Although her dedication to duty never wavered, in her later years Her Majesty valued her ever-expanding family more and more
“Mummy, people keep on telling me that Granny is the Queen.” So said a bemused Lady Louise, Queen Elizabeth II’s youngest granddaughter, when she started school. Her parents, Edward and Sophie, had clearly succeeded in their aim of keeping life as normal as possible. And, indeed, for all Queen Elizabeth’s eight grandchildren, now mourning her loss, she was first and foremost their granny.
Queen Elizabeth was 51 when she became a grandmother. Peter Phillips was born in 1977, a welcome bonus to a year of celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. By then she was firmly settled into her role as monarch and was able to devote more of her time and energy to family matters.
And family did matter to Queen Elizabeth. There’s no doubt that the heavy responsibilities thrust upon her when she inherited “the top job”, aged just 25, took her away from her own young children more than she would have wished. But with her grandchildren, things were different. Like most grandparents, she wasn’t part of their daily routine, but she was able to spend quality time with them on a regular basis and played a key role in their upbringing.
With six of her grandchildren having to come to terms with the break-up of their parents’ marriages, Queen Elizabeth was a comforting, constant presence in their lives. She nurtured William and Harry through the trauma of their mother’s tragic death, and she remained close to Beatrice and Eugenie regardless of the embarrassment their parents heaped on the family. And despite Harry’s self-imposed exile from royal life, she consistently declared that he and his family were much-loved members of her own.
Through all the turmoil, through good times and bad, Queen Elizabeth made sure that her grandchildren knew they could almost always turn to her whenever they wanted. She was their granny, a granny who just happened to have a job called Queen.
A first grandchild is always special, and when Princess Anne gave birth to her son on 15 November 1977, Queen Elizabeth couldn’t help but share the news. She was at Buckingham Palace preparing to hold an investiture when the phone call came. It was her son-in-law, Mark Phillips, ringing from the hospital. It was 10.46am and the ceremony was due to begin in the Throne Room at 11am. Queen Elizabeth, who was rarely late, allowed herself an extra 10 minutes or so to congratulate the proud parents, and then apologised to the waiting guests:
“I have just had a message from the hospital. My daughter has given birth to a son, and I am now a grandmother!”
As Peter grew up he became firm friends with his cousins William and Harry. During summer stays at Balmoral, they would get into all sorts of scrapes. On one occasion they managed to crash a quad bike, almost bringing down a lamppost; they recalled how Queen Elizabeth came rushing out in her kilt and gave them “the most almighty telling off”.
Peter has remained a great support to William and Harry. When their mother was killed in Paris, he flew straight up to Balmoral to be with them. And in the days after Diana’s death, the three boys tramped across the moors together trying to get some perspective on what had happened. Peter was also a buffer between the warring Princes when Harry came back from America for Prince Philip’s funeral. He walked between the brothers as they followed their grandfather’s coffin.
In later years he conceded that having Queen Elizabeth as your grandmother was perhaps “a little strange”, but it was just something he was used to and so there was never a “wow” moment.
“We were incredibly lucky to be able to share a lot of our childhood time with her,” he said.
“She’s such an inspiration, not only to the country but to us as a family. Her work ethic and her dedication is something that I think the whole family has always tried to get at least somewhere near.”
And Peter paid his own special tribute to his granny on her 90th birthday. He masterminded The Patron’s Lunch, a huge street party stretching the length of The Mall to celebrate her work as patron of more than 600 charities and organisations.
“I’ve always been very close to my grandmother,” he said, “and we speak often.”
Queen Elizabeth’s eldest granddaughter, Zara, held a favoured place in her affections because of their mutual passion for horses. Princess Anne’s daughter could ride almost before she could walk, and Queen Elizabeth loved to lead her around Balmoral or Windsor on a Shetland pony.
There were no stuffy formalities with the grandchildren. Zara and her brother, Peter, would climb on Queen Elizabeth’s lap, demanding that she played with their toys or watch a video with them. Donald Duck was a particular favourite. And she indulged them – even when Zara grabbed her pearl necklace and broke the string. Her granny simply got down on her hands and knees and picked up the scattered pearls.
As Zara grew into an accomplished horsewoman, Queen Elizabeth followed her success with huge pride. To have both a daughter and granddaughter ride for Britain in the Olympics was really quite something. And Queen Elizabeth helped her not only with advice, but by investing in several horses for her.
There is no record of exactly what Queen Elizabeth thought when Zara went through a rebellious teenage period and had her tongue pierced. No doubt there might have been a raised eyebrow, but the stud remained for some time. And in later years, Zara commented that she always got “the good look” from her. “We are OK,” she said.
Queen Elizabeth enjoyed being with Zara and her husband, Mike Tindall. She found them relaxed and carefree, and Mike’s earthy Yorkshire humour made her laugh. They were touched by her kindness when Zara suffered a miscarriage in 2016 and didn’t feel up to attending the Christmas Day service at Sandringham. Her granny completely understood and later joined Zara and Mike at a private service for just the three of them.
