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The Woman who Embodied the Myth of the Good Monarch

The Woman who Embodied the Myth of the Good Monarch

Saturday, 10 September, 2022 - 15:15

To function in an otherwise normal democracy, a hereditary monarchy requires that the citizenry accept a bit of fiction — namely that one family, standing above politics, can represent the nation and its values.

That takes a bit of doing, especially with that most scrutinized royal house of them all, the Windsors, who reign over the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth realms. Few families have had as many public scandals and as much tabloid scrutiny. The disgrace of Prince Andrew, owing to allegations of rape and sexual abuse, and the rift between the British royals and Prince Harry and his wife, the American Meghan Markle, are only the latest of the blows the Windsors have endured.

Yet it is the measure of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning queen ever, that she will be remembered less for any of that than for playing her part so well, with such dignity and for so long. As her country’s greatest playwright once wrote of the finale of another queen: “It is well done, and fitting for a princess/Descended of so many royal kings.”

In a curious way, the many peccadilloes of “the firm,” as the royal clan has been facetiously called, seemed only to bolster the queen’s royal standing. However greatly she must have suffered from the escapades of her kith and kin, she never dropped the stoicism and fortitude that the British like to think of as their trademark stiff upper lip. About the only public utterance that ever betrayed any inner turmoil was her reference to 1992, a year in which three royal marriages collapsed and Windsor Castle burned, as her “annus horribilis.”

For the most part, while tabloids around the world mucked gleefully around through the dramas of her sister, children and grandchildren, the queen seemed to hover above it all. Her popularity rose over the years, as did popular support for maintaining the royal family. It is telling that Prince Harry and Ms. Markle, in their explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey last year about their decision to part ways with the firm, were careful not to accuse the queen of callousness or racism.

In many ways, through her demeanor, propriety, steadfastness and unwavering service — and simply by being there for so many years — Queen Elizabeth came to define the constitutional monarch for Europe and for much of the world. She was the most-traveled monarch in the world: The British newspaper The Telegraph calculated that by her 90th birthday, she had covered at least 1,032,513 miles and 117 countries. The 13 American presidents she met all tried hard to behave properly in her presence.

Part of her appeal was the extravagant — some might say excessive — pomp and ceremony that accompanied her every royal appearance. While Scandinavian countries deliberately decontented their monarchies until their kings and queens could barely be distinguished from normal citizens, Britain proudly maintained the full medieval monty: gilded carriages, bearskin helmets, liveried footmen and volumes of tradition.

It was marketing, to be sure; the royals are central to Britain’s brand and identity. But Queen Elizabeth was prepared to treat it all, from wearing a five-pound crown while reading a canned message in Parliament to feigning delight in some tropical ceremony, as the service to which she dedicated her life. As she said in a touching speech on her 21st birthday, “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.” Though democracy left her no real governing power, she was ahead of her time in championing equality and diversity in the Commonwealth and, by most accounts, she made her views discreetly known to successive prime ministers, whom she met weekly.

The queen’s relations with another powerful woman, Margaret Thatcher, the long-serving prime minister who was roughly the same age as Elizabeth, are the best-known example. Thatcher’s labor policies and reluctance to impose sanctions on South Africa put her in direct conflict with the queen’s views, and at one point the royal press secretary, Michael Shea, told journalists that the queen regarded the prime minister’s policies as “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive.”

Much has been made of this moment in films and the hugely popular television series “The Crown.” But as with so many things attributed to the queen in print and film, the reality is not known. The queen reportedly denied that these were her real sentiments, and Thatcher never publicly discussed her relations with the queen.

That public reserve has also set the queen apart from other members of her family, including her late husband, Prince Philip, and her heir, Prince Charles, who have been far less reticent about sharing their views far and wide. Which raises a critical question: Can the monarchy survive Elizabeth? Or, to borrow again from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” shall “golden Phoebus never be beheld/Of eyes again so royal!”

Prince Charles waited so long that, at 73, he should be retiring rather than starting the job for which he was trained, and he is not particularly popular. British polling has suggested that many would just as soon jump as quickly as possible to Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, who with his charming duchess and adorable children has demonstrated a knack for royal work. Charles, Prince of Wales, by contrast, has allowed that realizing what lay ahead was a “ghastly, inexorable” experience.

A reluctant Charles on the throne will certainly raise the volume on questions about the cost and value of having a pampered and tainted family as the face of Britain. Commonwealth countries would likely share in these doubts — some might well follow the example set by Barbados in 2021 when it removed the queen as head of state, announcing, “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” or Jamaica, whose prime minister said his country was “moving on” from the British monarchy after a disastrous royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge this year.

Perhaps beyond all such questions of popularity, usefulness and propriety is the question of whether anyone else can ever again share Queen Elizabeth’s innate appreciation of the mystique of the monarch, her natural royal dignity. Those were traits inherited from an era when the dignity and role of the throne were still self-evident to many, when Winston Churchill, an early mentor of the young Queen Elizabeth, extolled the sovereign as the “splendor of our political and moral inheritance.” It is hard to name any reigning royal in the world who still personifies that power, and none do it as graciously and convincingly as Queen Elizabeth did.

A lot will depend on younger generations. Chances are they’ll keep it going. One of the mysteries of life is that so many children’s stories stubbornly focus on kings and queens who are either good rulers beloved of their people or, if not, supplanted by a good prince or princess. Our first childhood encounter with the notion of government is often that of the good monarch rising above the tawdry mess of politics.

Queen Elizabeth demonstrated that it need not be fiction.

The New York Times

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