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Queen Elizabeth II Understood the Weight of the Crown
Queen Elizabeth II Understood the Weight of the Crown
She died in her happy place. It was a photograph of herself and Prince Philip at Balmoral, wrapped in a tartan picnic blanket beside the hills of her beloved Loch Muick, that she chose to release on the eve of his funeral last year. Balmoral is where it is said he proposed to her and where, throughout her life, she spent contented summer months unassailed, except by her own family.
I am told Her Majesty had made it quietly known that it was her hope she would die in Scotland and had increased the amount of time she spent there to better her chances. The woman who had given so much of her life to public duty was trying to ensure that her last moments were spent in the most private of her royal estates.
She planned well. The final days of her reign had a satisfying sense of completion. After making it through her Platinum Jubilee marking 70 years on the throne in June, she lived long enough to kiss off her 14th prime minister, Boris Johnson, and welcome her 15th to form Her Majesty’s government. From Winston Churchill to Liz Truss. One would love to know — and never will — what the privately astringent Queen Elizabeth thought about this particular arc of political history.
How we will miss not knowing what she thought! In a time when everyone has opinions, the queen adhered to the discipline of never revealing hers. However accomplished King Charles III turns out to be, he will never have his mother’s mystique because we know far too much about him. The queen was lucky to begin her reign in an era of press deference to the royals and smart enough to grant a formal interview only once, for a BBC documentary about the coronation. Her small talk to strangers was thrillingly pedestrian. When she pinned on my lapel the medal of the Commander of the British Empire for services to overseas journalism as editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, I will forever remember what she said in the cut-glass tones of an everlasting British teatime. “So. Are you here now or over there?” “Over there, ma’am,” I replied. “Oh,” she said and moved to the next star-struck honoree, the author Timothy Garton Ash.
That perennial poker face of hers was strategic, a constitutional tool. As one of her former aides told me, “Because she spent her entire life being such a closed book, people project onto her whatever they want to become.” The aftermath of Diana’s death was a rare time the queen’s perfect pitch could not meet the hour. The emblematic role of monarch that she had been trained to play — simply to be — was suddenly not enough for a grieving nation demanding something she had never been required to show before: emotion.
The saving words in her reluctant television address acknowledging her wayward former daughter-in-law’s unique contribution were, “What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart.” The grandmother phrase was written by Downing Street.
The British public soon forgave her. There was never any serious movement in England during her reign to get rid of the monarchy. Standing above brawling partisan power, she alone could unite the nation in times of national joy or anxiety. During the challenging enforced separations of the pandemic, the contrast between the black-garbed queen — ever disciplined, always exemplary, achingly alone in the St. George’s Chapel pew at her husband’s Windsor funeral — and the lockdown rule-busting parties the day before at Boris Johnson’s 10 Downing Street was an indelible, wordless moral rebuke.
Her televised address from her Covid bubble at Windsor immediately made her people feel safer. “We will meet again,” she said, evoking the World War II chanteuse Vera Lynn. For the last crowned head who served in uniform in that war — she learned to fix cars and trucks as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service —D-Day anniversaries were still personal.
“She said she was immediately transported back to that time,” a former aide told me. “For her, it was a bunch of her friends on boats, landing on the beaches and pressing into France. And she had no idea whether she’d see them again.”
Without the queen, how will anyone know how to be British anymore? At the risk of sounding like Maggie Smith’s dowager Countess of Grantham in “Downton Abbey,” she was the last well-behaved person in our coarsening, transactional world. Amid the clamor of ubiquitous narcissism, her cool refusal to impose her views or justify her choices was ineffably soothing. So were her routines, her dogs and horses and headscarves. You could tell the seasons by which palace or castle the queen was residing in during any given month: Sandringham for Christmas, Windsor in June. The queen was so grounded, her death has left us spinning in space.
A sustaining strength was her lifelong connection to the countryside. She fiercely protected her time with the passion of her life, her horses. Before her wedding toast for Charles and Camilla in 2005 at Windsor Castle, she disappeared into a side room to watch the Grand National horse race. Her best friend was her longtime racing manager, who died in 2001, the Earl of Carnarvon, known to his friends as Porchey. He used to call her in the afternoons from the bloodstock sales with the hot horse news. Animals were the queen’s true emotional peers. They had no interest in her rank, loved her for herself and never bored her by asking what Churchill was really like.
