With the Queen visiting Birmingham as part of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Birmingham Post books editor Richard Edmonds recalls the day he met her.
There were a lot of Domesday celebrations in 1986.
Television had a field day with everything from the Bayeux Tapestry to Norman castles in England and I received a commission to write a performance piece for an actor, to be staged daily in the open-air courtyard of The Royal Courts of Justice.
I wanted something fresh and unusual, something which would run for around 30 minutes and would interest all kinds of audiences from camera-crazy Japanese tourists, to London office workers looking for a lunchtime diversion.
My researches came up with little that people didn’t know about already, then I discovered in an old document, oblique references to a Norman jester, a female called Adelina, a woman who earned her daily bread by singing, dancing and story-telling in village squares and the great halls of castles.
She seemed dead right for the actress who would give the daily performances of Adelina’s narrative (rain or shine and twice a day) at the RCJ.
I decided to call my piece: “The Miracle of Earl Waltheof”, it concerned the murder of this rather saintly earl, by the niece of William the Conqueror, who Waltheof had married in the dynastic way of these things, without being aware he was tying the knot with a she-devil.
After the murder, the corpse was dismembered and tossed into a ditch. However, up came the monks of Crowland Abbey, like the cavalry in a John Wayne movie, sewed the body together, buried it in the abbey, where the grave became in time a miracle-working shrine.
The powers-that-be approved - the fee was good and the actress liked it too - she decided to design her own costume - the only mistake I made, and ended up looking like a badly-made loose cover for a lumpy sofa.
A few days before we opened, we were told that the Queen would be attending the opening performance, which was to be twinned with a presentation.
This was to be a luxurious facsimile of the Domesday Book by the Ariel Press, to be given after the performance and which would enter the library at Windsor Castle - it was a fine three-volume set, I would’ve loved it, but the Queen came first.
We were to perform in the late afternoon on a special dais set up at the top end of the RCJ.
Florists had been in during the morning and each of the minstrels’ galleries was trimmed with half a dozen standard rose bushes in full bloom.
They were hung out overhead with the roots hidden and the effect was superb.
Sir Donald Sinden came in to lend support, the embassy crowds, friends and retainers and members of the special branch were all there by 3.30pm, the wine flowed, the huge turbans of the African embassy women were like baskets of blossoms, the trays of canapes were delectable and yet I was too nervous to eat, although I did manage to try on the amethyst ring of a visiting bishop.
“Wonderful thing,” I said, “but a bit camp for me.” The bishop went pink and ate another canape.
Then it all began.
Red ropes cordoned off the crowd leaving a space for the Queen, Lord Hailsham and the Master of the Rolls, who would be sitting on rather nice gilt chairs. Trumpets blew, the National Anthem rang through the hall and I felt sick.
“Good luck,” said Donald, “go on - she’s sitting down.”
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lonely. I climbed on to the dais, several hundred people stopped talking, there was total silence my throat went dry and I introduced my performance piece, standing at a particularly booming mike.
It was fascinating and totally unnerving.
The Queen, in a silk summer dress, gave me the once-over. She started by looking at my shoes, moved on to my tie and then looked straight at me.
And then she gave me that very lovely smile and I felt that I was being given unspoken support.
Thirty minutes later, the actress finished to loud applause. The Queen smiled, Lord Hailsham clapped enthusiastically and Donald nodded approvingly.
It seemed a good time to slope off into the crowd. But that is not what happened. A uniformed equerry moved me into the Queen’s private party now leaving the hall. A lady-in-waiting fell in beside me and held my arm firmly.
“I don’t have a gold invitation card,” I said
“It doesn’t matter” she said. “HM wants to see you!”
Minutes later I was handed a gin and tonic. It must have been around 5.45pm.
“We always have a G&T around this time,” said the Queen, “But come and sit down, I have some questions I’d like to ask you.”
The ice in my gin and tonic was melting faster than most as I grew uncomfortably warm.
“You write for The Birmingham Post, don’t you?” she said, “ a sound regional newspaper, and you are the diary editor and the antiques writer, I believe.”
How do they find all this out I wondered.
“Now then, when you made your speech, you said there was a descendant of the Conqueror with us today - yes?”
“Now, Mr Edmonds, there cannot be many descendants of the Conqueror left.”
“No ma’am, indeed.”
“One is not one’s self descended from the Conqueror, of course... but tell me - what exactly does this person do?”
I thought of the quiet little woman I’d met earlier, she was wearing her white hair in a little bun. She had on simple steel spectacles. You certainly wouldn’t notice her in a crowd. She looked like a little Normandy Catholic, hard to think she had royal Norman blood in her veins.
“She’s an estate agent’s clerk in Worthing...”
The Queen was silent for a minute. Then she laughed.
“Philip,” she said, “I think the tumbrils are beginning to roll.”
Then it was all over, and the Queen shook hands, she was a delightful woman, we’d talked about Queen Victoria’s jewels, amateur theatricals during the early war years and the business of writing.
It had been superb and I had felt completely at ease in her company,
As she left, she turned back for one last moment and smiled again. “I must say, you certainly have a capacity for blowing the dust off history,” she said.