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Who will get to see Queen Elizabeth’s private papers?

A report that a Buckingham Palace aide is sorting through the late Queen Elizabeth's personal diary and papers has sparked both interest and concern over what might be archived and what might be kept confidential

Palace aide reportedly sorting through late monarch's personal documents

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It was a curiosity that long surrounded Queen Elizabeth: just what did the enigmatic and notably discreet monarch really think about anything?

Knowing that she kept a diary, there is the question of what might be recorded there. Might it offer deeply personal insights or pointed thoughts on family matters or affairs of state that transpired during the Queen's 70-year reign?

So there was some interest — as well as recent trepidation from some historians — after a report emerged that a palace aide has been given the task of sorting through the late Queen's personal diaries and papers, with an eye to what might be archived and what might remain confidential.

"You would have thought that [the Royal Family] would trust the professional discretion of an archivist to do that, but clearly they don't. They're very worried about it," said Philip Murphy, director of history and policy at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, in an interview.

"I think historians are worried about someone who isn't a trained archivist going through those papers because … there is a history of members of the Royal Family destroying papers."

Queen Victoria, who died in 1901, kept a detailed diary. Her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, copied or rewrote the journal, and the originals were burned.

A book is held open showing handwriting on the left and right sides.

There is, of course, an argument that Queen Elizabeth and members of the Royal Family have a right to privacy, just as any person does.

It can get tricky, however, determining where privacy for a monarch might begin or end.

"I think there has to be a distinction between their personal lives and their political role," said Murphy.

"But again in terms of monarchy, the personal is political to an extent, and I think it becomes a matter of public interest when prime ministers are brought in to deal with the fallout — so, as John Major was in the 1990s over the Prince of Wales's divorce, as Tony Blair was when Diana died and the palace didn't seem to be operating very nimbly in response."

The Royal Archives are housed in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle.

"Although exempt from [freedom of information] requirements, the Royal Household is committed to transparency, and to making information available, where appropriate," states the Royal Family's website.

A person looks off to the right.

The archives contain correspondence — official and personal — for monarchs from King George III (1760-1820) onwards, along with administrative records from the Royal Household.

That there would be curiosity about what happens to Elizabeth's private papers — and who might get to see them — is hardly surprising. And there has always been a concern about just what in the end is kept when it comes to royal papers.

"One needs to have a degree of skepticism with royal records and letters and things that survived because we do have to be mindful of to what extent have they been doctored," said Justin Vovk, a royal commentator and a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton who specializes in the history of the monarchy, in an interview.

"But again, we're also dealing with an unusual situation in which we have this concern, but this is the first time we're dealing with it in the modern, globalized, technologically connected world, where these documents are not the only sources of information we have to understand what happened."

Both Murphy and Vovk caution that Elizabeth's papers may not be quite the treasure trove of insight or surprising detail that some might anticipate.

"I don't think it's going to be as juicy as people are hoping it will be," said Vovk.

A flag flies from a pole above a round stone tower on a mound.

He suspects that "just based on the way her personality was, her journals and writings are probably going to be very simple. I think it's going to be a lot of daily routine with not a lot of personal colour and texture added in."

When it comes to the Windsors, "they sometimes seem slightly bemused bystanders in their own drama," Murphy said.

"Although [Elizabeth] kept a diary … I'd be very surprised if it's sort of Virginia Wolff standard."

More intriguing, he suggested, could be diaries from some of those who served close to the Queen. "For the general reader, the great diarists are always the slightly peripheral figures."

Ideally, Murphy suggested, there would be a phased opening of Elizabeth's papers over time; greater transparency from the Royal Archives about what they contain than is the current practice around such records; and a consistent set of principles for dealing with papers relating to Commonwealth realms.

"It's important — not just from the point of view of historians, but from the point of view of the political actors themselves, including the palace — that we have a good political history of the way in which constitutional monarchy operated in the modern era, which is essentially in the Queen's reign."

A different way to run a royal household?

Are you "emotionally intelligent" and have "low ego?"

Then you have two qualities that are top of mind as Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, look for a chief executive officer for their royal household.

An online posting for the position garnered a lot of media attention recently and spawned a sense that William and Catherine may be thinking about a different way of doing royal business.

"It immediately struck me as a very modern approach to handling not just their affairs, but their relationship with the public and how the public sees the monarchy," said Vovk.

"I think this idea of hiring a CEO has the potential to add a degree of transparency."

Vovk was intrigued by the focus on "low ego."

"I felt like they were trying to really communicate that the reality of this job, and that if you're expecting to shine … if you want to be a Jeff Bezos who wants to be on the cover of everything, this is probably not going to be a good fit for you."

