DOMINIC SANDBROOK: We will remember Her Majesty and thank God
Elizabeth the Good: As long as people still love all that Britain is and means, and as long as we remain a proud and independent land, we will remember Her Majesty and thank God, writes historian DOMINIC SANDBROOK
For two decades, as controversy swirled around her family, the Queen had been a victim of events.
It was as though Fate, which had given her so much, had finally turned against her.
But with the death of Diana in August 1997, the mood changed. The public appetite for scandals seemed sated. The monarchy had been wounded, but it remained unbowed.
And amid all the gossip and criticism, the Queen herself had simply kept going, a model of duty and dedication, as though convinced that, in the end, her people would remember the value of what she did.
And she was right.
At the turn of the new millennium, Elizabeth was 73. Her conservative tastes and unchanging habits now were world-famous, from her love of flat racing to her adored corgis.
Amid all the gossip and criticism, the Queen herself had simply kept going, a model of duty and dedication, as though convinced that, in the end, her people would remember the value of what she did. And she was right
In her Christmas message to the Commonwealth in 2000, she gave a rare insight into the simple, unflinching Christian faith that had kept her going all those years.
‘For me,’ she explained, ‘the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.’
These were not, of course, fashionable views. But in many ways it was the Queen’s studied indifference to fashion — her embodiment of the values of duty and service and self-control — that most endeared her to her people.
Her Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had not even been born when Elizabeth came to the throne. A moderniser who professed to wear his heart on his sleeve, he could hardly have been more different from his monarch.
The gulf between them was captured in an infamously excruciating moment at the Millennium Dome on New Year’s Eve 1999, when the Prime Minister linked arms with a visibly uncomfortable Queen during Auld Lang Syne.
Blair’s political honeymoon, however, proved relatively short-lived, and as his star inexorably fell, Elizabeth’s began to rise again.
As usual, her critics predicted that her Golden Jubilee in 2002 would be a flop — and as usual, they were completely wrong.
Seventy years earlier, Elizabeth could scarcely have imagined that she would one day have tea with Paddington Bear before tens of millions of viewers. Yet when her little friend said those closing words — ‘Thank you, for everything’ — he spoke not just for the nation, but for the entire Commonwealth
The year began with an enormously successful tour of Jamaica, New Zealand and Australia, where Elizabeth was greeted by vast and enthusiastic crowds.
At the final banquet in Jamaica, a power cut plunged the room into darkness, but the Queen was unperturbed; it had been, she remarked after with dry understatement, a ‘memorable’ occasion.
The Jubilee celebrations in London, meanwhile, were a triumph, the highlight being an unprecedented concert at Buckingham Palace, headlined by Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Brian May, who ended the evening by playing his version of God Save The Queen from the palace roof.
Of course, nobody seriously thought that Elizabeth herself liked this kind of thing. But it was a reminder of one of her greatest virtues: her ability, honed over decades, to push the monarchy gently along with the times, never ahead of public opinion, but never too far behind, either.
Given that she was now distinctly elderly, her stamina was simply extraordinary. Even in her 70s and 80s, she dutifully followed a schedule that would put many world leaders to shame.
She was open to new ideas, too.
In 2001 she got her first mobile phone, and for years it was reported that she had dispatched one of her aides to buy her an iPod. In 2011, after Princes William and Harry had shown her their tablet computers, she was impressed enough to buy an iPad, too.
A greater concession to changing times was the Queen’s acceptance of Prince Charles’s consort, Camilla Parker Bowles. When the couple were married in a civil ceremony in 2005, Elizabeth and Philip not only attended the blessing afterwards, but hosted a reception for them at Windsor Castle.
Indeed, Camilla’s acceptance seemed to bring a new mood of domestic tranquillity, the quarrels of the past largely forgotten.
