Hear Queen Elizabeth II Give Her Very First Speech to the British People, During World War II (1940)

“Her Majesty’s a pret­ty nice girl, but she does­n’t have a lot to say,” sings Paul McCart­ney on the Bea­t­les’ “Her Majesty.” That com­ic song clos­es Abbey Road, the last album the band ever record­ed, and thus puts a cap on their brief but won­drous cul­tur­al reign. In 2002 McCart­ney played the song again, in front of Queen Eliz­a­beth II her­self as part of her Gold­en Jubilee cel­e­bra­tions. Ear­li­er this year her Plat­inum Jubilee marked a full 70 years on the throne, but now — 53 years after that cheeky trib­ute on Abbey Road — Her Majesty’s own reign has drawn to a close with her death at the age of 96. She’d been Queen since 1953, but she’d been a British icon since at least the Sec­ond World War.

In Octo­ber 1940, at the height of the Blitz, Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill asked King George VI to allow his daugh­ter, the four­teen-year-old Princess Eliz­a­beth, to make a morale-boost­ing speech on the radio. Record­ed in Wind­sor Cas­tle after intense prepa­ra­tion and then broad­cast on the BBC’s Chil­dren’s Hour, it was osten­si­bly addressed to the young peo­ple of Britain and its empire.

“Evac­u­a­tion of chil­dren in Britain from the cities to the coun­try­side start­ed in Sep­tem­ber 1939,” says BBC.com, with ulti­mate des­ti­na­tions as far away as Cana­da. “It is not dif­fi­cult for us to pic­ture the sort of life you are all lead­ing, and to think of all the new sights you must be see­ing and the adven­tures you must be hav­ing,” Princess Eliz­a­beth tells them. “But I am sure that you, too, are often think­ing of the old coun­try.”

In the event, mil­lions of young and old around the world heard the broad­cast, which arguably served Churchill’s own goal of encour­ag­ing Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war. But it also gave Britons a pre­view of the dig­ni­ty and forth­right­ness of the woman who would become their Queen, and remain so for an unprece­dent­ed sev­en decades. As Paul McCart­ney implied, Queen Eliz­a­beth II turned out not to be giv­en to pro­longed flights of rhetoric. But though she may not have had a lot to say, she invari­ably spoke in pub­lic at the prop­er moment, in the prop­er words, and with the prop­er man­ner. Today one won­ders whether this admirable per­son­al qual­i­ty, already in short sup­ply among mod­ern rulers, has­n’t van­ished entire­ly.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Win­ston Churchill Prais­es the Virtue of “Brevi­ty” in Mem­os to His Staff: Con­cise Writ­ing Leads to Clear­er Think­ing

How to Behave in a British Pub: A World War II Train­ing Film from 1943, Fea­tur­ing Burgess Mered­ith

Watch Col­orized 1940s Footage of Lon­don after the Blitz: Scenes from Trafal­gar Square, Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus, Buck­ing­ham Palace & More

Win­ston Churchill’s List of Tips for Sur­viv­ing a Ger­man Inva­sion: See the Nev­er-Dis­trib­uted Doc­u­ment (1940)

Watch Annie Lei­bovitz Pho­to­graph and Get Scold­ed by Queen Eliz­a­beth: “What Do You Think This Is?”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Harry says:

    Some con­tent around how the Roy­al fam­i­ly have acquired all their finances would be inter­est­ing.

    The Queen was exempt­ed from the 2017 Cul­tur­al Prop­er­ty (Armed Con­flicts) Act, a law that seeks to pre­vent the destruc­tion of cul­tur­al her­itage, such as archae­o­log­i­cal sites, works of art and impor­tant books, in future wars. This means police are barred from search­ing the Queen’s pri­vate estates for stolen or loot­ed artefacts.[57]


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