The day the Queen hid in a bush to avoid Romania’s murderous dictator

What really happens behind palace doors! The day the Queen hid in a bush to avoid Romania’s murderous dictator – and rescued her corgis from a tyrant’s smuggled mutt… as revealed in Robert Hardman’s new book

  • Nicolae Ceausescu and wife Elena were welcomed on a 1978 state visit to the UK 
  • Valuables were removed from guest quarters on the French President’s advice 
  • In 1971 the President of Zaire smuggled her dog into Britain despite quarantine 

Although the royal calendar generally runs like clockwork, it is during tours and state visits that things tend to go off-script — and, like all members of the Royal Family, the Queen enjoys those moments when events don’t go entirely according to plan.

Yet her self-control is such that unexpected events — no matter how startling — seldom throw her.

There was an awkward moment towards the end of the 1961 tour of West Africa. During a state banquet on board the Royal Yacht, the wife of one Gambian VIP, on being offered gravy, proceeded to pour it into her wine glass. The Queen did not flinch.

She managed to maintain a similarly straight face at an even more challenging moment during her 1970 tour of Australia. Sir Jock Slater, then her equerry, remembers an investiture where one man in the line-up was becoming increasingly perplexed about the correct form. Slater advised him that the easiest thing was to do exactly the same as the person ahead of him in the queue.

The Queen and Nicolae Ceausescu on the Romanian leader’s state visit to Britain in 1978

By the time Slater had discovered that the man was following a woman, it was too late.

‘The man did as good a curtsey as he could manage,’ says Slater, who went on to be First Sea Lord. ‘To this day, I don’t think he knew what he had done as Her Majesty was marvellous and held out her hand to help him up, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.’

The Queen’s diplomacy has been tested at home as well as abroad. She has welcomed more world leaders here than any of her predecessors. She has also had some atrocious guests to stay over the years, not least the brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who came to stay at Buckingham Palace in June 1978.

In return for a pledge to boost Britain’s ailing economy with £300 million worth of aerospace contracts, he and his wife Elena were given the grandest welcome they had received anywhere, though not before the Queen had acted on the advice of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France.

He called the Palace to warn her about the conduct of Ceausescu’s entourage during a visit to Paris a few months before. After their departure it was discovered that the Romanians had emptied their official accommodation of anything that could be unscrewed, including lamps, vases, ashtrays and bathroom fittings.

‘It was as if burglars had moved in for a whole summer,’ he said.

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Following this call, the Queen asked the Master of the Household to remove any remotely valuable loose items from the royal guest quarters in the Belgian Suite. As Lord Butler, former private secretary to three prime ministers, recalls: ‘They were advised to move the silver brushes from the Palace dressing table or the Romanians would pinch the lot.’

Astonishingly, it now turns out that the man responsible for the visit, the Foreign Secretary, was actually against the whole thing. Foreign Office files include a classified handwritten note from Dr David Owen, written just days before the Ceausescus’ arrival.

‘Who agreed to this visit?’ he asked his private secretary. ‘Did I? If I did, I regret it.’

Diplomatic papers, revealed for the first time, contain an advance report on the Queen’s guests, written by the British Ambassador in Bucharest, Reggie Secondé. Ceausescu was ‘as absolute a dictator as could be found in the world today’, his wife was a ‘viper’ and their children were ‘feckless’.

Palace staff were warned of ‘disastrous’ scenes on Ceausescu’s previous tours, including one to Belgium, where his guards had roughed up the locals and ‘scrambled for places at the dinner table’.

On the plus side, he was ‘well-disposed towards Britain’ as long as there was ‘constant praise for Ceausescu’s international statesmanship’.

The ambassador added: ‘It is very important to keep Mrs Ceausescu happy. Madame likes shopping.’ The Romanians were adamant that her dubious credentials as a scientist be recognised with grand academic awards, preferably from Oxford or Cambridge.

The President of Rumania, Nicolae Ceausescu, rides through London with the Queen in an open carriage, at the start of his State visit

After desperate appeals for help, the Foreign Office finally secured her an honorary professorship from the Polytechnic of Central London, plus a fellowship from the Royal Institute of Chemistry.

Ostensibly, everything was exactly the same as for any other such visit, although beady-eyed veterans of these gatherings would have detected a few nods and winks in the preparations for the state banquet.

