Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories, Defender of the Faith, has died aged 96. On Thursday 8 September 2022, Buckingham Palace confirmed that the longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom ‘died peacefully at Balmoral,’ as her family gathered at the Scottish estate to be by her side.
With devotion, courage, and the dependable compass of duty, Her Majesty maintained the lasting institution, and illusion, of monarchy in an era gripped by the fever of change. During this period of such remarkable change, both at home and throughout her realms in the Commonwealth, she remained steadfast in her presence, becoming the beloved matriarch of our nation. A modern woman, with a crystalline vision of her role, the Queen was a gracious servant. While Prince Phillip, who passed away just 18 months ago, was Her Majesty’s strength and stay, she was certainly ours.
Yet, on 21 April 1926, not even the stars could have predicted that sovereignty would befall Elizabeth.
Yet, on 21 April 1926, not even the stars could have predicted that sovereignty would befall Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor. Though it is easy to forget, having lived through her diligent reign, Her Majesty was never supposed to wear the crown, nor was a second Elizabethan reign ever foreseen. As the eldest daughter of Albert, Duke of York, the second son of George V, and his duchess, the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, three lives stood between the infant princess and the throne.
With no expectation of life on a golden treadmill of service, the Princess enjoyed a carefree and traditional childhood, with a limited education – spending only seven and a half hours a week in the schoolroom. But as Winston Churchill, the future Prime Minister wrote in a letter to his wife, the young Princess had ‘an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant,’ perhaps an indication of her ultimate destiny. Instead, Elizabeth insisted that she wanted to become a ‘country lady with lots of horses and dogs,’ and it is during her childhood that she acquired the first of a long line of corgis.
In 1936, however, an accession crisis broke out following the death of George V and the abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII. Her father, as the second oldest child, became King George VI, thrusting Elizabeth into the position of heir presumptive. The reclusive family would no longer enjoy the bliss of their former seclusion, and they moved swiftly to Buckingham Palace. Further storms then ruptured any semblance of stability that Princess Elizabeth had experienced since her sudden accession to the role of heir, as the Second World War erupted across the continent in 1939. Here, the Princess played an active military role, supporting the nation’s actions, and learning to drive and maintain military vehicles with the Auxiliary Territorial Service.
The Coronation on June 2 1953, with all of its medieval pageantry, from gilded coaches to radiant jewels, was ultimately a modern affair.
But before the outbreak of war, she met the handsome Naval Officer, Prince Phillip of Greece and Denmark. Despite falling in love instantly, the pair did not marry until 20 November 1947. Children quickly followed with Prince Charles being born in 1948, and Princess Anne arriving in 1950.
However, the death of her father, King George VI, on 6 February 1952, rocked the buoyant happiness of royal family life, and the young Princess, aged 26, accepted her legacy and returned from Kenya, where she had been representing the King in an overseas tour, to become Queen. Her return saw her cast as Gloriana by Winston Churchill, in his speech just hours after the King’s death, where he immortalised her through comparison to her mighty Tudor namesake. The dawn of a second Elizabethan reign had arrived.
The Coronation on June 2 1953, with all of its medieval pageantry, from gilded coaches to radiant jewels, was ultimately a modern affair. Millions of people, across the country, gathered around televisions, many of them for the first time, to watch Queen Elizabeth II make her oath. 27 million people in the United Kingdom watched the ceremony, while 11 million more listened on the radio.
She oversaw the governments of fifteen Prime Ministers, with resolute political impartiality.
From the moment she assumed her post, she never once neglected her duty. Even in the 21st century, she was an essential element of government. No Parliament could be summoned, no minister, bishop, judge, or officer of the Armed forces could assume their office, and no taxes could be levied without Her Majesty’s approval. She oversaw the governments of fifteen Prime Ministers, with resolute political impartiality that was unparalleled by her more openly Conservative predecessors.
Prime Ministers ranging from Harold Wilson, the Queen’s first Prime Minister not to have been educated at Eton or Harrow, to Baroness Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, noted the Queen’s exceptional grasp of current issues and her breadth of experience. Wilson found himself being caught out during his first weekly audience with the Queen, as she cited a detail from a state newspaper that he was unaware of, and there were constant tensions between Her Majesty and Ms Thatcher due to the latter’s open contempt of the Commonwealth.
But her grasp of current affairs was unable to avert the monarchy away from severe tremors. The Second World War hastened the end of the British Empire, and many former colonies, upon seizing their independence, tore down the Union flag. What remained of the Commonwealth was a voluntary family of nations, with the Queen acting as the sovereign in 17 overseas territories. Nonetheless, demands continued to be made by nations, including Australia, to form a republic (although a referendum narrowly defeated this Australian challenge in 1999), and many politicians feared that the ‘hostile’ world bloc of the Commonwealth could challenge the newly emerging European Economic Community. The Queen, despite even her best endeavours with the Commonwealth, was unable to shake off the atrocious legacy of colonialism, which will forever tarnish the achievements of all those who ever wear the crown.
