The Queen and her Ambassadors


Above and below: The Queen, accompanied by
her family, waves to adoring crowds as she did 60 years ago

Elizabeth Stewart looks back at the 60-year relationship between the Queen and the heads of mission at the Court of St James’s

Sixty years ago, a 25-year-old Queen ascended the throne, a youthful symbol of hope for a country crippled by war with a fading empire.

Capturing the mood of the diplomatic corps, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, French Ambassador M René Massigli, described the new Queen Elizabeth II as “a gracious image of youth and hope” adding that witnessing the joyful Coronation celebrations in London was a “radiant memory” that would “remain with us a solace for past trials and as an inspiration in the tasks which lie ahead.”

The Dean also remarked on “the British genius of linking the past, the present and the future in one great pattern of continuity,” words that are echoed by today’s diplomatic community.

Six decades on, as diplomats witnessed the spectacle of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in a Britain transformed, Embassy magazine asked our readers what the Queen represented in a modern Britain and Commonwealth.

Service to a nation
The words that today’s foreign envoys have used to describe what the monarch represents to Britain include “stability”, “continuity”, “unity”, “identity”, “sure-footedness and strength”, “grace and poise”, “heritage and tradition”.

But the one most often repeated was the word “service”.

The current Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Ambassador of Kuwait Mr Khaled Al Duwaisan probably knows the Queen better than most in the diplomatic corps through his own long service at the Court of St James’s. He summed the sentiment up best: “We see a Head of State whose dedication and service to this nation, to her empire and to the Commonwealth, are extraordinary.

“We see a global Ambassador whose experience of international affairs and her skilled touch are the envy of diplomats the world over. No wonder she is so admired and loved. It is why – from the heart – we celebrate this ‘Diamond Queen.’”

A symbol of unity
And while Britain no longer has an empire, the Queen over the past 60 years has presided over its remarkable transformation into a global Commonwealth of 54 diverse nations which make up a third of humanity.

The Commonwealth Secretary General, in his Diamond Jubilee message, puts the Queen’s immense contribution into context: “When The Queen came to the throne in 1952 there were eight Commonwealth member states. Today, there are 54 – over two billion people encompassing a third of all humanity.

“As Head of the Commonwealth Her Majesty has been the keystone of the vast Commonwealth arch which spans the globe. It is impossible to think or write of the modern Commonwealth without acknowledging the central part The Queen has played in its remarkable development.”

The Queen is not only a symbol of unity for the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth but she is also the glue that holds London’s vast diplomatic corps together.

Every new head of mission from countries both great and small is accorded with the same pomp and ceremony when they present their credentials to the Queen. The time-honoured tradition is undoubtedly a highlight of their careers – a carriage ride to Buckingham Palace in a state Landau escorted by the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps (although a quirk of history means high commissioners get two extra horses) and a 20-minute audience with the Queen in the elegant 1844 Room at the Palace.


The Queen with four generations of Commonwealth
Secretaries General: Chief Emeka Anyaoku (Africa),
Kamalesh Sharma (Asia), Sir Shridath Ramphal (Caribbean)
and Sir Don McKinnon (Pacific)

The generation game
This ritual has hardly changed since the Queen received the very first Ambassador of her reign, the Ambassador of Mexico, Mr Francisco A. de Icaza (pictured below), on 11 March 1952, barely a month after she was proclaimed Queen.

And by happy coincidence, the Ambassador’s great grand nephew, Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, is now Mexico’s Ambassador to London. “So this momentous occasion also has personal significance for me,” explains the Ambassador in his Diamond Jubilee message.

The Queen has been head of state for so long that meeting two generations of ambassadors from the same family is not unusual. The current Indonesian Ambassador, Mr Hamza Thayeb, this year followed in his father’s footsteps. The Ambassador of Guatemala meanwhile recalls that his father met Her Majesty way back in 1961 when he was posted to the Vatican and the Queen visited Pope XXIII. He has the photo on his mantelpiece to prove it.