Offstage, the queen had a dry, drop-dead sense of irony, especially when asked to do something “relatable.” In a planning session for her Golden Jubilee, an aide asked if she would consider riding on the newly constructed Ferris wheel, the London Eye. “I am not a tourist,” I am told she replied. The reason she agreed to appear in a cameo with Daniel Craig as James Bond at the 2012 London Olympics was as a joke for her grandchildren. “Go, Granny!” an astonished Harry and William yelled from their seats as a stunt double dressed as the queen parachuted into the stadium followed by the queen herself behaving as if nothing had happened.
Elizabeth II never disappointed. Bailing out was not in her bloodstream. For the last nine months, the British nation has been in awe of how she struggled against ill health to continue to fulfill her duty in person and with the same imperturbable commitment. The fact that five days before her death, the tiny, infirm monarch even considered attending the Braemar Gathering, an annual hairy-kneed, kilt-whirling contest of tug of war and caber tossing, was, well, epic.
The queen herself never saw it that way. Sometimes missed in the paeans to her stoicism and physical stamina is how much Elizabeth II loved her job. She was the one member of the royal family (except perhaps Princess Anne) who did not find the relentless schedule of royal duties a mind-numbing chore. A former member of her staff told me that the queen adored any¬thing to do with infrastructure, often fishing out invitations to open bridges and tunnels from her private secretaries’ “decline” pile. (Her grandmother Queen Mary, similarly dedicated to duty, once declared, “We are never tired and we all love hospitals.”) Elizabeth far preferred retreating to her study to read the government dispatches inside her famous daily red boxes to arbitrating the messy disputes of her unruly family, which she left to Prince Philip.
From the hesitant novice of her early years on the throne, the queen evolved into a great chief executive of the more than 1,000-year-old institution of the British monarchy. Elizabeth I, Victoria, Elizabeth II. It turns out women are very good at this job. Thanks to the queen’s attentiveness to those red boxes and her keen interest in the minutiae of government, she was always rigorously prepared for her weekly audiences with the prime minister. A visiting dignitary who spoke to her shortly after the catastrophic 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in west London told me, “If she had been a cabinet officer, you would have considered her unusually well¬ briefed.”
Her family was well aware of how she separated her dual roles as monarch and matriarch. Prince Harry told Oprah that the queen’s private secretary had headed off an agreed-upon visit to see her at Sandringham when he and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, wished to step back from royal duties to simultaneously pursue commercial opportunities. But he clearly failed to understand what everyone else in the family absorbed from the cradle. Her advisers intervened only to provide Her Majesty with C.E.O. deniability. A catch-up chat with his grandmother was very different from an occasion where matters that affected Crown and Constitution would be discussed. The jolly tea Harry seemed to have imagined was replaced by what became known as “the Sandringham Summit,” called by the queen, who hosted Charles, then the Prince of Wales, both his sons and the senior aides to each of the four. It was a meeting in which her sovereign self, not her granny persona, was in control. “Megxit” became not a deal but an edict. There would be no stepping “back” for the Sussexes, only stepping down.
But usually it was the queen’s impeccable deployment of soft, or softer, power we saw, especially during her more than 250 foreign trips. The greatest political success of her reign was based on an apolitical expression of regret — her historic visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 when she spoke of “being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.” Presiding for seven decades over shrinking dominions and her country’s diminishing world power, the queen was a master of the art of gracious retreats while preserving the aura of sovereignty. Some of the 2.5 billion people in the Commonwealth realms hoped for a more forthright acknowledgment of the lasting harms of colonialism. But for the queen, an apology for her country’s history would rank as a political statement she would not make. She has left it to her heirs to begin to address at last what Charles, in Barbados last year, called “the appalling atrocity of slavery.” In this instance, royal “regret” will never be enough.
It was the British monarchy’s extraordinary luck that the serious-minded, 25-year-old woman who became queen in 1952 possessed the unique properties of character to honor her youthful pledge to devote her life to the service of the nation. She had seen what the grave burdens of duty had cost her beloved father, George VI, who died a careworn 56.
In the months before the coronation, a 4-year-old Prince Charles found his mother sitting at her desk wearing the headache-inducing Imperial State Crown, studded with 2,868 diamonds and the Black Prince’s Ruby, the size of a hen’s egg, according to Anne Glenconner’s memoir, “Lady in Waiting.” The queen explained that the crown was very heavy and she wanted to get used to wearing it. She understood the weight of the crown both literally and figuratively.
As the new king said in his poignant first address as monarch, his mother’s life of duty was “a promise with destiny kept.” She will be remembered now as Elizabeth the Steadfast, Elizabeth the Great. Perhaps the most telling sentence the young monarch ever uttered was her answer to the archbishop of Canterbury’s question at her coronation. “Madam, is Your Majesty willing to take the oath?” In her high, girlish voice, she replied, “I am willing.”
The New York Times