The strength of their relationship was underlined once again when Queen Elizabeth, aged 95 and suffering a bout of ill health, made a point of attending the christening of Zara’s son, Lucas.
Being a granny and a great-granny were roles Queen Elizabeth cherished to the end.
William’s position amongst the eight grandchildren is, of course, unique. He was born with his destiny mapped out for him; a future king with all the responsibilities that go with it. Only his father and grandmother could truly identify with what that meant and how it felt. And it was to his granny that he often turned for advice.
“Growing up and having this figurehead, this stability above me, has been incredible,” he said in an interview. “She’s been so supportive and I really appreciate her guidance. But she has never dictated what we should do. So I’ve been able to explore, understand and slightly carve my own path.”
When he was a toddler, William found the word “Granny” hard to pronounce. So Queen Elizabeth found herself answering to “Gary”, which she found highly amusing.
For the sake of her grandsons, as much as anything else, Queen Elizabeth did her best to maintain a civil relationship with their mother, Diana, even during the bitter “war of the Waleses”. But it was when the Princess died in a car crash in Paris that she became the most important woman in the lives of her grieving grandsons. Despite public demands for her to lead the nation in mourning, she stayed at Balmoral shielding William and Harry during the emotionally charged days after Diana‘s death.
“She understood some of the more complex issues when you lose a loved one,“ said William later. “She’s been a very strong female influence and having lost my mother at a young age it’s been particularly important to me that I’ve had somebody like the Queen to look up to.”
Whenever she could, she cut him some slack. When a list of some 2,000 guests was drawn up for his wedding to Catherine Middleton, Queen Elizabeth sympathised with William’s complaint that he had no idea who most of the dignitaries were. She told him to tear up the official list and start again with the people he wanted to invite.
The success of William’s marriage and the birth of his three children were a source of great happiness for Queen Elizabeth. In later years, as he took on more responsibilities and often accompanied his grandmother on official visits, it was clear that she admired the man he had become and she spoke with pride about his work on global issues such as the environment.
Of all her grandchildren, Harry was the one who must have caused Queen Elizabeth heartache.
A delightfully mischievous child, he was well liked in royal circles and loved by his family. But Diana once told me she was worried that Harry would struggle to find his way; being the spare to the heir has never been easy. And so it proved.
As with William, she assumed a prominent role in Harry’s life after Diana’s death. But he soon rebelled against the strictures of being born royal by drinking too much and experimenting with drugs.
His grandmother was relieved when he settled down to a career in the Army. But she was faced with a dilemma when, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, she had to decide whether it was feasible to allow him to see active service in Afghanistan. Harry spoke to her about it and was impressed by her attitude. “She was very pro my going,“ he said. “She’s a very good person to talk to. Her knowledge of the Army is amazing for a grandmother – but I suppose it’s slightly her job!”
Harry once said he was in awe of her sense of duty, evident from the start of her long reign. “I’ve been asking her for years what her secret is,” he said. “But she won’t tell me!”
The Queen admired his initiative in setting up the Invictus Games for disabled servicemen and women. She even agreed to take part in a jokey “drop the mic” skit promoting the Games which went viral online.
And even through the turmoil and bitterness of Harry and Meghan’s decision to abandon their royal life and move to the United States, Queen Elizabeth made a point of publicly supporting her grandson. She issued a statement saying they would always be “much loved members of her family” and wishing them a “happy and peaceful new life”. It must, though, have been a source of enormous disappointment that Harry and Meghan chose to air their continuing grievances publicly on television, and that her grandsons – once so close to each other – were now estranged.
By the time Princess Beatrice was born in 1988, Queen Elizabeth was an old hand at the business of being a grandmother. But the arrival of another granddaughter was a particular joy.
The young Princess saw a lot of her granny as she grew up. Even though her parents separated when she was three, Beatrice was regularly taken to tea at Windsor (her mother schooled her in a special set of table manners for the occasion) and enjoyed holidays with her grandparents at Balmoral and Sandringham.
It was another delicate situation for her, nurturing her granddaughter through the turmoil of her parents’ divorce – made easier in this case by the fact that Andrew and Fergie remained “the bestest friends”. All the evidence is that Queen Elizabeth walked this tightrope with ease.
Interviewed a few years ago, Beatrice said she had two role models, her mother and her grandmother. “They are both formidable women. I think having female role models is incredibly important and I am very lucky that I happen to be related to these two incredible women.” And she gave an insight into Queen Elizabeth’s personality. She said her granny’s overwhelming sense of duty was linked to an overwhelming curiosity. “Every day she’s curious to learn something new, to do something new, and she goes out into the community with a genuine curiosity as to how she can be a force for good in the world.” Queen Elizabeth’s inclination, said Beatrice, was always to ask “why not?“ or “why can’t you?“ rather than to put obstacles in the way.
Nothing could illustrate their closeness better than the fact that Beatrice arranged her wedding especially so that her grandparents, isolating at Windsor because of the Covid pandemic, could be there. It was a small, private celebration with the service held at the Royal Chapel on the Windsor estate. And for this very special occasion, Queen Elizabeth lent her granddaughter one of her vintage gowns by Norman Hartnell and the tiara she herself had worn at her wedding to Prince Philip.
