So passes Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum as the saying goes, and indeed—the odd ill-judged Twitter malcontent aside—can anyone find anything genuinely disparaging to say about her late Majesty?
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to begin with my own personal grief on the matter of her passing, which hit me like a thunderbolt on weekend of her passing. Those who know me might be shocked. I am about as far from a royalist as one could get. My opinion on the monarchy oscillates somewhere between a sense of the ridiculous in these equality-obsessed times, and a gentle admiration for the longevity of such an old-fashioned institution. My admiration for Her Majesty exists in spite of her position, rather than because of it; a duty precious few would actually want or manage—I would not last a day myself, perhaps not even an hour.
Having spoken to numerous friends and relatives over that weekend, and observing the outpouring of emotion, evidently I am not alone. The overarching sense seems to be that the nation, the Commonwealth, and perhaps the world has lost its favourite grandmother—an event we were not remotely prepared for.
I never met Her Majesty personally, but I know people who did. A close friend of mine is a former head of the Royal Horticultural Society. One of his duties was meeting and greeting, including of course the head of state. I once asked him what it was like to be in her presence, and this is what he said: “Of all the VIPs I have met, often accompanied by ridiculous demands and entourages, she was the most courteous. She simply said, ‘Where would you like me to stand?’’’
Whether you knew her or not, the Queen was a part of your life—as I discovered in 2011. Back at that time I was bankrupt, destitute, and living in a shed. To avoid an unseemly, inevitable suicide, I took a chance and jumped on a plane to South Korea, not caring what I left behind. Three months in, surviving but very alone, I visited a traditional folk village in the depths of the Korean countryside. As it transpired, Her Majesty had beaten me to it—having visited the place in 1999 to plant a tree. There was (and remains) a small museum dedicated to her, and upon seeing her photographs lining the walls and the obvious affection in which she was held, I couldn’t help shed a tear—it was pride, not homesickness.
Queen Elizabeth II was our symbol—a true global icon, universally respected and loved. She embodied all that the United Kingdom stands for, or at least used to: fairness, impartiality, good humour, dignity, service to something greater than oneself, and a sense of carrying on, no matter the situation. She was all of those things.
Of the volumes that could no doubt be written about Her Majesty, I should like to highlight merely a few facets of her character. Firstly, her sense of duty, which clearly went above and beyond almost anything mere mortals such as myself could encompass.
In 1940, Princess Elizabeth made her first public speech via a radio address to the children of the Commonwealth, many of whom had been evacuated due to the war. The final paragraph of which chokes me up—my father would have been listening to it, just eight years old:
We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place. My sister is by my side and we are both going to say goodnight to you.
In that final sentence, she effortlessly makes you feel like you are there; one of the family, and that you mattered. Still a teenager herself, the Princess defied her parents and enlisted in World War II, serving as a truck driver and mechanic. And when the East End of London was hit by savage bombing during The Blitz, she was there on walkabout to comfort the public.
Narrowly losing out to King Louis XIV as the longest reigning monarch of all-time (although in fairness, Louis did ascend the throne at the age of five), the statistics of Her Majesty’s sovereignty are staggering. During her 70-year reign, the Queen was head of state for 32 individual countries, as well as head of the Commonwealth, presiding over a population of 2.5 billion. She swore in 15 UK Prime Ministers. Visiting 117 countries, and carrying out over 21,000 official engagements, she was accompanied by 30 corgis, many descended from her first, Susan. Touchingly, since 2012 it was reported that the Queen had stopped breeding corgis, to avoid the dogs outliving her.
Secondly, I’d like to emphasise her magnificent joie de vivre, as evidenced by her sense of humour. Clearly, something she shared with her late husband was the ability to deliver a one-liner completely deadpan. And while I’ve always maintained Prince Philip was the best stand-up comic Britain ever produced, Her Majesty could give as good as she got…
During a photo-op at the 2021 G7 Summit, the Queen asked world leaders “Are you supposed to be looking as if you’re enjoying yourself?”
At the Chelsea Flower Show in 2016, when informed that lilies of the valley are poisonous, the Queen commented, “I’ve been given two bunches this week. Perhaps they want me dead.”
Upon meeting Deputy First Minister, and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in 2016, the Queen was asked, “Are you well?” to which she replied, “Well, I’m still alive anyway.”
After hearing Princess Michael of Kent comment that she’d like to “shoot the Queen’s corgis,” the monarch quipped, “They’re better behaved than she is.”
And apparently in an argument with the Queen Mother, Her Majesty was asked “Who do you think you are?!” to which she promptly replied, “The Queen, mummy, the Queen!”
Lastly, her motto: “Never complain, never explain” is something we could all take heart from, not just one or two minor royals. Perhaps the most poignant and outrageous photograph from the entire Covid pandemic is the image of Her Majesty clad in mourning, masked and isolated in St. George’s Chapel, as she bade farewell to her husband of 73 years.
No one should ever have to endure that, let alone the monarch, a lady of 95. Never mind that the rules were insane, and that those who made them had no intention of following them—Her Majesty followed the rules, I believe for us.
The Queen was obviously rocked by the “great heartache” of Philip’s death, and no doubt sped to her grave by the allegations against Prince Andrew, as well as the constant headache of Meghan and Harry. But hopefully she is now at peace.
Her life was a beacon of hope and stability, on which we have all been reliant. In passing, Her Majesty is leaving not just the monarchy, but Britain, the Commonwealth, and perhaps the world itself markedly poorer than when enjoying her reign. May she rest in peace.