It was the one night in a life of duty when Britain’s future monarch was allowed to slip the golden leash of royalty. For a few hours Elizabeth, just turned 19, spent the evening that marked the end of the war in Europe with hundreds of thousands of her father’s subjects who’d come to celebrate. It could have been a catastrophe and it says much about her parents’ faith in their daughters’ common sense that she and sister Margaret, just 14, were allowed out of the Palace incognito. But historians and insiders say it was a unique night where she truly connected with the people.
Royal historian Kate Williams said: “The night of VE Day helped Elizabeth understand real people, in a way that monarchs up to then had not done – and this connection was vital to her when she did take over.”
On VE night, Elizabeth relied on her Auxiliary Territorial Service kit to make her invisible. And Margaret was already skilled in make-up and disguise from Windsor Castle pantos.
The escapade – told in 2015 movie A Royal Night Out – began at 9pm when 16 family, friends and aides slipped from a Buckingham Palace side door as a cheering mob surrounded the gates and trailed down the Mall.
There was childhood friend and cousin Margaret Rhodes and Group Captain Peter Townsend, the dashing Spitfire pilot who would capture Margaret’s heart, French tutor Comtesse Toni de Bellaigue and Lord Porchester, a lifelong friend of Elizabeth.
In a few steps they were in the thick of the biggest, rowdiest party Britain has known.
The Comtesse said: “The king drew a line about Piccadilly Circus, which was to be avoided.” The line was not so much crossed as trampled on.
Lord Porchester said: “It was very jolly, linking arms and singing Run Rabbit Run, Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line, Roll Out The Barrel.” Said Margaret Rhodes: “Trafalgar Square was jammed. It was a scene of joyful whoopee – people kissing policemen and other people. Complete mayhem but rather nice mayhem.
“For some reason, we decided to go in the front door of the Ritz and do the conga.”
The Queen recalled: “I remember lines of people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.”
Towards 11.30pm the princesses were being steered back to meet their father’s midnight deadline. Elizabeth said: “We were successful in seeing my parents on the balcony, having cheated slightly by sending a message into the house, to say we were waiting outside.”
The party snuck in through a garden gate – the girls’ mother was relieved and served them sandwiches she made herself.
For Elizabeth, the experience was transformational. In a few brief hours she had been closer to her future subjects than any monarch before or since. “It was one of the most memorable nights of my life,” she said.
COMMENT BY KATE WILLIAMS
When Elizabeth went into the crowds on the night of VE Day it was her one and only experience of being incognito, just another pretty young woman in uniform in the crowd.
Crowding into The Mall, shouting to see the King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace it was a night for Britain’s young to enjoy themselves – and all entirely new to the Princess who, although 19, had lived a very sheltered life in Windsor Castle during the war.
The Princess was overwhelmed with happiness that the war was over. And she also knew that the unique moment gave her a freedom she had never had and would never have again.
Elizabeth had been watched, discussed and photographed incessantly from birth and she was dancing without being talked about. She was, for the first and last time, truly among the people she was to reign over.The night helped Elizabeth understand real people in a way that monarchs up to then had not done – and this was vital to her when she did take over.
Unlike any monarch before, she has crossed the world 42 times to meet subjects and the population of other countries, allowed a reality TV show to film her family, is keen to meet people directly and she addresses her people directly at times of crisis.
Only a few weeks ago, she spoke directly to the nation about the Covid-19 pandemic with the words that “better days will return” and “we will meet again”.
Kate Williams is a royal historian