Remembering our Patron: HM The Queen and Chatham House

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s patronage of Chatham House reflected her lifetime of dedicated service to the UK and the Commonwealth.

Feature Updated 13 September 2022 Published 12 September 2022 6 minute READ

After World War Two, a Royal Tour in 1947 to South Africa and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) saw the young Princess Elizabeth deliver a radio address on her 21st birthday, articulating her view of the Commonwealth and pledging to devote herself to the service of the Empire.

When she later succeeded to the throne on the death of her father King George VI in 1952, the institute’s chair Clement Jones wrote to Buckingham Palace to convey the institute’s sympathy and to assure the new Queen of ‘our personal affection and abiding loyalty to the Throne’.

On 3 June 1952, the Chatham House Council received notification from the Keeper of the Privy Purse that HM The Queen had agreed to grant her patronage to the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

This began a lifelong relationship which built on the foundations set by her grandfather King George V, who had granted the institute its Royal Charter in 1926. Her father King George VI had also sent a message to Chatham House on its 30th anniversary in 1949 to wish the institute ‘all success in the continuance of its work’.

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Sir Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House from 2007 to 2022, says: ‘Every institution that was fortunate enough to enjoy HM The Queen’s patronage and engagement now mourns her passing, and that includes the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. She was an inspiration.

‘Chatham House members and its members of staff who were fortunate enough to meet her will treasure and draw continued inspiration from the memory.’

Beginnings of a lifetime’s service

Chatham House celebrated the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 7 July 1953 with a garden party attended by its founders and presidents, as well as their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and several high commissioners from the Commonwealth and members of the diplomatic corps.

Every institution that was fortunate enough to enjoy HM The Queen’s patronage and engagement now mourns her passing, and that includes the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. She was an inspiration.

Sir Robin Niblett, Former Director of Chatham House

The 1953 edition of the institute’s academic journal International Affairs also contained two special articles offering an analysis of the coronation. Author GM Gathorne-Hardy discussed the durability and strength of the monarchy and praised the influence of the royal family within public life. Historian Nicholas Mansergh surveyed deep changes within ‘the colonies’ and acknowledged the concept of self-government was now accepted while underlining the flexibility of the Commonwealth.

When the young Queen Elizabeth II delivered a major speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 21 October 1957, she offered a message of hope that the UN would stand up to its high ideals for the betterment of humanity, noting that working together had strengthened the bonds of Commonwealth countries, suggested this existing foundation of international cooperation would be what the UN would come to rely on.

The 1960s were a time of great change for Britain and the Commonwealth as many countries gained their independence and numerous international royal engagements deepened political and economic ties and ensured good relationships with former colonies and other allies.

In London, the institute’s council decided Chatham House should give priority to the study of new issues that were relevant to British foreign policy, such as promoting a better understanding of independence movements and their implications for the Commonwealth.

In 1970, when the institute celebrated its 50th anniversary with a banquet at the Mansion House, HM The Queen sent a message of good wishes to guests – including UK prime minister Edward Heath – which was read out by the Chatham House chair Lord Trevelyan. As part of her Silver Jubilee in 1977, the Queen contemplated Britain’s position in the world in an address to the UK parliament, speaking of the ‘tolerance and understanding’ necessary for the Commonwealth to evolve into an association of 36 independent nations.

Royal visits to Chatham House

On 10 December 1980 Queen Elizabeth II became the first reigning monarch to visit Chatham House, when she opened the newly refurbished conference hall named after Sir John Power, a founding member of the institute.

More than 400 members and friends of the institute had contributed to the Diamond Jubilee appeal to make the refurbishment possible, enabling Chatham House to remain a leading place in central London for discussion with international leaders.

Five years later, HRH Princess Anne addressed an audience in the same hall on the work of the Save the Children Fund of which she was president.

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The 1980s saw international attention increasingly focused on developments in Moscow and the responses. The institute was criticized for cultivating relations with the Soviet Union’s reformers, before what came to be known as ‘perestroika’ was internationally recognized as a seminal development.

During 1989–90, both President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Vaclav Havel were among the speakers at Chatham House events, and the Queen observed in her Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth that people in both Eastern and Western Europe had begun to think about their future relations in a less unfriendly way, more as neighbours.

But as tensions in the Gulf grew, despite the end of the Iran–Iraq war, the Queen became the first British monarch to address a joint session of the United States Congress on 16 May 1991 in the wake of Operation Desert Storm.

Throughout the institute’s history, it has drawn inspiration not only from the personal engagement of HM The Queen as our patron, but also from the sense of purpose she gave to the institute’s mission.

Sir Robin Niblett, Former Director of Chatham House

She focused on the importance of the transatlantic relationship and concluded that ‘force, in the end, is sterile. We have gone a better way: our societies rest on mutual agreement, on contract, and on consensus’.

On 23 February 1995, staff at the institute were delighted to welcome the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Chatham House to inaugurate the celebrations for its 75th anniversary.

Institute experts briefed the Queen ahead of her imminent state visit to South Africa, incorporating responses to specific questions posed by Her Majesty in advance. The Chatham House annual report that year noted both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh expressed satisfaction at the wide range of interests and backgrounds represented by its staff and members.

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Bronwen Maddox, who became director of Chatham House in August 2022, says: ‘Chatham House has benefitted enormously from the patronage of HM The Queen throughout her time as monarch.

‘As its Patron, she was the ultimate, invaluable guarantor of the institute’s independence and an inspiration to our work.’

The institute played a part in the history-making reciprocal state visits of the Queen and Nelson Mandela, the newly-elected president of South Africa. During her visit to South Africa in 1995, the Queen paid tribute to Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation and freedom. Mandela visited the UK the following year and spoke at a conference jointly organized by Chatham House, the Confederation of British Industry, and the Department of Trade and Industry.

The institute’s 75th anniversary was also marked by a conference whose theme was ‘Britain in the World’. At the conference, His Majesty King Charles III, then HRH The Prince of Wales spoke about the importance of dealing with ‘new agenda issues – international problems that know no national frontiers, such as the environment, AIDS, drugs, terrorism, economic development, and the important debate over the globalization of free trade’. As a result of the conference, two projects were instigated – a forum on the UK’s economic and social future, and a project on the UK’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

HM The Queen at the inaugural Chatham House Prize in 2005 archive photo.

HM The Queen at the inaugural Chatham House Prize in 2005 archive photo.

Chatham House Prize and Queen Elizabeth II Academy

The Chatham House Prize, first awarded in 2005, reflected a broadening of the institute’s leadership in international affairs.

HM The Queen at the inaugural Chatham House Prize in 2005 meeting Chatham House staff.

HM The Queen at the inaugural Chatham House Prize in 2005 meeting Chatham House staff.

The prize was established to honour the person deemed by Chatham House members to have made the most significant contribution to the improvement of international relations in the previous year.

HM The Queen at the inaugural Chatham House Prize in 2005.

HM The Queen at the inaugural Chatham House Prize in 2005.

HM The Queen awarded the inaugural prize to Ukraine president Victor Yushchenko on 17 October 2005 at the Mansion House. This marked ongoing royal interest in supporting the Prize. Over the years, the Chatham House Prize has also been presented by the Princess Royal, the Duke of York, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Cambridge, and the Duke of Kent.

HM The Queen at Chatham House during her birthday celebrations in 2006.

HM The Queen at Chatham House during her birthday celebrations in 2006.

HM The Queen visited Chatham House again in April 2006 as part of her 80th birthday celebrations, which coincided with the 80th anniversary of the granting of the institute’s Royal Charter. She met staff, signed a portrait of herself which was hung in the institute’s main hallway, and attended a private discussion with some of the institute’s senior researchers on ‘The World in the Coming Decades’.

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Chatham House has benefitted enormously from the patronage of HM The Queen throughout her time as monarch. As its Patron, she was the ultimate, invaluable guarantor of the institute’s independence and an inspiration to our work.

Bronwen Maddox, Director of Chatham House

In 2014, HM The Queen returned to Chatham House to mark the establishment of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for International Affairs – a new initiative whereby the institute hosts and supports through skills development and integration into Chatham House networks – a small cohort of talented individuals each year from across the world committed to driving change in their countries and regions.

On the same visit, she removed a brick from the rear wall between Chatham House and the adjoining Ames House, whose ground floor the institute had purchased earlier that year for our new SNF Wing. In 2017, the Duke of Sussex came to Chatham House on behalf of his grandmother to inaugurate its opening.

Sir David Attenborough and HM The Queen at the Chatham House Prize 2019. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Sir David Attenborough and HM The Queen at the Chatham House Prize 2019. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett. 

Sir Robin says: ‘I will never forget her many visits to the institute; how she quizzed staff about their work, offering the benefit of her own insights into the most difficult subjects; how she would put members and others at ease with the warmth of her smile and her words of thanks for their support.’

HM The Queen’s final visit to the institute took place in November 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, when she awarded the Chatham House Prize to David Attenborough for his pioneering work on the environment and biodiversity and on raising global public awareness of the challenges of climate change.

Sir David Attenborough and HM The Queen at the CH Prize

Sir David Attenborough and HM The Queen at the Chatham House Prize. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett. 

At that visit, she noted that ‘for those of us of a certain generation, we can take great pleasure in proving that age is no barrier to being a positive influence’.

Sir David Attenborough and HM The Queen at the Chatham House Prize 2019 award ceremony. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Sir David Attenborough and HM The Queen at the Chatham House Prize 2019 award ceremony. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Sir Robin adds: ‘Searingly, she admonished me as she prepared to sign the visitors’ book during her 2019 visit, as I thought she might need help to remember the date. It was the evening of her wedding anniversary.’

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Throughout the institute’s history, it has drawn inspiration not only from the personal engagement of HM The Queen as our patron, but also from the sense of purpose she gave to the institute’s mission.

As HM The Queen said in her address to the United Nations on 6 July 2010, ‘it is my hope that, when judged by future generations, our sincerity, our willingness to take a lead, and our determination to do the right thing will stand the test of time’.

Chatham House will continue to be inspired by her vision.

HRH Elizabeth signature

HM The Queen's signature in the Chatham House guest book.

HM The Queen’s signature in the Chatham House guest book. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.