Queen Elizabeth is many things, and perhaps chief amongst them is stoic. Propelled by her belief in the unofficial royal motto “never complain, never explain,” despite her family providing plenty of dramatic fodder—from Prince Charles’ and Princess Diana’s infidelities in the 1980s and 1990s to the more recent Prince Harry and Meghan Markle step back to dozens more dramas in between—never once has the drama centered around Her Majesty.
“The very lack of personal drama has arguably been the secret of Elizabeth II’s success,” says Tracy Borman, author of Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy (opens in new tab), speaking to PEOPLE.
The adage “never complain, never explain” is thought to originate from 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and was adopted by the Queen’s late mother, the Queen Mother. It has now become the go-to mantra for the royal family, despite tests in recent years from royals like the Sussexes, who, if you will, very publicly complained and explained in a special with Oprah Winfrey in March 2021, going entirely against the Queen’s tight-lipped approach to public life.
“According to Proverbs, ‘the heart of Kings is unknowable,’” Borman says. “This is particularly true of Elizabeth II, who throughout her long reign has played her cards very close to her chest.”
The Queen’s poker face and restraint is remarkable, especially in the era of oversharing we live in today.
“It is no small irony that in this age of mass communication, we have fewer of the Queen’s personal opinions and feelings on record than those of her predecessors,” Borman says. “We know that she likes horseracing and corgis, spends her summers at Balmoral and her Christmases at Sandringham. But her spoken words are almost entirely the work of others.”
Marie Claire has reported in recent months that “never complain, never explain” may soon become a relic of the past, as Prince Charles and, most especially, Prince William have loosened the mantra in their own ways—in particular in the aftermath of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s controversial Caribbean tour earlier this year.
Yet, for the Queen’s historic 70-year reign, the motto remains a guiding principle, PEOPLE says, regardless of what the rest of the royal family may be going through.
“That stoicism really contrasts with people like Harry and Meghan,” Pauline Maclaran, professor at Royal Holloway University of London, tells PEOPLE. “That is one of the reasons she is so admired. It is incredible that a 96-year-old is still going out and doing engagements, even though we know she is in great pain a lot of the time. She’s still coming out to put a smile and wear her outfits and reassure everybody. It’s quite extraordinary, really. She really is carrying the motto of ‘never complain’ to extremes. You have to admire her, whether you’re a royalist or not.”
Though maybe she doesn’t always express her opinions verbally to the public, PEOPLE reports “this doesn’t mean that the Queen doesn’t make a point when she wants to, either. In March, she expressed her solidarity with the people of Ukraine by standing beside a display of blue and yellow flowers while meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Windsor Castle.”
The outlet also points to, when she opened Parliament in 2017, Her Majesty wore a blue hat decorated with yellow flowers “to mimic the flag of the European Union and send a message of her support for the political grouping in the wake of the U.K.’s decision to leave.”
“You don’t hear her expressing extreme delight or extreme upset,” Maclaran says. “She makes sure that she doesn’t give too much of herself away. That has been a very good strategy because it’s meant that people can read whatever they want into her behaviors and kind of identify with her.”
Rachel Burchfield is a writer whose primary interests are fashion and beauty, society and culture, and, most especially, the British Royal Family. In addition to serving as the royal editor at Marie Claire, she has worked with publications like Vogue, Vanity Fair, ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, and more. She cohosts Podcast Royal, a show that provides candid commentary on the biggest royal family headlines and offers segments on fashion, beauty, health and wellness, and lifestyle.
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