Introduction: Good Evening Mr Bond
In her diamond Jubilee year of 2012 Queen Elizabeth II, aged eighty-six, appeared to parachute into the Olympic stadium from a helicopter, to open the Games with James Bond, played by Daniel Craig. As well as showing a sense of humour, and showcasing British creativity, this was a characteristic way of using film to tell a story of how pioneering the monarchy could be, even at an advanced age. Arguably no other monarch has used sport to such an extent, in such a long reign to align themselves with the wider public. And it is unlikely, with Prince Charles and Prince William already older than Elizabeth was when she came to the throne, that any of her heirs will be able to use sport, and especially equestrianism and the Olympic Games, to the same effect again.
A perceived ‘new’ Elizabethan era began as soon as Elizabeth came to the throne. This reinterpreted aspects of British history and popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s following the coronation of young and glamorous monarch Elizabeth II. Although Elizabeth II was already married and a mother by the time she came to the throne, unlike Elizabeth I, the British media drew strong links between the two women, and their respective monarchies. Queen Elizabeth II has favoured equestrian pursuits above all her other sporting commitments. The young Elizabeth Windsor was often photographed in connection with sport, and horses in particular. This was something that the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, encouraged, herself shooting small bore rifles aboard HMS Vanguard while en route with the King to tour South Africa in 1947.
Princess Elizabeth had been a focal point at the 1948 London Olympic Games, along with her sister, Margaret, and husband, Philip whom she married in 1947.
The Royals were clearly not a family like anyone else. But an invented tradition suggested that they were, away from the ceremonial aspects of monarchy. This illusion was created partly through the considerable resources of the Royal public relations offices and the use of new communications technology, such as Technicolour film and colour photography.
A few years later, World Sports: International Sports Magazine, which was established as the official publication of the British Olympic Association, was prompted by the accession and coronation of a twenty-seven year old female head of state to issue a commemorative edition, celebrating a new Elizabethan era: 'Of rich inventiveness, achievement and glory-in sport and all things.' The young Queen and her consort celebrated the place of the Royal family in relation to the British sporting establishment. In 1949, the Duke of Edinburgh became President of the Marylebone Cricket Club, at that time the leading body for world cricket, and Elizabeth II became the first Queen Regnant to attend a cricket match at Lord’s in 1952. We can also perhaps picture the bright yellow ensemble in which the Queen awarded Bobby Moore the World Cup trophy in 1966, and the way in which he wiped his hands so as not to stain her white gloves.
The Olympic and Commonwealth Games in the 1950s
Elizabeth II was a constitutional monarch, and Head of the Commonwealth at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver; the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, and the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. Although the Olympic movement remained ambulatory, hosted at Helsinki in 1952, and Rome in 1960, the role of the British in promoting the Games would continue to be considerable.
It mattered little that, personally, Elizabeth was more interested in the unusual Equestrian Games, held in Stockholm in June of 1956 because Australian quarantine rules regarding horses would have meant that animals would need to spend months in the country before the Olympic events. Elizabeth and Philip stayed aboard the Royal yacht in Stockholm, and added to their official duties with a holiday so as to stay for all of the equestrian events. The British Empire and Commonwealth Games would follow in Cardiff in 1958, presided over by Lord Aberdare and promoted by Ted Glover and former Olympic swimmer Margaret ‘Pip’ Linton. Sporting events were then fundamental to the way that modern monarchy connected with a wider public. The changing nature of Britain’s place in the world was reflected by the way that the British Empire Games changed to become the Commonwealth Games as the 1950s and 1960s progressed.
Elizabeth II and Equestrianism
In the media’s coverage of a new Elizabethan age, the young monarch’s interest in the outdoor life was represented to have both ancient antecedents and modern expressions. A good horsewoman, Elizabeth II’s equestrian skill was as much showcased by the ceremonial aspects of her duties, such as Trooping the Colour, as by her private taste for active leisure. As Stephen Gundle has said:
In February 1952 Time magazine selected the 27 year old princess as the world personality who most embodied the hope of the times. She captured on an international scale the magazine asserted the mysterious power of ancient monarchs ‘to represent, express and effect the aspirations of the collective subconscious.’ In fact, the era had seen the overthrow of more than one monarchy and, it was the youth and beauty of Elizabeth that appealed most.1
There was a global glamour in aristocracy, and the carefully orchestrated sense of lavish ritual that accompanied Elizabeth’s monarchy made her the most celebrated of luminaries. In many senses, the more relaxed side to her personality was shown through sport, and active leisure pursuits also characterised the enthusiasms of her growing family. However, this was a highly groomed and polished presentation of the private life of the Royal family, making them icons of style.
Elizabeth II’s Olympic legacy
The British Olympic Association had always been keen to have more Establishment support for its activities and it would be Elizabeth Windsor, more than any previous monarch, who would cement ties between the British Royal family and the Olympic movement. However, her presiding personal interest was equestrianism, and in particular horse racing. With the birth of Prince Charles in 1949, many newsreels emphasised that, as well as being a Head of State, Elizabeth was also a young wife and mother, performing a duty to the nation in providing a future heir. The birth of Princess Anne followed soon after in August 1950 and, she would remain Elizabeth’s only daughter and become the first British royal Olympian in 1976. Anne had won the individual European Eventing Championship in 1971, and with it the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Joining Dame Mary Glen Haig as British representative to the IOC in 1988, Anne is still President of the British Olympic Association. As Director of the London 2012 Games, Anne oversaw an opening ceremony in which her mother appeared to parachute into the stadium with James Bond. Zara Tindall, who was awarded an Eventing silver medal in 2012 by Princess Anne, her mother, has followed in the family tradition. Tindall had already won the Eventing World Championship in Aachen in 2006. So it is not Elizabeth’s male heirs who have been the Olympians, but the female line. It will be interesting to see if this continues.
1 Stephen Gundle Glamour: A History Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 pp.207-208.
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