The Queen and her corgis: John Major reveals 'informal glimpses into private life'

Former Prime Minister John Major receiving the Companion of Honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1999. Credit: PA

"My corgis are family", the Queen once said, having owned more than 30 of the dogs during her 70 years on the throne.

She loved them so much, they were the only guests ever invited to attend the extremely private, weekly meetings she held with the UK's prime ministers, says former PM Sir John Major, who met her dozens of times during his seven years in Downing Street.

Sir John opened up about those meetings following the death of Her Majesty, telling ITV News they were "extremely useful" and "any prime minister who didn't listen to the Queen's views was a very foolish man or woman indeed".

Talking of the first time they met, he said the natural nervousness that comes with meeting a head of state "lasts a matter of minutes, because the welcome is very warm, it is very informal, there is nobody else there, nobody takes notes, there is nothing off the agenda and it is a conversation that just flows with the greatest of ease".

But "more often that not you did have a gallery audience", he said, and that audience was her beloved corgis, all of which she knew by name.

"They were well behaved but not invariably. From time to time the queen would speak very sharply to one of the corgis... if the corgi came round and was indicating an interest on jumping on your lap or deciding to make a meal of your toe, the Queen would gently discipline the dog and it would be moved away.

"So one saw that as you might in any home in the country."

The Queen with one of her corgis. Credit: PA

It was through her relationship with the dogs that the Queen showed "informal glimpses of the private life behind the public figure".

Sir John recounted times staying at Balmoral Castle, where guests were often woken up early by a piper in the mornings.

"You'd probably find the Queen in old boots, old wellington boots if it was wet, a long coat and a head scarf, walking the dogs," he said.

"The Queen beyond doubt is the best known woman in the world," he said, "and then suddenly behind that enormous façade that exists because of her position, you see the private woman who lurks behind it and that's a rather lovely thing to see."

Credit: PA

He described Her Royal Highness as being "very human", adding that there was "nothing starchy or difficult, she had empathy and she understood the difficulties that other people faced."

That side of her was "very valuable" during their time working together. "She had a great understanding of how people live and was very interested in what government policy meant for lives of people in different parts of the country," he said.

"So you got a very clear idea from an intelligent, well-informed person about how some of the policies might be received and what their implications might be... The Queen was one outlet where sometimes something was said that brought you back to realise exactly what something may mean and I don't think there is a single prime minister who has worked with her who would disagree."

He explained how there was "no difficulty" about their meetings despite the formality involved because "once you began discussions it was very straightforward, it was very easy the conversation flowed very quickly, very simply, very widely".

Sir John said he was "immensely saddened" by the news of the Queen's passing, describing it as being "like a great oak has fallen".

He told ITV News that people will feel the loss personally because of her permanence, empathy, and the manner in which she has lived, "it's almost as though she's a supernumerary member of every family".

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Highlighting how much of an impact her death will have across the globe, Sir John remembered a time around 10 years ago when he was meeting the head woman of a remote village in Zambia.

"The elderly, grey haired lady, came forward, held her hand out very graciously to meet me and said 'my name is Elizabeth, just like our Queen' - in a tiny village, that was little more than mud-huts, that had one standpipe, and that was how she introduced herself.

"That indicates the stretch, the sheer width and breadth at which Elizabeth II reached beyond our shores."

Sir John said he believed the Queen had left the monarchy in a good position for King Charles to takeover.

The Queen’s son spoke of his grief soon after Buckingham Palace announced the Queen had died “peacefully” on Thursday afternoon at Balmoral.

A period of royal mourning will be observed from now until seven days after the Queen’s funeral, the date of which will be confirmed in due course, Buckingham Palace said.