The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, the head of state of America’s closest ally, passed away yesterday. The Financial Times carried her obituary, reading:
Queen Elizabeth II: April 21 1926-September 8 2022
Her reign spanned Britain’s journey from the wireless to the smartphone, from social deference to egalitarianism, from empire to the EU — and out again. Through the dramas and vicissitudes of seven decades, with their wars and other woes, Queen Elizabeth II served as the nation’s figurehead, supremely able to hold her people together.
Amid momentous social and political upheaval, her falterings were few. The Queen, who has died at the age of 96, became a symbol of continuity and unity in an ever-changing political landscape. Her coronation, the first in British history to be fully televised, was viewed around the UK and the world. By the end of her reign, she had established the monarchy as one of the few institutions in public life still capable of commanding mass appeal.
The decades before her accession saw the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, while monarchies across Europe were displaced and removed, by violent or constitutional means. The enduring strength of “the Firm”, as the British monarchy is often known, is testament to the success of her reign.
“You cannot benchmark queens,” was the dry response of a courtier asked to compare the Queen with two great predecessors, Elizabeth I and Victoria. Yet the functionary added: “She had all the physical courage of Elizabeth Tudor and better judgment than Victoria. She was a great mixture of shyness and formidability with an instinctive feel for other people’s problems. That was why she fulfilled her role so well. She was part of the fabric of the nation.”
The Queen is greeted by crowds during a visit to Sri Lanka in October 1981 © Mike Maloney/Mirrorpix/Getty
And not just the British nation. This was also the Queen of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and a clutch of other former colonies. It was Elizabeth personally who was the mainstay of the Commonwealth. As a top civil servant put it: “She believed passionately and deeply in that institution — she saw it as part of her mission. I’d not put money on the Commonwealth staying together after her.”
At home and overseas, her sense of duty and an appetite for the job were the qualities that helped to keep the monarchy in business. Confidentiality surrounded her relationship with a long succession of prime ministers. Labour’s James Callaghan went further than most when he disclosed that she offered holders of that office her “friendliness but not friendship”.
As head of state, each week she spoke to the head of government but also the top official at the Foreign Office. Always well informed, as her reign progressed she came to outstrip her ministers in experience. In the words of one senior official: “She could and did raise a royal eyebrow sometimes, but she knew how to make her views clear without giving offence.”
Speculation over scenarios that could force the Queen to take a decisive political role continued for much of her reign, not least in her country’s dalliance with coalition government, the prospect of Scottish secession and over Brexit. It is some tribute to her skill in staying above politics that, for the most part, she was able to avoid being seen to interfere.
Princess Elizabeth prepares to give a speech in South Africa on her 21st birthday in April 1947 © AP
What mattered more to the Queen’s subjects was the style of the monarchy. Shifting social mores brought demands for the House of Windsor to abandon some of its costly pomp. Yet only in her later years did changes become apparent. Minor royals took a less prominent role; the Queen herself started to pay income tax, though it was seldom clear how much.
While her son and heir, Charles, Prince of Wales, has seemed no great modernising influence, the emergence into adulthood of his two sons returned a more youthful image to the royal family. Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton, who became the Duchess of Cambridge, also provided the three who rank highest among her great-grandchildren. The succession had been assured for the three generations to follow.
It was a world away from her own apprenticeship in sovereignty. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, eldest child of Prince Albert and the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was born in London on April 21 1926, by caesarean section. Her father, known as Bertie in the family, was the second son of King George V and Queen Mary. His elder brother, David, was expected to become king. Yet Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret, who arrived in 1930, attracted great attention from the outset.
The pair were educated at home, with plenty of time for the riding lessons that instilled a passion for horses. In 1936, King George V died and David became King Edward VIII. But his decision to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson soon forced his abdication. Princess Elizabeth’s shy, stammering father became King George VI. He described it as a dreadful moment. For Princess Elizabeth, it was a fateful one. From then on she was heir to the throne.
In her teenage years during the second world war, she was gradually introduced to public life. In her 21st-birthday speech, broadcast from South Africa in 1947, she proclaimed: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
Her life was indeed to be long — and Princess Elizabeth was about to enter the partnership that helped her through it for more than 70 years. Her engagement was announced to Philip, lately first lieutenant on a Royal Navy destroyer. The two had met when she was 13 and few doubted it had become a love match. Despite his Greek title and a Danish-German family name, he too was descended from Victoria and, educated in Scotland, was essentially British. To further ensure eligibility, Philip became naturalised, changed his name from Battenberg to Mountbatten and was created Duke of Edinburgh.
