Margaret Rhodes was one of Queen Elizabeth’s closest confidantes and, as one of her cousins, had a unique insight into the life of the woman who has headed the British monarchy for more than 64 years – a record.
“She is immensely modest, despite the position she holds,” Rhodes once told PEOPLE. “She is a country person and if she had not been who she was she would be living in the country with horses and lots of dogs.”
When the then-Princess Elizabeth, her sister Princess Margaret and Rhodes met during carefree summer holidays in Scotland, the trio would gambol around in bare feet and skip through brooks and ride horses. “It was a life of picnics, and paddling around in burns [Scottish streams] and watching people shooting,” Rhodes said.
Her memoir, The Final Curtsy: A Royal Memoir By the Queen’s Cousin, published four years ago, shed a compelling light on the woman behind the crown. Among the biggest revelations:
1. Young Princess Elizabeth enjoyed eating contests!
Rhodes and her cousins would hold competitions at Birkhall, on the Balmoral Estate in Scotland, to see who could eat the most sandwiches layered with sickly-sweet Gold Syrup.
At Birkhall, Princess Elizabeth only “pulled rank” once, insisting she should get a spot on a wooden seat in the garden because she was a royal.
2. She never wanted to be Queen.
Elizabeth found herself in the immediate line of succession when her uncle Edward VIII abdicated, making her father King George VI. She was next – unless a son was born. “I believe she hoped she might one day have a brother and be let off the hook,” Rhodes wrote.
3. The Queen Mum used rats for target practice.
The Princess’s mother, also called Elizabeth or in her later life the Queen Mum, practiced her marksmanship by shooting rats — which were prevalent during the wartime bombing. Rhodes also revealed that King George VI kept a revolver in “a defensive precaution, bearing in mind the possibility of an enemy parachute drop aimed at his capture.”
4. Elizabeth was head-over-heels for Prince Philip.
The royal had been enamored by Philip from an early age and couldn’t wait for him to return from the war. “She never looked at anyone else. She was truly in love from the very beginning,” Rhodes wrote.
5. The royal wedding didn’t go exactly as planned.
A footman mislaid Elizabeth’s bouquet at her wedding, “forgetting that he had put it in a cool cupboard to keep it fresh.” And Elizabeth’s tiara snapped during a fitting and needed repairing. Meanwhile, her private secretary was dispatched — in the King of Norway’s car that had just arrived — to retrieve a “double string of pearls” that Elizabeth wanted to wear that had been on display among other presents at St James’s Palace.
6. Elizabeth was devastated to be in Africa when her father died.
In a letter to Rhodes, the Queen (who was in Kenya with Prince Philip when her father passed away in February 1952) said it was “ghastly” being away then, “I was unable to help or comfort Mummy or Margaret, and that there was nothing one could do at all.”
7. The Queen laid low after Princess Diana’s death to protect William and Harry.
When Princess Diana died in 1997 there was a clamor for the Royal Family to put on a greater show of grief, and come south to London. But the “caring and feeling” Queen’s “instinct was to do everything to protect the grandchildren from the full glare of grief and publicity,” Rhodes wrote.
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