As beacons crackle across the world to celebrate the Queen’s ninetieth, a gang of her sixty best friends will descend on Windsor Castle for a royal knees-up. The Queen’s social circle has never had the louche and shady glamour of the Princess Margaret-set or the meddling righteousness of Prince Charles’ friends. For all that, they have been world-shapers and kingmakers, while never putting a court-shoed foot out of line.
MONARCHS OF THEIR GLEN
David & Virginia Airlie: As Scottish neighbours (Airley Castle, at 50 miles away, is but a Scone’s throw from Balmoral), Lord and Lady Airlie have been tight with the Queen for years. He: a debonair wit of the old school who used to squabble with the Queen over toys in the nursery. As the Lord Chamberlain from 1984-97, he got his own back and imposed 188 cost-cutting measures in an unprecedented regal economy drive.
She: Virginia (Ginny) was the first-ever American lady-in-waiting in 1973 and remains Lady of the Bedchamber. She attended the Queen’s first meeting with the Obamas in 2009 and will be on hand on Friday when the outgoing President and his wife lunch at Windsor Castle.
Robert Salisbury: The Marquis of Salisbury has been known to make the Queen snort into her soup. The Dean of St Albans remembers when he tried to introduce the Queen to Lord Salisbury, who used to be leader of the House of Lords, in 2003 and the Queen chortled and replied, ‘Robert and I were at a nightclub last night until half past one.’ They had been at Annabel’s celebrating Ginny Airlie’s 70th.
Patricia Mountbatten: The Countess of Mountbatten is the only person allowed to be more majestic than her Majesty (who describes her as ‘fierce’). Lady Patricia, as the daughter of the last Viceroy of India, is three times a Lady (the daughter of a senior peer, wife of Lord Brabourne and a female peeress in her own right). A cousin of both the Queen and Prince Philip, she was particularly stalwart during the annus horribilis. Lady Mountbatten remembers the Queen coming to dinner and saying wonderingly: ‘Can you imagine having not one but two daughters-in-law like this?’
OTHER UNROYAL FAMILY
Pamela Hicks: Lady Mountbatten’s little sister, Lady Pamela Hicks, is famously un-fierce, on the other hand. She was on safari with Princess Elizabeth when the news reached them that George VI had died. The princess, who had been up a fig tree with her binoculars, came down a queen. Lady Pamela has some understanding of the royal psyche. Although the Queen did not write to the Mountbattens when her father Dickie and brothers Nicholas and Paul were assassinated by the IRA in 1979, she received a six page letter of condolence when one of her corgis died.
Margaret Rhodes: Margaret is one of the Queen’s steady Bowes-Lyon cousins. When her husband Denys Rhodes was diagnosed with cancer, the Queen moved her into Garden House in Windsor Great Park, to live ‘in the suburbs’ so that they would be nearer to London for treatment. Whenever the Queen is at Windsor on a Sunday, she drives her Jag ‘like a bat out of hell’ across the Park for gin-and-Dubonnet and gossip with her cousin after church.
MYRA, QUEEN OF SCOTS
Myra Butter: Caledonian royalty, Myra – the younger daughter of Sir Harold Wernher and Countess de Torby – takes the reins in the north while the Queen is down south. Immensely elegant, and the granddaughter of the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, she and the queen are said to talk about grandchildren and smoked salmon when together.
John Warren: The horse-mad Queen is also mad about her blood stock agent John Warren. Lofty courtiers try not to nag when he is placed next to the Queen for horsemeat chat. Warren, who is married to Lady Carolyn, the daughter of the late Earl of Carnarvon, runs a stud on the Highclere Estate.
Jean Carnarvon: The Dowager Countess of Carnarvon, mother-in-law of John Warren, was married to the Queen’s late, beloved racing manager Henry ‘Porchie’ Carnarvon. The Queen was said to be grief-stricken when Henry Carnarvon died of a heart attack while watching the 9/11 bombings on TV and she and Wyoming-born Jeanie have remained great friends. Lady Carnarvon has said it is a struggle not to thump the Queen on the back when one of her Highclere-trained horses wins a race.
Micky Nevill: The wife of the late Lord Rupert Nevill (who was the Duke of Edinburgh’s very tactful private secretary for years), she has been friends with the Queen since they were in a troop of Girl Guides that met in the grounds of Buckingham Palace to make campfires and practise bird calls. She and her husband were always referred to at court as the ‘little people’ because of their dainty stature.
NEW SUBJECTS, PLEASE
Sarah and William Stamps Farish: Will Farish III was the American ambassador to Britain from 2001 to 2004. Since then he has managed to lure the Queen to their Kentucky stud an unprecedented four times, although Sarah once got into trouble for telling people that the Queen didn’t wear pants when she came to stay (she later clarified she meant trousers not knickers).