She bought a few trinkets and a crowd started to gather as people slowly realised it was her.
In 2014, aged 87, the Queen decided that she had never done a “day trip” to Europe and wondered if this would be possible. She had received an invitation from Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s then-president, who had written to say he greatly admired her and, would she like to come for lunch?
She then remembered that she had not yet met the new Pope – Pope Francis – could we fit that in as well?
But two heads of state could not meet informally without the Queen being dressed respectfully in black. Thankfully, the Pope was just as practical, and they agreed to depart from protocol and meet in audience hall in “day dress”. She presented a basket of treats from the royal estates that included eggs, venison and whisky, which the Pope held up joyously.
Boarding the tiny plane to return to London that evening, she smiled and said: “Well, I suppose Rome can be done in a day.”
Queen Elizabeth II was a wonderful boss. Many of her household served for decades. She was kind but authoritative, and no one wanted to disappoint her. She was a great listener and, if you ever “winged” a briefing, would listen patiently until you had tied yourself in knots.
Christmas was exciting, as she took great pleasure in ordering presents for her private office and hand-writing all the cards. Her gifts were practical and thoughtful. All members of the 400-strong workforce received puddings.
Seldom is she acknowledged for her administrative abilities, but she was a brilliant chief executive. She managed to be across the detail of her Head of State work. At the same time, she made sure she had digested all the news for the day ahead and was thinking diplomatically about world events and issues.
Her attention to detail meant she always inspected the tables before a state banquet and approved every menu on every visit. She chose the books for guests when they came to stay at Windsor Castle.
She understood the importance of her people, making it her business to be aware of household gossip and the challenges they faced. She was interested in everyone’s family and their quirks and attributes and was a true matriarch in this sense.
‘Well, I suppose Rome can be done in a day.’
Queen Elizabeth II, on a day trip to Italy in 2014
Having visited most Commonwealth countries, from Tuvalu to Trinidad, and been immersed in their cultures, humour and their histories, the Queen had an easy way with everyone that transcended all other issues. She treated everyone as equals.
She was acutely intelligent and exceptionally well-adjusted for someone who did not go through the rigours of school life. Her memory was extraordinary – without the use of computers, she could remember dynasties of names across several countries.
Her French was fluent, despite never having lived there or practised the language from one year to another. On a state visit in 2014, she declined a translator and was happy to converse with then president Francois Hollande about matters of state in French.
The Queen’s sense of fun and curiosity made it easy for her to embrace change. She once sat through a YouTube demonstration and immediately said yes to a royal channel.
When it launched in 2007 with the annual Christmas broadcast, phone calls soon came in from the White House and the Vatican asking if they could follow her lead.
She stoically led us through global wars, social turmoil, natural disasters, terrorism attacks and national crises. She was a woman, a mother, a monarch. She suffered many of the tragedies and challenges that affect all families, yet remained resilient and strong.
Today, everyone is in pain. We are mourning the loss of our emotional anchor, our rock, our North Star. We look forward to the next generation with King Charles III and the work he is doing to enshrine the values of our Elizabeth.
Australian Sam Cohen was assistant private secretary and communications secretary to Queen Elizabeth II from 2007 to 2018.
The Telegraph, London
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