During my first blush of marriage, I was rooting through my husband’s messy desk for an envelope and found a letter. It was dated December 1952, postmarked Windsor, and addressed to the Lady Margaret Dawnay.
The envelope was encrusted in seals and crests and was so crisp I could eat my dinner off it. I replaced the letter to my mother-in-law back in the drawer unopened.
Fooled you! No, I slipped the cream-laid page out of the envelope as if wearing white gloves to discover the sender was none other than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (who had become the Queen Mother upon the death of her husband, King George VI, a few months before).
The note was to congratulate her friend Margaret on the birth of her son, my husband, Ivo. (Ivo’s father, Captain Oliver Dawnay, was Her Majesty’s private secretary from 1951 to 1956.) And the point of her handwritten letter in blue ink was these four words: “Shall I be Godmother?”
When I read this, I sighed with pleasure, just as I sigh with displeasure now, after having plowed through two “new” and “big” books on the royals: Meghan Misunderstood, by Sean Smith, and Battle of Brothers, by Robert Lacey. (There’s also a third, the charming stocking filler The Windsor Diaries, about the war years of the young princesses Lilibet and Margaret, by their chum Alathea Fitzalan Howard, which, with a fair wind, could shape up to be this season’s best-selling Lady in Waiting, by Anne Glenconner.)
It was not so much the royal connection I relished, having read the note to my husband’s mother. It was the decorum and the good manners that this private letter showed compared with where we are now. (I’ll explain at the end, so keep going.)
As the seasons of The Crown have unspooled, I know why we drank in one and two (the ones with Claire Foy as the Queen), but in Season Three (Olivia Colman) not so much, and why writer Peter Morgan is going to pull stumps long before the Sussex royals depart the pitch. The more distant—and discreet—that members of the royal family are from us, you see, the more we admire them.
The point of her handwritten letter in blue ink was these four words: “Shall I be Godmother?”
Let us dispatch the books quickly because of the Markle bio there is little to say, as there is nothing we don’t already know about her. There are precious few takeaways from this dialed-in delivery of royal fare. She apparently wanted to be president. She has read the motivational book Who Moved My Cheese. She did the calligraphy for the place cards of Robin Thicke and Paula Patton’s wedding. She called her Web site The Tig after her favorite big red wine, Tignanello.
I knew all that. For more than six years (2011 to 2018) I wrote a column for The Mail on Sunday. I can report from the inside of the belly of the tabloid beast that Meghan was manna from heaven. She was copy. And she wasn’t Kate. Which meant everyone—i.e., women columnists—was encouraged to play that game of comparing two completely different women and finding both wanting. I can say this as I did it myself, a period of my journalistic career I remain deeply ashamed of. “One was a safe, sporty and slim Home Counties’ woman and the other, an upstart, biracial, American divorcee,” Sean Smith correctly analyzes. “The former embraced royal protocol while the latter broke the rules.”
Rules? What rules? Let’s see. She wore dark nail polish … an off-the-shoulder number to the Trooping of the Colour … She closed her own car door … Her favorite snack was avocado on toast … Oh, yes, and she kept “touching her bump.”
I can report from the inside of the belly of the tabloid beast that Meghan was manna from heaven.
All this obscures her only real offense, nothing to do with protocol, writ large on every page of the book. She was herself. She committed the heinous crime of being too earnest, too mindful, too grateful—she “journals,” for pity’s sake. And she speaks a language that the English pretend not to understand.
A word cloud of the Meghan book would contain terms like “journey,” “empowering,” “impactful,” “shine a light,” “connect,” “my power, my truth,” and “humble” in large font. But, still, she comes across as impressive, charming, and far too motivated, organized, and driven ever to have lasted five minutes as a silent, supportive jointed doll of a royal wag.
The Robert Lacey book about the rift between Princess Diana’s sons is more interesting. (And so it should be; he is adviser to The Crown and knows his stuff, and even wrote a whole book called God Bless Her!, about my husband’s godmother.) The new book was planned to be about Charles and Andrew until Peter Morgan made the obvious point that “they aren’t the princes that matter any more.”
Lacey writes that Camilla Parker Bowles was “a bit of a goer,” hitched to a renowned swordsman known as Major Andrew “Poker” Bowles, who started her fling with Prince Charles as a “revenge bonk” after her husband shagged Princess Anne. Lacey is very good on explaining the unfair narrative that had pinned the brothers like butterflies since Eton, until Meghan whisked him away: William destined to be king of the castle, Harry the dirty rascal.
Lacey writes that Camilla Parker Bowles was “a bit of a goer.”
There are some arresting details: Prince Harry was enraged when Prince William asked Charles Spencer, their uncle, to intercede with Harry’s rapid courtship of Meghan. That fight salted the wound that has never healed over. A revelation that lawyers pulled from the book, but Lacey has told interviewers, “Someone in the palace hated Meghan.”
It’s all so uncalled for. No wonder an updated edition of Mary Killen’s book What Would HM the Queen Do? is being released this month, a sign that the country is pining to bring dignity back, and courtesy in the national conversation, and a touch of old-fashioned manners. Which is where we return to the letter in the desk.
In 2018, there was a splashy royal wedding full of celebrities that could not possibly be old and dear friends of the bridal couple: Oprah, Posh and Becks, James Corden, et al., went to Harry and Meghan’s nuptials, and there’s a story doing the rounds that while Carolyn Bartholomew, Diana’s former flatmate, was waiting for the wedding service to start, she turned to the couple alongside her and asked how they knew Harry or Meghan. “We don’t,” the Clooneys answered brightly.
Remember that Toms Hanks and Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Mariah Carey all turned up to the funeral of Diana, too.
Yet, in 1952, the Queen Mother knew that my mother-in-law and her dear friend would never ask a Queen to serve as godparent, as that would be seen as pushy. No well-brought-up Englishwoman would consider such a thing. The Queen Mother therefore tactfully suggested herself for the symbolic role of my husband’s moral helpmeet, and signed herself, assured of a positive response to her gracious request, “Elizabeth.”
That, I tell myself, is how to do things.
In 2000, my husband and I, as the Queen likes to start sentences, were invited to the service of celebration and thanksgiving in honor of his godmother’s 100th birthday in St. Paul’s (and to her funeral in Westminster Abbey two years later). At the former event, she trundled into the cathedral with William and Harry as the band and fanfare trumpeters of the Coldstream Guards played a Bach fugue, and left with Prince Charles.
I don’t remember much more—apart from hoping my large petrol-blue trilby wasn’t impeding Patrick Lichfield’s (another godson) view of a woman I guessed was the Queen of Spain (both a crowned head of Europe and a goddaughter). I do recall the Old Testament lesson—clanging verses from Isaiah that echoed up and down the ages—which began, “Behold a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgement.”
It is only now I see how presciently they were chosen, in hope and prayer, by the grandmother and great-grandmother of all the future kings lined up under the dome that day.
PS: I admitted I’d found the letter, and asked Ivo why he hadn’t told me the Queen Mother was his godmother, because I would literally tell all perfect strangers within five seconds if it were me, faster than if I’d got a First from Oxford.
He didn’t think it was that interesting.
Rachel Johnson is a journalist and the author of Rake’s Progress: My Political Midlife Crisis. Her brother Boris is prime minister of Britain