This is the point in time when history pauses, whether it be for a split second, an hour, a day, or a week. Two incidents from two very different times shed light on the thread that connected the several decades over the course of a life and a reign. A desk, chair, microphone, and speaker are located at each. Each time, she exhibited the same high pitch voice, clipped vowels, and some trepidation when speaking in front of an audience.
Even though the British people were going through a horrible post-war winter, one moment is sun-dappled. A young woman, who is really not much older than a girl, sits with her back straight, her dark hair pulled up, and two strings of pearls around her neck. She is stunning and has lovely, young skin. A life begins to unfold before her.
She promises her international audience that life. “I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone,” she informs them. She also requests their company in the upcoming years.
The other discourse has a formaler tone. She is seated at a desk, a portrait of her late father, the late King, in uniform, to her right, on the 75th anniversary of the day the war in Europe ended, more than seven decades later.
Her hair is now white and is still pushed up. She is decked up in a blue dress, two brooches, and three pearl necklaces. Although the many years have left their mark, her voice is still crystal clear and her eyes still sparkle. With the exception of the picture and a dark khaki cap with a badge on the front, the desk is essentially barren.
In a long-ago war, she claims that “everyone had a role to perform.”The young Princess Elizabeth begged her beloved father to let her join so she could serve in uniform, even as the war that defined her — and for many years, her country — drew to a close. The cap belonged to Second Subaltern Windsor of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Now, 75 years on, the cap gets pride of place as she addresses to the nation on the anniversary of a great and gallant victory.
The cap serves as a straightforward reminder of what she valued most: service. This includes the service she rendered on that memorable day decades earlier, the service she witnessed during her formative years as nations, the Commonwealth, and the Empire sacrificed their lives so that others could live in freedom, and the service she believed to be at the core of the Crown she inherited and devoted her lengthy life to.
After thirty years of fulfilling that promise, she would give herself a rare opportunity for introspection in front of the public; “Although that vow was made ‘in my salad days when I was green in judgement’,” she asked the Guildhall on her Silver Jubilee, “I do not regret or retract one word of it.”
She didn’t say much and even less about herself in public over the years. She was a generational broadcaster who never participated in an interview. She was occasionally caught on camera “in conversation” with a reliable acquaintance, chatting civilly about a non-controversial subject like the royal jewellery collection.
Her speech would be scrutinised for any indication of controversy or a window into her personality. But nothing significant could have gotten out because she was too careful and her friends were too devoted.
She did not disregard the mature medium the way she did. She made the choice to broadcast her coronation, the Christmas Broadcast, and her live address to the country following the passing of Diana, Princess of Wales.”I have to be seen to be believed,” she would ask.
Broadcast and newspaper coverage, many photographs of her wearing elegant gowns and dresses—these were all aspects of being queen and of the job she had vowed to devote her entire life to. It wasn’t to express her feelings in public.
She also belonged to a generation and a country that did not feel the need to express its emotions. The country would alter. She refused to.
Here, fate and personality will clash. Her assuming the Crown when the nation underwent significant transition was fate. The Queen, however, was upfront about her preference for custom, for how things had always been done, and her distaste for change.
Her heart belonged to the countryside, where she could be with people who shared her love of animals and amid horses and dogs in a setting that changed sparingly, if at all.
“I find that one of the sad things,” she would ask in the late 1980s, is “that people don’t take on jobs for life, they try different things the whole time.”
Monarch and monarchy go together like a glove; a king or queen who loves tradition is in charge of a system built on it.
Britain would undergo a frenzy of change outside the royal walls. She ascended to the throne just as British history was turning. The nation was no longer a global, military, or economic power after winning the war but becoming worn out in the process.
A fundamental shift in the way the state and economy are organised has been brought about by the growth of unions, the delivery of services in groups, and the establishment of a universal welfare state. Empire’s graceful retirement turned into a hasty departure.
The old order—the church and aristocracy, the gradations of status, and knowing your place—crumbled as her rule went on. Celebrity and monetary success have surpassed chance of birth as indicators of socioeconomic advancement.
Home and social lives were revolutionised by consumer products including refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, and vacuum cleaners. Women entered the workforce, ancient working-class neighbourhoods were destroyed along with the slums where they lived, and a society that had once been stable and homogeneous became mobile, fragmented, and diversified, torn from its previous convictions and allegiances.
