Queen Elizabeth II passed Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest-serving monarch on Sept. 9. On April 21, 2016, she turns 90. Read our coverage here.
Chapter One: The Queen of England meets the Queen of Europe
This June 24, two women met in Berlin for tea and a tête-à-tête. The hostess, in black slacks and vivid coral jacket, was waiting at the door, as the woman from London, elegant in white dress, hat and gloves, alighted from a limousine as glossy black as her shoes and ever-present purse. This was their third get-together over the years. They shook hands. The woman in slacks and jacket did not bow. This was not a slight, merely a mutual acknowledgment by two extraordinary women that power was shaking the gloved hand of influence.
The 60-year-old woman in coral, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, a child of Cold War East Germany who, for the past 10 years, has been the democratically elected leader of the richest economy in the European Union. She has also, through political clout and force of personality, assumed an uncrowned role as the EU’s de facto leader.
The woman in white, born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor 89 years ago, is the daughter of a prince who became Britain’s reluctant wartime king after the abdication of his feckless brother. The young princess came of age listening to the roar, whistle and thud of air raids near the sand-bagged redoubt of Windsor Castle. As the Second World War neared its end in 1945, she would wheel an ambulance through roads cratered by German bombs. She became Queen on Feb. 6, 1952, upon the death of her father, King George VI. Neither she, nor her subjects, had any real say in the matter.
And Queen she remains; a Queen longer than Angela Merkel has been alive. A Queen who, as of 5:30 p.m. London time on Sept. 9, 2015, surpasses the 23,226-day, 16-hour and 23-minute reign of Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. A Queen longer than any monarch in British history. Like Victoria, who became the longest-serving monarch in 1896, Elizabeth is not particularly keen to have this milestone celebrated. Like Victoria, she is extraordinarily well-briefed on the affairs of her realm, though less overtly meddlesome. Elizabeth has also produced a large (for her times) family with its share of woes and, like her great-great-granny, she has kept Charles, her son and heir, waiting into his senior years for a chance to rule. There the similarities largely end. The often reclusive Victoria was obese, frail and mentally confused by the time of her death at 81, while age has hardly diminished Elizabeth—although, of course, she is no longer the fetching beauty who married Philip. She has morphed over time to become the all-knowing grandmother of the Commonwealth, while remaining, in an era of fleeting attention spans, perhaps the most famous woman in the world.
June 24, 2015, on this, her 270th overseas tour, was just one of those 23,000-plus days—days filled with teas and trumpets, bows and bouquets, plaques to unveil and platitudes to deliver. But, while every day counts—obsessively and to the minute, for royal watchers—this June day in Berlin, like so much in this city of intrigue, had multiple layers of meaning.
Its surface value was amazing enough. This was Elizabeth and Philip’s fifth official state visit to Germany during her reign and, judging by the fawning media coverage, the bond is strong and enduring. Typical was Bild, Germany’s bestselling newspaper, which celebrated her arrival with a massive front-page photo of her and the English-language headline: “We love you, Ma’am.” For all the fear and drear that afflicts the daily news cycle, it is worth remembering that the world is a saner, safer place than it was during the lost years of the last century, when Germany and Britain were mortal enemies, mired in two of the deadliest wars in human history. Or when a wall sliced through the heart of Berlin, imprisoning those in the communist east bloc and threatening yet more war.
Merkel walked her royal guest to the balcony outside her chancellery office to show her the sweep of the city below. “And where the train goes there, that was the wall,” she said in English. “I lived in East Germany, just 200 m behind this.” Then, just before the cameras were shooed away, the two repaired inside for tea, where Merkel signalled for refreshments. “Would you like a cup of tea? Normally, I get it myself,” she said, as if apologizing for putting on airs. They might have been mother and daughter, one German newspaper noted. Or they might have been enemies. Or the wall might never have fallen and the headline, “The Queen of England meets the Queen of Europe” might never have been written.
