Remembering Queen Elizabeth II, Who Died at 96

Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday, at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland, at the age of ninety-six, became monarch in the early hours of February 6, 1952—although, famously, she remained unaware of her transmutation for several hours. King George VI died in his sleep at the Sandringham estate, in Norfolk, as Elizabeth, his eldest daughter, was more than four thousand miles away, on a safari holiday in Kenya. “She became Queen while in a perch in a tree in Africa, watching the rhinoceros come down to the pool to drink,” Harold Nicolson, the diplomat and politician, wrote in his diary. A member of the royal party later recollected an auspicious occurrence: around sunrise, an eagle had soared over Elizabeth’s head at roughly the moment when the King died.

A modern monarchy—an oxymoron, if ever there was one—does not depend for its authority on the memorializing of such mystical moments. But they help. The institution of hereditary kingship is irrational and impractical, sustained in the present era only through a willful combination of public pageantry and concealed mystery. Sixteen months after the King’s death, millions watched Elizabeth’s coronation, thanks to cameras set up in Westminster Abbey. But off limits to viewers was the arcane ritual of the anointing of the monarch—when the Queen, seated beneath a canopy of golden cloth held aloft by four enrobed Knights of the Garter, was daubed on her hands, forehead, and chest with holy oil borne in a twelfth-century gold-and-silver spoon. Just as the breath of kingship passed invisibly into her with her father’s passing, the perquisites and responsibilities of majesty were bestowed on her in that secret ceremony beneath the cloth of gold.

Striking a balance between publicity and mystery was a defining characteristic of Elizabeth’s reign, and it was the key to her success in maintaining the stability of the monarchy. The balance has never been equally distributed. Elizabeth invariably erred on the side of reserve rather than disclosure. Characteristically conservative, she was initially opposed to the televising of her coronation, a position that Downing Street supported, noting in a memo that, were a live broadcast to take place, “any mistakes, unintentional incidents or undignified behaviour by spectators would be seen by millions of people.”

The decision was reversed only because of public pressure, and in this instance the overruling of the Queen turned out to benefit her and the institution of the monarchy. The sight of the youthful sovereign soberly entering what was to be seven decades of service helped inspire what became a mostly enduring personal respect and affection for her among the populace she nominally headed. Even Britain’s hardest-headed republicans have generally refrained from openly dissing Her Majesty, at least after she entered the decades of her extreme seniority. In 2019, when Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing former leader of the Labour Party and an avowed anti-monarchist, made his failed bid to become Prime Minister, he merely ventured that the monarchy needed “improvement.” His opponent, Boris Johnson, declared that the Queen was “beyond reproach,” a position widely uncontested in the nation. Elizabeth led a life made up of privilege and sacrifice, and even those who resented the former acknowledged the latter.

Like all very old people, the Queen grew shorter as she aged: when she appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during her Platinum Jubilee celebrations, in June, 2022, she was shorter by a head than her heir, Charles, even in her hat and her court shoes. “As you can see, I can’t move,” she informed visiting officials to Windsor Castle in February, 2022, shuffling slightly on her feet, cane in hand, game as usual for the social interactions that her role demanded. The Queen small-talked on a vast scale.

But her persona became only more towering as her personage dwindled. By instinct, constitution, and training, the Queen knew that what was demanded of her was an almost superhuman splitting of self. She was the hereditary ornament of the nation—as impractical as the Crown Jewels, with which her coronation had been celebrated. At the same time, her modus operandi was founded on a principle not of display but of concealment. For her own self-preservation, and for the preservation of the institution that she embodied and led, it was often wise to withdraw behind a gilded curtain.

