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Royal connections are often claimed, rarely genuine; an inventory of so-called insiders queue up to comment on what is “really” happening behind palace doors. In truth, there is only a small number of people who have spent quality time with the most famous woman in the world. One of them is Victoria Pryor.
As the Queen’s god-daughter, and the daughter of her first cousin and most beloved friend Margaret Rhodes, the 67-year-old has known the Queen all her life. From childhood memories of the Royal protection officers who did magic tricks when her godmother came to stay to summer barbecues at Balmoral, Pryor has seen our “kind, thoughtful, amazing” Queen as few ever have – relaxed at home with her animals and her family.
Pryor has been thinking of her “a lot recently”, she says as we talk in the sunny dining room of her Norfolk cottage, near the seaside deli she runs, a month after the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. “A, because of Prince Philip, B, because there’s been a lot in the news. It makes me think of Mummy as well. It makes me feel a bit sad that she isn’t here.”
Before her death in 2016, Pryor’s mother was one of the shelterbelt of women that surround the Queen, providing daily support. This week, the Queen has weathered the first of many milestone moments without her husband by her side. The Duke of Edinburgh would have turned 100 on Thursday, and today, Saturday June 12, marks her official birthday (she turned 95 in April). Last night, she attended the G7 reception and will tomorrow meet President Joe Biden; between major political events and the maelstrom over the removal of her portrait at an Oxford college this week, his absence must have been keenly felt. “How lucky are all of us that at 95 she is still the best granny everybody has?” says Pryor, who feels sure the Queen is coping just as stoically as always.
The family will “all”, she says, be stepping up this week. “Charles will step in, William, Anne. They all have such high respect for her that she won’t be on her own at all,” she says, adding her godmother is “made of stern stuff” and doesn’t “give in to ‘oh poor me’”. She also has support from a “constant round of lovely ladies-in-waiting [including Pryor’s sister-in-law] who know her so well.”
In many ways, the life Pryor leads is worlds away from that of her Windsor family. Her days are taken up with school runs and the demands of running the deli, Picnic Fayre, which sells a range of fresh produce, from sourdough and local cheese to homemade ginger cake. Pryor – a gentle, unassuming presence with a contagious laugh – is behind the counter most days, occasionally serving Sophie Wessex, who has friends in Cley.
Yet the family’s Royal connections stretch back almost a century. Pryor’s mother and the girl who would become Queen had been close since childhood. From the age of five, Rhodes spent summers with her cousins, Elizabeth and Margaret. “Because Mummy was the youngest […] and because she was the same age as the Queen, I think Granny just thought ‘scoot her off down there and muddle them in together’. They got on so well.” They were together on the day war was declared, on September 3, 1939, and at the bedside of the Queen Mother – who Margaret “loved like a mother” – when she died at Royal Lodge in 2002.
Both milestone moments and quieter encounters peppered their friendship: in 1941, aged 16, Rhodes, who was a Bletchley girl, was sent to a finishing school in Oxford and then a secretarial college in Surrey. Home became Windsor Castle, where she was reunited with the princesses, who had been evacuated from London during the Blitz – through the years of marriage and children, they remained close, and later looked out for one another as older women.
“The Queen was just so lovely about helping Mummy when my father was so ill,” says Pryor, her grey-blue Bowes-Lyon eyes glistening whenever she speaks about her godmother. “She is just amazing the way she looks after people," she says, explaining how the Queen offered her cousin a grace and favour home in Windsor Great Park when her husband, Denys Rhodes, became ill. Suddenly she said: ‘Gosh, Margaret, could you bear to live in suburbia?’ Mummy was like ‘Yes. I’d be fine.’” When her mother broke her hip, too, “she went and recuperated at Windsor Castle. Immediately the Queen said ‘come and just stay here.’”
This generosity extends to many others, Pryor adds: “I can’t tell you the number of people who she keeps an eye on and looks after. But I suspect that she just misses that thing of having someone who she can talk to about memories.
“You know, how one does; suddenly you’re going through something and you find a photo and think: ‘Oh, I’d love to tell Margaret about that or see what she remembers.”
Pryor remembers often dropping in on her mother in the later years when she lived near Windsor; the Queen would invariably be there for an evening drink and to “put the world to rights”. On one occasion, planning to say a quick hello with her mother-in-law, “we rolled in and saw the car and I was like ‘Oh I’m sorry Marjorie, I’m afraid the Queen is here’. The poor thing was like: ‘Oh I haven’t got the right shoes on!’”
Pryor has never advertised her Royal connections, but she says “it’s lovely to know that you come from that family... I also have that [Bowes-Lyon] blood coursing through me. It makes you think ‘yes, of course I can do this’. What a fantastic privilege.” Her second husband, John (her first, the sculptor Nicholas Deans, died in 1991) knew nothing of her background at first.
They married in 1999, at a celebration also attended by the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret; a photo commemorating the happy day hangs behind the counter at Picnic Fayre. “It was really lovely because it was quite a small wedding.” Since then, John has met the Queen on several occasions. “[She] has always made me feel so welcome, and my children,” he says, adding that he has “found myself in situations I would never have dreamt I’d find myself in. And it’s been absolutely wonderful.”
Pryor recalls the many times she and John would go to nearby Sandringham for tea or lunch when the Queen was in Norfolk. “When Mummy came to see us she didn’t stay here; she always stayed at Sandringham because it’s ‘so much more comfortable darling’,” she recalls, laughing. There is clearly something of that same Bowes-Lyon twinkle and resilience about Pryor, some of whose happiest memories are of summer trips to Balmoral, of “barbecuing whether it’s raining, snowing, windy, midgey. Just being outside and making bonfires.” She shows me photographs of her mother and the Queen on the land in Scotland, eating lunch on their laps on the veranda of a lodge, or dressed in their kilts ready for a day in the fresh air. They are striking because of their informality; the Queen looks so relaxed and happy.
Decades later, there remains “something about [the Queen] when you’re in her company that is quite awe inspiring. Her skin is just flawless, and when she smiles her whole face just lights up.”
Celebrations have helped to sustain their connection over the years: when Pryor and her sister would arrive at family gatherings, “[the Queen] and Philip would be standing there and she’d say ‘Ah! The goddaughters!’ and then you’d feel special.” With the forthcoming Platinum Jubilee celebrations next year, there are sure to be many more opportunities for special events, or spend time in each others company. “Now Mummy’s gone there will be fewer things that we’re invited to because... the new families have come in and we’re from the old lot,” she says, without an ounce of self pity. “We’ve done our bit. And God, just so lucky to have done it.”