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Is Elizabeth II a bad mother? She sacrificed her children to care for a nation

Monarchy is a shared national delusion (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

Monarchy is a shared national delusion (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)


April 28, 2022   4 mins

It is perhaps not seemly to dwell on the failures of Elizabeth II during the Platinum Jubilee, but they are here, flotsam around the ship. Monarchy is a shared national delusion: that we are special because we have a witch-goddess of ancient lineage and the French have Emmanuel Macron.

When has she come closest to peril? That’s easy, in your royal pub quiz: the death of Princess Diana. But why did she come so close? Because the royal family were not emotionally responsive when Diana died? Because they did not lower the flag, or leave the castle to meet their desolate people? Nonsense: this was an act of projection, of guilt buried under the anti-Jubilee of a death.

We understood why the monarchy shook when Diana died: because she died, because she married into a family that is dysfunctional, because we like it that way. Diana was not gilded by her status. She was killed by it. Her marriage was arranged when she needed a love match, and in that brief burst of understanding was our grief. Or it should have been.

Now Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers is here, and it adds detail to the groaning library of royal biography, which is an odd genre prone to be read not with understanding but with glee. Because if you understand you can’t go on with the game. Brown divides the royals into functional and dysfunctional: good and bad. I am more cynical: I divide them into victims and survivors.

The victims pile up with their awful testimony: who survives this family? Not Edward VIII, possibly a Nazi-sympathiser. But he wanted something less suffocating than a crown and married a woman who gave him less. The Queen Mother responded to his gift by telling people Mrs Simpson was a prostitute and denying her the title HRH. She was a sore winner but for some people nothing is ever enough. Brown speaks the party line here. The family, “always believed that it was the excess public attention that had promoted Edward’s delusion of outsize significance and the coddling of dangerous emotional needs”.

There is Margaret, denied the man she loved, and by her sister, who then deceived herself about the cause of Margaret’s depression: because the Queen is a survivor. “Once,” writes Brown, “when one of Margaret’s inner circle called her to say her sister was threatening to throw herself out of the bedroom window the Queen replied, ‘Carry on with your house party. Her bedroom is on the ground floor’”. That’s a cold response to suicidal ideation. Margaret married a monster on the rebound and filled herself with fags, Famous Grouse, and nothing. When it was suggested to the Queen that a therapist might help her sister, the Queen replied, “Perhaps when she’s better we could consider that”. “It was one of her lifelong dreams to ride on a bus,” writes Brown sadly of Margaret, but I doubt it would have saved her, even if she had become a conductress. Margaret’s desire to be cremated at Slough was her personal elegy, made with apt disgust.

There is Charles, who lacked the words and the expectation of sympathy to tell his mother what he wanted — a wife he loved. There was Diana, a corpse, and Fergie, a tabloid headline, who cannot leave and cannot stay. She is trapped in the carpeted purgatory of her ex-husband’s home Royal Lodge, a dystopia with a vast TV on which they can watch the news that consumes them.

Both Andrew and Harry are victims of monarchy too: of Elizabeth’s dedication to the Edwardian style, which is tight-lipped, hierarchical, and filled with superficial morality. I suspect we need a more casual style of monarchy — that is what Harry howls for from California — but perhaps they think we will not accept a monarchy without the suffering that we impose on it? There are reasons why Elizabeth has been a successful queen beyond longevity: she placed it first, and not all the children thrived. One lost second son is a misfortune. Two is a pattern.

Andrew grew up to know that he is not as important as his older brother and the Queen, when she was present — she often wasn’t, she once returned from a royal tour and went straight to the races, not her children — presided over this. That’s male primogeniture for you. Winner takes all. It must be a canker unless you are peculiarly mentally healthy, even before you meet your mad acolytes.

If you feel yourself aggrieved, you may give yourself permission to behave as you wish. You will not open your own curtains. This is the testimony of a maid who hated Andrew because he made her climb the stairs to open his curtains. (It is impossible to believe that he is not addressing his mother.) You will call your wife, as Brown relates, “a fat cow”. You will have a collection of teddy bears, carefully arranged by the maid that hates you, even in your fifties, and yet imagine that you are really a naval officer. (Charles travels with a teddy bear according to Brown, but just the one). You will think, at best, that a trafficked 17-year-old will want to have sex with you because you are the Duke of York.

Then there is Harry. I used to think he left for privacy. Now, as he wades through autobiographies, Netflix deals and self-deception, I don’t think he left at all. Like Edward VIII, monarchy obsesses him; he can’t leave any more than Margaret or Sarah could. Attention without merit is addictive. Brown is fascinating on Harry and Meghan. “So why,” she asks, “didn’t Harry help navigate palace culture for his future wife?  He didn’t want to. Their complicity required Meghan to fight all the norms she had kicked against for so long. She was now his comrade in arms”. On Suits, she notes, Meghan was sixth on the call-sheet. In the royal family, Harry is sixth on the call sheet. They meet there, thwarted.

