The Queen is dead. Long live the King.
These are words I have heard a lot over the past week since it was announced that the longest reigning monarch in the history of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II, had died at the considerable age of 96. I must confess that it came as a complete shock to me, because hadn’t we just seen her invite a new Prime Minister to form a government in her name just two days before? That in itself was a big deal, because even in politically-active Britain, new Prime Ministers don’t come along every day, but here, suddenly, the news came up on my computer that the Queen was, in fact, dead.
For about thirty seconds, I thought this had to be an error. Yes, I had seen the earlier news flash that the Queen’s doctors had become concerned over her health, which in an organization as close mouthed as the Palace is, this was a revelation unto itself, but what followed was completely unexpected. What has followed since has been more so. A friend encouraged me as a writer to take note of these events, to chronicle this moment of history, and to commit my own thoughts and observations to paper. This is my attempt to do so and to join many others around the world who are doing the same thing, which is to pause and take note of history passing by and the end of an era.
We use those words and phrases rather loosely at times. We dub some event as “history” and anytime anything comes to an end, we lament that “it’s the end of an era” and similar such expressions. This, however, is truly a moment in history, and it really is an era coming peacefully to an end as we mark the death of The Queen and the end of her long reign.
We Americans rejected the monarchy, and for good reasons at the time, but we never lost our ties to the nation that gave birth to us. The “special relationship” that we have saw us come together as friends after fighting each other our earliest wars. Shared conflict a century and a half later in two World Wars brought us closer together and our common language, more or less, has always bound us together with our cousins across the ocean. The relationship we have with Britain is undeniable, even different as we are.
The Queen did not rule the United Kingdom, but she reigned as its head of state for seven decades, always advising, counseling and warning the governments that formed in her name and governed under her watchful eye. While her powers were limited to a narrow scope as a Queen, her influence was steadfast, her diplomacy unwavering, her charm infectious and her neutrality unwavering. She embodied everything that should be expected of a monarch and, unlike most political figures to whom faith is often given and more often than not, misplaced, she remained as reliably consistent to the attributes expected of her as The Queen as is the rising and setting of the sun.
I will admit I’ve been a bit consumed by it all. I’ve watched the BBC so much this week that I’m beginning to think in GMT time than my own. The events surrounding the death of the Queen are both historical and grandiose, showing us a spectacle of the pageantry that is a defining element of Great Britain in ways that most of us have not seen in our lifetime. Military processions, precision marches, ceremony, liturgy, vigils and tradition, dating back in some cases over a thousand years, have all presented themselves against the diametrically opposed background of a 21st century world. It’s been a blend of the old and the new, having heralded the death of a much loved Queen and the only Queen that most of us have ever known of. The world that Queen Elizabeth found upon ascending to the throne is one much different than the world of today. In her seven decades, she has seen both Britain and the world leave behind the old ways, the old values and the old world for the new. The modern world today is very little like the one she came to power in, yet the world as it changed did not change her unless she wanted to change.
There were times where we saw this as anachronistic and archaic, but as time went on, we came to see this as endearing, consistent and stable in a world becoming less so year after year. Like I’ve said before about buildings, they go through phases where they are new and marveled at, then they grow older and people see them as in need of change and modernizing. Eventually though, they become classics and we long to preserve them as they originally were, as they were meant to be, and see them the way they were intended to be seen. The Queen is and her reign is much like the life of a building in this way.
All of this has been evident as this week of mourning has gone slowly by. With all that is going on surrounding the funeral of the Queen, we’ve also seen rapid, instant changes that ensure the enduring monarchy as the old Prince of Wales became the new King and his son became the new Prince of Wales. The monarchy didn’t stop with Queen Elizabeth’s final breath, but it immediately continued in the person of her son, as it will with his son and his son’s son, that is if it continues to endure as an institution.
This week I have found my own knowledge of the British monarchy put to the test as I have explained many times to both friends and relatives how succession works, what primogeniture is, why Prince William’s children are ahead of Prince Harry in the line of succession and why Princess Beatrice is now a Counselor of State and not Prince George. Years of fascination with British history and its particular form of governance has finally given me a stage to share all manner of otherwise useless knowledge about not just how, but why it works the way it does.
As the week has ground on, I’ve watched marches, funeral corteges, military salutes, changing of guards, family vigils over the late Queen and the mourning of hundreds of thousands of people as they filed by for a brief and momentary show of respect to a Queen that has been such a part of their lives for the better part of a century. I even learned how to spell the word “Queue” which has always been a word that I never could seem to remember how to spell properly. Even that word, properly, is very British, and one that is used often to express in simple terms how things ought to be done in Great Britain…properly.
I’ve railed at the newscasters and journalists for getting their facts wrong about a lot of things, and making a total muck of things. The British have such eloquent ways of expressing when things aren’t done properly, don’t they? I’ve wearied of the constant tabloid journalism going on in the background of this grand theatre about the nefarious machinations of the Sussexes, the rift between Prince William and Harry, whether uniforms would or would not be worn to certain events and if Prince Andrew should be allowed to come to the funeral. Palace intrigue indeed.
