How Diana's death turned queen into 'proper granny'

Story highlights

  • Queen's first cousin Margaret Rhodes says monarch put family before country after Diana's death
  • Rhodes says queen visits her most weeks for a tipple of gin and Dubonnet
  • Queen fell in love with her future husband, Prince Philip, when she was just 13 , Rhodes says

When Queen Elizabeth II stayed away from a grief-stricken London after the 1997 death of Princess Diana, she was criticized for being aloof and failing to respond to public anger and loss.

But, according to a new account offered by one of the monarch's closest friends, the truth behind the queen's decision to temporarily abandon her people was her overwhelming concern for the welfare of Diana's sons, Princes William and Harry.

Margaret Rhodes, the queen's first cousin and one of her oldest companions, revealed in an interview with CNN that the queen chose to remain at her Scottish residence, Balmoral, because she put her duties as a grandmother over those as a monarch.

"She was castigated... for staying up at Balmoral with the two little boys," Rhodes said, speaking ahead of celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the queen's succession.

"She was being a proper granny. What was the point of bringing the boys down to sit in London with nothing to do but sit there feeling sad about mum. Personally I think I would have behaved in exactly the same way."

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The days after Diana's death were among the darkest of the 86-year-old queen's reign.

Her failure to appear even as tributes left by thousands of mourners transformed the streets near Buckingham Palace into a sea of flowers, was at the time blamed on an antipathy towards Diana that clashed with public affection for the "people's princess."

It was only when Tony Blair, then the prime minister, intervened that she returned to London and acknowledged the outpouring of grief -- a gesture that helped win back waning affections for the royal family.

"It was very sensible, maybe not as queen," said Rhodes. "But she made it all right in the end by coming down and looking at all the flowers."

Born just a few months after the queen, Rhodes has known the monarch her whole life and is widely seen as one of the greatest sources of insight on life within the royal family.

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After working as a secretary for British the intelligence agency MI6 during World War II, she served as a lady-in-waiting to the queen's mother and was one of the queen's bridesmaids.

The two have remained steadfast friends throughout their lives. Rhodes lives in a house close to the royal residence at Windsor Castle, west of London, where she regularly serves the queen a morning tipple of her favorite "booze."

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"I do see the queen most Sundays," Rhodes told CNN. "We go to the same little church in the park here on Sunday and, unless she's very busy, she comes in and has a drink after church so it keeps up the relationship. Gin and Dubonnet is her booze in the morning."

Rhodes also offered insight on the queen's relationship with Prince Philip, claiming it was love at first sight when the future monarch, barely into her teens, first encountered the dashing young naval officer, then aged 17.

"I think she fell in love when she was 13," she said. "God he was good looking. You know he was a Viking god. She has never looked at anybody else ever and I think he really truly has been a rock."

Both as a young girl and in later years, Rhodes paints a picture of her friend as an ordinary woman who is capable of throwing off the airs of royalty.

She tells of the time, after victory was declared in Europe at the end of World War II, that Rhodes accompanied the queen and her sister as they celebrated incognito among the crowds outside Buckingham Palace.

"We all surged up to Trafalgar Square. Everybody was kissing everybody and putting on policemens helmets on their heads, you know that sort of thing. It went on for four nights running.

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"We came back to Buckingham Palace and started yelling for the king, the king and queen to come out on the balcony. Their two daughters were yelling, which was also the first time they had seen the balcony from down below, so it was a magical moment.

"We did it for several more nights. There certainly was one occasion when we were doing the conga. We went in one door of the Ritz and congaed our way through and came out the other door. It was all part of the jollifications."

Speaking about the marital troubles that have blighted three of the queen's four children -- Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew -- she described the situation as "terribly sad."

However, she added, the queen has a sense of humor and an ordinary side to her personality that, had she not taken the throne, would have allowed her to enjoy life outside of royalty.

"If you are the queen you have to be queenly. On her own she's rather like one of us, she laughs at the same jokes.

"I mean if she didn't happen to be born as queen she would be the owner of, hopefully, a rather nice country estate where she would have lots and lots of dogs and horses and she'd be happy."