Queen Elizabeth Tribute
15 Prime Ministers, 14 US Presidents, one Queen. Anyone below the age of 75 is unlikely to remember anyone else being on the throne of this country.
It’s an historic moment, and yet I am aware that for some of you here, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about – this is a multi-national school, and whilst she was head of state in 15 other countries, she may well not have been your Queen.
And of course many people think that the very idea of a Monarchy, a Royal Family, in which one family passes from one generation to the next the right to be the Head of State, is outdated and undemocratic – it’s a perfectly reasonable view to hold.
But today I want to pay tribute not just to a remarkable monarch – but also a remarkable woman – and I hope at least that some of what I say might help to explain the deep feelings of mourning and of national dislocation which we are witnessing in the UK – and further afield – at this time.
At the heart of what we are commemorating and mourning is what you might call a double life. On the one hand, there is the person who played the role of Queen Elizabeth II — a revered figure who donned crowns, opened parliaments, who – at endless garden parties – asked people who they were, and what they did; she has stared out at us from banknotes and postage stamps; and not just in the UK: remember, this is a person who was Head of State to 150 million people, from Papua New Guinea to Canada, and one of the most famous people of the 20th Century and the 21st.
The Queen was an icon, in the literal sense. She inspired Andy Warhol screen prints, tea towels, Beatles hits and even the Sex Pistols. “God save the queen!” they sang in 1977. “She ain’t no human being!” And they made a compelling point. For all but a tiny fraction of us, she personally remained inscrutable, her personality shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, she succeeded at her job, in no small part, by making a virtue out of silence. She stubbornly refused to be interviewed or subjected to public scrutiny.
With some notable exceptions – at the 2012 Olympics, and more recently when entertaining Paddington to tea for the Platinum Jubilee – the queen remained quiet and immutable; there is no question that keeping her private persona hidden away is part of what made Elizabeth II the most successful sovereign since Victoria.
This makes it almost impossible to find out who she really was beneath the hats and robes and jewels. The queen was an abstraction: a role, like any other — and it was the person behind her, Elizabeth Windsor, who expertly played the part.
She was born by caesarean section on April 21, 1926, to her mother, also Elizabeth, the Duchess of York. As was then the custom, the Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks, was present — just in case she was swapped for someone who was not of royal birth. As Princess Elizabeth, she was third in line to the throne, with her uncle Edward the presumed heir apparent. It was only his subsequent abdication, and her father’s untimely death, which propelled her to the Crown at such a young age.
Photos of the era depict Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret being doted on by their mother and father, but in truth, they were brought up by an army of servants and rarely saw their parents. Childcare was left to two nannies.
In 1939, in the shadow of war, the 13-year-old princess met her Prince Charming during a visit to Dartmouth naval college. Philip, then aged 19, was an exotic figure, whom the Royals almost certainly considered inappropriate (a source of controversy which continues to dog the Royal Family to this day). Philip was an exiled Greek prince who had grown up in Paris, he was estranged from his family. His three surviving sisters had married into the Nazi regime. His father was living the life of an aging playboy in Monte Carlo. His mother had been declared insane. In a letter to a cousin, she declared that she had met a “Viking God,” and for the rest of the war the two exchanged letters, but – like almost everything else in the queen’s private world – we know nothing of what they said to each other.
The queen mother distrusted Philip, but – with the help of Louis Mountbatten, Philip’s uncle, Elizabeth talked her mother round and in 1947 they married: their wedding a matter of national celebration. Thousands of people descended on London for the event. There were 2,500 presents — including a shawl woven by Gandhi.
Famously, during World War Two Elizabeth joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service where she was known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor. She trained as a driver (the start of a lifelong passion) and drove a military truck. The then princess was sometimes referred to as No 230-873 while she served – I wonder how she felt about that – I suspect she quite liked it.
The war had given the royals a new raison d’etre as a “national family,” and the marriage of the beautiful young princess to the handsome young prince seemed to encapsulate fresh beginnings and a new hope of a better world to come.
They had two children (Charles and Anne) in quick succession and between 1949 and 1951 lived in Malta, where Philip was serving as a naval officer on HMS Chequers. But any attempt at ordinary life was short-lived. In 1952, Elizabeth’s father, King George VI died, and the 25-year-old woman became queen.
Two further children followed: Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964 – their care and upbringing, much like hers, a somewhat distant affair, largely entrusted to nannies.
In many ways it was her children which brought her reign the most controversy. Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana collapsed amidst vast and public infighting; the Queen’s second son, Andrew, the Duke of York, separated from his wife, Sarah, and Princess Anne’s marriage to Mark Phillips ended in divorce. Public support waned, and when a vast fire broke out at Windsor Castle in 1992, a public furore broke out about who should pay for the repairs. The institution of monarchy was very much on the defensive. Buckingham Palace was opened to visitors to raise money to pay for the repairs at Windsor and it was announced that the Queen and the Prince of Wales would pay tax on their investment income.
In 1997, Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris, and the royal family seemed to lurch still further toward obsolescence. As preparations were made for the 2002 Golden Jubilee, there were fears that nobody would come — but with encouragement from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the event was turned instead into a “people’s party,” complete with Brian May playing the national anthem from the roof of Buckingham Palace.