Since first receiving Ambassador Icaza 60 years ago, the Queen has gone on to receive no less than 3,200 letters of credence. Ambassadors are always impressed with her knowledge of world affairs and are genuinely charmed by her “kind charisma” as the Mexican Ambassador describes his first meeting.

As the former Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Sir Anthony Figgis, once remarked: “I’ve seen the toughest republicans melt in two seconds flat.”

Equal respect
The Queen applies the same careful preparation for each and every audience. She is briefed by the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps about the head of mission’s career and issues of relevance to his or her country.

Using experience accumulated over six decades, the Queen will choose which particular subjects to tackle, but these will be discussed without ever straying into the realm of politics.

Staying above politics is a valuable skill admired both by diplomats and the 12 Prime Ministers with whom the Queen has held weekly audiences for six decades.

Palace insiders will tell you that the Queen values the relationship with “her” ambassadors as she likes to call them. It is important that each ambassador and high commissioner feels welcome and valued, no matter what the political relationship is between their country and the United Kingdom.

And she certainly has witnessed the turning of political tides.

A constant in a changing world
Yet over the past six decades the Queen has been a constant in a changing world. When she first ascended the throne there were 88 sovereign states; today there are 193.

In fact, because the ranks of ambassadors have more than doubled, it has become necessary for the Queen to receive two heads of mission on the same day – although a carefully choreographed carriage relay means she still sees each head of mission individually.

An early sign of the changing times came two years into her reign, in 1954, when newly independent India sent the first female head of mission to the Court of St James’s in the person of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the formidable sister to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Today there are 26 female heads of mission.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Queen witnessed the gradual end of the colonial empires, spawning new independent states and with them new high commissioners and ambassadors who swelled the ranks of the diplomatic corps.

As governments changed or were overthrown, the Queen met her share of revolutionary ambassadors too – certainly one of the most unusual was Fidel Castro’s first Ambassador, Don Sergio Rojas Santamarina, who arrived in London shortly after the January revolution in 1959 and then performed what must be the biggest u-turn in the history of the London diplomatic corps. A sugar and textile magnate, he had helped Castro overthrow the Batista government but had a change of heart over Castro’s communist leanings, resigned in 1960 and went on to back the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron) invasion!


Above and below: More than 3,200 ambassadors
have presented their credentials since HE Mr Francisco
A de Icaza, the current Mexican Ambassador’s great grand
uncle, was first received by the Queen in 1952

The dissident diplomats
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Velvet Revolution heralded the influx of charismatic “dissident diplomats” who had resisted their communist masters. One of the most memorable was Czech Ambassador Pavel Seifter, a dissident who had spent the previous 20 years as a window cleaner (he could find no other job under the hardline communist government that took over in 1968).

There were also the guerrilla diplomats, most notably Namibia’s feisty Monica Nashandi, who had narrowly escaped with her life as a refugee and went on to become a guerrilla fighter and then High Commissioner of a newly liberated Namibia.

As head of the Commonwealth – an organisation which for decades had fought against apartheid – the Queen must have been especially satisfied to receive the credentials of the first black, post-apartheid High Commissioner for South Africa, Mendi Msimang, in 1994.

The current High Commissioner, Mr Zola Skweyiya, says South Africa has never forgotten the role that the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, played in bringing down apartheid. It is well known that she stood behind the Commonwealth’s policy of sanctions against South Africa at a time when the Thatcher government was against the policy, causing a rift which the Queen feared would tear the organisation apart.

High Commissioner Skweyiya also remembers how, in 1991, the Queen broke precedent and invited Nelson Mandela (who was attending the Commonwealth Summit) to attend the Heads of State banquet.

“It was a profound gesture considering former President Mandela was not yet a Head of State,” reflects the High Commissioner.

Mission boom
The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 sparked another mini-boom in new missions from the successor states in the early 1990s.

Since most foreign ministries had to be built from scratch, the Queen began to receive heads of mission from varied backgrounds, including politics, academia, business and former student activists (who brought the average age of ambassadors down quite considerably!).

