There is much to say about the death and extremely long and eventful life of Queen Elizabeth II. She was the last remaining head of state who had served in the Second World War. She was on the cover of Time magazine in 1929. Her 70 years on the throne spanned from Prime Minister Winston Churchill — who was born in 1874, served in the British Army under Queen Victoria, and was in the Cabinet at the outbreak of the First World War — to Liz Truss, who was born in 1975 (when the Queen was 49 years old) and whom the Queen met publicly two days ago, standing and smiling to greet her new prime minister. She was a model of duty and restraint and a great friend of the United States. Only Louis XIV’s reign exceeded hers in length among the world’s known monarchs, and Louis XIV was a child under a regency for over a decade.

Longevity is a virtue all its own. Over the final 30 or 40 years of her reign, Elizabeth made the monarchy seem steady and permanent simply by the fact that so many Britons had never known their country without her. That mattered in a world that increasingly regarded the monarchy as antiquated, the royal family as full of embarrassments, and the British Empire she once served as a relic or, worse, a barbarity. The new King Charles III, at 74, is not the man to bring any sort of constructive change to how the monarchy is viewed; he will be fortunate merely to keep it from unraveling without his mother. The immediate challenge will be holding together the British Commonwealth, many of whose members were held in place by personal loyalty to Elizabeth, and who may be rethinking things without her.

She kept her promise to serve — and did so with skill, sensitivity, and remarkable dedication for three-quarters of a century.
It has been a long descent for the British monarchy, which has had to prove itself adaptable on more than a few occasions in its history. Beginning in the 13th century — the Magna Carta in 1215, the first Parliament in 1295 — kings of England recognized publicly that they had to share some of their power with the aristocracy (this was never done by the monarchies of some countries, such as Russia). Starting in 1688, when William III accepted the crown from Parliament on Parliament’s terms, it has been openly acknowledged that the British monarchy is subordinate to Parliament, thus depriving it of the claims to sole and divine legitimacy that were common to kings on the European continent or emperors in Asia. During the reign of George III, the monarchy was stripped of most of its levers of influence. His spendthrift and dissolute successor, George IV, nearly destroyed the monarchy.

It took Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, to create the modern monarchy. Victoria was the first British monarch to be photographed, and she exchanged with American president James Buchanan the first telegraph messages across the Atlantic. Her predecessor was the last to try to assert the right to name a government unsupported by the House of Commons. Her accession to the throne in 1837 also freed Britain of a significant and archaic foreign-policy nuisance: the dual personal role of the king as the ruler of the small German state of Hanover (Hanover did not recognize the right of a woman to succeed to its throne). Albert, for his part, was a natural workaholic — a bad characteristic in a man whose only job was to refrain from doing anything important — and it was he as much as anyone who found the monarchy’s role as charitable patron and promoter of good causes outside of governance. The Great Exhibition of 1851 allowed Albert to lend the prestige of the crown to a festival of British commerce.

By the time Elizabeth took the throne, the Empire was being actively dismantled, and there was once again a felt need to “modernize” the monarchy to bring it into greater communication with the British people. It was Elizabeth’s role to strike the proper balance, using the intimacy of television while maintaining for the royalty a reserve of dignity and mystique, even as her children and their spouses seemed determined at times to destroy it.

Americans have long been fascinated by the British royal family, a fascination that has never much extended to the various other ceremonial monarchies that still dot much of Europe (the exception being Monaco during the time that its king was married to an A-list American movie star). The whole idea of a monarchy still strikes us as silly, yet it also serves a public function that our presidents have increasingly been incapable of filling. Nobody served that role better than Queen Elizabeth II. The most difficult part of her legacy comes now: Has she so dominated the idea of what a British monarch should be, while raising a family so poorly suited to fill her shoes, that she will be impossible to replace?

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