If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous [upright] do?Book of Psalms, The Hebrew Bible,chapter 11, verse 3.
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The passing of Queen Elizabeth, Queen of England, the United Kingdom, and 13 other countries, including Canada, my home, after an extraordinary reign of 701/2 years certainly is worthy of reflection. Even many of the most cynical and sworn foes of monarchy find themselves affected. Only the most hardened mockers and cynical ultra-progressives can just spitefully grunt, “Good riddance!”
Regardless of one’s views on the continuation of monarchy anywhere, let alone in the most famous venue where it still exists, the United Kingdom, Elizabeth Windsor filled the role she inherited with amazing grace, real wisdom, and genuine concern for the peoples of whom she was the acknowledged sovereign. She visited all her non-British realms multiple times, and of those, Canada more than any, on 22 occasions as monarch. She called this vast land “my second home”.
A little-known fact buried in the obscure details of World War 2 is that she, with the royal family of King George VI, almost moved here in the dark days of 1940. This possibility was seriously discussed with the King by Prime Minister Churchill as the threat of Nazi invasion loomed large. After some consideration, King George decided he could not abandon his people in their darkest hour, although he might send his wife and children to Canada. His strong-willed Queen, also named Elizabeth, staunchly declared she would have none it. She and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would stay and share the fate of the King and the country.
The young Princess Elizabeth became the only female member of the Royals to serve in the Armed Services late in the war. This was a sign of how she would fulfill her later role as Queen Elizabeth II, whom some are now calling the greatest of all British monarchs. Perhaps this is melodramatic emotionalism at the end of the “Second Elizabethan Age” and the longest reign in British History, as well as one of the longest in world history. In Canadian (and World) History, only one reign surpasses hers in sheer length: King Louis XIV of France, 1642-1714. But we must qualify Louis’ record by saying that he was an infant when he succeeded, and only took over personal power from his Regent, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661. Thus, Elizabeth II reigned in her own right with full sovereignty longer than anyone ever recorded.
The First Elizabethan Age was during the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, 1558-1603. To attempt a comparison of the two Elizabeths is rather like comparing apples and oranges. However, there are some points to consider.
Both Elizabeths lived through times of great social upheaval and seriously threatened invasions of England (the Spanish Armada for Elizabeth I in 1588), although Elizabeth II was the heir to the throne in 1940-41, not the sovereign. Both lived with high expectations placed upon them, and great doubt as to how they could stand up to the challenge. For the first Elizabeth, she could not avoid knowing that a male monarch would have been the preferred choice. If, perhaps for some, that sentiment still existed in 1952, it had become irrelevant, even though the sexist law of male primogeniture still applied. Eventually, it was Elizabeth II who abolished it (via Parliament, of course). That step was long overdue, as everyone then knew.
Other than longevity, what might be offered as evidence that Elizabeth II is the greatest of all British monarchs?
Perhaps saving the monarchy itself is her great legacy. Certainly, there is some reason to grant this. A great many changes to the venerable institution of the British monarchy have occurred since 1952, not least because Elizabeth was open-minded and willing to allow them and even forward them.
She was not alone in this. Her husband Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh stimulated much of the change, but she was receptive and gave him the latitude to begin the process of bringing in a modernized, “open” monarchy. The goal was to let the public see the Royals as real people with lives, not just isolated figures remote from reality. Against stiff opposition from the “Old Guard”, Philip taught Elizabeth and the family that allowing the media to determine public perceptions via scandal-mongering and negative criticism had to be countered by positive action. One might say that that lesson finally took permanent root following the tragic fate of Princess Diana in 1997 and the strong public indignation at the apparent coldness of the Queen’s and the Royals’ reaction. The Queen’s slowness to react was restrained more than cold because of the highly dubious circumstances. She felt it and its tragedy deeply, with not a little personal regret about how painful Diana’s life had been made by her family’s, and her son’s, treatment of her.
Elizabeth was no wall-flower ready to simply follow old traditions and died-in-the-wool advisers. She frequently overruled such traditions, even over the objections of her grandmother, Queen Mary, the widow of King George V, her own mother, and Lord Mountbatten, her cousin and close friend. Unfortunately, she did not always make the right choices when it came to the happiness of her children or her sister in marriage, despite the inclination of her heart to let them be as happy as they could. The cloud of the scandal of what had happened to King Edward VIII, her father’s older brother, when he chose to marry a divorcee and abdicate in 1936 because of the strictures regarding divorce in the Royal family, still hung heavy. As we now see, that too has all changed, not least because Elizabeth said it must.
Some might argue that a sovereign who presided over the dissolution of the British Empire following World War 2 can hardly qualify to greatness, but is rather a sad remnant of an old imperialistic heritage that is best forgotten. Canada’s indigenous peoples consider the monarchy a paternalistic institution that robbed their ancestors of their liberties and subjected them to generations of oppression and abuse and neglect. The expressions some have made about Elizabeth’s death have not all been graceful. By contrast, those of many other colonized peoples have applauded her for promoting their liberation and advocating their full inclusion, with substantial support for their advancement, in the Commonwealth of Nations, the group of countries who once belonged to vast the British Empire. She was noted as calling for an end to racism and discrimination everywhere in the Commonwealth and was known as showing no trace of prejudice towards anyone of any colour or gender.
We could go on at length about her wisdom and her sure touch in handling people and steering through often very murky waters and political booby traps. Virtually everyone who spent any personal time with her had only high praise for her friendliness, her approachability, her ease with people which in turn put them at their ease, and her very strong sense of humour and irony. If she disliked someone she had to deal with, such as a few of Britain’s Prime Ministers or some other Heads of State she sometimes had to relate to, she succeeded in remaining thoroughly professional. She was a shrewd and diligent administrator and had excellent judgment in choosing the right people for the right tasks.
As a person, Elizabeth Windsor could not be separated from her monarchical role. She was every inch a queen, but also a genuinely caring, compassionate person who did not put on airs of superiority or make others feel less important. Behind all of the rest, she always attributed a very great part of the strength she displayed year after year and decade after decade to her personal faith. That faith was not ostentatiously foisted on others in private or in public, but she was never reticent about its source. Her sense of duty and obligation to serve stemmed from it, as she affirmed.
As the official Head of the Church of England (the Anglican Church, and the world-wide Communion of Anglican Churches), she was a Christian. But, unlike many who have preceded her in that role, to her being a Christian was not just a function of formal title. It was very real and part of the very fabric of her being. To anyone who listened objectively to her public declarations during feasts such as Christmas and New Year’s, the complete sincerity and conviction of her statements came strongly through. She avowed being a praying person during her whole life, as well as a Bible reader, taking much inspiration from the “Book of Books” since her youth. Certainly, the way she lived and the grace and compassion she showed are strong evidence of this foundation.
Our opening citation is a warning. It certainly seems apparent that much of “the foundations” that Queen Elizabeth II stood so strongly on have been seriously eroded, and some are in ruins across many of the nations of whom she was Head of State. For example, Canada seems to be increasingly one of those. If you are from another of those states, you can speak to conditions in your own homeland.
If we are willing to look at Elizabeth R.’s life as a parable and a portrait, she has much to teach. Would to God that some of the myriads of leaders and supposedly wise observers and commentators would see what she really has to teach them and take it to heart. At the very least, one can hope and pray that her son and successor, King Charles III, will do so, as will the extended Windsor Family.
We conclude not with “God save the Queen!” but, in the Christian hope that Elizabeth herself professed, “God has saved the Queen! Now God save the King!”