September 28, 2022

Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II


In the best tradition of historical fiction, biographer Andrew Roberts looks into the future in order to reimagine the past in a way that helps us come to terms with the present.

Extract from Queen Elizabeth II’s Private Diary, Andrew Roberts, ed. (Penguin, 2063)

5 April 1955

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Since I knew that this would be my last audience with Sir Winston before his resignation, I decided to try to draw him out on something a little more substantial than the normal witty repartee at which he so excels. I have much enjoyed our weekly conversations over the past three years since Papa’s death, and I felt it would be a good opportunity to discuss something weighty, an issue in which (unlike most) we do not see eye to eye. After a brief talk about the 2.30 p.m. race at Uttoxeter tomorrow, in which we both have horses running, I said, ‘Prime Minister, you wrote me a very generous letter about the Commonwealth, but I would like to ask you about something you said in it.’ Looking slightly surprised, but his eyes twinkling as ever, he replied, ‘Of course, Your Majesty.’

I picked up his letter from the escritoire and read out his words: ‘I regard it as the most direct mark of God’s favour we have ever received in my long life that the whole structure of our new-formed Commonwealth has been linked and illuminated by a sparkling presence at its summit.’ (Of course, as Disraeli did with my great-great-grandmother, when Sir Winston flatters me, he lays it on with a trowel.) ‘They are very kind words, Prime Minister, but in your long and eventful life you surely must have seen many direct marks of God’s favour?’ Knowing that he has an at best soi-distant relationship with the concept of an Almighty, and none at all with Our Saviour, I was hoping for a theological discussion, something we had never had before, as I recognised that I would see much less of him after Sir Anthony [Eden] became premier.

‘I once left a dug-out at Plug street on the Western Front, Your Majesty,’ Sir Winston replied, ‘and only minutes later it took a direct hit from a German whizz-bang which killed my batman and everyone else inside. At that time, I felt as if I could hear invisible wings beating over me.’ ‘There you are, Sir Winston,’ I said, ‘you are a believer after all! Viscount Hailsham, who I understand Sir Anthony is considering for postmaster-general, once told me   that the one time he has discerned the finger of God in history was when you became Prime Minister in 1940.’ ‘It is very generous of him to say so,’ Sir Winston replied, ‘but I tend to discern the generous words of your father on that memorable occasion more than the finger of God.’

‘Tell me, Your Majesty,’ he continued, ‘do you detect the finger of God terribly much in your life?’ ‘Every single day,’ I replied, ‘I see it up at Balmoral in the colour of the ferns on the moors; I hear it in the beauty of the rivers and every Sunday at Crathie Kirk; I sense it in the change of wind that warns the 18-pointer red stag of the stalkers’ approach. One day at Balmoral, I hope many years hence, I pray it will be the last thing that I do detect.’

We then turned to the troubling situation developing in Bechuanaland.

Andrew Roberts is author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny (2018).           

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