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HM The Queen at Buckingham Palace on 26th November 2001. Part of a series of photographs taken to commemorate the Golden Jubilee in 2002. (Photo by Lichfield Archive via Getty Images)
A nation of orphans

A nation of orphans

HM The Queen at Buckingham Palace on 26th November 2001. Part of a series of photographs taken to commemorate the Golden Jubilee in 2002. (Photo by Lichfield Archive via Getty Images)

The collective grief will be seismic. But the Queen’s death is a moment to celebrate an historic reign, and unite in collective gratitude

“Grief is the price we pay for love”: so said Queen Elizabeth II in September, 2001, in a message to a prayer service at St Thomas Church, New York, ten days after the 9/11 attacks. Today, her poignant words have acquired a fresh and more personal resonance, as her nation mourns its longest-serving monarch.

At a moment such as this – a moment, we should acknowledge, without real precedent – it is important to draw breath and take stock of the sheer enormity of what has happened. More than 85 per cent of Britons are aged under 70, which means that their entire lives have been encompassed, to date, by her reign.

Those old enough to recall the beautiful 25-year-old princess, summoned on 6 February 1952 from Treetops in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park to succeed her father, George VI, will reflect upon her sheer longevity – not to mention their own – and the long journey upon which the young Queen and her people embarked, more than seven decades ago.

That journey ended, peacefully, at Balmoral, and the Queen was succeeded by her son, who has been heir to the throne longer than anyone in the history of these islands. In the days and months ahead, there will be plenty of time to consider the institutional consequences of the succession; for the monarchy, the Church and the life and functions of the royal family. 

For now, however, our priority should be to recognise with a clear eye and an open heart the scale of our collective loss and the formidable gap that the Queen leaves behind in national life. 

Many of those who have little taste for monarchy itself will nonetheless experience a quite piercing bereavement that is natural when a deeply familiar figure dies. We are all suddenly wired into what the late critic Frank Kermode called the “sense of an ending”: and, as endings go, this one is written in the darkest and most definitive of inks. 

Part of the Queen’s diffident genius was to inspire a profound affection in those of her subjects who might otherwise have grown disillusioned with the flummery and Ruritanian pageantry of royalty. Beyond the formalities of her role as Sovereign, she successfully combined a sense both of intimacy and of unknowability. She was both ordinary and extraordinary, the embodiment of history, making small talk with countless people for each of whom a single conversation with the Sovereign would be a momentous occurrence in their own lives. 

And, in this respect, the bereavement that is so keenly felt today closely resembles the trauma and grief that follow the death of a beloved parent; a figure who has filled the skies and acted as a mediating, protective force between those she served and the buffeting winds of fortune that bore in upon them. In 1887, Alfred Tennyson ascribed a similar gift for collective reassurance to Queen Victoria:

“Are there thunders moaning in the distance?

 Are there spectres moving in the darkness?

Trust the Hand of Light will lead her people,

Till the thunders pass, the spectres vanish, 

And the Light is Victor.”

For nearly three quarters of a century, the Queen seemed to protect her people from the thunders and the spectres. Doubtless, we sometimes took her for granted, and perhaps assumed, with the quiet irrationality of a child, that she would live forever. But nobody lives forever. Frail for months – and visibly weakened when she asked Liz Truss to form a government on Tuesday – she displayed characteristic stoicism through a long period of illness; particularly determined to play her part in the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June. 

Stoicism, of course, allows others to defer the moment when they confront what is really happening. Hence, the news of her death, though not surprising, was still deeply shocking, striking at the heart of our sense of what unites us as a nation. We have lost more than a head of state. We have been orphaned.

But that grief, and the sense of collective bewilderment that underpins it, should be leavened by a hefty dose of gratitude. It is too easily forgotten that, in 1952, the monarchy was still recovering from the Abdication Crisis, its restoration to full health left unfinished by the premature death of George VI. In 1992, she admitted that she would not look back “with undiluted pleasure” upon the “annus horribilis” of royal marital scandal and the conflagration at Windsor Castle. 

Five years later, the institution was again shaken to the core by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and a very different species of public grief that tested to the limit the Queen’s capacity to adapt and, in addressing the nation, to act upon advice from Prime Minister Tony Blair which, while unwelcome, she realised was correct.

In this sense, Elizabeth II was a truly consequential monarch, overseeing the transition of Empire to Commonwealth, adjusting to the death of social deference, transforming the royal family from a court into a “firm” that had to come to terms with modern media (an enterprise in which her late husband, Prince Philip, was a key collaborator). She grasped the importance of the solemn and ancient rites of her Coronation in June 1953; but, only three months ago, she also appreciated the fun there was to be had in discussing marmalade sandwiches with a CGI Paddington Bear as part of the jubilee celebrations. 