Most state visitors could expect to be served the best wines from the Palace cellars but for Ceausescu, the Queen started with some perfectly respectable if unexciting white to go with the fish, followed by a decidedly pedestrian (in state-banquet terms) claret.

Later describing Ceausescu as ‘that frightful little man’, she quickly decided that she had seen quite enough of her visitors.

While out walking her dogs in the Buckingham Palace garden the next day, she spotted the Ceausescus coming the other way (they preferred to talk outdoors, fearing secret bugging devices inside the Palace). And, as she later revealed to another guest, she hid behind a bush in her own garden to avoid them.

Touching bond with Mandela that turned her into a dancing queen

If Nicolae Ceausescu was one of the Queen’s most detested visitors, a favourite was undoubtedly Nelson Mandela, whose familiarity with the monarch was recalled by his assistant, Zelda la Grange.

‘I think he was one of very few people who called her by her first name and she seemed to be amused by it,’ she wrote later, adding that Mandela rebutted any attempt by his second wife, Graça Machel, to correct him.

‘But she calls me Nelson,’ he responded. On one occasion when he saw her he said: ‘Oh, Elizabeth, you’ve lost weight!’

The Queen made her first state visit to the new South Africa in 1995, a trip that might have been long delayed, or never happened at all, had it not been for the Queen herself.

Here was a fledgling democracy that had seen terrible violence in the run-up to the 1994 elections, and Sir Robert Woodard, then captain of the Royal Yacht Britannia, recalls that Douglas Hurd had serious reservations about the Queen visiting South Africa so soon.

‘The Foreign Secretary was worried and the Queen overruled him,’ says Woodard. ‘She said: “Mr Mandela is getting advice from lots of people but no one’s actually giving him any help. He needs physical assistance and he needs a show.” She was going to give him one.’

The Queen was not flattering herself. The new South African President had already seen a few politicians and business leaders beating a path to his door, including the then Prime Minister John Major and France’s President Mitterrand. Nothing, though, would endorse his leadership like the razzmatazz of a state visit by the Queen.

One of his first acts as President had been to restore South Africa’s membership of the Commonwealth. His fondness for his guest was reflected in every aspect of the visit. Normal state visit rules dictate that the host lays on various formalities at the start, then leaves the guest to get on with it — as Mandela had done with the French President.

For the Queen, however, it was very different, with Mandela continually reappearing throughout her stay. The presidential staff even spent £20,000 on new tablecloths and napkins. For President Mitterrand, they had used the old stuff.

The following year Mandela came to London. No state visitor in years had drawn the huge crowds that greeted him, with Horse Guards Parade and the Mall packed as if for a royal wedding.

During an evening of South African- inspired music at the Albert Hall — or, as Mandela called it, ‘that great round building’ — he stood up and clapped along. Other members of the Royal Family followed suit, until the Queen herself was joining in.

No one could recall the last time the monarch had been seen to boogie in public, least of all during a state visit. However, that week the rulebook had long since been consigned to a Palace wastepaper basket. Hence a poignant moment during a lunch at The Dorchester earlier in the day. Abandoning the convention of no speeches at return banquets, Mandela delivered a personal tribute to ‘this gracious lady’.

The Queen, who usually avoids off-the-cuff speeches much as she avoids shellfish and cats, cheerfully broke her own rule. With no notes, she rose to praise ‘this wonderful man’.

Those who have worked closely with the Queen say this was not merely a cordial friendship between two heads of state.

It was more a meeting of minds between two people used to well-meaning but unhelpful flattery; both well aware of the pitfalls of being a ‘national treasure’.


Ceausescu is far from the only loathsome guest the British government has foisted on the Queen. Yet despite the objectionable, rude and sometimes downright psychotic visitors she has endured over the years, those who work for her say she genuinely enjoys her role as a host and knows the smallest details can sometimes upset the grandest people.

Ahead of the 1960 state visit of King Bhumibol of Thailand, the Queen sent a note via her private secretary to all the bands involved in the visit.

‘Not a note of The King And I is to be played,’ she wrote. The Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical about an earlier Thai monarch might have been wildly popular in London, but the Queen was well aware that her guest had banned it in Thailand for being disrespectful.

She was similarly thoughtful when President Chirac of France and his wife Bernadette came to Windsor for the 2004 centenary of the Entente Cordiale.