Whilst as Head of State in a constitutional monarchy, her political power was limited. She did have weekly, and intensely private, meetings with the Prime Minister – all 15 of them – the contents of which remain entirely unknown. Who knows what sage advice she may have offered? Elsewhere, there were times when her influence was very significant, and visible.
In 2011, she became the first serving British Monarch to make an official visit to the Republic of Ireland and a year later, in 2012, on a visit to Northern Ireland as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, she shook hands with the former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, by this time the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. This was an extraordinary moment politically, and a poignant one for her personally, since her own much-loved cousin, Lord Mountbatten, had been killed by an IRA bomb in 1979. But as Head of State, the Queen stepped up, and provided a symbol and gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation which was immeasurably powerful at a time when the process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland was still fraught and fragile.
Recent years saw a resurgence in public support for The Queen. Having been the nation’s sweetheart in the 1950s and the nation’s mother from the 1970s onwards, she was reinvented as the nation’s grandmother. As she advanced into her 80s, the outward image of an unsmiling monarch seemed to loosen, exemplified by her willingness to participate in the stunt with the Bond actor Daniel Craig, at the opening of the 2012 Olympics. Her Christmas Day messages became softer, too: gentler, warmer in tone. Occasionally the mask slipped; there were hints of a rebel Remainer queen when she wore a hat that looked a bit like an EU flag at the state opening of parliament in 2017, shortly after the Brexit referendum (a coincidence, she insisted). And when she met President Trump on his visit to the UK, she chose to wear a brooch given to her as a gift by …. President Obama.
A wicked sense of humour seems to have been one definite character trait: as this story, recently told by a member of the royal household, testifies. As an employee of the Royal Family, this gentleman was out riding with the Queen, near Balmoral. He tells the story much better than I do.
But even as a younger generation of royals seemed ready to breathe new life into The Firm, as the Royal Family is sometimes called, personal tensions continued.
I hope it is not necessary, in speaking in tribute to her, to suspend critical judgment altogether. She made little secret of her displeasure following her grandson Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle, the couple’s subsequent move to the United States and their explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which accusations of racism and bullying were made against members of the royal family.
Yet the same critical treatment was not meted out to all. The queen’s Achilles Heel, surely, was Andrew — her middle and most-loved child who, despite his profligate ways, his (if nothing else) unsavoury friendship with the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein and his unpopularity with the public, remained protected until the bitter end.
Now that she is no more, we can reflect that we know much about her public role; but the private life and person remains an enigma. This much we know: she was in essence a countrywoman, a lover of dogs and horses, and drawn to those who shared these passions. She drove — fast — about her estates (Sandringham, Balmoral) in a beaten-up Land Rover and she dedicated her life to fiercely protecting the Royal Family – The Firm. To provide her United Kingdom with the monarch she felt it needed, she sacrificed the ability to lead an ordinary life and the other things most of us take for granted. It’s an extraordinary sacrifice to make, but in truth the curious nature of hereditary monarchy never offered her another path.
Britain will consider itself extraordinarily fortunate to have had such a stalwart head of state. Even the vast majority of die-hard republicans would temper their calls for an end to the monarchy by saying: “But the queen has done a fantastic job.” Her long reign – the longest of any British monarch – was marked by her strong sense of duty and her determination to dedicate her life to her throne, to her people, and to the institution of monarchy itself. Born shortly after the General Strike, she lived through the Second World War, the austerity which followed and the changing social mores of the Swinging Sixties. This was the era, perhaps, in which the continuing role of the monarchy itself first came into question.
She oversaw decolonisation as Britain’s place in the world shifted forever; she would have been distressed, I have no doubt, by recent signals from a number of countries that they intend to remove the British monarch as their Head of State. Through all these seismic shifts, she was an ever-constant point of stillness and continuity, as the stagflation of the 1970s gave way to Thatcher’s market-based reforms of the 1980s and thereafter to the birth of the internet and the digital age.
She lived through Covid, too, losing her beloved Philip, her husband of over 73 years, during lockdown in April 2021, and whilst others at the centre of government partied in Downing Street, as Head of State she provided a very public and visible example of how to follow Covid restrictions even at times of great personal grief and loss. Through it all, she became for many the one constant point in a rapidly changing world. For people of a certain age, like me, it is very, very strange to think that she is no more.
So today we pay tribute to both sides of her existence: to the extraordinary individual woman, wise, insightful, adaptable, fiercely loyal and dedicated to her vocation; and also, at the same time, to our longest-serving Queen. Elizabeth Windsor fulfilled the latter role with unflinching conviction for more than 70 years. She executed the role so well, for so long, and through such changing times, that her absence leaves a hole that might yet prove impossible to fill. In the coming days and months, many millions, in the UK, in the Commonwealth, and in many other countries, will mourn her, as I do today. It is an honour to pay tribute to her extraordinary and exemplary life of service. May she rest in peace.
(This tribute drew on a number of sources, but most heavily on an obituary written by Otto English)