The life of a Royal can be extremely isolating; separated from the public by legions of staff, security and, often, the walls of Buckingham Palace, it is virtually impossible for the Royals to experience life as an ordinary member of the public.
For Queen Elizabeth II, her unexpected opportunity arose on 8th of May 1945, when she was still known as Princess Elizabeth (or Lilibet, to her parents), and Nazi Germany had just surrendered to the allied forces.
As revellers began flooding the grounds outside Buckingham Palace to celebrate VE Day, King George VI and the Queen prepared to take to the balcony to share in the rapture and relief of the tens of thousands who had gathered to see them. Amid all the euphoria, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret pleaded with their parents to let them join the crowds outside, and – astonishingly – they agreed.
The protective parents quickly assembled an entourage of 16 dependable members of the Royal Household to accompany the Princesses on their unprecedented journey outside the palace. Among their trusted escorts were Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s cousin, and the King’s equerry Peter Townsend – who viewers of The Crown will remember for having later conducted a forbidden love affair with Princess Margaret.
Making an effort to blend in, Princess Elizabeth dressed in the mechanic’s uniform from her time serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. “We were terrified of being recognised,” the Queen has since said, “so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes. A Grenadier officer among our party of about 16 people said he refused to be seen in the company of another officer improperly dressed. So I had to put my cap on normally.”
The Royal party snuck out of the household and into the heaving throng occupying the forecourt of Buckingham Palace – all chanting for the King and Queen to appear. The Princesses too, joined in cheering for the arrival of the monarch, and then – in what must have been an utterly surreal experience – watched as their parents appeared on the balcony which the Princesses had themselves occupied many times before. “We were amazed,” said Margaret Rhodes. “It was like a wonderful escape for the girls. I don’t think they’d ever been out among millions of people. It was just freedom – to be an ordinary person.”
The Princesses and their protectors made their way down the Mall and onto Horse Guards Parade, losing themselves in the crowds and the abundance of emotion. “Trafalgar Square was jammed from end to end,” said Margaret Rhodes. “It was a scene of joyful whoopee – full of people kissing policemen and other people. It was complete mayhem, but rather nice mayhem.”
Indeed, the Princesses may have seen considerably more of the public than anyone had ever expected them to. In a letter written by aristocrat Diane Carnegie describing the VE Day celebrations to her army officer husband stationed in Europe, she recounts having seen revellers openly having sex in the grounds outside Buckingham Palace – and making no effort to hide it from the crowds around them.
Clearly, VE Day was a huge emotional release for a nation that had spent the war living fearfully and with restraint, and it seems even the usually reserved Princess Elizabeth was overcome with a feeling of joyous anarchy, as her entourage made a detour into one of London’s most famous and exclusive landmarks.
“For some reason, we decided to go in the front door of the Ritz and do the conga,” said Margaret Rhodes. “The Ritz has always been so stuffy and formal – we rather electrified the stuffy individuals inside. I don’t think people realised who was among the party – I think they thought it was just a group of drunk young people. I remember old ladies looking faintly shocked. As one congaed through, eyebrows were raised.”
At midnight, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret returned to Buckingham Palace along with their Royal retinue, and sent word into the household that they were waiting outside and wished to see their parents on the balcony again, so thrilled had they been by the novelty earlier in the evening. Ever the obliging parents, King George VI and the Queen emerged once more to wave to the crowds and their adoring daughters.
So ended the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Princess Elizabeth to see her home, the Royals and the world itself from the perspective of her future subjects. Many years later, as Queen Elizabeth II, she reflected on the experience: “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.”