Just a cup of tea and a private chat, this June day, but one wonders if these women who have lived in the vortex of history reflected on all the bloodshed and bullets, the wrong turns and right moves that led to this small act of civility. Germans remember with gratitude that Elizabeth was among those first heads of state to attempt to put the past behind. Germany remained largely still “an outlaw nation” when the Queen met in Windsor with then-chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the 1950s, wrote Bild columnist and royals expert Alexander von Schönburg-Glauchau. But it was the Queen’s first state visit to Germany in 1965 that made the country “acceptable on the diplomatic parquet again,” he wrote. Memories of Nazism were fresh enough that the Queen weathered criticism at home that she was insulting Allied war dead, while the German government worried that enthusiastic crowds might greet the Queen with cries of “Heil!” Instead, they shouted “E-li-sa-beth!” From a German perspective, that first 11-day visit was a huge success, an endorsement of its reinstatement as an ally of the West and, to borrow from Casablanca, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. White gloves and subtle influence are hallmarks of her reign.
“I pay tribute to the work of the German statesmen since the Second World War who reinvented Germany and helped to rebuild Europe,” the Queen told a state banquet in Berlin this June 24. “We have witnessed how quickly things can change for the better. But we know that we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the postwar world.”
It was then, in a few words at the end of her speech, that she bit into the meat of the message, perhaps the sub-surface raison d’être for the entire tour: “We know that division in Europe is dangerous, and that we must guard against it in the west, as well as in the east of our continent. That remains a common endeavour.” The speech came during the Russian incursion in Ukraine, amid fears that a Greek debt default would see its ouster from the eurozone, and with British Prime Minister David Cameron demanding European Union concessions after committing Britain to a referendum on its future within the EU.
With both the chancellor and prime minister among the 700 dinner guests, those few sentences were interpreted variously as: a plea to Merkel to ease her resistance to British concessions; a warning to Cameron not to overplay his hand; and a reminder to citizens of both countries, and beyond, of the value of unity. “Every gesture, every word of the Queen in the coming days, has meaning, for Germany, Britain, Europe,” the business daily Handelsblatt reported. “It is the politics of the apolitical.”
Unlike raw power, influence is a discreet instrument. In the 63rd year of her reign, she is a master of the long game.
Chapter Two: Accidental Monarchs
It was Elizabeth’s good fortune to be born on April 21, 1926, into a family oblivious to its impending fate. Although born third in line to the throne, she was never meant to be Queen any more than her father, Albert, duke of York, was meant to be king. That was the destiny of her uncle, David, Albert’s older, more socially adept brother. He was the one schooled in the role, his reputation polished to what proved to be a deceptively shallow gloss. David and Albert (Bertie, to family and friends) were among six children of King George V and Queen Mary. It was, by the children’s own accounts, an unhappy upbringing by emotionally distant parents.
Albert developed a severe stutter as a child, one that only worsened under the withering criticism of his father, the king. Lilibet, as Elizabeth was called, was just six months old when her father, ground down by his impediment, began speech therapy under the unconventional guidance of Lionel Logue. Logue’s notes would later inform the Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech, released in 2010. Bertie was determined that his children would not suffer the same unhappy childhood he did. By all available evidence, he succeeded. A window was opened into young Elizabeth’s, and her sister Margaret’s, world by the indiscretion of Marion Crawford, their Scottish governess, who lived with the family from 1933 to 1949. In 1950, to the horror of the royals, she published a book, The Little Princesses, about her experiences.
The oft-quoted anecdotes Crawford shared are of a warm, physically affectionate family—“we four,” as Bertie called them after Margaret was born in August 1930. They loved cards and charades and skits and all manner of outdoor pursuits. Elizabeth’s lifelong love of horses and her wicked gift for mimicry—something never shared in public—all stem from her earliest years.
“I think I’ve got the best mother and father in the world,” Princess Elizabeth would write her parents during her honeymoon, “and I only hope that I can bring up my children in the happy atmosphere of love and fairness, which Margaret and I have grown up in.” They lived in a rareﬁed world, but they had lesser royal roles. Father was a duke who would never be king. She was a princess, unlikely to be queen. Or so it seemed.
