AILSA ANDERSON reveals how Her Majesty's modesty made her a one-off

‘Are all these people REALLY here for me?’: AILSA ANDERSON, who was at the Queen’s side for 12 years, reveals how Her Majesty’s wit, modesty and unexpected shyness made her a true one-off

For the most famous woman in the world, there was an extraordinary – and very becoming – sense of modesty about Queen Elizabeth II.

Perhaps one of the most telling examples I witnessed was during a visit to Berkshire and Buckinghamshire as part of her Golden Jubilee tour in 2002.

The Queen was on a walkabout. The crowds lining the streets were ten-deep and in raptures, waving flags and bunting and cheering.

She visibly brightened and turned to me afterwards to ask: ‘Are all these people really here for me?’

And yet, there is a contradiction here – at heart Her Majesty was shy and reserved and more at home in wellies and a headscarf than at state occasions in ball dresses and crowns.

By her side: Ailsa Anderson (right) helps Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at a function

She was also unwaveringly kind. I found this out first-hand when I joined the Royal Household in May 2001 after working in central government communications.

I had no idea what to expect. I came into the Household as an assistant press secretary with a slightly cocky demeanour and an air of superiority. I had worked for four government ministers, for goodness’ sake – this would be a walk in the park.

I could not have been more wrong. I committed all manner of faux pas. I would stand in the wrong place, say the wrong thing or turn into a bumbling bag of nerves when the Queen came into sight. I even once managed to call the wonderful Countess of Wessex ‘Your Majesty’.

The point is that these things mattered. The eyes of the world were on you continuously and if you made a mistake you were letting Her Majesty down – something none of us ever wanted to do. Yet she forgave me. And I got better. Even though it was a steep learning curve.

Actually, you never quite knew what you were going to learn from the Queen. Once, I received a masterclass from her on corgis and dorgis.

I had travelled to Sandringham House in Norfolk to meet a small film crew who were making a documentary about her and her love of dogs.

Once the film crew had left, she explained how she’d trained them – something I really appreciated as a dog lover myself – and how she had accidentally invented the dorgi with the help of Princess Margaret’s dachshund Pipkin. She also told me how they were fed.

I even once saw the Queen feed her corgis from the lunch table. She never gave them her own food, but would often have a pocketful of dog biscuits to hand. It could be quite disarming for some guests.

For the most famous woman in the world, there was an extraordinary – and very becoming – sense of modesty about Queen Elizabeth II, writes Ailsa Anderson (pictured)

She often used her dogs to break the ice when people came to see her. I saw this for myself when the world-famous All Blacks rugby team from New Zealand came to tea at Buckingham Palace.

The huge athletes towered over her, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious with the fine china cups in their rugby players’ hands. Yet after the corgis had been ushered in, the conversation flowed and the laughter began.

Perhaps more than anyone through history, the Queen was used to a media frenzy. I was once part of a team which arranged a huge media reception for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Inevitably, the world’s press crowded around Her Majesty.

READ MORE: ‘We recall with great affection her long life, devoted service and all she meant to so many of us’: King Charles’s moving tribute to the Queen as he marks the anniversary of her death at Balmoral – and releases a never-before-seen portrait of Her Majesty

I was terrified that she’d been overwhelmed – and it was entirely my fault. But as I escorted her out of the state rooms, stammering a desperate apology for the jamboree, she actually said she rather enjoyed it.

The Queen never failed to surprise me. Indeed, her sense of humour was legendary. I remember hearing a story about a couple of tourists moving towards her when she was out walking in Windsor Great Park, who exclaimed that she looked exactly like the Queen. ‘That’s reassuring,’ she responded.

During a Privy Council meeting at Buckingham Palace, which had the most senior members of her government present, somebody’s mobile phone went off. Quick as a flash the Queen quipped: ‘You better answer that. It may be someone important!’

One morning at Balmoral, I was working away when there was a sharp rap on the window. I looked up to see the Queen smiling. She was setting out on her own for a walk with the dogs, as she often did. She was simply saying hello and enjoying catching me by surprise. It was a pinch-me moment.

People often speak of the Queen’s acts of generosity and I can second that. I remember standing in a pre-lunch reception during the state visit of President Barack Obama. I looked up to see Her Majesty walking towards me with the President at her side.

The eyes of the world were on you continuously and if you made a mistake you were letting Her Majesty down – something none of us ever wanted to do. Yet she forgave me. And I got better. Even though it was a steep learning curve

I turned sideways to see who the Queen was taking him to meet, only to find that she was heading straight for me. ‘Mr President,’ she said, ‘this is my press secretary. Her husband is in the Royal Navy.’

At Christmas, she and Prince Philip would always present the staff with thoughtful presents and we would also receive a Christmas pudding in a bespoke embossed bowl.

The Queen would similarly treat her own personal staff to lunch before the festive season.

READ MORE: What will happen on the anniversary of the Queen’s death? Will there be any official Royal events on Accession Day?

That said, eating with the Queen wasn’t always straightforward. Members of the Royal Family eat very quickly, even at a state banquet. And when they have finished, everyone else’s plates are taken from them as well.

The Queen was ahead of her time when it came to food. Most of the produce she served, including at state banquets, was locally sourced, mostly from the royal estates such as Sandringham or the farms at Windsor.

Her love for local, organic food is certainly one trait inherited by King Charles, and to my mind a moving point of continuity across the years.

Before every state banquet she would inspect the table set for 170 people or so. She could spot a fork that was in the wrong place or a flower that didn’t look right at 40 paces.

I worked for her for over 12 years and will never forget what a huge privilege it was.

One particular highlight was announcing the birth of Prince George. I received a call early that morning from my colleague Ed Perkins, press secretary to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, saying that the then Duchess of Cambridge had gone into labour and was in hospital.

I went into the office and we prepared the historic frame ready to hang on the gates outside Buckingham Palace.

When at last the formal announcement arrived, on official embossed paper signed by all the medical staff involved, I was shaking with nerves.

Queen Elizabeth on the Golden Jubilee tour, Newcastle, in May 2002 

I put the notice in the frame and walked across the forecourt with one of our footmen. It was such an electric atmosphere and the crowds were thrilled to be part of history. As was I.

I am in no doubt that the King and Queen will be hugely saddened today and will take great comfort from being with family in the glorious isolation of Balmoral – a place the late Queen adored and, of course, where she died.

I lost my own mother last year and therefore the death of the Queen seemed even more raw.

Today we will reflect on a woman who was a one-off. Her selflessness, her curiosity, her lack of ego, her smile.

A head of state, a global superstar, a person of extraordinary faith, a mother, our Queen – and someone it was an honour to serve.

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