The two things that threaten the Jubilee — Andrew’s self-absorption and Harry’s rage — are entirely self-made. I know it isn’t kind to call a witch-goddess a bad mother, but perhaps you can’t mother a nation and your real children too. I wonder if they acknowledge it themselves. Charles’s plan to “slim down” the monarchy to himself, William, a middle-class woman and three children under nine, looks less like policy than testimony: a moment of self-knowledge and self-preservation before it all ends.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

If TG really “used to think [Harry] left for privacy,” one can probably disregard everything else she thinks about the royals, and human nature in general for that matter. I mean really.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

I saw Harry the other day at the INVICTUS GAMES, in The Hague.
He was in his element and it appeared that he couldn’t have been happier. He certainly wasn’t seeking privacy, in any shape or form.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Agreed. What a complete load of tosh. I feel myself aggrieved but I still open my own curtains rather than insisting that one of my minions does so.
It seems as though the author is motivated by some malignant loathing that find its expression in these Tourette style articles

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Perhaps she was being facetious- as we all can observe that Harry & his sidekick have crafted a life that is anything but ?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

Speaking as a parent I have to say the task of guiding but not dominating a child is not easy. The Queen has been a perfectly good mother in the context of what was thought the right approach during her life.
The truth is the character of a child is likely to assert itself despite the best endeavours of a parent.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Nature not nurture!

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Nature, nurture.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

What a truly bitter article, seemingly based on hearsay and the writers republicanism

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Sounds like a book review of Tina Brown’s latest. I am listening to it now on audible. Tina Brown reads it in quite a snippy, school-marmish fashion as well, as she reminds her readers (over & over) she’s been covering the royals for years. This review is just a regurgitation. Clearly, Tina isn’t expecting a Royal invite anytime soon.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Nelson Mandela was not a particularly good parent either – or husband. But then, you cannot do everything.

As for the rigidity and the suffering – it is a uniquely well-paid job, with palaces and worldwide fame thrown in. Nothing would have prevented Harry from marrying a hairdresser and getting a discreet job as a helicopter pilot in Nome, Alaska. Only that is not what he wanted, is it?

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I am guessing it would be hard to parent from prison ?

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Indeed. Which is why choosing a ‘career’ that would likely put you in prison – but that would eventually bring down apartheid – was not a very family-friendly choice.

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

27 years


Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

What do you mean when you say Mandela was neither a good parent or husband?

Nigel Taylor
Nigel Taylor
2 years ago

I’m astounded this trivial article has been published on Unherd . It has nothing whatsoever to recommend it .

F Hugh Eveleigh
F Hugh Eveleigh
2 years ago

A too harsh appraisal by far. In the fifties, parents of all shades and classes brought up children very differently to the standard child’s upbringing today. Dig into families and their backgrounds and there will often be areas of then practice which do not accord with many contemporary views. Good parents do their best but that often is not enough – such is life. The Queen and the Duke did what they felt was right. Easy to say it wasn’t from a distance of 70 years but not particularly helpful.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

“perhaps you can’t mother a nation”

It’s a bit more global than that – it’s The Commonwealth and involves a lot of travel!

We all know the stuff about our own families … and then, one other family – the Royal Family, because of the absurd amount of media attention they’re subjected to. But how much do we believe the media on any other subject?

Caroline Martin
Caroline Martin
2 years ago

I think the photo supplied with this article is not flattering and may have been chosen to be unkind.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago

It’s an old editing trick used by propagandists going all the way back to the Bolsheviks and Goebbels.Choose the most unflattering picture of the subject you dislike to try and influence the reader.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago

Tbf she is not Harry’s mother and arguably the problem for both Harry and Andrew stems more from delusions of grandeur than it does from lack of parental love.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago

The behaviour of the Royals (as dysfunctional and varied as any other) has nothing at all to do with ‘Monarchy’ which is a legal and constitutional institution.
It is immaterial what their characters, hopes, fears, jealousies and longings are. These are mere gossip fodder, for people who obviously haven’t got enough to do.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

A piece which seeks to excite sympathy for Prince Harry, Princess Margaret and the Duke of Windsor cuts no ice with me.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
2 years ago

It’s good to know that UnHerd supports free speech but this piece demonstrates well the peril. And what a mean-spirited piece it is but one that no doubt will gain many upvotes and pile-ons from those that seek out this kind of baloney. Meanwhile, many others get cancelled for expressing their views put out there in the interest of honest discussion.

Vilde Chaye
Vilde Chaye
2 years ago

The author’s first sentence is the only one worth reading: not only is the article unseemly, it’s irrelevant, very poorly timed, and about 50 years too late. Lambasting a 100-year-old for their poor mothering skills really takes the biscuit for bad taste. What a waste of energy.

Carol Moore
Carol Moore
2 years ago

Ouch! Surely it’s the case though that an assessment of the royal parenting would fail by standards applied by our Social Services!

Last edited 2 years ago by Carol Moore
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Carol Moore

I am not sure what Social Services standards they would fail given that we seem periodically to hear of small children with broken bones and multiple bruises being left with violent unmarried partners who go on to kill them. Do you know something the rest of us don’t about the upbringing of the Queen’s children?

geoffrey cox
geoffrey cox
2 years ago
Reply to  Carol Moore

You mean they would probably manifest incorrect ideological opinions? You’re probably right about that.