All that changed, of course, when Bertie’s brother David, known as King Edward VIII, abdicated after less than a year, ostensibly because his plans to marry Wallis Simpson, his twice-divorced American lover, were blocked by prime minister Stanley Baldwin, as well as the Church of England. He announced his abdication on Dec. 11, 1936, in a radio broadcast from Windsor Castle: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” Many who knew him suspect that the first part of that sentence was true, with or without Mrs. Simpson. “He wasn’t much of a chap, really,” said Miles Fitzalan-Howard, 17th duke of Norfolk. “He let the side down very much.”
With the abdication, Bertie, thrust into the role of King George VI, became the latest royal conscript. He must have looked with mixed emotions at his beloved Lilibet, all of 10 years old, her future path now set in stone. One day she would be Queen—if she, unlike his brother, could endure it.
The countess of Longford, a well-connected royal biographer, told the story of Elizabeth and her six-year-old sister, Margaret, playing in their house near Hyde Park corner, when they heard raucous cheers from a crowd nearby. Elizabeth ran downstairs to be told by a footman that her father was now king. “Does that mean you’ll be Queen?” Margaret asked. “Yes, someday,” said Elizabeth. And Margaret said: “Poor you.”
Fate also played a role in Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne. Her father died when she was just eight months old. While her father’s brothers were ahead of her in succession, they died leaving no surviving legitimate heirs. She was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom and Ireland on June 20, 1837, upon the death of her uncle, King William IV. She was just 18, single and resentful of a domineering mother. Although she was ill-prepared for the role, she was quick to assert her will. She banished her mother to a distant set of apartments in Buckingham Palace, dumped her mother’s smothering adviser, and sought advice from others she trusted. Three years later, she would propose to, and marry, her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, part of a British penchant at the time for intermarrying with European, especially German, royalty. By all accounts it was a love match and, as a married woman, it allowed her the latitude to evict her mother from the castle without offending public sensibilities. She and Albert produced nine children and Victoria relied heavily on his support and advice. His death in 1861 sent Victoria spiralling into depression. She largely withdrew from public life, adding fuel to a growing republican sentiment and making herself near-invisible to an entire generation of her subjects. She would wear mourning black for the rest of her life.
She came, or was dragged, out of her self-imposed exile in time for the celebration of her 50th jubilee, restoring with remarkable speed her popularity, as well as the health and future prospects for the constitutional monarchy. Her diamond jubilee in 1897 was further cause for celebration, including soldiers and dignitaries from a British Empire that grew during her reign to span vast reaches of the globe. But if the sun never set on the empire, dusk was approaching for Victoria. At age 78, she was frail and stout and could not mount the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The celebratory service was held outside, with Victoria watching from the comfort of her horse-drawn carriage.
An inveterate diarist, Victoria wrote of the moment she was informed of the death of her uncle, the king. “How well I remember this day 60 years ago, when I was called from my bed by dear Mama to receive the news of my accession.” Only with her death in 1901 would she be dressed in white, upon her instructions, and be buried with her wedding veil.
The crown is more often conveyed in sorrow than in joy. It’s a lesson Elizabeth would learn at age 25, when Philip broke the news of her father’s death while the couple was visiting a Kenyan game resort. He put his arm around a weeping Elizabeth that morning as they walked the lawns of the resort, contemplating their loss and the daunting new reality. His career as a naval officer was over. She was Queen. He was her consort; their life sentence had begun.
Most observers expect that, as with Victoria, it will be a life sentence, or something very close to it. The young princess marked her 21st birthday with a radio broadcast from Cape Town, during a royal tour with her family of South Africa. It was the defining commitment of her future reign: “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. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone, unless you join in it with me . . .”
By then she was already secretly engaged, against her parents’ better judgment, to Philip, whom she’d met in 1939 when she was an impressionable 13 and he was a rambunctious 18-year-old naval cadet. Although he was well-connected and his uncle was the powerful and ambitious senior Royal Navy officer Louis Mountbatten, Philip came with more baggage than a frigate. He was a member of a threadbare arm of Greek royalty, though he had not a drop of Greek blood. His mother, Alice, was born at Windsor Castle in the presence of Queen Victoria. His father, Prince Andrew of Greece, was an army commander caught up in a losing war with Turkey. Following defeat, and a Greek coup, Philip’s father was sentenced to death by firing squad. A hurried intervention from Britain allowed the family to flee by boat, with 18-month-old Philip sleeping in a fruit crate.