The violent break-up of Yugoslavia ushered in seven new embassies in the mid 1990s and 2000s, the latest being Kosovo in 2008.

The complex unravelling of the federation also resulted in an anomaly unlikely ever to be repeated: an Ambassador, Dragisa Burzan, who presented his credentials twice to the Queen, but representing two different countries (firstly Serbia-Montenegro in 2004 and then the independent Montenegro in 2007).

Royalty, revered and reviled
The Queen has not only received heads of mission, but over six decades, Her Majesty has also welcomed some 102 different heads of state, from the first in 1952 (King Gustaf VI and Queen Louise of Sweden) to the most recent visits in 2011 including US President Barack Obama (in May 2011) and President Gul of Turkey (in November 2011).

Over the years, a multicultural cast of characters has passed through the gates of Buckingham Palace, and include the revered (President Mandela of South Africa in 1996) but also occasionally the reviled (President Ceausescu of Romania in 1978).

There have been politically challenging state visits, but diplomatic missions involved always marvel at the professionalism of the Palace and the ability of the Royal Household – with the Queen at its heart – to make all her guests feel special.

60 years of touring
In 60 years, the Queen has undertaken 261 official overseas visits, including 96 State Visits, to 116 different countries. Many of the Queen’s official tours were undertaken on the Royal Yacht Britannia, which travelled more than a million miles in 44 years.

The Queen has travelled often to her major Realms during her reign, including Australia (16 times), Canada (22 times), Jamaica (six times) and New Zealand (10 times).

Official visits have ranged from the Cocos Islands, 5.4 square miles with a population of 596, to the Peoples’ Republic of China, 3.7 million square miles with a population of 1.34 billion.

In that time, the Queen has graciously accepted a number of exotic gifts, such as two tortoises given to Her Majesty in the Seychelles in 1972; a seven-year-old bull elephant called “Jumbo” given to Her Majesty by the President of Cameroon in 1972 to mark the Queen’s Silver Wedding; and two black beavers given to the Queen after a Royal visit to Canada.

Yet everywhere she has visited, the Monarch has made an impact, not least in those countries that for years were in isolation.

The Embassy editor recalls the fevered excitement of the crowds lining Cape Town harbour as a trainee reporter covering the Queen’s first state visit to post-apartheid South Africa in 1995.

Similarly the Hungarian Ambassador, Janos Csak, reflects on Her Majesty’s visit in 1993 to post Cold War Hungary, the first former Warsaw Pact country she visited.

“The warm relations between HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Hungary go back a long way: the Hungarian people still have fond memories of her Majesty’s visit,” he recalls.

The Queen’s most recent visit, to Ireland, is freshest in the minds of diplomats because of its significance. This was the first state visit of a British Monarch to an independent Ireland and it was “spectacularly successful” for the impact that it had on British-Irish relations, says the Ambassador of Ireland, Bobby McDonagh.

“The Queen won the admiration, respect and affection of the Irish people through her charm, energy and dignity as well as through her perfectly judged words (including in the Irish language)… Two countries which have been known over the centuries for their rivalry have now become the very closest of friends.”

Summing up what the Dean referred to as the Queen’s role as global ambassador, McDonagh concludes: “I believe the visit had a wider impact internationally, demonstrating as it did the potential for reconciliation in a world beset by so many tragic and seemingly intractable conflicts.”

Jubilee in numbers

1,000,000 – miles travelled on the Royal Yacht Britannia

3500 – Acts of Parliament the Queen has given Royal Assent to

3200 – heads of mission the Queen has received

500,000 – guests who have attended the Queen’s Garden Parties

610 – investitures the Queen has personally held

600 – charities the Queen is patron to

261 – official visits the Queen has undertaken to 116 different countries

102 – inward state visits the Queen has hosted

129 – portraits the Queen has sat for

30 – corgis the Queen has owned

12 – Prime Ministers the Queen has held weekly audiences with

7 – Marshals of the Diplomatic Corps who have worked with the Queen

6 – Archbishops of Canterbury there have been during her reign

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