On April 5th 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic had shut down much of the world and confined most of her subjects indoors, Queen Elizabeth made a televised address from Windsor Castle “to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth”. Seated next to a table, she looked just as she had for years, wearing a green, crepe dress, three rows of pearls and a diamond and turquoise brooch.
The first part of her four-minute message was the kind of pabulum she had been reading out for almost 70 years, praising National Health Service staff and other front-line workers. But it became more personal towards the end when she recalled her childhood during the second World War.
“It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made, in 1940, helped by my sister. We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do,” she said.
“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
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Everyone heard the echo of Vera Lynn’s song and by invoking her wartime experience, the queen reminded Britain of what it still thinks of as its finest hour. By dint of her age and the length of her reign, the queen became a living link with that period of British history and of the virtues it represented.
She seemed to embody some of those qualities in her person, notably a sense of duty and a willingness to put her own emotional needs aside for the sake of a collective purpose. This image was reinforced in recent years by the Netflix series The Crown but it was already established in 1950 when Marion Crawford, a former governess to the queen (who was called Lilibet as a child) and her sister Margaret, published a memoir.
“Lilibet was a very neat child. She kept her books and all her belongings immaculately tidy. But though no one ever tried harder or persevered more painstakingly, she never was any good with her needles,” Crawford wrote.
Crawford discovered how cruel the royal family could be in their determination to control their own story and they ostracised her for the rest of her life. The queen faced criticism for her apparently hands-off approach to raising her own children and she found herself on the wrong side of the popular mood in the days after Princess Diana’s death in 1997.
Most of the time, Britain saw the queen the way she wanted to be seen, as the world’s most experienced and celebrated practitioner of servant leadership. “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,” she declared when she was 21.
While her sister and most of her children saw their marriages break up, the queen gave the impression of a relatively stable life with Prince Philip until he died last year. And as Britain’s politics became more disorderly in recent years, with divisive referendums on Brexit and Scottish independence, the queen was a rare figure of national unity.
Nobody knew what the queen thought about either referendum, although her remark before Scotland’s vote that she hoped “people will think very carefully about the future” was widely perceived as a call to vote No to independence. Her choice of a blue and yellow hat would later be interpreted by opponents of Brexit as an endorsement of Britain’s membership of the European Union.
In the months before her death, the queen started preparing the way for Charles’s accession by announcing that she wanted his wife Camilla to become queen. And she took the difficult decision of banishing her favourite son Andrew from public life on account of his association with Jeffrey Epstein, saving Charles the trouble of doing so.
But Charles cannot be a monarch in the mould of his mother because his subjects perceive him as irredeemably human like them, with similar weaknesses and vanities. Perhaps because the queen was so young when she succeeded her father, she became fixed in the public mind at the moment of her accession.
Hilary Mantel observed this phenomenon when she described the queen’s reaction when she stared at her during a party in Buckingham Palace. “Such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment,” Mantel wrote.
“She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.”
A few days before her death, the queen performed her last public duty when she appointed Liz Truss as prime minister, the 15th of her reign and the third in six years. The ritual offered a moment of reassuring continuity amid the turmoil of British politics and as the country faces an economic storm, the queen’s death has removed perhaps the only fixed, shared point in the national imagination.