Alice grew increasingly erratic, declared herself a bride of Christ, was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and sent to a Swiss sanitorium. Philip’s four older sisters all left home pre-war to marry Germans. His father moved to Monte Carlo, took a mistress, and gambled out his days with style, if not success. Philip, until he found a home in the Royal Navy, lived a genteel homelessness, attending boarding school, and living with various relatives during holidays—his Christmases and birthdays ignored by his parents. It forged his blunt, self-reliant streak, but it hardly made him a prime catch for a prospective queen.
Still, they corresponded throughout the war and he saw her on occasional home leaves. His was a good war, as the British say. He was credited with a key role in sinking two Italian cruisers. He was aboard HMS Whelp in Tokyo Bay during the surrender of Japanese forces. The Elizabeth he found on his return in March 1946 was a mature young woman of striking beauty. The two drew close. The king hoped it was a passing fancy, “as she has never met any young men of her own age.”
Unlike Victoria, it was Philip who took the plunge and proposed during a summer visit to the royal estate at Balmoral, Scotland. Elizabeth, all of 20, said yes instantly, without seeking the approval of her parents. The engagement was announced on July 10, 1947, after Elizabeth was a more seemly 21, with the wedding set for that Nov. 20 at Westminster Abbey.
Palace courtiers sniffed their disapproval. Philip was called “the Greek” by some and “the Hun” by others. But for those who tried to steer Elizabeth to safer, less complicated grooms, it was a wake-up call. There was a resolve in Elizabeth every bit as unbending as that in Philip. As biographer and historian Hugo Vickers put it, “She took on someone her own size.”
Marrying Philip was the most incautious act of her young life—perhaps her most incautious act, period. And the same might be said of Philip. As he once noted, in a not-uncommon moment of frankness, being royalty is not a life anyone would choose or volunteer for. And yet, as Elizabeth’s biographer Andrew Marr said, he did exactly that, aware that, one day, Elizabeth would be Queen. “Since then, his role has been to support her and act as head of the family, working behind the scenes to keep ‘the Firm’ together.”
They could not have know then that their relatively carefree lives as princess and wife of a dashing naval officer would end just four years into the marriage with the death of the king. Elizabeth had one edict for Philip when she agreed to marry him: Quit smoking. Her father was heavily addicted to cigarettes, and she blamed them for the toll on his health during the war years. Philip obliged, quitting cold turkey the night before the wedding.
For the king, however, the damage was already done. In 1949, plagued by arteriosclerosis, he underwent surgery to aid the circulation in his legs. A greater burden of his duties fell to Elizabeth. It became apparent that Philip had to surrender his command and return to London. In 1951, surgeons removed the king’s cancerous left lung, though the severity of his illness was kept from the public.
Back in public life again, Elizabeth and Philip became as glamorous in their day as William and Catherine are now. It was something neither particularly sought. Philip treated celebrity as radioactive. “Safer not to be too popular,” he said. “You can’t fall too far.” His dim view was confirmed years later, as his son Charles and his wife, Diana, were consumed by the media during their marital meltdown.
Unlike Victoria, Elizabeth is blessed with a marriage and partnership that has endured throughout her reign. Philip, at 94, was there with her this June in Berlin, as he was on their other four visits to Germany, on her 23 official visits to Canada; in fact, on every one of her 270 overseas tours. If there ever does come a time when Elizabeth contemplates abdication, it might be the death of Philip. “I don’t think that she could do it without him,” her grandson Prince Harry once said of her royal duties, “especially when they’re both at this age.”
Chapter Three: Evolving monarchy
There is nothing democratic about a hereditary monarchy, but that doesn’t stop Elizabeth running what amounts to a perpetual campaign for the hearts and minds of her subjects. Without that loyalty, the monarchy dies. That she is Queen due to an accident of birth and circumstance seems to have made her work all the harder to prove she’s worthy of serving the public and advancing the monarchy into the modern age. So, to the extent she thinks proper, she has moved along with society, or rather, a few respectful steps behind it.
