There are a surprising number of connections between America's political clan the Kennedys and British royals the Windsors. Kennedy patriarch Joe Sr. served as ambassador to Britain while Elizabeth II's father, George VI, was learning the ropes as a relatively new king. World War II saw George VI reach new heights of popularity while Joe Sr.'s political career fell apart. A few years after Elizabeth II became queen, she had to work with a new president: John "Jack" Fitzgerald Kennedy, Joe Sr.'s son.
Joe Kennedy Sr. was an ambassador as King George VI adapted to his new role
Becoming U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James' (as the United States' emissary to Great Britain is known) was a coup for Joe Sr. He was the first Irish-American to hold the post, and he and his family received a warm welcome when he took the reins in 1938. As Irish Catholics, the Kennedys had faced societal barriers back home, but in London, the invitations flowed. Joe Sr. and wife Rose even spent a weekend at Windsor Castle with King George VI and his wife, Elizabeth.
As Joe Sr. did well in his ambassadorship, George VI was still finding his footing as monarch. His older brother David (aka King Edward VIII) had abdicated in 1936 in order to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson, so George's ascension to the throne had been completely unexpected. The new king felt unprepared and unsure. In addition, he had a stammer that made public speaking an ordeal.
World War II changed the lives of the Kennedys and the Windsors
As Nazi Germany became more aggressive and war came closer to British shores, Joe Sr. and George's positions began to reverse. On September 3, 1939, George overcame his stammer to give a resolute speech (as depicted in the film The King's Speech) as Britain entered World War II. Meanwhile, Joe Sr.'s isolationist stance — he didn't want the United States involved in a European conflict — lost him support in both the United Kingdom and the Roosevelt administration.
In a November 1940 newspaper interview, Joe Sr. said, "Democracy is finished in England." He left his ambassadorship, then saw his views become more out of sync with the United States. Though he'd been considered a potential presidential candidate for 1940 (before Franklin Roosevelt decided to run for a third term) by the time America entered World War II, his political preeminence was gone.
In England, George VI and his queen became symbols of resilience as the war continued. The government wanted the royal family to leave the country for the safety of Canada, but the king, queen and daughters Elizabeth and Margaret all refused. The royal couple also shared in the London ordeal of German bombings — Buckingham Palace was hit — which only served to increase their popularity.
Elizabeth II was a new queen when JFK became president
Joe Sr.'s political focus had shifted to his eldest son, Joe Jr. But after Joe Jr. became a wartime casualty in 1944, Joe Sr.'s political dreams switched to his next son, war hero John. It wasn't a career path JFK had planned for, but he agreed to listen to his father. In 1946, he successfully ran for Congress and in 1952, he was elected to the Senate.
George VI's older daughter, Princess Elizabeth, succeeded her father as monarch following his death on February 6, 1952. Her coronation took place the next year. Among those in England for the event was a young reporter for the Washington Times Herald named Jacqueline Bouvier, who would soon marry JFK and become known as Jackie Kennedy.
JFK narrowly won the U.S. presidential election in 1960. Though the new president had met Elizabeth during his father's ambassadorship, she was aware of the problems Joe Sr.'s isolationism had caused and was initially wary of JFK.
Elizabeth II and Jackie Kennedy had a tense first encounter
When JFK and Jackie traveled to London in 1961 to attend the christening of Jackie's niece, Elizabeth II asked the president and his wife to dine at Buckingham Palace (the first such event since Woodrow Wilson had been there in 1918). But Jackie wanted the dinner to include her sister and brother-in-law, who'd each been divorced before marrying. Though the outside world was becoming comfortable with divorcés, this posed a problem for the palace.
Jackie's sister and brother-in-law were eventually allowed to attend the event, but Jackie later confided to Gore Vidal that Elizabeth "had her revenge" by omitting Princess Margaret, who Jackie wanted to meet, from the guest list and included "every Commonwealth minister of agriculture that they could find." Jackie reportedly also told photographer Cecil Beaton that she'd been unimpressed by both the palace decor and the queen's attire. (For her part, Elizabeth may have been resentful of the crowds who'd greeted the stylish Jackie in Paris and upon her arrival in London.)
The next year Jackie was again visiting her sister in London when she was invited for a palace luncheon. This visit seems to have gone more smoothly. Jackie's only comment afterward was, "I don’t think I should say anything about it except how grateful I am and how charming she was." And the queen wrote JFK to say, "It was a great pleasure to meet Mrs. Kennedy again."
The queen honored JFK after he was assassinated
The queen's only face-to-face encounter with JFK was his 1961 visit, but the two were able to work together. Her prime minister made sure the president followed through with financial support for a dam in Ghana, a member of the Commonwealth, after the queen made a successful visit there.
After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the queen asked that a bell ring for him in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth's pregnancy kept her from a memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral (Prince Philip went to the funeral in Washington, D.C.), but she arranged another service at Windsor Castle that she could attend.
On May 14, 1965, an acre of Runnymede — where King John had signed the Magna Carta in 1215 — was given to the American people to honor JFK. Elizabeth's speech mentioned, "The high hopes that rode with him in a future that was not to be."