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Why we were all Elizabethans

Charlie Mackintosh on how the Queen transcended the monarchy

At seven o’clock on the evening of the Eighth of September 2022, the half-muffled peel of Great Tom sounded through the streets of Oxford, tolling for the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As the rain thundered down on the realm as if in some great diluvial act of mourning, the end of the reign of Britain’s oldest and longest-serving monarch was pronounced. The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

It was an occasion we all knew was coming. Sadly, no one can live forever. And yet from the perspective of our everyday lives, it was as if she did; as if she would. For more than 70 years, Her Late Majesty has been a constant in the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Every letter sent, every transaction made, every military oath sworn, and every legal case concluded from Canterbury to Calgary and Canberra, all marked with the Crown, the world’s most famous profile, or even the immortal scribble of ‘Elizabeth R’. The world has changed beyond reckoning since 1952 but those facts of our daily lives, institutions, and society have remained constant. Unchanging. Permanent.

Many people I have spoken to since the death of the sovereign, regardless of their thoughts on monarchism, have been surprised by how upset they have felt. I think this has a relatively simple explanation: Her Late Majesty’s death reminds us all of the impermanence of society and the uncertainty of our lives. We all need things to keep us grounded as our lives change and the world around us shifts. For everyone, from nine-year-olds to nonagenarians, The Queen’s life and service has been the one constant that unites our experiences and our memories.

The last few days have made me very aware of the fact that I have been alive for less than a third of Her Late Majesty’s reign; yet across my two decades, the constant presence and service of The Queen has been so clearly apparent. From listening to The Queen’s Christmas Address every year with my grandparents to watching that iconic scene with Daniel Craig at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, I can chart my life through encounters with the Crown. It is an unconsidered, uncontroversial, dependable, and secure thread throughout all of our lives. A thread that has now been cut. 

This is not meant as a paean to the merits of constitutional monarchy, however, but instead as an observation on the almost universal nature of Britain’s distress. I have been very moved by the depth of feeling I have witnessed over Her Late Majesty’s death. From tears in the streets to flowers laid at Buckingham Palace gates, it really does seem to have affected everyone. Whilst our country has long been a melting pot, the Crown is the one thing which transcends England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and unites us regardless of religion, creed, town, county or culture. We are all subjects and we all unconsciously expect our national identity to provide stability and meaning. Regardless of one’s view of monarchy, for us all she has incarnated that identity and provided that stability for more than 70 years. 

The turbulence of the times through which that stability has endured cannot be overstated. Many have already noted that the kingdom she has left behind is radically different from that which she inherited in 1952. Politicians and activists have come and gone, wars have been waged and countries born, and we have witnessed the total transformation of a Western world with government run by paper and telegram, to a globalised, digital age. Only once before has the nation grieved its monarch after a reign of such dazzling change. The Late Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Her Majesty Queen Victoria, died in a world of steam trains and electricity, after a reign begun with horsepower and wooden warships. It is no surprise, perhaps, that the outpouring of grief now has touched all parts of society, as it did over a century ago.

It is this which gives her death and the international reaction of the last few days a special poignance. As the world is brought together in collective grief at the loss of one of its most universal figures, Queen Elizabeth II continues to fulfil a duty she took on as her father’s heir, as a young girl: uniting people. In death as in life, Her Late Majesty has succeeded in bringing people together from all corners of the earth and all political persuasions. She may not have been your Commander in Chief. She may not have been the Defender of your faith. She may not even have been your sovereign. But she has been one of the few global constants in all of our lives. She is a reminder of all we have been through and all we have in common in the United Kingdom, in the Commonwealth and Anglican Communion, and across the world. Her death and our collective response to it reminds us of our shared humanity.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was everything to many and something to all. She was the Crown incarnate and the nation personified and so it should be no surprise that without her we feel rudderless; we knew who we were before and now we are questioning that. Regardless of your constitutional views, be they fervent idealist, ardent antimonarchist, or entirely agnostic, the one assumed certainty of our country has vanished. She was the golden thread running through the State and the confusion that the loss of that thread has wrought is the essence of the grief we are living through now. But therein lies the magic of monarchy; the thread does not end. At the moment The Late Queen breathed her last—at that very same instant—the Crown passed. A new reign began. And so whilst this is undoubtedly a week of uncertainty, a week where our national identity seems unsure, we can have confidence that stability will return. In our new King we will find that same unity and constancy and dignity, and we will know who we are as a nation again. Underlying monarchy is relationship; we mourn because the old has passed away, we celebrate because of how much it meant, and we hope because the new is already at work.

Mourn, celebrate, and hope. 

God Save the King.

Image Credit: University College Oxford

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