The shift is almost imperceptible from one year to the next. But, over the long arc of her reign—from prime ministers Winston Churchill to David Cameron over there, and Louis St. Laurent to Stephen Harper over here—the prisoner of protocol has loosened her style. It began with her coronation on June 2, 1953. The young Queen overrode the objections of both the dean of Westminster Abbey and then-prime minister Churchill to insist that television cameras film the glittering event. It was not an act of hubris, but a recognition of reality. She knew that, unlike Victoria, she would never have the luxury of an extended escape from the public eye. “I have to be seen,” she has said, “to be believed.”
There are exceptions: her rambling summer retreats on the Balmoral estate, and 44 years of extended tours and family times at sea on the former royal yacht Britannia. To tour the ship today, now a tourist exhibit outside Edinburgh, is to see a different Elizabeth. The family photos taken aboard and lining the halls show her casual and carefree, brighter, lighter, laughing into the wind. Of course, these were working trips, with banquets and tours and separate offices aboard for him and her. Behind glass in Philip’s office is a model of the frigate HMS Magpie, the only ship he would command before his career was cut short. He must have stared at it sometimes as he waded through correspondence or prepped for yet another speech, and wondered about his trajectory from captain to first mate.
The Britannia was reluctantly retired in 1997—too old, too slow, too opulent for modern royalty. These days, the Queen pays income tax, has reduced the need for bows and curtsies to tolerable levels, has expanded and democratized the social calendar at Buckingham Palace. Her early rigid views on morality and divorce—almost Victorian in their sensibility—have relaxed. Back in 1949, in a speech as princess to a Mother’s Union rally, she railed against divorce and “the age of growing self-indulgence, of hardening materialism and of falling moral standards.” Her sister Margaret was 22 when she confided to the young Queen that she wanted to marry Peter Townsend, a divorced RAF war hero. The union was opposed by the Church of England and Churchill’s government. Elizabeth did nothing to advance her sister’s cause and Margaret’s relationship collapsed, irrevocably altering the course of her life. Today Elizabeth accepts or, at least, tolerates the mores of a different era, having had to come to terms with the realities of her own family life. By the time of Margaret’s death in 2002, Elizabeth had seen the divorces of three of her own four children. Son Charles had dutifully married a virginal Lady Diana Spencer, in what, in retrospect, seems more disastrous arrangement than love match. Her grandson William, free to follow his heart, was under no such constraint. Straitlaced Elizabeth would ultimately bend to endorse, even celebrate, the civil marriage of Charles to his mistress Camilla—something the younger Queen would never have countenanced.
The last vestiges of Victorian prudery crumbled in Elizabeth’s time, as did the Empire, though she can’t be blamed—or credited—with either event. It was left for her to put a brave public face on her family’s marital woes, and to champion the Commonwealth, the more benign offspring of the empire Britain once ruled. For a woman who’s never owned a passport, it’s been quite the journey.
Chapter Four: Trusted adviser
For 63 years now, most Tuesdays around 6 p.m., the British prime minister of the day arrives at Buckingham Palace for what some have come to view as a weekly therapy session: a private meeting with the Queen. No aides are present. No notes are taken. Nothing leaves the room. The Queen reigns; she does not rule. But, by convention, she has the right to be consulted, to advise, and to warn. Over the years, prime ministers have discussed crises of every sort, shared cabinet squabbles, indiscreet gossip, their doubts and fears. In the Queen, they get the sanctity of the confessional, a sympathetic, if non-partisan, ear, and an extraordinarily well-briefed woman who’s known most every state secret of the past six decades and the rogues and players behind them.
She’s never been one for confrontation or gratuitous advice. Usually she asks questions. And if the answers are lacking, she’ll ask more questions, until a PM gets the message that a course of action may need rethinking. If that sounds vague, it’s because there has never been a leak of any substance of these discussions. Sir Gus O’Donnell, a cabinet secretary working with David Cameron and his three predecessors, told Andrew Marr that the Queen offers “a safe space” where PMs discuss things they can’t with anyone else. “They go out of their way not to miss it,” he said of the meetings. “They come out of them better than they went in, let’s put it that way.”