One of the most poignant family tributes after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh was from his granddaughter Princess Eugenie. She thanked him for his dedication and love for them all and especially “for Granny, who we will look after for you”, she promised. No fuss, no formality, for Eugenie they were simply her grandparents. “Granny,” she said, “has been able to be the person she is with the love and support from Grandpa.”
Both Eugenie and her elder sister Beatrice had a close and comfortable relationship with their grandmother. Family holidays at Balmoral were a highlight of Eugenie’s upbringing.
“It’s the most beautiful place on earth,“ she once said. “I think Granny is the most happy there. She really, really loves the Highlands. Walks, picnics, dogs – a lot of dogs, there’s always dogs! And people coming in and out all the time. It’s a lovely base for her and for us to come and see her, where you have room to breathe and run.”
And if proof were needed that Eugenie and her granny were close, the Princess revealed that Queen Elizabeth was one of the very first to know that she was engaged to her long-time partner – and now husband – Jack Brooksbank. “She knew right at the beginning,” said Eugenie, “and she was very happy”.
After a 13-year gap, Queen Elizabeth found herself becoming a grandmother once again in 2003. The birth of Edward and Sophie’s daughter, Louise, was a traumatic affair.
Lady Louise arrived four weeks early when Edward was on an official visit to Mauritius. Sophie came close to death during the emergency caesarean after she lost nine pints of blood through internal bleeding. While her baby was given specialist care at St George’s Hospital, Sophie had to remain 35 miles away in a Surrey hospital for another 16 days.
It was during this time that Queen Elizabeth took Sophie under her wing, and came to regard her as a daughter, and Louise as a very special granddaughter. The premature birth left Louise with a pronounced squint, which has since been rectified.
Her brother, James, Viscount Severn, made a far more orderly appearance four years later and both children were frequent visitors to their grandparents at Windsor. Their family home is just a few miles away at Bagshot Park, so popping over for tea or a pony ride was never a problem.
And she loved to indulge her young grandchildren. Visitors to the Castle recall a time when you had to negotiate “a sea of tricycles” to get to the door.
People see a resemblance between Lady Louise and a young Princess Elizabeth. She is a straightforward young woman, studious, conscientious – and mad about horses. She has taken up carriage-driving after being taught by her grandfather, Prince Philip, who left her his favourite carriage and ponies.
James, too, has horses stabled at the Royal Mews, and enjoyed riding with his granny at weekends. As her youngest grandchild, he occupied a particular place in her heart and she enjoyed watching him take over the family barbecues at Balmoral, happily flipping burgers, and keeping up tradition by throwing himself into the sport so loved by the Queen Mother: fly-fishing for salmon in the River Dee.
Queen Elizabeth’s grandchildren, and indeed her growing band of great-grandchildren, brought great joy in her later years. Although her dedication to duty never wavered, she valued her ever-expanding family more and more. She was their linchpin, their role model, their monarch… but primarily their granny.
For the final 12 years of the late Queen’s life, a new generation of Windsors were to be found running around the Royal residences. Often seen smiling cheekily from palace windows, trotting down the aisle at family weddings, or waving on the Buckingham Palace balcony next to their Gan-Gan, as she was known to them, the youngest members of the family brought their great-grandmother so much light and fun.
During this year’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, it was little Louis, the seventh of her 12 great-grandchildren, who stole the show, waving and pulling faces at the flypast. His routine appeared to delight the Queen, who smiled and chatted to him while his mother looked on with one eyebrow fondly raised.
“Every time we stay with her, she leaves a little gift for George and Charlotte in their rooms,” the Duchess of Cambridge once said of the late Queen. “That just shows her love for her family.”
Queen Elizabeth II was 84 when she first became a great-grandmother, when Savannah Phillips, now 11, was born to the late Queen’s eldest grandchild, Peter, and his ex-wife Autumn. Six of the late Queen’s eight grandchildren now have children of their own – Savannah and Isla Phillips, Mia, Lena and Lucas Tindall, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, Archie and Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor (following the death of the late Monarch they gain the titles Prince and Princess respectively), August Brooksbank, and the newest addition, Sienna Mapelli Mozzi.
Five bear a name that honours Queen Elizabeth II. Princess Charlotte, seven, has Elizabeth as a middle name, as does Isla Phillips, 10, Lena Tindall, four, and 11-month-old Sienna.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s second child, Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor (known as Lili), bears her great-grandmother’s nickname. Lilibet was the affectionate family name used only by those closest to the Queen, including her husband Prince Philip. It lives on in Lili, the 15-month-old little girl whom the late Queen met for the first time in June, when the Sussexes came to the UK for the Jubilee.
The older children may have more memories of their great-grandmother, and will be able to recall summer holidays at Balmoral and Christmases at Sandringham, but to all 12, she will no doubt always be Gan-Gan, their beloved great-grandmother.
Additional reporting by Eleanor Steafel
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