“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.”
This promise sprang from the lips of Princess Elizabeth on her twenty-first birthday in 1947. She had vowed, at the age of a university undergraduate, to commit her life to the service of her peoples in Britain and the Commonwealth, and never in the three-quarters of a century that since transpired did she desecrate the solemness of this obligation. For Elizabeth, as the first in line to the throne, it represented her public acceptance of a burden which was soon to thrust her upon the throne at the age of 25 and swing open the doors to a second Elizabethan age in English history.
On the eighth of September in 2022, that reign of seven decades drew to a close. Elizabeth II had acquired the Crown at a time when Winston Churchill had recently begun his second premiership; when the Korean War was at its midpoint; when the British Empire five years earlier had still possessed the Indian subcontinent. The second Elizabethan age drew to a close for England 70 and a half years later, which among all verified historical reigns only the infant-king Louis XIV could claim to surpass.
Throughout these seventy years the international order withstood disturbances of all varieties and resisted temptations of armed ideological conquest. The reign of Elizabeth II, which dominated nearly the entire period between World War Two and the present day, observed a rise and fall of nations as dramatic as during the Victorian era, these powerful actors declined to turn their guns upon one another and the world was permitted to flourish in unprecedented levels of peace.
The ascendant position of Victorian England contrasted the imperial disintegration and post-imperial rebirth of Elizabethan England; and yet in both reigns, the United Kingdom occupied the forefront of profound economic transformation and cultural development. Under Queen Elizabeth, a remarkable array of traditions, literature, and technologies arose which spanned from James Bond, supersonic flight, “The Lord of the Rings” and the Internet. In her era the Commonwealth succeeded the Empire, the Soviet Union succumbed to the unipolar world, Japan and Germany restored their international positions, and China and India separately assumed paths of global consequence.
What of Queen Elizabeth herself? Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was no doubt in possession of many rare attributes. By all accounts she wielded a sharp intellect, a broad knowledge, a venturesome curiosity, a disarming humility, a profound kindness, and a charismatic connection with her subjects (both in personal and televised settings) that perhaps exceeded that of any English king or queen before her. No one could doubt the genuineness of her virtue, which impressed its deep themes of reconciliation, forgiveness, and compassion upon her most meaningful interactions, most notably in Ireland in 2011.
Unaware of her sovereign destiny for the first decade of her life, the Princess Elizabeth projected a human believability long before her mastery of television. The Queen deployed her wit and displayed her passions wherever appropriate to counteract her necessary stoicism, such that a grounded image came to materialize of a woman no different from any other in England, who was free to be swept off by the thrill of her passions, dress in the restless fashions of midcentury, and indulge in her interests in conscious view of the cameras. In particular, I think of an occasion where Her Majesty sprinted onto the viewing balcony to catch sight of her favored horse as it sailed to victory; upon collecting her sixteen pounds in winnings afterwards, she couldn’t help but throw a delightedly satisfied smirk in the direction of the camera. In that instant the people of England might not have seen a queen, but an ordinary woman who in her element of excitement had revealed her inner girl. Yet never did she sacrifice her queenly dignity to betray such liveliness and dynamism, the visibility of which no previous reign could feasibly have displayed. Her easy smile and reassuring humor proved to be assets equally effective as her televised broadcasts marking Christmas, as well as those marking sterner tidings like the emergence of the pandemic. A delicate balance perpetually accompanied the first modern “people’s queen;” it is a balance which Elizabeth was able to maintain as skillfully as that of her political partialities.
The cunning talent she required in order to maintain such a convincing neutrality over the course of seven decades can scarcely be exaggerated as well. Her reverence of faith and tradition perfectly complemented her willingness to recognize the merits of progress and innovation, particularly if it served as a means to reinforce her connection with her subjects. Her finger could read the pulse of public opinion with great acumen, and recover swiftly whenever this acumen failed.
Modernity was made to kiss the hand of tradition, and in the twenty-first century the popularity of Elizabeth II continually renewed and strengthened itself with the passage of time. By the 2012 London Olympics she had fully acquired her legendary mystique, which was to express itself again in the unprecedented jubilees of 2017 and 2022. For she had by that time become an icon that appeared as permanently associated with Britain as Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. The prospect that this icon might depart appeared as inconceivable as the crumbling of the Palace of Westminster itself, which by itself attests to the institutional importance of her role within the English nation. The universality of her popularity provided a unity which counterbalanced the bitterness of parliamentarian politics. Her capacity to draw upon the themes of essential consensus furnished a transpartisan foundation which in America can only be compared, in importance and role, to the Constitution itself. Upon her passing all components of British society united in grief, in answer to the comfort and stability which monarchy afforded them.
The preservation of monarchical purpose, not least in the absence of existential war to bring together the population, under Queen Elizabeth is therefore nothing less than extraordinary; the strength of the monarchy at the time of her passing entirely owes itself to her queenly devotion and adherence to duty. Within this lay the heart of her universal respectability, on which rested the strength of her authority, and which far transcended the dynastic legitimacy of her crown. The breadth of her public service extended from Princess Elizabeth, with her public broadcast to the children of World War Two, to Queen Elizabeth who still resolved to appoint her last prime minister only two days before her passing at Balmoral.
One year earlier, a photograph captured her alone in black at the funeral of Prince Philip. Even in grief, she allowed herself no exception to the duties expected of her; and yet, the enforcement of social distancing had at last given physical expression to a symbolic isolation that accompanied her decades as Queen, in a position which no one else could possibly have understood enough to be able to sit alongside her in the rigid observation of her duties. Though she would not let herself be parted from Philip for long, she declined to relinquish her burden until only the final moment.
Yet this paramountcy of duty, in withholding the private sphere of the Queen’s life, assured that she maintained an enigmatic quality throughout her life. She betrayed nothing partial, expressed no frustrations, granted no interviews, and presented nothing incongruent with the public heart of Britain. Her reverence for tradition, family, and her faith, as well as her inexhaustible fondness of corgis and horses, would constitute the limit of her private life that which she was willing to impart upon her ceremonial life.
As the first state funeral since that of Winston Churchill unfolded, I found her portrait on streets and in shop windows. Britain closed its doors on Monday to not just its storefronts, but to her historical period; it will inter her into the hall of sovereigns, after which her journey will reach its final resting place alongside the kings and queens of centuries past. The personal complexities of the Queen provide for a diverse memory of her qualities. Might she be called Elizabeth the Great? Elizabeth the Steadfast? The Fairytale Queen? The Millennium Queen? The Lady of the Corgis?
The era over which she presided may likewise prove difficult to name. The world endured such change as to complicate the ability of historians to identify any continuity which accompanied the continuous presence of Elizabeth herself. The future may yet present itself in a way that distinguishes the boundaries of Elizabethan times from past and present, and binds together the decades in closer harmony. Indeed, were it not for the apocalyptic emergence of World War One, historians may scarcely have identified what could render an era as long, transformative, and complex as Victoria’s cohesive as a timeframe.
It is more than conceivable that the order which arose after World War Two, and which endured to the present under the reign of Elizabeth, will increasingly approach some great trials in the future that will reestablish civilization, just as the early twentieth century had done for the nineteenth. The notion of peace will grow more precious as the world reassembles into a new geopolitical constellation for the twenty-first century. Against the new world, the second Elizabethan age may best be remembered for the longevity and intactness of the global peace in its time, while Elizabeth II herself may pass into history as the Queen of this Long Peace. Her promise at the age of 21 she kept throughout her lifetime, over an age in transition from one world to the next. No matter what will transpire hereafter, we know that she has already won the affections of all history to follow her.