What’s her current status and how is Charles helping her? 

The turning point was last autumn. She’d opened the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and she was due to go to Northern Ireland and then she cancelled. [Northern Ireland] was quite ambitious: she was going to get on a plane, spend the night, do lots of engagements. 

That seemed perfectly doable after what she’d done in the summer: entertaining the G7 leaders and all that stuff. And suddenly that didn’t happen. And then one after another. Then you get these moments where it is particularly concerning, most notably Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph. We all thought she’d turn up and she wasn’t. And that was a big thing. Then she didn’t turn up at COP26. Again, people were pretty surprised that she didn’t make it to the Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey in March. And then she made it to Philip’s memorial.

What impresses me about Charles is [that there has been] endless speculation about what sort of king he’d be like but despite all that, he’s been very correct about not voicing his thoughts about what he has in mind. He’s very much “That would be disrespectful, I’m not going to do it” and I think that will continue to be the case. He’s not going to start leaking his blueprint for the coronation or that sort of thing. It would be improper. 

The pandemic has brought royal engagements into people’s living rooms via video. Suddenly, they could see her interactions, and her sense of humour. Did they break  down barriers in a way that wasn’t expected? 

At the start of the pandemic, I thought this was a very serious problem for an institute that thrives on outward-facing engagement with ordinary people. Suddenly they can’t, everyone is locked up. You could very easily end up in a Queen Victoria situation where the monarchy suffers by dint of  invisibility. But along comes Zoom and suddenly we see a side of her and her duties that people weren’t aware of. So much of being monarch is one-on-ones,  behind the scenes meetings and audiences, and state banquets and away days [going to an area for a series of engagements] are the icing on the cake. The nuts-and-bolts of the monarchy are sedentary and behind closed doors and now we get to see that. 

We’ve probably heard more of what people call “Queen actuality” since her transition to Zoom because previously if she met a new governor general or outgoing ambassador, we’d get a Press Association photo that would get almost no press coverage anywhere except perhaps in the nation of the person she is meeting. 

But now when she’s meeting with an ambassador or a general, we not only get the moving image but we get to hear her, these charming asides. I like the one from early on in lockdown, international space day or something, she’s talking with astronauts and she says, “Well, of course the important thing is that you’ve got to come back haven’t you?” You’re not kidding ma’am.

Much of the end of your biography deals with Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who left their full time royal duties for life in California. What do you see for their future? 

I think their brand depends entirely on their royal status and their royal connections, and therefore that’s what they are going to have to trade on, however much they say otherwise. 

It will be the royal stuff in Harry’s book, when it comes out, that people want to know about, not the worthy charitable activity. And I think as time goes on, like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, they will inevitably slowly recede from top billing on the news agenda. But I think it will be a slow process. 

They are so impressive in so many ways. If he hadn’t been a terribly popular or commendable royal emissary in the first place, then I don’t think people would mind so much. 

We’ve known Harry all his life and it’s a great loss, not just Invictus, but the Commonwealth Trust, and the army; he was doing great stuff and all that is gone. 

In the first few months after their exit, there was a sense that maybe they will want to come back, but that’s gone now. Their settled future is in America. 

How specific do you think Harry will need to be in his memoirs that are being published this autumn versus the more general statements that he and Meghan stated in their interview with Oprah Winfrey? 

People don’t want specifics; you can get away with it. I was being interviewed on a radio show when the presenter said that Harry accused his family of racism. Well, let’s break down that accusation: their two accounts conflict with each other, so it’s not a clear charge. It’s a dangerously nebulous accusation that has been allowed to become the accepted view by a large portion of the world. 

Looking ahead, there will be these periodic pot shots from Montecito, but I think they will, over time, become less interesting because there is a certain repetitiveness to them. But they are going to be box office for some time. Eventually as George, Charlotte and Louis come into the public domain, then the Sussexes will be like Andrew, Eugenie and Beatrice in 20 years time. When they do things, it will make it into the press, just not enough to hold the front page.

The departure of the Sussexes as well as Prince Andrew no longer having a public role means there aren’t as many working royals. Do you see any issues on the horizon? 

It’s a very slimmed down monarchy now. You can’t put many more holes in the bent. If it gets any slimmer, they will seriously have to rethink how things are done. 

The institution has always adapted and always evolved and will carry on doing that. 

I’m bullish. I hope what comes through the book is that I’m optimistic about the institution. I don’t subscribe to the declinist narrative that it was all brilliant in 1953 on Coronation Day and it’s been going downhill ever since. It’s been going up and down, and it always has.