Certainly – and to an extent that has been under-appreciated – she believed unambiguously, as a person of a deep faith, that she had been ordained by God to fulfil a sacred task as Queen and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. But, unlike her Stuart predecessors, she was never duped by the bogus doctrine of the divine right of kings. 

The survival of the monarchy – as her father had experienced first-hand watching the collapse of his brother Edward VIII’s reign, and as she had observed as a girl – was entirely conditional upon the conduct of the royal family, upon permanent vigilance, and upon a rolling renegotiation of the social contract with the public. She might have made it look easy; but it was a Herculean labour, undertaken against the odds. And that work must continue.

It is often said that the primary value to the nation of the modern monarchy is its potency as a “brand”, as a magnet for tourism and investment, and as the mightiest example of British “soft power”. All of which may be true – but fails entirely to capture the unique, understated charisma that the Queen deployed during her 70 years on the throne, and the near-mythic status that she achieved during her long reign. 

To meet her was to feel what remained of the ancient “royal touch”: the regenerative power of sacral kingship; a capacity famously attributed to Edward the Confessor, as the Doctor tells Malcolm in Macbeth

“…at his touch,

 Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand,

They presently amend.”

A trace of that mystical aura survived into the modern world. But the experience of meeting the Queen – as the millions who shook her hand can attest – was also very grounding in its sheer normality and lack of pomp. 

What was her greatest gift to us? When she succeeded her father, a black and white television was still a luxury item; by the time she died, the world had been conquered by YouTube and TikTok. In 1952, Britain was adapting to postwar realities, the phasing out of rationing and the new welfare state; in 2022, we inhabit a post-Brexit land in which too much seems transient, ephemeral, and unstable. 

We no longer know whom to trust and which of a million channels of information to heed. In such a context, the Queen was an especially powerful symbol of reassuring continuity and of steadiness in an age of apparently permanent turbulence and volatility. Born in 1926, only a few days before the General Strike, she personified what the great French historian Fernand Braudel called “la longue durée”; the great stretches of time in which a nation defines itself and remains true, in the face of upheaval, to a core of values, traditions and liberties. 

In a world of the contingent and the evanescent, the Queen embodied at least the spirit of permanence, if not the actuality. In life and now in death, she reminded us that it is when we join together in communal rituals, great and small, that we transcend the atomisation, polarisation, and isolation that beset modern life.

In the end, she was a flesh-and-blood mortal – a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and great-grandmother – who found herself fated to lead a life of round-the-clock uniqueness. It is said that she kept a journal, like her great-great grandmother Victoria, and it is fervently to be hoped that these volumes will one day be opened for historians to scrutinise. 

What did she think of her 15 prime ministers? Of the tangled private lives of her children and the breakdown of relations between Princes William and Harry? Of her sister’s yearning to marry the dashing but divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend? Of the permissive revolution in the Sixties and the Beatles with their MBEs? Of the Iraq War? Of Brexit, Donald Trump, and Oprah and her own apparent parachute jump into the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics? Of the parlous condition of the Union? Though she felt obliged to play the sphinx in public, she was a woman of powerful convictions and famously adroit judgement. It is enticing to imagine that one day we shall learn more of her private wisdom.

But the partition between private and public was the absolute essence of her approach to the great burden she undertook in 1952. Her role, she grasped, was not to engage in controversy, to remain studiously Delphic, and to encourage unity among her subjects by staying above the fray. Much of her power resided in her detachment and objectivity.

In 1947, on her 21st birthday, she delivered a remarkable speech in the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town, pledging herself uncompromisingly to the duty that lay ahead: “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.”

The “imperial family” has morphed into something very different; and the configuration of the 54 member states of the Commonwealth is bound to change during her son’s reign. But her promise to devote her life to the service of the nation was a solemn covenant, especially for one so young to make, and a pledge that she honoured to the letter, every day, for more than 70 years.

There is so much to mourn, and so much to be grateful for. Is it too much to hope that we may unite in this moment of sadness and gratitude? That we may pause and remember that this beloved monarch personified that which we have in common and cherish: our children, our communities, our nation, our planet?

Representative of an ancestral past, she stood, finally, for the implacable truth that our greatest duty is to the future and to the succession in every sense of the word. And now, at journey’s end, we encounter the full force of her belief that grief is indeed the price we pay for love. The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

Photograph Lichfield Archive via Getty Images


Podcast

The Second Elizabethan Age

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Richard Lambert, who was Chair of the British Museum and editor of the Financial Times from 1991 to 2001 reflects on her 70-year reign and the ways in which society changed under her rule.