Mindful that this was an occasion to mark 100 years of Franco-British bonhomie, she realised it was a little inappropriate to entertain her guests in a room named after France’s greatest defeat. For one night only, Windsor Castle’s Waterloo Chamber officially became ‘The Music Room’.

The most dramatic and telegenic element of every state visit has always been the carriage procession between the welcome ceremony (formerly at Victoria Station and now at Horse Guards) and the Palace. Accompanied by the Sovereign’s Escort of the Household Cavalry, the Queen and her guest travel in the first carriage, while the Duke steers the visiting spouse to carriage number two. Other members of the family and the rest of the entourage follow.

The procession always draws a crowd and, from time to time, a protest too.

The arrival of Japan’s wartime leader, Emperor Hirohito, in 1971 was attended by many British war veterans who had survived the brutality of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. There were a few boos and one man was detained for throwing his coat at the carriage, but most stood in contemptuous silence as the carriage passed by.

Sir Jock Slater was travelling in one of the rear carriages and remembers the strange lack of noise. ‘When I commented to my opposite number from the Japanese Embassy that I hoped the Emperor was not offended by the silence, he looked at me, smiled and pointed out that silence in Tokyo was a sign of respect.’

The Duke of Edinburgh had a particularly memorable carriage ride during the state visit of President Urho Kekkonen of Finland in 1969, although it is unlikely the same could be said for his opposite number. The first lady of Finland, Sylvi Kekkonen, was so nervous ahead of the formal arrival that she accidentally took a sleeping pill instead of her heart medication.

No sooner had she got into her carriage than she started to nod off, while her travelling companions, the Duke and Princess Anne, were left struggling to keep her conscious and upright all the way back to the Palace.

As with the procession, the state banquet held in the guest’s honour has remained largely unchanged since the reigns of earlier monarchs. However, the Queen has made a few subtle tweaks over the years.

She has never liked long meals. So when, later in the reign, the Master of the Royal Household suggested that banquets could be shortened by 20 minutes if there was no soup, the Queen readily agreed to the idea.

The starchiness of these occasions could, inevitably, leave regular attendees yearning for a spot of drama.

One member of the Royal Household recalls the night that Helen Adeane, the mischievous wife of the Queen’s famously reserved private secretary Sir Michael Adeane, enlivened proceedings by dropping a fake dog-mess on the carpet in mid-banquet. The liveried footmen were agog. How had a corgi sneaked inside a state banquet?

While the joke was much enjoyed afterwards, staff were less amused by the behaviour of some of the visiting entourage during the 2005 state banquet for President Hu Jintao of China. ‘The Queen remarked that they were all whipping out their laptops during the state banquet and doing emails at the table,’ recalls David Cameron. ‘Very bad manners.’

If guests are running late, there will be no embarrassing gap at the table. A ‘reserve’ banquet is held for surplus members of both entourages in the Royal Household Dining Room. They will eat the same food, be dressed in the same clothes and, in the event of a no-show, will despatch one of their number to make up the numbers.

Perhaps the most original excuse for a late appearance came at the 1989 state banquet for President Babangida of Nigeria.

According to Sir Patrick (now Lord) Wright, former head of the Diplomatic Service, one of the president’s senior officials arrived just as dinner had finished. He apologised immediately to the Queen, explaining that he had missed the presidential jet earlier in the day because he was unmarried. As a result, there had been no wife to wake him up in time.

Another traditional feature of a state visit has been the return banquet, when the host repays some of the Queen’s hospitality.

During the first state visit by a Chinese leader, in 1999, President Jiang Zemin had arranged an elaborate meal for the Queen at the Chinese Embassy. Those expecting an earnest, rigidly formal occasion were in for a shock.

Protocol dictates that there are no speeches at a return banquet. Yet once dinner was over, the 73-year-old president rose to his feet and promptly burst into song. Dame Margaret Beckett, then Leader of the Commons and a future Foreign Secretary, recalled how the Queen, having found herself unexpectedly next to a cabaret turn, seemed to enjoy every moment.

‘I was opposite the Thatchers, and Denis Thatcher was appalled. He was like a little volcano bubbling up and down but it was clear that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were on the brink of hysteria for quite some time.’