There was one glaring exception, though it didn’t occur during an in-person meeting. It came after David Cameron and the Queen discussed by phone the results of the September 2014 Scottish referendum on secession. The Queen throughout was scrupulously neutral in her public utterances, though few doubt she would have been gutted to lose Scotland on her watch. Days after the vote, Cameron was overheard recounting the phone conversation to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying she “purred” in contentment after Scots rejected independence. Publicly caught out, a red-faced Cameron said he’d apologize to the Queen. “I regret it, I’m sorry about it, it won’t happen again.” One expects there was a chill at the next Tuesday’s get-together; discretion is her stock-in-trade.
Each day except Christmas, the Queen takes delivery of rather battered red leather boxes containing cabinet minutes, intelligence reports and issues of importance from her realms. She is known as Reader No. 1, and that is another role she takes terribly seriously. Even during official visits, such as her 2010 tour of Canada, time is allocated for the boxes with their hidden intrigues and dense bureaucratic prose.
She has built an unrivalled institutional memory. Some of it comes from papers and briefings, much of it from relationships forged in her travels. When William and Catherine returned from their Canadian tour in 2011, one of the prince’s ﬁrst tasks was to brief the Queen. She knows the place inside out, as successive prime ministers have discovered.
Lester B. Pearson, the diplomat turned prime minister, knew Elizabeth as a princess, meeting her as a girl when he paid his respects to her father the king, while he was minister of foreign affairs. “The Queen was interested in our foreign policy and, especially, the Commonwealth, which was her major interest,” recalled Geoffrey Pearson, his son, as quoted in Deborah Stobers’s biography of the Queen. Pearson had a role in the creation of Zimbabwe from the colony of Rhodesia. “Obviously, there were a lot of common interests in questions about the future of the Commonwealth,” Pearson said. “Could it act as a bridge between East and West? Could the Commonwealth be a force for good?”
In former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s experience, the Queen is a subtle but effective force in the often complex affairs of the loose collective of 53 Commonwealth countries representing almost a third of the world’s population. “She sees herself fused into that instrument that was originally an empire,” Mulroney told author Bedell Smith. He recalled a 1985 meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Nassau, Bahamas. British PM Margaret Thatcher was opposing strong support from other nations for tough sanctions against South Africa and its apartheid policy. The Queen, typically, offered no opinion about sanctions, but she urged Mulroney to work with other leaders to ﬁnd a unified position in their efforts to end apartheid. At a dinner the next year, she led leaders through a discussion on human rights, siding with the pro-sanction position, if one read her “nuances and body language,” Mulroney said. Ultimately, Thatcher dropped most of her opposition. “What saved the day,” Mulroney said, “was that Margaret was aware Her Majesty certainly wanted some kind of resolution.”
Most notably, the Queen and the monarchy have learned to lose gracefully when the occasion calls for it. The noses of the British establishment were disjointed by Pierre Trudeau’s plan in 1980 to patriate the British North America Act from Britain and create a Canadian-controlled constitution. Many suspected Trudeau was a closet republican. Nor did they know what to make of the rough-hewn Jean Chrétien, who, as justice minister, was Trudeau’s political fixer on the issue. The Queen and Chrétien, however, shared a mutual affection that continues to this day. As for Trudeau, he wrote in his memoirs that she favoured his plan. “I was always impressed not only by the grace she displayed in public at all times,” he wrote, “but by the wisdom she showed in private conversation.” Philosophically, Canada’s assertiveness was a coming-of-age story that the Queen has seen played out in other realms. Much better to surrender a power that was largely theoretical than to lose the influence and public support that are the real glue of today’s monarchy.
It’s likely that Canada’s Queen has had no bigger prime ministerial fan than Stephen Harper. Meeting her first as opposition leader in 2002, he recalled being “impressed beyond description at how well [she] is informed about everything.” As Prime Minister, he was a near constant presence during her 2010 Canadian tour. He’s ordered her portraits installed in all Canadian consular buildings abroad. There’s a hefty dose of royal heritage in the revised guide for prospective citizens. He’s restored “royal” to the title of our Navy and Air Force.
