May 2016 Issue

A Royal Family Friend Recalls the Bond Between Queen Elizabeth and Her Sister

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II relied for years on the love, discretion, and loyalty of the person who’d known her longest, and to whom she was still “Lilibet”: the late Princess Margaret. Reinaldo Herrera provides a firsthand glimpse of the connection the sisters shared—including a direct phone line between Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace—and Her Majesty’s profound loss when that tie was severed.
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Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and their corgis in the Welsh Cottage of Royal Lodge.

“My sister and I” was a much-heard mantra on British radio during World War II. Listeners immediately recognized the speaker as H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, and her sister as H.R.H. Princess Margaret, four years her junior. Though Elizabeth and Margaret were brought up in a simple and loving way by their parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, future King and Queen of England, theirs was no ordinary childhood. They were close-knit, rarely apart for long—“we four,” as the King would refer to his family.

But the particular closeness of Elizabeth and Margaret was beyond comparison with the relationship between any other siblings in the world. Elizabeth would, in 1953, become a consecrated monarch, Crowned Queen of England, ruler of about 130 million subjects on five continents. Margaret would at the same time become one of her subjects. And yet, despite this permanent distinction, they had a love, friendship, and conspiracy that were impressive to behold. Princess Margaret had a telephone on her desk in Kensington Palace with a direct line to the Queen in Buckingham Palace, on which the two would gossip and laugh with each other daily. I never heard Princess Margaret refer to the Queen in public as anything but “The Queen”; in private she became “Lilibet,” her nickname since childhood, or, simply, “my sister.”

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret


I met Princess Margaret in the late 50s at Ronald and Marietta Tree’s house in Barbados. Years later my wife, Carolina, and I had the honor to be introduced to the Queen. The Queen was a star. You felt, in her presence, the power and dignity of a crowned and consecrated monarch. It did not matter what she was doing—feeding her dogs, having a serious talk, or just plain romping around—you never forgot she was the Queen. Princess Margaret, on the other hand, could have been anybody she wanted had she been born into any other family. She was a keenly intelligent woman, curious about art, religion, sex, and philosophy—and, of course, good gossip. Privately, she was also a wonderful mimic and actress and knew all the lyrics to popular songs and hated it when you did not. (A favorite musical was Call Me Madam.) In public, she could be stoic. For nearly five decades, she bore with great dignity the criticism and envy that people dared not show the Queen.

In the mid-1970s, Carolina and I were guests at Royal Lodge, the official residence of the Queen Mother, near Windsor Castle. One Sunday, the Queen and Prince Philip came by before going to church. Princess Margaret informed me, Carolina, and her cousin John Bowes Lyons—all Catholics—that we must be ecumenical and join the Queen for the Anglican service. Sitting in the royal box, next to the altar in the Royal Chapel of All Saints, I received from Prince Philip for the next half-hour a series of nudges in the ribs and commanding whispers:




Margaret and Elizabeth, photographed by Cecil Beaton on the Ministers’ Staircase, at Buckingham Palace, 1946.


After church, when we all returned to Royal Lodge, the Queen asked her mother, rather knowingly, “How’s Margaret this morning?” I suspect the Queen was wary of her sister’s moods. The Princess, meanwhile, was getting a good suntan on the terrace.

We were a small party. Among the dinner guests were the critic Kenneth Tynan and his wife, Kathleen; Princess Anne and her then husband, Captain Mark Phillips; and Prince Charles, then about 27, who used to practice in the morning balancing his two-pound bearskin hat on his head so that it wouldn’t topple over during Trooping the Colour, the annual celebration of the Queen’s birthday, which was to take place the following week. In the evenings we played charades (though the Queen Mother and Carolina refused to participate, as they loathed the game), had great conversations, and danced a mean conga.

When Princess Margaret died, at age 71, in February 2002, the Queen lost her most intimate companion. Margaret’s funeral was observed quietly with pomp at Windsor Castle on the 50th anniversary of her father’s funeral, and two months before her mother’s. I think it was the only time anyone ever saw the Queen show her emotions in public. Never explaining anything to the world—what she feels, or why she does what she does—is part of her greatness. But for a few minutes that day, as she stood by the steps of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, watching her sister’s coffin being borne away, her eyes betrayed her.

To read more from Vanity Fair’s Sisters Issue, click here.