Sallie R
Sallie R
2 years ago

I remember being shocked to learn that the Queen, as a “young bride” as she was called, moved to Malta to be with her husband. Very romantic but not when you realise she left her two children behind in the UK for years.

Susan Lundie
Susan Lundie
2 years ago
Reply to  Sallie R

It was 1949 to 1951, and we need to understand that it was very common in those days for forces service couples, which was what they were, to leave very young children in the care of family, or in boarding school. Prince Philip was taking a last opportunity to spend time in his previously chosen profession, the Navy. It’s not how parents would deal with things these days, but it was 70 years ago, a whole world away, and it was the custom and practice at that time.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
2 years ago

Tanya Gold is semi-fixated on our British monarchy and its royal family. I have lost count of the number of articles by her on these topics which I have seen.
This suggests to me that, like many Republicans, she is really using that institution and family as proxy for difficulties with her own.
On the topic of aberrant royal persons, I think the giveaway that nullifies most of her argument is the awe-inspiring mediocrity of most of their intelligences.
When the Duke of Windsor arrived with Wallis Simpson for the start of their exile in France, immediately after his Abdication, he asked her ‘What do we do now?’
Pre-marriage, Prince Harry’s only notion of how to spend time – except when he was on duty in the armed forces – was boozing in pubs and clubs, boozing in pubs and clubs, boozing in pubs and clubs. For a while he led his brother down this dead-end road.
A few individuals among them, a very few, are not so mindless. The current Earl of Snowdon (Princess Margaret’s son) has long been a furniture maker.
Yet in the main, confronted by all the furniture of Earth and every means for specialising – as an interest, hobby, spare-time occupation – in any one domain of it, the Royals are at a loss to know what to do with themselves.
I write as a keen supporter of the British monarchy. It is a much better constitutional chieftaincy than any we can elect in what is still a fallen world of sinful human beings.
But I think the inanition of the majority (not all) of royal personages stultifies Ms Gold’s case that they are essentially victims, not willing adherents of the scheme into which they are born. If they had any aspiration – however inarticulate, barely choate – to be un-imprisoned, it would show in their going in for (say) bean-growing or boat-building or any one of thousand other creative activities.

David Watkins
David Watkins
2 years ago

For me I enjoyed reading this article. Nelson Mandela and the queen have been incredible leaders. However, I don’t think it is enough (although understandable) to say that it’s ok that maybe they weren’t the best parents because they were good leaders of a country. I would argue that to be a half decent parent is more important than a great worldwide leader. It seems like the key here is a lack of emotional attachment which was common in that era together with childhoods spent in boarding schools (there is quite a lot of literature about the damage that this causes) and a mother with the incredible responsibility of being the Queen and the perhaps impossible mission of being able to attend to her children.
I am arguing that if the world was full of half decent parents the world would inevitably have a lot more emotionally healthy children and that would surely have a transformative effect on society.
I would also take issue with palaces and worldwide fame being a good thing. An upbringing, maybe without emotional attachment matched with these surroundings, creates a bit of a prison I think. Is it any wonder that Harry would not feel that he can marry anybody he wants or do any job he wants? Although he has talked about living a normal life he seems to be unable to do so. That is no surprise given what he is used to. To break free would surely require a great amount of courage that I don’t think hardly anybody has.
I think that we have it wrong believing that riches equals happiness. To generalise I would argue that a middle class (to have enough so as not to be constantly stressing about where money is coming from) upbringing is the most positive environment and least constricting for children and adults making their way in the world. The constant worshipping of celebrities on tv and glorification and berating of the rich suggests that we should keep aiming higher. Not to do so would be a failure and having enough is not enough. I know that I have been taken in to this way of thinking.
I think we should show some understanding for children who grow up surrounded by great wealth. It rarely seems a healthy environment to live a contented life.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  David Watkins

I’d agree with your evaluation of the costs, but you have to agree that being a prince is a pretty well rewarded career. I just get a little impatient with people who refuse to pay the price – but still want to keep the advantages that they did not earn but got for being born to the right parents.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

Total tripe. The Royal Family behave in the way they do because they think that they are special. Harry believes that he really has a message for mankind that is worth millions of dollars. Andrew thinks that young women want to have sex with him and that he is so clever he can lie his way out of trouble. Margaret could have had the man she claimed to love but he was not worth renouncing her title and perks. So desperate was she to be treated like a common person, she insisted on being called ‘Princess’ by even her closest friends. Charles feels he has the right to meddle in the democratic process. William seems to agree that politics, read ‘democracy’, is a dangerous practice where the plebs disobey their Royal betters.
Fortunately, our Caribbean brothers and sisters have made it clear that they are sick of being lectured about the evils of slavery by a family that refuses to look at its own history of imperial enrichment. Hopefully, the British will get off their knees soon and take back the land that this German family have stolen.

Douglas H
Douglas H
2 years ago

Great article, hugely enjoyable. Thanks, Tanya.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Douglas H

I guess this remark is satirical…