"Now, God Be Thanked Who Has Matched Us With His Hour"
Elizabeth II, The Queen, passes into history.
“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.”
The passage of The Queen is not a tragedy. No life lived so well, so dutifully, and with such faith in things now lost to us can be considered a tragedy. But it is nonetheless very sad. It seems like another blow to an important institution, undermined in recent decades by Boomer proclivities and Millennial narcissism, and likely to break into a thousand pieces in the absence of the old world values Elizabeth represented.
Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, died on September 8, 2022 at the age of ninety-six. The second Elizabethan age — one that surpassed the first for both achievement and longevity — has come to an end. There will not be another Queen in the United Kingdom in our lifetimes, unless something entirely unexpected transpires.
Yet weep you no more, sad fountains. The death of a woman of Elizabeth’s considerable years cannot be considered a tragedy on any level except a symbolic one. Even before the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June, there were rumors and murmurs that the Queen’s health was considerably less good than Palace officials would have liked the world to believe. I was told by both a lawyer and a priest that they had been informally advised that the likelihood of HRH making it to the Jubilee was less high than anyone would have liked, and that they might want to reconsider any travel plans around that time. But she made it through that period of ill health and frailty, seeming as indestructible a figure as her mother, who spanned the entirety of the twentieth century and died at a remarkable 101, six months after 9/11.
Yet that Elizabeth was only Queen for a relatively short period, from the sudden accession of her husband George VI in late 1936 until his equally unanticipated death in 1952. That period encompassed war, the Attlee Labour government, the end of FDR and the Truman administration, all vital and significant events in the history of both Britain and the United States. When her daughter became Queen on February 6, 1952, at twenty-five, she was the youngest monarch since Victoria.
Just like her great-great-grandmother, she was thrust into an uncertain time, where she could rely on few other than her relatively new husband Prince Philip and the newly returned Prime Minister Winston Churchill. If she expected unquestioning support from the seventy-seven-year-old Churchill, increasingly worn down by ill health, she would have been disappointed. On the day Elizabeth became Queen, her prime minister snorted, “I do not know her. She is only a child.”
The events of Elizabeth’s reign have been told with a mixture of brio and, at times, shameless dramatic license in the popular Netflix series The Crown. As played by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton, the Queen has been depicted as a mixture of jollity and steely pragmatism, given to moments of cold ruthlessness (especially where there is an existential threat to the monarchy, or where her eldest son Prince Charles is concerned) but also unexpected touches of light-heartedness and good humor, such as when she is “at home” at Balmoral or watching her beloved horses race.
It is a simplified portrayal, even a caricature, but not without broad-brushstroke accuracy. Perhaps its great achievement is to allow viewers to believe that they can somehow penetrate the psyche of a woman who has seldom given interviews — when she has, she has taken care never to say anything revealing or personal — and has always lived her life by the adage “never complain, never explain.” Unlike her uncle the Duke of Windsor — who, post-abdication, became so loquacious whenever a check was dangled that the increasingly irked royal family cut him adrift as an embarrassment — she followed the usual family tradition of smiling omertà. We know very little about who Elizabeth II was; not until some intrepid biographer is allowed untrammeled access to the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle are we likely to have a better idea — and even then it’s very unlikely there will be some smoking gun. Yet sometimes even opacity can be unexpectedly revealing. To regard Elizabeth as a sphinx without a secret is a misreading not merely of her as a human being, but of her adherence to that most sacred of secular institutions: the British monarchy.
Her commitment to duty was remarkable. She never shied away from a regime of punishing world tours, endless banquets and receptions and events until she was nearly 100. It seems remarkable, in an era that prizes self-absorption and self-indulgence, to have had as one of its most iconic — some might say inspirational — figures someone who so consistently stood contra mundum against the luxuriant decadence of the present era. It is impossible to imagine the Queen tweeting, or posting on Instagram, or even sending an email. (I have a conviction, based on no evidence whatsoever, that she was nonetheless a prolific texter.)
Even as the royal family operation became more and more “consumer-facing” — an inane expression that encapsulates the institution’s inevitable decline — she remained aloof from the absurdities that others were dragooned into. She retained her dignity, even until the end.
In one sense we know what is about to happen with more precision than all but a few societies on earth. We know who will succeed her —William, Charles, George — old familiar names prepared to flow out to eternity. We know the rituals and ceremonies that attend the death, accession and coronation of a monarch, and there will be great swarming clouds of commentators and toadies lining up to explain every salute, parade, gesture and symbol of it.
But in another sense we are cast into radical uncertainty. On the one hand there is the avalanche of social change that has accelerated into unforeseen areas in the past 20 years. On the other the unprecedented economic, environmental and geopolitical uncertainty that Britain faces going into the middle of the 21st century.
Britain has told itself a familiar and comforting story for the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign — that of the plucky island that saw off the Nazis, a cheerful and stoical land of big-hearted strivers who can muddle through every crisis. The monarchy faded into a background of postcard ornamentation, a guarantee that our national character would endure even as all around us changed.
If those illusions are now departing, we should not underrate the Queen’s achievement, one perhaps unique in our history. The monarchy has survived in a world that came to reject social hierarchy, deference, aristocracy, tradition and religion. With every force and sensibility turning away from it, the Queen still found ways to connect with ordinary people, to articulate a shared life, and mutely embodied in her conduct what our newly progressive nation no longer wished to hear explicitly articulated.
Far more than an empty signifier, or a maudlin symbol of unity — some sort of collective granny — the Queen fully embraced a mode of life and a set of values utterly alien to modern Britons. Duty, religious piety, humility and service to her fellow man and woman. Like the Israelites bearing the Ark of the Covenant across the desert, our Queen has carried the hidden heart of British life within her through a secular and disenchanted age.
In a country, even more than secular France or America, that has in its recent history lost touch with its history and traditions, the Queen is a last point of continuity. Public trust has drained away from politicians and priests, from the army and the police force. A coherent national story is no longer told in British schools, and Christianity has faded from national life to a faint echo, diffused by a riot of beliefs that challenge and compete with it, but are unable to take its place.
It says a lot that when I say “the Queen” even American readers know I can mean only one person. The 96-year-old had just celebrated her platinum anniversary this summer — seventy years on the throne, the longest of any English monarch.
Elizabeth was far and away the most admired head of state in the world. Her good sense, her generosity of spirit, her thoughtful but active reticence have made her one of the most successful monarchs in history. Her long tenure — she was on the throne beginning in the administration of Harry Truman — made her a symbol and a cynosure of stability.
Americans grow up (or used to grow up) reading about the “long train of abuses and usurpations” that Thomas Jefferson set forth against George III in the Declaration of Independence. Andrew Roberts, in his magisterial new book on Jefferson’s bête noir, shows that Jefferson exaggerated greatly for effect. That takes nothing away from the nobility of the American Revolution. But it does remind us that “monarchy” is not synonymous with tyranny, just as “democracy” is not synonymous with liberty or good government.
Alexander Hamilton, in the very first of the Federalist Papers, said that the debate over the proposed Constitution of the United States would decide whether it was possible for humanity to form government by “reflection and choice” or whether they were destined to give in to “force and accident.”
That was a good formulation. But the case of Britain shows that constitutional monarchies have as much claim to government by “choice and reflection” as constitutional democracies. I suppose one way of dramatizing this point is to ask whether you would rather would rather live under the aegis of Joe Biden or Queen Elizabeth.
Louis the XIV, casting his eye over the political situation in France in the early 18th century, is said to have remarked “après moi, le déluge,” “after me, the catastrophe.” He was right about that, though the “déluge” took a while to engulf the world.