Despite all that, I’ve also watched with admiration as her children, including King Charles, the Princess Royal, the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex stood the Prince’s Vigil around the catafalque bearing her coffin and the Crown, a tradition begun in 1936 for King George V by his son, King Edward VIII and his three brothers. That admiration grew when her eight grandchildren did the same thing on the following night as the younger generation of royals performed their last duty to the monarch and their grandmother. The sight of 14-year-old James, Viscount Severn, who has rarely been seen in the public eye, standing a vigil for his grandmother in view of thousands of mourners has a way of humbling you. Four of them are not even royal, yet they performed this one final act it out of love, out of respect and out of an ingrained sense of duty that was modelled to them by their grandmother who, by the way, just happened to be their Queen.
I watched as Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, and the only daughter of the Queen, kept a vigil of her own in the first days that followed. She was with the Queen when she died and was the one who escorted her body from Balmoral to Edinburgh, who walked with her brothers behind the casket to the church, who flew with her from Scotland to England and followed her home for one final night in Buckingham Palace. Known as the hardest working member of the Royal Family, she gets little credit, yet her example of duty to her mother, and love for her mother, endeared her to the world who heretofore knew very little about her outside of Great Britain.
I watched King Charles III, mourning his mother while also doing the duties that were now expected of him as King, day after day without rest. He traveled to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to meet his people, to share their grief and to assure them that he would pick up where she left off. I even saw him lose his temper a time or two, and while much was made of that in the social media world, I would challenge most people to do as well as he has done given the tremendous weight of the responsibilities that have now fallen to him, all while having no time to stop, pause and grieve a bit for his mother. He knows that he follows a great monarch, but I think in his own way, he will rise to the challenges and prove that he is ready to be the King.
Even the name King sounds odd right now, doesn’t it? The last time a King sat on the throne of Britain was only seven years after World War II had ended, and most of us have never known a world without Queen Elizabeth II. In my lifetime, eleven Presidents have lived in the White House and five Popes have held the chair of Saint Peter. In that time, eight men and three women have also served as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Through it all, there has been only one Queen, The Queen, who pledged when she was only 21 years old that “my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”, a pledge she honored over what turned out to be a very long and hopefully, fulfilling life.
Over the past week, her people returned service to her. They came in the daylight hours and through the dark hours of the night. The stood in lines that stretched back for miles, some standing in the hot sun or the cold night for more than 24 hours to pay their last respects. Some walked with canes, some with crutches and some could not walk at all. Some wore medals from service past, and some wore uniforms too, snapping off a crisp salute as they stopped for just a brief moment to say their last goodbyes to their Queen and their Command In Chief.
They represented all ages, young to old, and all races, religions and beliefs. Those things that might otherwise separate them were put aside, united as they were in respect and in grief. I know this because I see it, because I am watching it now as I write these words, amazed at the steady stream of humanity that continues to pour in during these last and final hours of the lying in state. In silence they come and stand, as soldiers in full dress uniform watch over their Queen in steady shifts that ceremoniously change with the precision that comes from years of training. Tonight, they are here for their Queen, out of love, out of respect, out of duty. It’s all very British and it’s all very moving. It is history I am watching unfold with each step down the long stairs to the place where she lies in repose, and it truly marks the end of an era that the world has shared.
She will be laid to rest, with all the formality and flourishes that mark what Great Britain is most great at doing. Her time will then pass into eternity, and a new era will begin, but those of us that have lived the majority of our lives in what some are already calling the Second Elizabethan Age will never forget her. Like my grandmother, who revered her as many women of her generation did, she is a vestige of another time and place and we won’t see her kind again.
We will remember her though…her simple dignity, her poise and her unerring sense of duty. We will remember the countless buildings and bridges she opened, the ribbons she cut, the speeches she made and the hours of standing on her feet, being the Queen. We will remember the times she made us laugh, whether jumping out of an airplane with James Bond for the London Olympics or sharing a marmalade sandwich with Paddington Bear for her Platinum Jubilee. We will remember the hope she gave us with her annual Christmas messages and her reassuring words during the pandemic, when she said, “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”.
While her words were true, we took the most comfort from the fact that she was always there to say the things we needed to hear, to give reassurance and comfort in troubled times, as her father did before her in the darkest days of the war. It will be hard for Britain to let her go. It will be hard for the world to let her go and yes, it will be hard for me to as well. Presidents and Prime Ministers could learn so much from her example in times of trouble. She was neither President nor Prime Minister, but she was often what was needed, when it was needed.
When we say goodbye to her in the days ahead, and when we look back on her in the weeks to follow, we will truly realize what we have lost and wonder how different the world will be without Queen Elizabeth II in the palace. Billions mourn someone they have never met, yet she is someone we all feel we knew in some way. We will miss her as we would miss a friend, but we will appreciate her as we would a parent, a mentor or just an example to aspire to. She was mother to her nation, and she let us all be a part of it too. In the words of King Charles, quoting Shakespeare, “May ‘flights of Angels sing thee to thy rest’.
God Bless the Queen. God Save The King.