What would Elizabeth do? Crisis-hit Palace looks to late Queen’s words of wisdom

Royal family, Queen Elizabeth II
Royal family, Queen Elizabeth II

As 2023 turned into 2024, there was a sense of quiet satisfaction at Buckingham Palace.

The King had settled into the top job without mishap, and the country had accepted his wife as Queen without fuss. All signs seemed to indicate onwards and upwards.

As the Royal family walked to church at Sandringham, the King looked jolly and grandfatherly, and the Wales children polished and polite as ever.

Even the sight of the Duchess of York back in the fold raised a smile rather than any sense of alarm, the wider family seeming younger and more fun than they had in some time.

“As a challenging year draws to its close, they finally seem to be thriving,” noted The Telegraph. Even The Crown had finished on Netflix.

“The real risk was around the moment of accession,” says a source. “But the process went as smoothly as could possibly be hoped, and that continued for 18 months. The headline news was how well this had gone.”

Nearly four months on, everything has changed. Just as the King should have been starting to tick off his long to-do list as sovereign, it became clear that all was not well in the House of Windsor.

In January, it was announced that the King had the symptoms of an enlarged prostate and needed treatment, while the Princess of Wales’s medical team had scheduled in abdominal surgery.

Later, it was to emerge that both had cancer. The Royal history books entered a new era. Prince William, whose young life was so scarred by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has been cast into the ultimate supporting role for his wife, father, and the children who need him.

As the Palace comes to terms with how to cope, it is looking to both past and future. Words of wisdom from the late Queen Elizabeth II, passed down by her loyal advisers, are lighting the way.

Those familiar with the institution will be unsurprised to know there is resistance to making big decisions in the heat of the moment.

While the late Queen spearheaded the Way Ahead Group, asking senior advisers and her family for ideas to keep pace with public opinion in the 1990s, there is little appetite for a Way Ahead 2.0 for now. “This isn’t about PR, this is about people,” said one source.

Aides already have a running dialogue with an unofficial and disparate council of former advisers around the world – not “calling in the emergency services because something has gone wrong”, said one, but to make use of their perspective.

The new Palace mantra, in fact, seems to have come from the words of wisdom handed down by Elizabeth II.

“Her Late Majesty used to tell her adviser: ‘Don’t look down at your feet, look at the horizon’,” said a source. “What she meant was that it’s the long term situation that matters, not always the here and now - and if you are generally heading in the right direction, that’s the best one can hope for.

“For the Royal family, it’s not how things will be next week.  It’s not a corporation that’s thinking about the next AGM or the stock price.  It’s ‘how is this going to look in five to 10 years?’

“Things that may look like an insurmountable mountain through the front windscreen can soon look like a molehill in the rear view mirror, especially given the accelerated speed of today’s news cycles.”

Part of any bounce back will be time. Old hands emphasise the importance of The Firm mobilising as far as possible – by looking people in the eye at engagements around the country, they say, the monarchy’s ship will steady on its own.

Hugo Vickers, a royal biographer, said solace can be found in focusing on the working members of the Royal family, who are “doing the best they can” in a difficult period. He added: “They are doing a really good job of rallying round and getting on with things.”

Christopher Wilson, a royal historian, predicted: “The public will accept what the royals can deliver, even if it means fewer appearances, because the one card the Royal family permanently holds is that people are forgiving and understanding.

“It’s time to say: ‘We can’t do so much. Forgive us, we’re still here – we’ll always be here – but if you see less of us we hope you will understand.”

Aides have taken heart from polling, which suggests that while the public had been very aware of online conspiracy theories, fewer believed them.

Trust in the monarchy and individual members of the Royal family, according to YouGov, remains steady.

“The vast majority of people want them to be left alone,” says a source. “Fundamentally, there has been a groundswell of support. There has been huge sympathy and great support for them.”

In time, said one palace source, it will be possible to see “challenge as an opportunity”.

While the late Queen Elizabeth II was known for her duty, her dignity and her constancy, described as a “quasi-deity” in the public imagination, the King now has a chance to make his own, different mark.

After the accession in 2022, Sir Clive Alderton, the King’s private secretary, was so struck by the public offering His Majesty hugs that he declared to staff that the new reign would be known for its “informal formality”.

That the King’s life experience now includes cancer will leave him even more able to connect with the public when he returns to being out and about, it is thought.

“He is already a very human individual, with human strengths and human frailties,” said a source. “More so than the last monarch who was a quasi-deity, rightly worshipped and beyond reproach but slightly apart from mere mortals.

“The King is a sovereign for and from a different generation, one in which he can be – and is – more human and relatable. After all, what is more relatable than facing an illness that so many other families will have experience of?”

Those who have seen the King report that he has maintained his positive outlook throughout his treatment. “His doctors are optimistic – the King is in a good mood,” said one. “He is raring to go on all fronts.”

He is expected to appear in public in some form for Trooping the Colour in June, with tentative plans for “building up” to more of a normal royal summer season. In general, said a Palace aide, his “attendance to be hoped for and planned for rather than assumed”.

The King is expected to appear in public in some form for Trooping the Colour in June
The King is expected to appear in public in some form for Trooping the Colour in June - Royal Household/via Reuters

At Kensington Palace, the only watchword is privacy. “The Prince and Princess of Wales are now spending their Easter holidays privately, as a family,” said their spokesman. “This is their focus.”

Aides have made clear that Catherine would like to continue her ordinary life as far as possible, but she will not be seen to do so until her medical team clears her for work. The level of tolerance for any paparazzi photographs of her out and about is now zero.

Curiously, the Prince and Princess of Wales’s chosen way of working will keep things ticking over quite well.

They have historically faced criticism for their low volume of engagements, and choice to swap from ribbon-cutting and plaque-unveiling to projects including Catherine’s childhood development work, and William’s Earthshot Prize and Homewards homelessness project.

By design, they have invested and built teams that now work independently – their presence on engagements adds sparkle and the much-vaunted “convening power” of royalty but the work, when needed, can stand on its own two feet.

“It is all about Their Royal Highnesses focusing on creating impact and legacy around the world,” said their spokesman.

“The Prince follows these projects deeply and is involved in their DNA. He also feels very strongly about creating teams that can work 24/7 globally to ensure this work is moving the needle on the most important issues.”

A source added: “Ribbon-cutting has a really important role in the monarchy, and they recognise that, but they always want to go further.”

In a month, Prince Louis will turn six – the first test of whether the Waleses, as reported, will continue their tradition of issuing a birthday photograph to celebrate, or batten down the hatches.

Last week, critics and admirers alike were talking in terms of a full-blown royal crisis. Now the world understands why things felt so unusually out of control, commentary seems calmer.

There are questions for another day about the Palace’s approach to the digital age. For now, those driving the dialogue about the Royal family – the TikTok and X “experts” pontificating to millions in a lawless and fact-free environment – must truly take a day off.

The King and Princess simply need to get well, and the world will right itself. And so it will all continue. The business of the monarchy carries on, through Maundy money to red boxes and beyond.

Next month, the Duke of York’s Epstein interview will be brought to life on the world’s largest streaming services in Netflix and Amazon dramas.

The Duchess of Sussex is preparing to launch her American Riviera Orchard brand, with its range of meditation blankets, candle holders and honey butter spelled out under trademark application, adding to the gaiety of the nation once more.

Such minor dramas will be a blessed relief, in comparison.