She was not born to be queen. When she arrived in the world—on April 21, 1926, at 17 Bruton Street, the London home of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, her maternal grandparents—she was third in line to the throne. Precedence went to her uncle, Edward, the Prince of Wales. Upon the death of her paternal grandfather, George V, in January, 1936, Edward became king, but he abdicated before the year was out, having provoked a constitutional crisis with his proposal to remain monarch while also marrying Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite. On May 12, 1937, the date that had originally been planned for Edward’s coronation, it was George V’s second son, Bertie, now formally known as George VI, who went to Westminster Abbey to be crowned and anointed. After her father’s coronation, the eleven-year-old Elizabeth wrote a six-page account of the day’s events, neatly completed in pencil and dedicated “To Mummy and Papa In Memory of Their Coronation From Lilibet by Herself.” In it, she recounted her excitement at being woken at 5 a.m. by a band of the Royal Marines playing outside her window at Buckingham Palace, and she commented on how beautiful her parents looked in their ceremonial robes. “I thought it all very, very wonderful and I expect the Abbey did, too,” she wrote, betraying a winning imaginative capacity for which there would be little call later in her own regal incarnation. “The arches and beams at the top were covered with a sort of haze of wonder as Papa was crowned, at least I thought so.”

Duty, rather than whimsy, would rule the Queen, who was crowned with the formidable formal title of “Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.” Her education insured, either by accident or by design, that she was uncommonly well qualified to be a figurehead. She never went to school nor to university: tutors trained her in constitutional law, history, and what is said to be quite proficient French, but she never sat for a high-stakes exam. Positioned at the apex of society, her sphere was narrow. In her teens, she mixed with the offspring of earls and dukes. In her early twenties, she was invited to a costume party at the American Embassy, and she went dressed as an Edwardian parlormaid—her choice of outfit signalling, perhaps, the one other social stratum beyond the aristocracy with which she was intimately familiar.

She was not equipped with the blustering confidence cultivated within the halls of Britain’s élite educational establishments, a trait that she had ample opportunity to assess in meetings with Prime Ministers—a total of fifteen during her reign. In the Queen’s final public engagement, on September 6th, she appointed to office the U.K.’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss. A number of these politicians found themselves perplexed by the arcane protocols of the role, including the ritual of “kissing hands,” during which the Queen grants authority to a new Prime Minister. (Tony Blair, in his memoir, wrote of being informed by an official in a palace anteroom that he was not actually supposed to kiss the monarch’s hand but, rather, to brush it with his lips: “I confess that floored me. What on earth did he mean? Brush them as in a pair of shoes, or touch them lightly?”) The Queen, having not been reared to put herself forward, was well adapted to putting her country first. In her first Christmas broadcast to the nation, in December, 1952, she spoke of dedicating herself to the service of her subjects, whom she asked to pray that God grant her wisdom and strength, so “that I may faithfully serve Him, and you, all the days of my life.” As Ben Pimlott, one of the Queen’s more subtle biographers, has written, “the impact of such clichéd phrases came from the disturbing sense that she meant them.”

During the long course of the second Elizabethan era, the Queen’s realms underwent dramatic transformation, with former imperial territories becoming independent countries, and with the expansion of the Commonwealth as a voluntary association of affiliated nations, some of them retaining the British monarch as sovereign, but many others declining to do so. Recently, Barbados, which became independent in 1966, declared itself a republic and removed the Queen as the head of state; Prince Charles, both the heir to the British throne and the former heir to the Barbadian one, attended the ceremony, acknowledging with unprecedented royal clarity “the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history.”

At home, the Queen’s oft-vaunted constitutional value—as a head of state who is mercifully above politics—required of her the ceaseless performance of power without actual potency. In her decades of delivering the Queen’s Speech, at the State Opening of Parliament, Elizabeth was required to recite whatever campaign promises the government had made in whatever focus-group-curated language it had made them; thus, in 2021, there was the linguistic spectacle of the monarch promising that “my Government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom.” (In 2022, the speech was delivered on the Queen’s behalf by Prince Charles.) Alan Clark, the former Conservative Cabinet minister and an incomparable political diarist, wrote of being initiated ceremonially into the Queen’s Privy Council, as all Cabinet ministers are, and observing that “the Queen got up from her chair and moved over, regally, to initiate a painfully, grotesquely, banal conversation.” Clark went on, “Not for the first time I wondered about the Queen. Is she really rather dull and stupid? Or is she thinking, ‘How do people as dull and stupid as this ever get to be Ministers?’ ”

Source link

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *