How very fitting that Meghan Markle’s pivotal first meeting with the queen—which, according to all reports, went swimmingly and is widely believed to render the announcement of her engagement to Prince Harry an inevitability—should have been conducted over afternoon tea.
For while the mafiosi (in popular imagination at least) conduct their meetings over home-cooked Italian food and the titans of Hollywood thrash out percentages over pasta at Spago’s, the queen has made tea time a realm within a realm.
Markle, according to reports, was spirited into the central courtyard of Buckingham Palace in a blacked out people carrier and thence whisked by private elevator to the squashy sofas of her majesty’s private sitting room on the first floor, which overlooks the enormous palace gardens and Constitution Hill shortly before 5 p.m. last Thursday.
The discreet elevator, a source tells The Daily Beast, “is located right next to the private secretaries’ office” in the inner sanctum of the palace.
The presence of a meal at 5 p.m. often serves to confuse foreigners. For while three square meals a day has often been considered the standard intake for her citizens, the queen, in common with many of the British upper classes, prefers four. Breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner.
Indeed, according to her former chef Darren McGrady, who joined the royal household in 1982 and spent 14 years in royal service (including three years as Princess Diana’s personal chef) tea was her favorite meal.
Tea is not elaborate but it is potentially indulgent and elegant: It usually comprises a large cake which she cuts slices off (fruit cakes are often recycled for up to two weeks as they improve with age), plus smaller pastries, sandwiches, and scones.
McGrady has said previously that she alternates the scones, “one day plain, the next day fruit.”
Crust-less sandwiches—filled with smoked salmon or cucumber—are cut length ways, at the queen’s specific behest, one source told The Daily Beast. She calls them “finger” sandwiches not because they are eaten with the fingers (which they are) but because they are long, like fingers.
Tea—only hotels trying to upsell American tourists refer to it as “afternoon tea,” FYI—has always been a royal ritual, but the queen exploited its traditionally feminine associations to create a forum in which she could naturally dominate proceedings.
Her father and his generation would have regarded tea as pleasant, but the preserve of children, nannies and women (indeed there is a wonderful video of a young Princess Elizabeth and her sister enjoying tea with their governess Crawfie in the rose garden at Windsor Castle).
George preferred to conduct informal meetings with politicians and other contacts shooting on the grouse moors. Indeed, in one memorable scene from the Netflix series The Crown, George “interviews” Prince Philip, who has asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, as they shoot duck on the lakes at Sandringham.
George VI was also something of a bon viveur, and liked the clubbiness of all-male port and cigar sessions after dinner.
“When Elizabeth came to the the throne, all that sort of thing stopped,” says one source who knew the family in the 1950s. “She wasn’t exactly a puritan, but she had no interest in late nights or extravagant dinners.”
So Elizabeth set about carving out her own space from tea, cake, and scones, and instituted certain rituals of her own—for example visitors are always served her own blend of Darjeeling and Assam tea, known as Queen Mary’s blend (and, like all ladies of the house, it is the queen who pours).
It helped that her mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a noted tea fanatic. Her tastes were more extravagant than her daughter’s; Prince Charles used to send her 1lb of clotted cream every month to be served with jam and scones and another signature tea time treat was “tipsy tart” a brandy-soaked date pie that was included in her posthumously published cookbook, A Taste of Mey.
In the queen mum’s day, tea would often segue seamlessly into pre-dinner drinks of her beloved Dubonnet.
An invitation to tea, such as that received by Meghan, is quite different to any other form of royal invite.
Robert Lacey, the historical consultant for The Crown, and author of the new book of the series, The Crown, the Inside History told The Daily Beast that it is important to separate the studied informality of royal tea from the “audiences” with the prime minister which take place every week.
“Harold Wilson once told me that he assumed the audience would be a case of a G&T and a quick chat about this and that. He was rather surprised to get there and find the queen with her red box and several sheets of marked-up papers. She looked up at him and said, ‘I’m very interested about this new town in Buckinghamshire that is being proposed, what can you tell me about that?’
“He couldn’t tell her anything because he hadn’t read his boxes. He said to me, ‘I never made that mistake again.’”
Wilson thereafter took a peculiar interest in Britain’s first post-war “new town,” Milton Keynes, Lacey reports.
But tea is a very different matter, a treat reserved for the queen’s best beloved.
Christopher Andersen, author of the book The Day Diana Died, told The Daily Beast: “The queen has a number of tricks up her sleeve when it comes to getting know people, and an invitation to tea at one of the royal residences is certainly one of them.
“Harry needs his grandmother’s written permission to marry anyone, but in the case of Meghan Markle this is particularly tricky because she is divorced. The mere fact that the queen is inviting Meghan Markle to something as intimate as tea at Buckingham Palace is a hugely significant step toward joining the royal family. It’s nothing less than an indication that the the queen is giving Megan her stamp of approval.”
The queen considers her daily afternoon tea as “absolutely sacrosanct,” said Andersen. “At 5 p.m. Her Majesty drops everything for teatime. The queen always insists on being ‘mother’—pouring everyone else’s tea before serving herself.”
Everyone drinks from Royal Crown Derby bone china teacups decorated with one of her majesty’s favorite floral patterns. “The napkins bear the monogram EIIR (Elizabeth II Regina),” said Andersen. “The queen always takes two lumps of sugar with milk trucked in fresh from the royal herd at Windsor. The whole affair seldom lasts more than 45 minutes.”
One source told The Daily Beast that the queen’s three most invited guests to tea are Lady Sarah Chatto (the daughter of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon) and Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, the daughters of her favorite son, Andrew.
Says the source, “An invite to tea is one of the greatest marks of esteem the queen can bestow. Lady Sarah Chatto, Beatrice and Eugenie are people whose company she genuinely loves, so if Meghan Markle has joined that company, then she has joined a very select company indeed.”