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Queen Elizabeth’s reign was one of fortitude and faith

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/09/2022 Tim Adams
Photograph: PA Images/Alamy © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Editor's note: The opinions in this article are the author's, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Reading through this selection of the best of the Observer’s writing about Queen Elizabeth II is to be struck by that truism: age tends to make us ourselves, but more so. If the comparative frailty of the Queen in recent years has revealed more of her character, it only confirmed what we always suspected: that she was made of determination and duty, directed toward a love of country and commonwealth. As these pieces argue, and as the innumerable tributes of the past days have celebrated, during the 70 years of her reign, the Queen remained a fixed point, always alive to a changing world, but fundamentally unswayed by it.

Her coronation came immediately before perhaps the most radical changes in the idea of self to have occurred since the first Elizabethan age. She was having none of it. While her sister embraced the swinging 60s, and her family chafed against the impossibility of emotional lives in the public gaze, and politicians made mockeries of “back to basics” values, she behaved as if none of those great upheavals touched her. She lived through an era of monetised gossip; the death of privacy afflicted the royals more than almost any other family. But, in 70 years, that paparazzi scrutiny never found any headlines to splash about the monarch. She didn’t do scandal.

If we think of Elizabeth II, it is probably in one of two attitudes: if not waving then frowning

The flipside of that peerless propriety was the fact that, in the British manner, she often behaved as if life were primarily an ordeal to be endured. Even within a golden carriage, with her prince beside her, and her subjects camping out to get a glimpse, she convincingly projected not pomp or joy but fortitude and faith. If we close our eyes and think of Elizabeth Windsor on public occasions, it is probably in one of two attitudes: if not waving, then frowning.

Over the course of her reign, in untold thousands of hellos and how do you dos, the wonderful girlish smile of her early years was rationed for special moments, tending to give way to a pair of expressions that proved more serviceable: one for ribbon-cutting and walkabouts, and the other for speech-making and mourning. The Queen had perhaps the most frequently depicted features in all human history. To establish a gap between public and private character, documentaries about the monarch dwelled on her sitting for portraits, allowing us to witness that image in the making. Even as her likeness was captured, however, she was a master at projecting all the revealed interiority of a £5 note; she was intrigued by portraiture but resisted the idea of ever being a subject.

In her early years, commentators feared this might not be enough. The royalist historian, John Grigg, caused a stir in 1957, four years after the coronation, when he suggested the monarch must modernise to survive: “The institution must look beyond the hideous coloured photographs of a young woman in sparkling attire to the more testing realities of 20 years hence,” he wrote. “When she has lost the bloom of youth, the Queen’s reputation will depend, far more than it does now, upon her personality.

“It will not then be enough for her to go through the motions; she will have to say things which people can remember, and do things on her own initiative which will make people sit up and take notice. As yet there is little sign that such a personality is emerging … ”

© Getty

Grigg was wrong, as it turned out. The Queen has survived and thrived, not through projecting a personality, at least in the me-generation understanding of the term, but in refusing to conform to that demand. She has not been a monarch of personal projects or initiatives, as her heir seems to want to be. She grew the Commonwealth and acted as a focal point for union, not by arguing or manoeuvring, but by cleaving to the belief that she could be above those concerns. She has never become remotely involved in politics (if you ignore the famous EU flag hat). For more than 70 years, the Queen has made the most widely watched and listened-to annual speech in the televised world. Can anyone remember a phrase that she uttered? (I can recall two: “annus horribilis”and, after 9/11, most memorably, “grief is the price we pay for love”.) In an era of soundbites, she has provided hardly any. It is reported that every evening she has written a diary of the day’s events. How much of her inner life those volumes will contain is anybody’s guess – they will remain under lock and key for 50 years. What a tale she has had to tell, though: of 15 prime ministers – from Churchill to Truss, tragedy to farce; of innumerable heads of state; the Kennedys, the Obamas and the Trumps; Nelson Mandela and Mrs Gandhi; not to mention the inside story of her own adoring and fracturing family.

Perhaps, for the little girl in whom responsibility was so ingrained that she would sometimes get up at 3am to double-check her shoes were polished, unburdening herself to a journal became the perfect surreality check. In Alan Bennett’s short story The Uncommon Reader, the Queen is pictured stumbling across literature, and discovering imagination. “I think I may be turning into a human being,” she suggests, after losing herself in Henry James. “I am not sure this is an altogether welcome development.”

Bennett’s alternative history highlighted the sheer enormity of the self-restraint that the Queen exemplified: she understood that, in a changing world, there was no place for a hereditary monarch who spoke up, or acted out; her job was simply to be. The brilliant double acts with 007 and Paddington Bear were so memorable because they were so exceptional.

Two indelible images bookend her reign. The first is on her coronation day, the terrified but resolute 25-year-old Queen, at the sunset of the largest empire in human history, in full crown jewels regalia, still just about majesty of “the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon”. The second image, 70 years later, comes from her husband’s funeral, when she sat all alone in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, obeying the letter of her feckless government’s Covid rules while saying farewell to her “strength and stay”. At her coronation she had insisted the event was “not the symbol of a power and a splendour that are gone but a declaration of our hopes for the future, and for the years I may, by God’s Grace and Mercy, be given to reign and serve you as your Queen”.

She enjoyed more of those years than she might ever have imagined, and, as that second image proved, she never for a day wavered in that commitment to service.

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