Two people stand and look off to the right.

Murphy said it seems like a reasonable move, and "bringing in someone suitably qualified to help run it sounds quite, quite sensible."

The various royal households have long been run by courtiers, who are seen in many ways as significant power players within the institution of the monarchy.

Some members of the Royal Family have over the years held them in some disdain, whether it was Diana, Princess of Wales, and her criticisms of "the men in grey suits," or Prince Harry's disparaging of various nicknamed senior officials in his memoir, Spare.

Until the current reign, most senior positions have been "largely reserved for the peers and for the people who had been part of the privileged system for the last 1,000 years of British history," said Vovk.

By looking for a CEO, the Prince and Princess of Wales are attempting to chart a new course, Vovk suggested.

"This is a sign that William and Kate are opening up the future of the monarchy to potentially everybody in a way that it hasn't been before," he said.

Adults and children sit and stand around a campfire pit.

Vovk was surprised to see this move from William rather than his father, King Charles.

"Mind you, it might be … a test case where if he sees it goes well for the Prince and Princess of Wales, that might be something they might look at introducing to the Royal Household as a whole."

Vovk is interested to see how hiring a CEO for a royal household will actually work out for William and Catherine.

"They're in uncharted waters, but I think they're trying to show people that they are trying to learn. They're not just trying to do the same things over and over again and hope for different results."

Reimagining Henry VIII's wives — on stage

The basic facts are well enough known: King Henry VIII had six wives, and there's a simple mnemonic to remember them and their fates: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

But what about the larger stories of the women who met those fates in the 16th century — Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr?

That question lies at the heart of Six the Musical, an electric and interactive experience that hit the stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto last week, reimagining those six wives in a pop girl group full of divas.

Jaz Robinson of Whitby, Ont., plays Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife. She sees Six inspiring people to look at history — particularly this history — in an entirely different way.

"I think it definitely puts a new lens on things and it opens people's perspectives and their minds, and maybe for people to rethink how women or just people in general, how their stories were told," Robinson said during an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning earlier this week.

"In our stories, there's a lot more to it than what men may have written about us, as you can see in the musical. There's just so many more layers and so many more interesting facts."

Two people in costumes stand on a stage.

Many in the cast have Toronto-area roots and reflect the diversity of the city. Julia Pulo of Mississauga, who plays Anne Boleyn, thinks that is part of why Six connects so well with its audiences.

"I think that a lot of people can see themselves in this show because there is so much representation," she said during an interview on Metro Morning.

"Because we are interacting with the audience so much, it feels like everybody is kind of part of the show. It's absolutely a community feeling that the show gives, for sure."

Each character has a music queen — or queens — as inspiration for her character.

"My biggest one would be Janet Jackson," said Robinson.

"Catherine of Aragon, she's a trailblazer, she is tenacious, she has so much strength, but she's also very grounded and I feel like my … inspirations, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé and Whitney Houston, all possess those same qualities, and that's something that I try and embody every single night on stage."

Six performers sing on stage.

Six is also playing on Broadway and in London's West End and has garnered numerous awards and sparkling reviews along the way. The Canadian production ran in Edmonton before its move to Toronto, where it will be on stage until February.

The musical has developed a rabid fan base, something Pulo thinks is a result of the effect the show has on people in the audience.

"I think this show is just so happy," she said. "You come out feeling good and that's something that I think a lot of us go to the theatre to feel."

To hear the full Metro Morning interview, click here.

Royally quotable

"'Everyone thinks that just by marrying Zara that means it's all fine and dandy.… But that doesn't stop the fact that you need a job."

— Mike Tindall, who is married to King Charles's niece Zara, during an ITV reality show.

A bride and groom leave a church.

Royal reads

  1. Documents found by a British researcher and republished by the Washington Post show evidence of the monarchy's intimate role in the transatlantic slave trade.

  2. Campaigners are urging Prince William to invest in significant rewilding across swaths of predominantly farmed land in the Duchy of Cornwall, which he inherited from his father, King Charles, when he succeeded to the throne. [The Guardian]

  3. Catherine, Princess of Wales, swapped her trademark business suits for a track suit as she threw herself into a game of wheelchair rugby. During another engagement this week, she wrote words of support for people affected by the war in Ukraine on a parcel she filled with food, clothes and toiletries for them. [The Independent]

  4. The Royal Australian Mint has unveiled the new effigy of King Charles that will appear on $1 coins by the end of this year. [The Guardian]

Schoolchildren sit in front of a mockup of a large coin.

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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