The cruellest blow of all fell on April 9, 2021, when her Prince Philip died at the age of 99. For decades he had stood at her side, a model of loyalty, supportiveness, love and comradeship
Elizabeth herself had aged gracefully. While politicians rose and fell, their reputations tarnished by such scandals as the cash-for-honours affair and the revelations about MPs’ expenses, her own image remained remarkably unblemished.
Her transition to the role of nation’s grandmother was now complete, and when TV documentaries showed her Balmoral sitting room, complete with family photographs, beds for the corgis, a simple electric heater and an embroidered cushion with the slogan ‘It’s good to be Queen’, many viewers were struck by the sense of reassuring familiarity.
By the beginning of the 2010s, in fact, the popularity of the monarchy had undergone a startling renaissance.
Elizabeth’s emphasis on tradition and stability, leavened by gentle adaptation, had paid off. And if the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011 was a triumph, it was merely the curtain-raiser for an extraordinary royal celebration a year later.
Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 — the first such event since Victoria’s in 1897 — proved a sensational success.
Not even the Queen herself could have expected that a million people would line the Thames in pouring rain to watch her progress down the river as part of the thousand-strong flotilla, or that a further 17 million people would tune in the next day to watch the Diamond Jubilee Concert in front of Buckingham Palace.
At the end, when her son Charles paid an emotional tribute to her in front of a live TV audience, thanking her for ‘inspiring us with your selfless duty and service and for making us proud to be British’, Elizabeth herself looked faintly embarrassed. She had, after all, been born into a world where public expressions of emotion were frowned upon, and had grown up in an atmosphere of tight self-discipline.
Around the country, though, millions of people watched with lumps in their throats. And after six decades of unstinting service, Elizabeth deserved every word of it.
The joy of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle in 2018 soon gave way to intense controversy. By the spring of 2020, Harry and Meghan had decamped to California, and they later embarked on a round of lucrative interviews attacking his family for their supposed cruelty and racism
What she had understood, almost from the very beginning, is that the key to a successful monarchy was a blend of continuity and adaptation. The Queen must appear dignified, but not inhuman.
And if proof were needed she had mellowed over the years, it came a few weeks later at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.
When the television coverage cut to a pre-recorded film showing James Bond walking into Buckingham Palace, none of the 900 million people watching around the world could have imagined that the Queen herself would put in a cameo appearance — let alone that she would allow herself to be shown jumping out of a helicopter into the stadium.
None of her predecessors would have countenanced such a stunt. What her old governess Crawfie would have made of it, let alone her father and grandfather, can barely be imagined.
But in that moment of witty self-deprecation, Elizabeth showed how far she had come since those rigorously disciplined schooldays back in the 1930s. She had become the Queen Britain needed, a lighter, more accessible monarch for a less deferential, more individualistic age.
To the fury of the tiny, insignificant band of republicans, she had cemented the place of the monarchy in popular affections.
Other institutions, from the police and the NHS to Parliament and the Church of England, had lost their lustre. Yet the Royal Family seemed more popular than ever, with four in five people enthusiastically backing the monarchy. Yet all the time the wheel of fortune continued to turn.
The joy of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle in 2018 soon gave way to intense controversy.
By the spring of 2020, Harry and Meghan had decamped to California, and they later embarked on a round of lucrative interviews attacking his family for their supposed cruelty and racism.
As usual, the Queen said nothing in public. Yet to a grandmother in her 90s, this must have come as a deep and painful blow.
But the controversy made virtually no difference to the Queen’s popularity. Few blamed her for her grandson’s behaviour, and older Britons, in particular, reacted with sorrow and sympathy.
The cruellest blow of all fell on April 9, 2021, when her Prince Philip died at the age of 99. For decades he had stood at her side, a model of loyalty, supportiveness, love and comradeship.