The Queen watched on as the private lives of her children were suspended in turmoil.
At home, there were also struggles. When a fire destroyed a large part of Windsor Castle and the government hastily promised to cover the costs of restoration, which were estimated to be between £20 million and £40 million, public anger erupted, which was only partially diluted by the concession that the Queen would pay income tax. Although the restoration was completed at no cost to the taxpayer, the scandal bought severe scrutiny upon the crown, with many questioning the role of the monarchy as the country approached the millennium.
Even closer to Her Majesty, were the personal struggles that her children faced. Two of her three sons, her daughter and her sister all saw the breakdown of their marriages. While unable to offer anything more than sound advice to her children, the Queen watched on as the private lives of her children were suspended in turmoil.
It was particularly the marriage, and subsequent divorce, of Prince Charles and Princess Diana that had the most devastating impact upon the monarchy. With Diana holding the title of the ‘People’s Princess,’ public favour shifted against the Queen and the Firm, who were increasingly seen as archaic and controlling. The tragic end to the Princess’ life evoked national sorrow, and to many, the Queen seemed reluctant to support the nation after such a monumental loss. Perhaps the Queen, always a servant to the pull of duty, felt that in this case, her duty was that of a grandmother to the two young princes that had just lost their mother rather than to the nation. Eventually, she did pay tribute to the tragic death of her daughter-in-law in a live broadcast that saw her also make a commitment to the adapt the monarchy in the modern age.
She marched forwards, forever the architect and chief administrator of a modern vision for the monarchy.
The Queen did not cower away from her responsibilities, even when faced by these daunting struggles. Rather than retreat into her gilded home, she marched forwards, forever the architect and chief administrator of a modern vision for the monarchy. By the time of her Silver Jubilee in 1977, the Queen had taken to abandoning the rehearsed red-carpet routes, and instead chose to forge her own journey through the crowds, speaking to well-wishers, and displaying a level of humility that one may not of expected to find from the Head of one of the world’s oldest monarchies. Her walkabouts became a hallmark of her reign, and one that her children and grandchildren will continue with.
One constant in the ever-changing world, was the Queen’s impeccable wit and good humour, with those who met her chronicling the sparkle in her eye that so often heralded the delivery of a smart quip. It is with this good humour that she was able to display the monarchy’s adaptability; proving to the naysayers that the monarchy did in fact have a place in the 21st century. For her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, ska band Madness performed ‘Our House’ from the rooftop of Buckingham Palace. During the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, she made her acting debut, becoming a Bond girl and boarding a helicopter, before we saw ‘the Queen’ parachute out into the stadium. And more recently, she starred alongside Paddington, marmalade sandwiches in tow, for a scene that opened her Platinum Jubilee celebrations in 2022.
These celebrations, which have been plentiful over the Queen’s 70-year reign, always served to highlight Her Majesty’s duty, and in particular her diplomatic agility. Over the years, she welcomed many overseas visitors with prudence and sensitivity. From Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin (who made the first state visit to the UK by a Russian leader in more than 125 years), the Queen was able to impress and soften all that she welcomed, with unrivalled diplomatic powers.
And she carried these powers with her around the globe. In 2011 she embarked upon a ground-breaking visit to the Republic of Ireland, becoming the first UK monarch to visit the state. By visiting sites of significance for Irish nationalism, such as Croke Park, where 14 civilians were shot dead by Crown Forces in 1920, and greeting a State banquet with the words “A Úachtaráin agus a chairde…,” she was able to calm the waters that had been made stormy through centuries of suffering at the hand of the British Empire. With this skill, honed over years of experience, she helped to promote Britain on the international stage, acting as a guardian of democracy and healer of age-old rifts.
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.
–Queen Elizabeth II
Even in her later life, she never ceased to work. While her responsibilities began to be slowly pared down, with less senior royals such as the Cambridges embarking upon royal tours, she continued with many of her engagements, facing the divisive issue of Brexit and a pandemic.
Her talents of addressing the national mood and providing reassurance shone stronger than ever during the pandemic as she assured the nation that ‘we will meet again,’ evoking the war-time spirit that had played such a central role in her juvenile life. But even as she appeared so strong for the nation, her personal foundations were weakening as her beloved husband of 73 years battled more health issues. The Duke of Edinburgh died peacefully in the morning of April 9 2021, and with pandemic guidelines still in place, the Queen cut a lonely figure in St George’s Chapel as she mourned. And yet she returned to public life, ever dedicated to the service of her subjects.
The Queen had made a promise to the nation on her 21st birthday during a tour of South Africa. “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.” Queen Elizabeth II served dutifully and delicately, fulfilling her promise. She was our Gloriana.
The Queen is dead, long live the King!