At any such social occasion, the Queen would normally regard her conversations with heads of state as confidential — but she made an exception in 1971. Having seized power in a military coup, Ugandan president Idi Amin let it be known that he wanted to come to London to meet the Head of the Commonwealth.

President Nicolae Ceausescu is greeted by the Queen on his 1978 state visit to Britain 

Coup leader who came a cropper on her yacht 

Valentine Strasser, a violent and arrogant Commonwealth leader who entered the royal orbit during the Nineties, was also the world’s youngest head of state. A junior army officer in Sierra Leone, he had seized power in 1992 at the age of 25.

The following year, he arrived at the Commonwealth summit in Cyprus and was invited to a reception with the Queen on board the Royal Yacht.

Sir Robert Woodard, Britannia’s captain, remembers that Strasser ‘behaved very badly’, ignoring his outstretched hand and thus missing Woodard’s polite warning about the step on his way into the reception.

He went flat on his face. ‘I couldn’t have been more pleased really,’ says Woodard.

The following day Strasser returned for his one-on-one audience with the Queen. ‘This time, he shook my hand and his was like a wet kipper,’ says Woodard. ‘He was overcome with nerves because he realised he was going to be alone with Her Majesty.’

It would later emerge that the Queen had given the hot-headed young dictator some stern advice about the need to embrace democracy.

By 1996, however, he himself had been expelled in a coup. The Foreign Office even tried to enrol him on a university course in Britain until fellow students objected to sharing lectures with a former dictator. He dropped out and was last seen back in Sierre Leone, drinking heavily and living with his mother. 

Although the British government was already aware of terrible human-rights abuses by his gangsters, it was keen to get him onside quickly. At the request of the Foreign Office, the Queen gave him lunch at Buckingham Palace, where she quickly realised she was dealing with a maniac.

Taking her into his confidence, Amin told her he planned to start a war, invading the neighbouring Commonwealth nation of Tanzania to establish a corridor to the sea. As soon as lunch was over, she asked her officials to contact the Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and warn him of what Amin had said.

Within months it was clear that relations with Amin were doomed, as he announced the expulsion of 80,000 Ugandan Asians, many of whom had close ties with Britain.

By the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1977, held in London to coincide with the Silver Jubilee celebrations, most of the world had learned about Amin’s massacres and torture squads.

The madman’s attendance would have been hugely embarrassing both for Jim Callaghan’s Labour government and the Queen. Yet he let it be known that he planned to come. Even as the heads of government were gathering at St Paul’s Cathedral for the service of thanksgiving to mark the monarch’s 25 years on the Throne, there was palpable unease that Amin might make a last-minute appearance.

Earl Mountbatten recalled asking the Queen what she would have done had he gatecrashed the party.

Noting that the Lord Mayor’s Pearl Sword had been placed before her, she replied that she would have ‘hit him hard over the head’ with it.

In the event, Amin stayed away from the Jubilee. Though he was a volatile and ruthless dictator at home, he retained an abiding affection for the Queen.

At around the same time as the Queen’s shocking lunch with Amin in 1971, Edward Heath’s government invited Mobutu Sese Seko, the fearfully corrupt President of Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of the Congo — to pay a state visit to Britain.

The date was fixed for 1973 and Mobutu arrived at Buckingham Palace with his wife Marie-Antoinette, who exhibited a similar lack of tact and common sense to her ill-starred French namesake of a previous age.

She had smuggled her pet dog into Britain in the presidential luggage. Given the strict quarantine laws and the prevalence of rabies in mainland Europe, it was a very serious breach of the law.

Mrs Mobutu’s subterfuge was soon discovered when she requested some steak from the Palace kitchens to feed her pet.

The Queen’s staff say no one has ever seen her angrier than the moment she learnt of the four-legged contraband hiding in the Belgian Suite. ‘Get that dog out of my house!’ she thundered to the Deputy Master of the Household, and ordered the instant removal of the royal corgis to Windsor for safekeeping.

Mrs Mobutu’s pet was promptly quarantined, while her and her husband’s stay continued in a glacial atmosphere — just another regrettable entry in the visitor’s book of a monarch who really has seen it all before.

Adapted from Queen Of The World, by Robert Hardman, published by Century at £25. © Robert Hardman 2018.

To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to 20/9/18; p&p free), visit or call 0844 571 0640. 

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