Fresh faces were seen among those invited to lunch and dinner, and television allowed Britons to see their Queen and how she lived — first for the Christmas broadcast, then for a full-length documentary in the late 1960s. There were also changes at the Palace, particularly early in the reign. The end of the debutante “season” would mean that the daughters of the “best” families would no longer be presented at court.
But this was change with a very small “c.” As her seventh decade on the throne came to an end, the monarchy’s rhythm remained one that her father or even her grandfather would not find surprising: Christmas and New Year at Sandringham, Easter at Windsor, the lengthy summer break at Balmoral, Trooping the Colour, Royal Ascot, the Investitures, the Changing of the Guard, and Remembrance Sunday.
She resisted as change pressed in from all sides. She was destined to take the throne at a time when the nation was about to undergo transformation and to rule while change erupted all around the royal residence. Her personality forbade her from adjusting to it or caving in to trends. Her greatest strength was her ability to resist, and as her family began to fall apart, it may have also caused her biggest test and most serious crisis.
The Crown always comes before family. While the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh went on a six-month world tour, her first two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, were left behind, much as she and her sister Princess Margaret had been left behind by their parents two decades before.
She wasn’t a heartless mother, but she was distant. When she was just 25, the Crown and its duties were entrusted to her, and she took them very seriously. The duke was given authority over a lot of choices involving the kids.
Of her four children, three of their marriages would break down. She was a practising Christian, and she saw marriage as the glue that bound society together. She once said that divorce and separation are to blame for some of the most heinous crimes committed in modern civilization.
That viewpoint, which was prevalent in the late 1940s, undoubtedly softened over time. However, no parent enjoys witnessing their child’s marriage fall apart. The divorce of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the separation of the Duke and Duchess of York all occurred in 1992, the Queen’s self-described “annus horribilis.”
One biography referred to this period as “a low point in her life,” not because of the circumstances that had led to the uncommon public acknowledgment of hardship, but rather because of the lack of appreciation and even scorn with which her 40 years of work appeared to have been recognised.
Her first ten years had been filled with praise both at home and abroad. On her overseas tours, she attracted sizable crowds. Some people back home declared a new Elizabethan Age, but the Queen was astute enough to deny it right away.
The novelty of a new monarch had worn off by the 1960s, and the post-war baby boom generation that was now coming of age was enthralled by different passions than their parents. The Queen was also more concerned with her family. Her service continued unabated in the 1970s and 1980s, but some Royalty lovers and the media moved their attention to her children, their marriages, and their partners.
By the middle of the 1990s, some people believed that the monarchy was out of touch with the general public. The Queen was openly criticised in newspaper comment sections, and the monarchy’s future was also discussed. At times, it appeared that her reign was from another era. What was the monarchy’s and her place in the new “Cool Britannia” and Tony Blair’s casual fashion? How could the Palace, a bastion of tradition, reconcile itself with the widespread call for change made evident by Labour’s resounding election victory?
Diana, Princess of Wales, passed away in Paris on a sultry August night only a few months after that triumph. In front of Kensington Palace, a blazing carpet of flowers soon spread out. The flagpole that hung over Buckingham Palace was still empty. The demise of the Princess left a lot of people in the country feeling depressed.
The Daily Express’s headline said, “Show us you care, Ma’am.” “Our Queen, where are you? Her flag — where is it? “urged the Sun. The Queen stayed in Balmoral for five long days, seemingly unaffected by the spasm that was raging across some of the nation. Perhaps it was done to shield and comfort the young Princes William and Harry, as the Palace would later explain.
However, given her personality, it is likely that she was the driving force behind the decisions made at the time: Balmoral was not to be interrupted, the Royal Standard never flown at half-mast, and no flag was ever flown from Buckingham Palace while she was away.
A horrible error in judgement occurred. She quickly returned to the nation’s capital and Buckingham Palace. She paused to observe the flowers that were accumulating everywhere. One former official said to a biographer, “We were not certain that the Queen would not be shouted and jeered when she got out of the car.” That awful was it.
She first refused to broadcast, but eventually capitulated and consented to do so. Just prior to the BBC Six O’clock news, she addressed the country. She hardly had time to prepare, despite the fact that her wooden delivery once drove television executives insane.
Her message was succinct yet well calibrated, and her performance was superb. As a grandmother, she spoke of “lessons to be learnt” and the “commitment to honour” Diana’s legacy.
