Royal archives: What Canadian secrets might they reveal?

Despite the media fuss touched off by publication of images showing a young Princess Elizabeth acting out a Nazi salute in the 1930s, historians and others are arguing that the royal archives should be opened to wider public access.

Correspondence between governors general and Buckingham Palace could shed light on historic events

Documents held in the royal archives might shed more insight than has been publicly known so far on the run-up to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution, which culminated in Queen Elizabeth signing the proclamation on April 17, 1982, followed by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau. (Canadian Press)

What did Queen Elizabeth really think of then prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1980 as he began his drive to patriate the Canadian Constitution?

What strategizing was done in Canada and at Buckingham Palace to plan the Canadian visits of the Queen's more outspoken heir, Prince Charles, in the past few years?

Buckingham Palace expressed disappointment with a tabloid newspaper for publishing images of a young Queen Elizabeth performing a Nazi salute with her family in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power. (Tim Ireland/Associated Press)
Did one of Queen Victoria's daughters really give birth to a son years before she married and came to Canada as the wife of a governor general in the late 1800s, as has been rumoured for a while?

So far, such questions are only that. But answers may lie inside the thick grey walls of Windsor Castle, in a royal archive that has come under increased scrutiny since the recent tabloid publication of images of a young Princess Elizabeth doing a Nazi salute with her family in the 1930s.

The emergence of those images, lifted from 17 seconds worth of a grainy family home movie, isn't likely to put a dent in the Queen's sterling reputation after 63-plus years on the throne. She was only six or seven at the time and this was years before the nature of Hitler's Nazism became widely known.

But the media fuss set off by these images has become a springboard for historians and others, including the Guardian newspaper, who say the royal archives — particularly from the current Queen's reign — should be opened to wider public access. 

What the GGs knew

Were that to happen, it would probably reveal "a very interesting and candid record of Canadian affairs and Canadian politics and personalities since 1952," says Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.

The author of Monarchy and the End of Empire, Murphy points in particular to correspondence between governors general of the Commonwealth realms and Buckingham Palace. 

Prince Charles chats with Gov. Gen. David Johnston during a ceremony to welcome Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, to Canada on May 19, 2014. Correspondence between governors general and Buckingham Palace is held in the royal archives. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"It's such an interesting question what the palace is learning quite independently of the British government about what's going on in Canada, and what Canadian governors general are being told by the Queen about what her view is."

Take, for example, what would have been going on in the lead-up to the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982.

While there is a lot of material about that available from the British National Archives, Murphy suggests it would be fascinating to read what is in the royal archive, particularly from the late 1970s when constitutional talk grew in earnest.

"There's a bit of correspondence with the Queen's private secretaries suggesting that she was personally getting rather cheesed off by Trudeau and was losing patience with him," says Murphy.

"That again is from British government files in the National Archives, but it would be fascinating to read what Canadian governors general were reporting back to the palace about that."

Committed to transparency

On the official British Monarchy website, it says "the Royal Household is committed to transparency, and to making information available, where appropriate."

While some argue that the Royal Family deserves the right to privacy, others suggest a more open approach to archive records could be beneficial. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

But therein lies a problem, suggests historian Karina Urbach, a London-based author who has done research in the royal archives.

No explanations are given when a request to see information is rejected. There is no catalogue for users of the archives, which date back nearly 250 years.

"You are dependent on what they are willing to show you," says Urbach, a senior researcher at the University of London's Institute of Historical Research.

"The procedure is the following: You write to them in advance saying, for example, 'I want to see letters relating to royal visits to Canada in the 1920s,' and they say, 'We have the following papers.'"

But if you ask about something of a more sensitive nature, such as royal appeasement policy in the 1930s, "they say there are no letters available," Urbach says.

Urbach "was very well treated," she says, when she worked on her Queen Victoria biography and 19th-century politics, but the mood turned "icy" when she started to write her book on the interwar years, Go-Betweens for Hitler.

"I got some files on the 1920s, but was told there was no material on the 1930s. I was shown one postcard."

Distant secrets

For Urbach, public access to these archives matters, and should for Canadians, too.

"This is your history, Canadian history and not just that of the British nation," she says. 

For Murphy's part, he sees virtue in having public access to such records "so that we can have informed and grown-up debate about what constitutional monarchy means."

From the Royal Family's perspective, however, there is the argument that they deserve the right to privacy.

The Queen's biographer, Robert Lacey, has said there should be "no absolute right of access to what at the end of the day are family archives," the Guardian reported. "The Royal Family is entitled to the same protection of their family privacy as anyone else."

But, says Murphy, "what's so interesting about constitutional monarchy is that it's so difficult to distinguish between personality and politics. 

"I guess the big question that we're all trying to grapple with is would constitutional monarchy operate very differently if you had a different character."

Restrictions on access to royal archive files about Princess Louise, who lived in Canada from 1878 to 1883 while her husband was governor general, have led to speculation about her personal life. (William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-012699)

For now, any sense of getting archival insight into that any time soon seems remote, as does the chance some records that are older — and perhaps more salacious — might see the public light of day.

Toronto-based royal historian Carolyn Harris points to records in the royal archives about Queen Victoria's fourth daughter Princess Louise, who was in Canada with her husband, John Campbell, later the Duke of Argyll, when he served as governor general from 1878 to 1883.

Those files, however, aren't accessible, and Harris says those restrictions have led to speculation about Louise's personal life, particularly since a recent biography suggested that she had a child before she was married.

As much as the image-conscious House of Windsor might wish to keep such happenings under wraps, observers such as Murphy see a broader virtue in a more open approach to the past.

"They might want to maintain a certain sort of mystique," he says. But "having sensible, well-documented histories of the monarchy, if anything, will probably show that it's been kind of broadly beneficial."