At his funeral, the cameras caught Elizabeth sitting alone with her grief, isolated by Covid restrictions. Few people were left unmoved. Even in this, perhaps the darkest hour of her reign, Elizabeth always put her country first.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, a staggering 24 million people had tuned in to watch her reassuring broadcast to the nation. In an extraordinarily moving address, she recalled her youthful service during World War II, paid tribute to the staff of the NHS and urged her people to recapture the same spirit that had beaten the Nazis.
Nobody else could have rallied the nation as she did. But as always, she knew precisely what to say, cementing her place in the hearts of her people.
In retrospect, the Platinum Jubilee earlier this year now seems like a magnificent send-off, a last opportunity to thank the monarch for a lifetime of service.
Seventy years earlier, Elizabeth could scarcely have imagined that she would one day have tea with Paddington Bear before tens of millions of viewers. Yet when her little friend said those closing words — ‘Thank you, for everything’ — he spoke not just for the nation, but for the entire Commonwealth.
Indeed, it speaks volumes about Elizabeth’s devotion to her country that even in her final days, when she held audiences with Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, she thought only of her duty. How many of us, at the age of 96, would do the same?
At the end of her long and eventful life, therefore, she could look back on a job not well done, but magnificently done.
In a reign of extraordinary longevity, she had seen tremendous changes. The Empire was gone, the Cold War was over and Britain became a reluctant member of an expanding European Union.
Immigration had altered the face and flavour of British life; foreign travel had expanded her people’s horizons; and the advent of computers had changed everything, from mass communications to everyday shopping.
Elizabeth herself had changed, of course. By the end of her life she was a more relaxed, even more informal person than she had been as a young woman, when she sometimes seemed stiff and self-conscious.
Even her accent had changed, with studies of her Christmas broadcasts revealing that her voice had become less clipped and aristocratic over the years — although, of course, it was still unmistakably hers.
But the key to Elizabeth’s success was that in an age of international turbulence and social flux, she had always held fast to the values she had learned as a child. From the moment she took her first steps as a public figure until the end of her life, she almost never slipped up.
She became the personification not just of British patriotism, but of old-fashioned British virtues — values often mocked as outdated, but ones that millions of ordinary people still admired.
To her politicians, duty and self-sacrifice were merely words. But to Elizabeth, they were the points on her moral compass.
In many ways she had enjoyed fewer opportunities to shine than most of the men and women who had ruled Britain before her. She never led an army into battle, as Edward III or Henry V had done.
She never had to fight off the Spanish Armada, like her Tudor namesake. She never led her country through a world war, like her father and grandfather.
And unlike Victoria, who presided over the British Empire at its greatest extent, she ruled a country whose economic and military importance was gradually declining, and which faced a painful reckoning with the realities of the new world order.
But that only made Elizabeth’s achievement all the greater. More than any of her predecessors, she won the hearts of her subjects through unflagging hard work and quiet, sober simplicity.
Hers was the triumph of selflessness, virtue, self-discipline and responsibility. Indeed, it spoke volumes that at the end of her life, almost nobody remembered that she had not actually been born to be Queen — the royal line diverted by her uncle’s abdication.
Above all, she kept her word. On her 21st birthday, in 1947, she told her people that her entire life would be devoted to their service. All these years later, we know how handsomely that promise was kept.
Now a new chapter begins under her son, King Charles. But it’s yet another tribute to her extraordinary achievement that the popularity of the monarchy has rarely been greater, with enormous crowds queuing this week to pay their respects to their late sovereign and to salute their new King.
When historians look back on her years on the throne, they will surely judge that, more than any monarch in our history, she deserved the undying gratitude of her people.
Most people remember surprisingly few of our kings and queens. We picture Alfred burning the cakes, or Henry V leading his troops into battle, Henry VIII and his six wives, Elizabeth I rallying her sailors, or Victoria in funereal black, but most of the others have faded into relative obscurity.
But as long as people still love everything that Britain is and Britain means, as long as the royal standard flies over London, and as long as we remain a proud and independent people, men and women will remember Elizabeth the Good, and will thank God for one of the greatest monarchs in our history.
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