The period in which Princess Elizabeth could be an “ordinary” mother and naval wife was shortlived. In 1952 the couple were in Kenya when King George VI died. Philip had to tell her that at only 25 she was Queen. By that time they had two children: Charles was born in 1948, Anne in 1950. While Queen she bore two more, with Andrew arriving in 1960 and Edward in 1964.
In many ways, the throne she ascended and the attitude of courtiers and public towards the monarchy had changed little from the days of her grandfather. But disparate events undermined the old order. One was the Suez crisis, which underlined Britain’s loss of empire and its new, more humble place in the world. At home, old attitudes were, meanwhile, breaking down.
Along with that came an ongoing difficulty in trying to adapt without destroying what Walter Bagehot, the 19th-century constitutionalist, described as the magic of monarchy. “Our royalty is to be reverenced and if you poke about it you cannot reverence it,” he wrote. “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”
For the Queen, this was a precept hard to follow, with an increasingly irreverent media keen indeed to “poke about” in every aspect of royal life. Yet, nearly always, she remained just beyond their reach. She was the best-known woman in the world, yet almost nothing was known about her private views.
At times, she had to endure periods of intense disquiet about the royal role and that of her family. When Princess Margaret fell in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a commoner and a divorcee, the Queen — supreme governor of the Church of England — stayed aloof and the princess finally renounced Townsend in 1955. Yet the public’s attitude to divorce had softened since the abdication crisis. Many thought the younger sister had been treated harshly.
By the end of the 1960s, the Queen recognised that the royal image needed a boost. She allowed a television crew into Buckingham Palace to make a behind-the-scenes portrayal. The much-watched Royal Family was hailed as a breakthrough, though some warned it would open a Pandora’s box of media intrusion.
The doomsayers were right — yet the Queen is said never to have doubted her decision. The film raised the popularity of the Windsors. “If you had wanted to kill the monarchy you would have ignored TV,” said one courtier. “The 1969 film and the 1992 documentary Elizabeth R were broadcasts that changed the scope and style of the monarchy.”
If the monarchy was opening up to the media, the media in turn was posing an ever greater challenge to the institution. Lady Diana Spencer, who married Prince Charles in 1981 to become Princess of Wales, would quickly become an international celebrity who outshone her husband and mother-in-law. Both seemed to expect her to accept the traditional role of putting duty first and suppressing any personal unhappiness. But the Windsors had mistaken their woman. The next few years were among the hardest of Elizabeth’s reign.
Charles and Diana separated. In 1995, the Princess of Wales told the BBC that there had been “three of us in the marriage” — a reference to Camilla Parker Bowles, who 10 years later became the Duchess of Cornwall. Elizabeth’s eldest son had, like her uncle who was so fleetingly king, married a divorcee. Moreover, to do so, he also had to become one.
The greatest and most unexpected blow came in the late summer of 1997. A disbelieving nation awoke to the news that the Princess of Wales had died in a car crash in Paris. The outpouring of public grief was on an unprecedented scale. So too, within days, was the criticism of the Queen for what many saw as a cold reaction. While Tony Blair, who had come to power as Labour prime minister just a few months earlier, tapped into the mood when he paid tribute to the “people’s princess”, the Queen chose to remain in Scotland with her bereaved school-age grandsons, William and Harry.
On her return to London she ordered the royal standard over Buckingham Palace to be flown at half-mast — spurning protocol in recognition of a wider clamour — and took her grandsons to meet some of the thousands who were laying flowers in memory of their mother. After her initial failure to gauge the public mood the episode showed the Queen’s willingness to listen, to learn and to change.
There ensued a slow but steady return to smoother waters and greater popularity for the Queen and her family. In the millennium year, her mother’s 100th birthday reinforced support for the monarchy. So too, at the other end of the age range, did a new generation of unstuffy younger royals.
Yet the Queen herself was not nearly as solemn as she often appeared in public and could be wittily caustic. One Financial Times journalist who was researching an article about the royal finances was unexpectedly ushered into her Buckingham Palace study. That morning the FT had carried a cutting piece about a senior businessman. “I hope you’re going to be kinder about us than you were about that poor Mr X,” Her Majesty observed.
