When the Queen sadly passed away last week, there was not only an outpouring of grief around the country but an outpouring of people’s experiences with her. The number of stories people had of their interactions were countless. But, to any individual person who had met the Queen, the experience is always memorable and meaningful.
I’m just one of those people. When I left university, my first job was working for the Royal Collection - the business that manages and runs the monarchy’s art, galleries and summer palace openings. My job itself, despite the location, was like the majority of other jobs out there - dull in parts with plenty of time spent populating spreadsheets, firing off emails and complaining about the photocopier that seemed to break down perpetually.
However, in between any monotony, was a job full of quirks and drenched in traditions. There was always something interesting going on in the household that was built around running our monarchy. I worked in St.James’s Palace - behind Clarence House and just over the road from Buckingham Palace.
I would go to Buckingham Palace every day to have my lunch in the staff dining room and have to battle through the throngs of tourists outside to get through even the side door. Getting to the door was always made worse by the fact that the Changing of the Guard was usually just coming to an end. So, if I timed it wrong, I would get caught up in a crowd that wasn’t going anywhere - enthralled as they were in the pomp and ceremony.
Changing of the Guard aside, despite working at The Royal Collection for a number of years, I never stopped being in awe of the traditions that were observed. But it was sometimes the day-to-day things that would often surprise me with ‘pinch me’ moments. For instance, I once went to leaving drinks on the back terrace of the Palace. Or I would regularly walk into the Palace’s ballroom and the staterooms for my job. I would find myself standing in front of priceless works of art which formed the backdrop for so many significant, historical events.
In my time there, I met the Queen on a handful of occasions. It was always fleeting - something I was grateful for as nerves would always get the better of me. Again, that surprised me. In my time at the Royal Collection, I would see and meet a number of high-powered individuals. I wouldn’t suffer from anxiety. Usually a smile or an ‘absolutely’ would get me pretty far. With the Queen, I always found my tongue getting big in my mouth mixed with an inability to say or do anything.
None more so than the time I went to collect my Christmas present from her. I was by no means special getting a present. Being given a gift by The Queen was standard practice for everybody in the Royal household who had worked for her for a set amount of time. She gave the same gift to everyone but would hand them out individually herself with the Duke of Edinburgh by her side. You had to go to the Palace at a certain time, line up with your colleagues before being announced to collect your present from her personally.
For me, the first time I did this, I was a bag of nerves. My boss had made me worry about how inept I was at curtseying, but also the fear of the unknown was immense. What do you say if you are spoken to? Can you start a conversation with her? Or him?
In the end, I did not have to worry too much. When it was my turn to go in and collect my gift (which in this instance, was a silver salver with engraved champagne glasses), I was in the room for less than a minute.
I’m not saying I left unscathed. When I was announced, where I worked was also mentioned. The Duke of Edinburgh, perhaps to stave off the boredom of standing around for a number of hours giving out gifts, asked me if I was based in Marlborough House. I wasn’t, so I said ‘No, I’m based in St James’s Palace’.
That would have been innocuous enough - if I had stopped there.
But of course, I didn’t. I simply ploughed on to tell him where St.James’s Palace was - ‘behind Clarence House’. Saying so was, of course, absolutely something that he and The Queen would know. Not only would they have been to visit Clarence House countless times in their life, but also St.James’s Palace would have been part of their property portfolio.
If they were amused by the banality of my answer, they kindly didn’t show it. And that somewhat sums up what the Queen came to be loved for during her long reign. She was aware of her effect on people, yet didn’t abuse it.
Collecting my gift also cemented the respect and admiration that I had for her. She dutifully stood up for several hours in a row, giving out gifts to members of her household - the majority of which she could never be expected to know by name. She didn’t “outsource” gift giving plus she did it every year - probably until COVID and old age physically prevented her from doing so.
While you can say she rightfully did this, to show her gratitude to her staff, you could also say it was a painstaking process. Yet, she did it anyway. I wager she did it without complaining too.
Hearing the news that she passed away was a surreal moment for me, having known no other monarch and been used to the constant presence the UK had in her. However, it also reminded me of a very special and happy time in my life, where I worked for one of the oldest institutions in the country - with all its eccentricities, and idiosyncrasies. I hope for all future employees that its magic will remain with the new King at the helm - I am sure it will.