It was a victory that was wrested from a dire catastrophe. It was derived from the poison that was around the Royal Family, the Palace, and the monarchy itself. Only once, during her rule, had fate and character come together with such terrible results.
In the Queen’s worldwide position, they would work together more amicably. She had stopped touring for a long time at the time she passed away. She was, however, not only a unique global fame for decades, but also a subtly effective tool of persuasion.
Nothing would come close to the glitzy first decade of her reign, before television made her image popular and her tours accessible from the home room. Two-thirds of Australia’s population is said to have attended her lengthy 1954 tour; in 1961, two million people lined the road from the airport to Delhi, the capital of India; and in Calcutta, three and a half million people waited in line to meet the daughter of the last Emperor.
Fate would have it that she would preside over the protracted decline of the Empire, but the Queen never showed up for a flag-lowering ceremony. The national anthem played once last as the Union flag was hoisted over a former colony on numerous occasions in the 1950s and 1960s, and a member of the Royal Family would stand.
She had vowed to serve the imperial family, so if she was determined that something should come of it, she would create a new organisation on the ruins of the British Empire.
Her blood relatives resided in palaces and homes spread out across the nation’s capital and the countryside. Her territorial family, a collection of wildly different countries, large and small, wealthy and impoverished, republics and monarchies, was dispersed throughout the globe. She charmed, cajoled, and nudged these countries to remember what brought them together and what they could accomplish as a group.
With the knowledge that the Queen’s influence would improve relations between Britain and the nations she visited, the government of the day used her international trips as instruments of foreign policy, though not explicitly.
The Royal Yacht, the Queen’s Flight, banquets, and galas all had a glitzy appearance, and it was an exceptional experience in the days before commercial air travel. But there was always a lot of labour involved, including long days and weeks filled with openings, lunches with officials, state dinners, and speeches that had to be patiently heard. It is difficult for anyone who have witnessed a royal trip to conceive that those involved in it are having any joy.
She rarely went on vacation outside of the UK because doing so required employment. Her international journey would highlight the fundamental shifts in Britain’s ties with the nations she visited: post-war Germany in 1965; a liberalising China in 1986; and Russia in 1994, after the overthrow of the dictatorship that had killed her kin.
She would later describe a 1995 journey to South Africa after the end of apartheid as “one of the most spectacular events of my life.” Nelson Mandela, the president, retorted, “One of the most memorable events in our history.”
And no visit more than her 2011 visit to Ireland marked and solidified a new friendship. A British monarch hadn’t visited the south in a century. The island of Ireland was a single entity and a constituent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland when her grandfather had visited in 1911. There would be a bloody uprising, a division, then independence.
Following World War Two, there were violent protests against the existence of the partition line, followed by a brutal terrorist campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland and Britain that lasted for 30 terrible years. The British government responded with harsh repression, which polarised opinion in the Republic.
Due to the mistrust that exists between Britain and Ireland across the small body of water separating them, there has never been a suitable time for a royal visit. Ireland’s constitutional claim to the six counties that make up Northern Ireland ended with the Good Friday Agreement’s signing and the creation of a power-sharing parliament.
On her state visit, prolonged at the Queen’s will, there was no escape history. She put a wreath and spontaneously bowed her head to the men and women who had battled against British rule in the Garden of Remembrance, in the heart of Georgian Dublin, where all who fought for Ireland’s independence are remembered and honoured. It was an exhilarating moment.
She would begin her remarks at dinner in Irish, gaining almost every Irish person’s heart. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things that we wish had been done differently, or not at all, as she stated in that speech, if not in words.
One biography stated prior to the state visit to Ireland that it was “impossible to point to major achievements” during her reign. That verdict would not stand up later. The four days of flawless words and deeds helped erase centuries of mistrust and animosity. There may not have been a greater single service the Queen rendered to her country or the Crown.
So many of her prime ministers had been plagued by Ireland. Her predecessor, Winston Churchill, had spoken of the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” rising once more to trouble British politics following World War One. One of her last, Boris Johnson, would struggle to reconcile the UK’s exit from the EU with the implications of the border within the island.
Everyone benefited from her listening skills, wisdom, and perspective on British and global history. Her role in the weekly engagements she shared with the current prime minister was not to advocate for any certain cause or attempt to push a government in any particular direction. She was there to give guidance, support, and caution.