How using ‘Lilibet’ became Harry and Meghan’s final insult to Queen Elizabeth

Publish Date
Friday, 19 January 2024, 11:41AM
Princess Elizabeth (left) and Princess Lilibet around similar ages. Photo / Getty Images, Misan Harriman

Princess Elizabeth (left) and Princess Lilibet around similar ages. Photo / Getty Images, Misan Harriman

Until the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s daughter, it was a name associated with only one woman in the world.

For decades, “Lilibet” had been the late Queen’s cherished nickname — used by only those closest to the former monarch.

Yet the rekindled row over Harry and Meghan christening their daughter Lilibet in 2021 lays bare the significance of a moniker first ascribed to Princess Elizabeth when she was a toddler and couldn’t pronounce her own name.

What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot when you’re a member of a dynasty stretching back more than a thousand years.

Royal names have always been steeped in history and when the late Queen was born on April 21, 1926, it was no different.

Her parents, then the Duke and Duchess of York, chose the name Elizabeth Alexandra Mary for their firstborn in honour of the baby’s mother, while her two middle names are those of her great-grandmother and grandmother. Descended from the Hebrew name Elisheva, Elizabeth means “God’s promise” or “God is my oath”.

Royal protocol dictates that members of the family usually share their baby’s name with the monarch before announcing it.

Six days after her birth, the duke wrote to his father, King George V, for his approval: “We are so anxious for her first name to be Elizabeth as it is such a nice name & there has been no one of that name in your family for a long time. Elizabeth of York sounds so nice too.”

The King agreed and gave his immediate blessing. Despite her father opting to be crowned King George VI instead of in his own name of Albert, the late Queen was so fond of Elizabeth that when she ascended to the throne in 1952 and was asked what name she wanted to use as sovereign, she famously replied: “My own, of course.”

Princess Elizabeth (right) and Princess Margaret as young girls. Photo / Getty Images

With her blonde Botticelli curls, blue eyes and plump rosy cheeks, the royal toddler was a precocious child, famously described by Sir Winston Churchill as boasting “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant”.

It was the now-defunct Sunday Dispatch newspaper that first got wind of her nickname, reporting on October 28, 1928, that the young princess had taken to calling herself “Tillabet”.

According to Ben Pimlott’s highly acclaimed 1996 biography of the late Queen: “Later this became ‘Lisabet’ or ‘Lilliebeth’, before settling down as ‘Lilibet’, the name her close family have continued to call her all her life.”

According to royal historian Kate Williams’ 2012 biography, Young Elizabeth, it was George V, or “Grandpa England” as he was known to the late Queen, who encouraged the use of the sobriquet.

“The King was so tickled by the child’s attempt to pronounce Elizabeth, managing only Lilibet, that he decided it should be her name within the family,” she wrote.

One of the few people in the country unafraid of the King, the pair enjoyed a close relationship, with the then-monarch fostering in his beloved granddaughter her lifelong love of horses. Indeed it was George V who gave the princess her first pony, a Shetland named Peggy.

The first official record of the Queen Mother referring to her daughter as Lilibet is in a letter to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, on April 14, 1930, when Elizabeth was a week shy of her 4th birthday.

“My Darling Mama,” it read. “We are so looking forward to coming to Windsor on Thursday, and we will arrive in time for tea, and bringing Lilibet with us.”

Four months later, on August 21, Princess Margaret was born. She grew up referring to her older sister only as Lilibet rather than Elizabeth. (Margaret was in turn called Margot for short.)

The only other person to call the late Queen Lilibet was her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Letters written by Prince Philip following their wedding in November 1947 contain repeated references to Lilibet rather than his wife’s real name.

Queen Elizabeth II pictured with her husband Prince Philip in 2006 at St Paul's Cathedral. Photo / Getty Images

In correspondence to his mother-in-law, the Queen Mother, while they were on their honeymoon, he wrote: “Lilibet is the only thing in this world which is absolutely real to me and my ambition is to wield the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good ... Cherish Lilibet?

“I wonder if that word is enough to express what is in me. Does one cherish one’s sense of humour or one’s musical ear or one’s eyes? I am not sure, but I know that I thank God for them and so, very humbly, I thank God for Lilibet and us.”

When the Duke died in April 2021, his beloved wife of 73 years left a handwritten note on her late husband’s coffin, signing it “Lilibet”.

Little wonder, then, that there was such consternation when, less than two months later, the Sussexes announced the birth of their second child, “Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor”, on June 4, 2021.

Debate still rages over whether they asked the late Queen’s permission first — in accordance with royal protocol.

It is perhaps worth revisiting what happened at the time. The Archewell announcement of Lilibet’s birth in June 2021 read: “Lili is named after her great-grandmother, Her Majesty The Queen, whose family nickname is Lilibet.”

Shortly afterwards, the couple’s spokesman told The Telegraph: “The Duke spoke with his family in advance of the announcement, in fact his grandmother was the first family member he called.

“During that conversation, he shared their hope of naming their daughter Lilibet in her honour. Had she not been supportive, they would not have used the name.”


However, the BBC then reported a palace source saying that the Queen “was not asked by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex about naming their daughter Lilibet”.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex accused the BBC of libel, instructing lawyers to tell media organisations the claim was “false and defamatory”.

When asked by The Telegraph, the palace declined to deny suggestions the Queen was “never asked”. A source suggested the Queen was “told” about the name after the baby was born, rather than her permission being sought in advance.

Now a new biography of the King by Robert Hardman has revealed that the late Queen was “infuriated” over the Sussexes’ claim that she had given her approval.

Describing palace staff as being “interested” in Prince Harry’s autobiography, Spare, for “what had been omitted”, he writes that “one member of staff privately recalled that the Queen had been ‘as angry as I’d ever seen her’ in 2021 after the Sussexes announced that she had given them her blessing to call their baby daughter Lilibet”.

“The couple then fired off warnings of legal action against anyone who dared to suggest otherwise, as the BBC had done. However, when the Sussexes tried to co-opt the palace into propping up their version of events, they were rebuffed. Once again, it was a case of ‘recollections may vary’ — the late Queen’s reaction to the Oprah Winfrey interview — as far as Her Majesty was concerned.”

He notes that “those noisy threats of legal action duly evaporated and the libel action against the BBC never materialised”.

Supporters of the Sussexes claim courtiers may have exaggerated the late Queen’s ire to exact revenge on Harry and Meghan.

Whatever the truth of the naming of the second Princess Lilibet, there has seldom been a more-endeared epithet in the illustrious history of the Mountbatten-Windsors.

- Written by Daily Telegraph UK and republished here with permission.

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