It feels like a death in the family. Born in 1926, crowned in 1953, and having passed yesterday, in the year 2022, Queen Elizabeth II had been with us for so long that only a sliver of the population can recall a time without her. In Britain, no member of parliament has served under any other monarch –– there is no political memory of the passing of a sovereign.
It is by now trite to say that the Queen touched the lives of many. Acting on the principle “I have to be seen to be believed,” she met millions, and by radio and television reached millions more. My own childhood –– partially spent in the Canadian province of Quebec –– was punctuated by her Christmas broadcasts. In school, “God Save the Queen” would each morning resound through speakers. For even the Quebecois nationalists, in their own way, revered the Queen.
In great moments of change it is often remarked that it is the “end of an era.” The ascription has seldom been more fitting. For in mourning the passing of Elizabeth II we mourn, too, a breakage with the past, and a loss of the embodiment of values that, in our “woke” day and age, are fast going out of fashion.
When in 2020 Elizabeth II stood, for the last time, on the British Foreign Office balcony to watch the wreath laying at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday she did so as someone who, in 1944, joined the women’s branch of the British Army. Who lived through the Blitz and, on Victory Day in 1945, together with her sister, Margaret, went incognito –– the only time she ever did so –– to celebrate on the streets of London.
Statesmen have remarked on Elizabeth II’s prodigious knowledge of people and world events. “I think people would have been extraordinarily surprised if they realized the depth of information the Queen had about the lives of people in every conceivable part of the United Kingdom,” said Sir John Major, Britain’s prime minister between 1990 and 1997.
There is, then, a sense of a historical untethering. For where, now, are we to find the solace that lies in the sweetness of continuity? For many, the Queen had been that silent anchor.
Indeed, Elizabeth II’s brilliance was rooted in her keen understanding that the monarchy was not an escape from, but a balance to, modern life. In this, she seemed to have grasped Edmund Burke’s postulate that, for conservativism, the aim of change was to preserve that which was essential of the past.
She was, then, the embodiment of values –– faith, duty, honor, tradition –– that have, regrettably, steadily become more antiquated. For while today’s generation bemoans often fictitious injustices and demands much from the world while offering little in return, the Queen devoted her life to service. Few, indeed, would in today’s age report for duty only days prior to their death, as did the Queen when, on September 6, she appointed Liz Truss Britain’s as new prime minister. In our post-Covid world, few even seem eager to return to the office.
It is fashionable among some today, too, to tout globalized identities –– to be a “citizen of the world,” as once said President Obama. In this view, local ties are parochial and of little relevance. Yet the Queen embodied the civilizing power of national rootedness. For the British, she was afternoon tea, mince pies, choral evensong, Big Ben, and the very Paddington Bear with whom she shared marmalade sandwiches at her Platinum Jubilee. It was in her incarnation of Britishness, not her molting of it, that she became “queen of the world.”
In 2007 I was honored to attend the Order of the Garter ceremony at Windsor Castle. The order, which dates to the age of Edward III, is Britain’s oldest order of chivalry. It counts among its members the sovereign and the Prince of Wales. Each year, a gathering is held at Windsor –– an annual meeting of sorts with members donning grand habits and insignia.
From my perch I had a view on the Queen. She then did little but wave and smile, yet there seemed about her an air of magic –– an air of otherworldliness. In her presence, however fleeting, one could as if sense the grandeur and wisdom of the ages. What a counterbalance this was –– and remains –– to an increasingly demotic world in which politicians bellow and fib, and order and hierarchy are but structures ripe for destruction.
There will in the coming months be much talk of Britain’s monarchy as the shock of Elizabeth II’s passing settles. This is now the age of King Charles III. What that will mean will be for him to define. Yet the new King will largely be measured against the grace and genius of his mother, the Queen. He will be measured by the continuity that his reign might provide.
May God save the King.