Mourning the last true link to the twentieth century, and perhaps the institution she so faithfully served.
Queen Elizabeth II, constitutional monarch and head of state for the United Kingdom since 1952, has died at age 96 in Balmoral, Scotland. She was the longest tenured monarch in British history, celebrating her Platinum Jubilee (70 years on the throne) earlier this year and nearly eclipsing the absurd 72 years King Louis XIV spent ruling France (unlike Elizabeth, he acceded to power when he was a boy of 4; she became Queen at age 26). From all accounts, Elizabeth was a kind woman who would often speak to anyone who she encountered, from any station of life. This care for the regular folks of Britain spoke to the Queen’s essential character aspect: her sense of duty.
Duty is a word often forgotten in today’s age of instant gratification, individual identity and meaning-making, and faltering, untrustworthy institutions. But the Queen embodied the concept and carried it – almost single-handedly – into the radical and politically-tumultuous 21st century. Duty was the centerpiece of one of the most famous quotes in British history, the message sent by Admiral Horatio Nelson to his subordinates during the epochal 1805 Battle of Trafalgar which said: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Duty was also the watchword of the Victorian era, coming up constantly in public speeches and popular literature (to say Kipling was a fan would be an understatement). That powerful sense of duty, in many ways, died in Flanders fields with so many of Britain’s best & brightest young men during the First World War. In other ways, however, that idea of duty and honor being found in one’s sacrifice for his country survived the Great War and the Great Depression, manifesting itself perhaps most powerfully and heroically during the trials of the Second World War. The massive social & cultural upheavals of the latter half of the 20th century finished off that sense of duty for good in most Western societies.
Queen Elizabeth was the last surviving link to that lost past. Not only in her sense of duty to the people of Britain and the broader Commonwealth, but to those nations and the ancient institution of the monarchy itself. Loyalty and duty towards institutions of governance, even those which had long passed the apex of their powers, is a foreign concept in the West of 2022. For many good reasons (and plenty of bad ones), we lack trust in our institutions & just as often wish to tear them down and start anew, regardless of ideology. The longevity and popularity of the Queen made the British monarchy, an institution which already seemed outdated to modernists at the turn of the 20th century, near-untouchable even in the 21st. But now that such a strong and seemingly permanent fixture has left the political stage, has that status changed?
There has not been a royal funeral in Britain with this level of national & international interest and genuine mourning since that of Queen Victoria in 1901. At that time, Britain was near the peak of its international supremacy, but was facing major threats to its power abroad, burgeoning national independence movements in its Empire, and a raucous push for social reform at home. Still, despite these challenges to the power of the government, the monarchy as an institution was never truly under threat. By the start of Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901), the monarchy was neutered of its true power and was basically a unifying figurehead to retain legitimacy and continuation of government. Despite her personal dislike for him, for instance, Queen Victoria was forced to ask William Ewart Gladstone to be Prime Minister four different times, something her Tudor predecessors would have never countenanced. Prime Ministers were elected by an ever-larger proportion of the people and, over the course of the century after 1688, Parliament had fully gained the primacy it had fought the Stuart monarchs so hard for.
With those battles firmly won, the monarchy evolved into a fount of legitimacy and a connection to the traditional past. This role continued through the first half of the 20th century, but began to lose its importance as democracy spread around the world, imperialism collapsed in the postwar years, and Britain became a second-rate power firmly behind its former colony across the Atlantic. Elizabeth, Queen since 1952 – the height of the postwar redefinition of the British world role – was a living link between the monarchy of the early 20th century and the relentless forward march of modernity in Britain. Her stabilizing presence on the throne allowed the monarchy to weather the storms of a global tide of republicanism, a somewhat chaotic and disappointing family life, and a growing ideological movement which saw the British monarchy – and Elizabeth herself – as intrinsically evil and genocidally brutal. Unfortunately, her son, the man now known as King Charles III (let’s hope he has better luck than his namesake predecessors) is not the dutiful, unifying presence that his mother was.
The headwinds against the continuation of the British monarchy – a republican, Leveller impulse; imperfect, unpopular heirs; a radical progressive movement embraced by media & academia which sees its bogeymen of colonialism and imperialism under every rock and behind every corner – are as strong as they’ve been since the 17th century. With the death of the woman who was manfully holding the monarchy together and dragging it into a new century, the life of that ancient institution may itself be endangered. The loss of that historic tradition of Western civilization, even in its gelded modern form, would be devastating. The only thing that may be able to save it is a doubling-down on the very attitude that made Queen Elizabeth so special – an abiding and overwhelming sense of duty. In her 21st birthday speech, the then-Princess Elizabeth said something which would come to define her approach to the monarchy as a public service: “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.” A return to that attitude of putting the country before oneself could save the monarchy that Elizabeth so dutifully served, but it is a tall task.
Charles III: like your forebear Edward VII, you have some extremely large shoes to fill. I pray you are up to the task. God Save the King.