It’s telling that there’s been little backlash to Harper’s royal restoration efforts. Like most Canadians, he’s of an age where she’s the only monarch he’s ever known. By staying power alone, she’s ground down republican sentiment, or at least postponed debate for another day.
That said, Buckingham Palace made it clear months ago that Elizabeth had no desire to trade on her ascension to the top of the royal seniority list. The Commonwealth-wide celebration of her Diamond Jubilee was held just three years earlier in 2012, and plans are already afoot to mark her 90th birthday next year. She has counselled restraint, knowing instinctively there can be too much of a good thing, and only so much room in the public china cabinet for commemorative teacups. Moreover, she has the good grace to realize it would be uncouth to encourage a bacchanal on the anniversary of great-great-granny’s death. Sept. 9, a palace source told the Telegraph, will be “business as usual.” Much like day 23,225 before and day 23,227 thereafter.
But some days are more powerful that others. Take day 23,150, during what many believe will be her final official visit to Germany. She and Philip visited the Bergen-Belsen prison camp, the scene of more than 50,000 deaths by starvation, disease, overwork and horrific medical experiments. It marked the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by British and Canadian troops, and the Queen’s first visit to a Nazi death camp. Perhaps it had taken the four previous visits and the intervening decades to build to this, to request of her hosts a visit to the scene of some of the worst crimes their countrymen have committed. The result that afternoon was a poignant act of remembrance rather than forgiveness, handled with grace and dignity by guest and host alike.
By July 1, she was back in the U.K., in Edinburgh, making nice with Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party. Sturgeon’s dream of an independent Scotland fell short in the referendum, but her party swept the subsequent election. Presumably, both women had reason to purr, and a few differences to iron out, though neither side is telling.
The days roll on for what was a relatively quiet summer. Here’s a random selection from her duty roster, the Court Circular:
- July 14: The Queen received the bishop of Gloucester (the Right Rev. Rachel Treweek) “who did homage upon her appointment.”
- July 16: The Queen and Philip visited the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, and, among many events, “met the chairman of governors and principals, and headteachers of nearby schools, before viewing a cycle polo match, language classes and listening to a musical interlude.”
- July 21: The Hon. Mrs. Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau was received at Buckingham Palace “in audience by the Queen upon her appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick.”
One supposes that, even for a Queen, there are times you want to phone it in, days when one more school to visit, bouquet to accept, reception line to charm leaves one cranky and bored gormless. Husband Philip is not above venting such feelings. This July, being posed by yet another fiddling photographer, at yet another photo call for yet another event, he let loose his inner sailor. “Just take the f–king picture!” he erupted.
Would the Queen say that? Not ever. Would the Queen think that? Ah, one suspects that’s part of Philip’s role, saying what she can’t.
As a little boy, this writer once saw her wave from the back of a train in Galt, Ont., and later tracked her in Canada, in Britain, in the Bahamas, and I can’t but marvel at her commitment—on good days, tragic days, on days so tedious that event organizers should be hauled to the Tower of London. And yet she soldiers on, according the events of the day the respect they deserve, aware that even the least important item on her calendar is of great consequence to those involved. It’s a fulfilment of the vow she made as an earnest 21-year-old princess, not knowing if her life would be long or short.
All those unveilings, bouquets and set-piece speeches, are they of any consequence? The answer is hidden beneath that smile and behind closed doors. Certainly, she doesn’t plow through those daily document boxes for sport; she takes seriously her right to be consulted, to advise and to warn those whose vision rarely extends beyond the next election.
The value of doing so with discretion and civility shouldn’t be discounted. A Constitution is patriated on a rainy April day in Ottawa, Commonwealth sanctions are imposed on a racist South African regime, tea is taken with the leader of a former enemy, and perhaps that county holds the key to keep Britain in the European Union. Surely, what keeps her moving forward is the politics of the apolitical, as the German newspaper put it; a belief that she has some quiet influence in shaping the events that swirl about her feet.
She was—literally—born to do this job, and has worked relentlessly these 63 years to prove herself worthy. So she gathers bouquets while she may, she smiles and lets them snap their damned photos. And, in so doing, tries to keep alive in a loud and cynical age this curious notion of a hereditary monarchy. Day, after day, after day.