Also in her study, complete with corgis, this mischievous streak extended to filming a cameo that formed part of the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games. The Queen played herself while the actor Daniel Craig reprised his role as James Bond, before she appeared along with Prince Philip at the stadium. For her platinum jubilee in June, she appeared in a skit taking tea with Paddington Bear.
The royal marriage endured in part because the couple shared a sharp sense of humour. Asked once if the Queen would like to inspect some machinery, Prince Philip shook his head: “Unless it eats grass and farts, the Queen isn’t interested.”
By the time of the Olympics, Prince Philip had been in hospital and unable to attend some events for her diamond jubilee the previous month. Despite the occasional flash of her dazzling smile, public appearances increasingly gave the impression of a woman either preoccupied with such worries or contending with physical discomfort herself.
Palace bulletins on her health were rare; it was only gradually and at the margins that she devolved duties to an already sexagenarian Charles and relinquished charitable patronages. Elizabeth I and Victoria had both gained in stature and popularity as they approached old age; so did Elizabeth II, whose quiet, old-fashioned virtues of service, dignity and integrity came to be all the more appreciated the longer she survived.
In 2015, she overtook Victoria to become the nation’s longest-serving monarch, but her final years were to prove among the most challenging, as she sought to bind together a nation divided by Brexit and stricken by the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2016, The Sun newspaper claimed “Queen backs Brexit”, prompting a complaint by Buckingham Palace, upheld by the press watchdog. The monarch urged the country to focus on what united it during the turmoil that followed the vote to leave the EU.
In 2019, Boris Johnson dragged the monarch into the Brexit morass when, as prime minister, he asked her to suspend or “prorogue” parliament, a decision subsequently deemed by the High Court as an unlawful attempt to stifle parliamentary debate.
The split from the royal family of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan the following year was another sign of dysfunctionality in the House of Windsor. So too was the scandal that engulfed Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, whose friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein ended with him being stripped of military titles and royal patronages and being forced to make a multimillion-pound out of court settlement in a sexual abuse lawsuit. Prince Andrew denied any wrongdoing.
When the Covid-19 crisis hit and the country was plunged into lockdown, the Queen was able to draw a personal link back to the spirit of the Blitz, telling the nation: “We will meet again.”
In April 2021, Prince Philip, the longest-serving royal consort in British history, died aged 99, after being at the Queen’s side for more than seven decades of her reign. Poignant images of the monarch sitting alone and wearing a black mask at a socially distanced funeral service at Windsor captured the desolate moment, but in the months that followed she continued to perform her royal duties.
In June this year, there were joyful national celebrations to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee. The monarch, suffering discomfort, made only fleeting appearances but the country enjoyed a weekend of flypasts, rock concerts and pageantry: the Mall was packed from one end to the other.
During her lifetime she saw progress, albeit faltering, on some of the things she most cared about: reconciliation in Ireland, and the UK’s ability to hold together in spite of nationalist aspirations, particularly in Scotland. Whatever its strains, the kingdom she leaves is united still.
For all her royal lineage — in direct descent from the first kings of England — she could at times reflect the social attitudes of a middle-class matron. A lunch visitor once found himself sitting between the Queen and her mother, who was enjoying her favourite tipple of vintage champagne. Periodically, the Queen Mother would take an ice cube from the bucket at her elbow and drop it into her glass to make the bubbles fizz. Eventually the Queen leaned over and said: “Do stop that, Mummy — it’s so vulgar!”
Unlike her two great female predecessors, as monarch she would not be the nation’s main maternal figure until the Queen Mother’s death in 2002, aged 101. According to one courtier, while by no means resenting that second place, the Queen was acutely aware of it. Ultimately, it was a recognition made all the more acute because the death of the dowager came in the year of the sovereign’s golden jubilee — and just weeks after the loss of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret.
The Queen remained outwardly inscrutable in affairs of state until the end. The mass ushering out of hereditary peers from the House of Lords brought no audible royal murmur. The 2011 ending of male primogeniture, so that sons and daughters would have equal right to the throne under succession laws, was also of no evident concern. After all, it carried the imprimatur of all 16 Commonwealth heads of government and the change could be seen not just as a nod to equality but a recognition of the Queen’s own service.
Her reign perhaps proves right the dictum of royal biographer Dermot Morrah that the task of a constitutional monarch is not to do, but simply to be. However her heirs may fare, to have remained for so long the titular and spiritual leader of her people, never mind one so popularly admired, is the noblest of achievements.
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