“From that distant day when I saw her ride down Poonamallee High Road in Madras, the epitome of regality and restraint, Elizabeth II did her best in balancing the demands of tradition, the weight of history, the requirements of society and culture both at home and abroad, and also attended to her family.”
t was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Great Britain had prevailed over Germany in the Second World War but at a heavy cost. The Treasury was drained, people went hungry, food was being rationed (as was fuel and coal), and Winston Churchill, though lauded as war hero and savior, was ingloriously voted out of office. The new prime minister, Clement Attlee, set about converting the country into a welfare state, piously pretending that the British Empire was thriving while he hatched plans to dismantle it.
Amid the gloom, people brightened up hearing the news of a royal wedding: Princess Elizabeth was tying the knot with Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, prince of Denmark and Greece who renounced those titles and became a naturalized British citizen to win her hand. British expatriates sent hundreds of tons of nonperishable food as a wedding gift. Instead of using it for a banquet, Elizabeth instructed that it be divided into food parcels for the poor, especially widows and pensioners, each parcel sent with a personal note from her. These values would also guide her as queen.
Elizabeth II was not born to be queen. A woman could ascend to the throne only if (the rules have since changed) there were no male heirs in the line of succession. Circumstances changed when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne because he wanted to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson, a two-time divorcee with both husbands living, unacceptable to the Church of England and presenting a constitutional crisis. What is more, Edward and Simpson had Fascist sympathies. After the abdication, they lived abroad where the Nazis considered Edward king-in-waiting, to be reinstated after Germany crushed Great Britain.
The messy affair deeply affected Elizabeth. She considered it her sacred duty to steer the monarchy in line with the Constitution and uphold democratic institutions. And while European monarchs abdicated in favor of their heirs, she reigned on. After all, her great-grandmother Victoria had done the same. Charles could wait.
From Princess to Queen
Elizabeth became queen in dramatic, if not fairy tale, fashion. She and Prince Philip had kicked off 1952 with an overseas tour. In Kenya, on the night of February 5th, they stayed at Treetops, a game-viewing lodge built on a tree overlooking an elephant watering hole. The naturalist-hunter Jim Corbett, who had retired in Kenya, kept vigil during the night, the night when King George VI died. Because of communication glitches between London and Nairobi, Elizabeth did not know until well into the next day that she had become queen. Corbett wrote in the Treetops guest book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess and, after having what she described as her most thrilling experience, she climbed down from the tree next day a queen.”
Elizabeth’s strong sense of duty came into play again: She wrote letters of apology for the cancellation of her tour. Her secretary, Martin Charteris, described her as “very composed, master of her fate.” She kept a stoic appearance in public. Aboard the plane to London, she went to the bathroom, and then the tears flowed.
Head of the Commonwealth
My sole encounter with the Queen was a glimpse of her from afar in my hometown of Madras in southern India. I was a toddler and was placed atop a wall so that I could peer over all the heads and shoulders as her motorcade passed on Poonamallee High Road. She stood in an open Chrysler coupe and waved to the throngs. I remember being excited as well as disappointed. She wore a hat. A hat! Didn’t queens wear crowns?
This was the Queen’s first state visit to India. During her reign, she would make several hundreds of tours across the British Commonwealth. No previous monarch of Great Britain had presided over such radical changes at home and abroad—“a wind of change,” as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared. British colonies gaining independence were being encouraged to retain their links to Great Britain—as associates, not subjects. The Queen understood the importance of substituting hats for crowns and giving speeches without rubbing her audiences the wrong way. Considering the marauding nature of the British Empire, that the Queen maintained a network of former colonies for decades is no mean feat.
But times are changing. Last year, Barbados removed the Queen as head of state but opted to remain in the Commonwealth. Six other Caribbean nations—Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, the Bahamas, Grenada, Jamaica, and St. Kitts and Nevis—have signaled that they would follow Barbados.
And it is not just the West Indies. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, out of “respect and admiration” for the Queen, has declined to hold a referendum on becoming a republic in the immediate future. But he did not rule it out if he were reelected. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that removing the British sovereign as head of state was inevitable, that it would occur in her lifetime, but that it was not a priority of her government. Charles III begins his reign witnessing the further diminishing role of Great Britain in the world.
The Subtle Communicator
The British monarch has to stay apolitical, but the Queen became something of an expert in sending signals. On the day former President Donald Trump arrived in Great Britain, the Queen wore a brooch personally gifted to her by the Obamas. On that visit, President Trump was invited for tea at Windsor Castle, but he kept the Queen, then all of 92 years, waiting for him over ten minutes in the hot sun. He then broke protocol by walking ahead of her and making her scramble to catch up. But on the occasion, the Queen wore the famous “Three Queens In Mourning” brooch, the brooch her mother wore at her father’s funeral.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz will never forget his visit to Balmoral Castle when he was the crown prince. The Queen invited him for a drive on the grounds. In Saudi Arabia at that time, it was a crime for women to drive, and the Queen wished to make a point. Abdullah was shocked when the Queen took the wheel of the Land Rover, and off they went on a hair-raising ride. The Queen served during World War II driving military vehicles, and she had lost none of her skills. She accelerated the car like a rocket down the narrow, winding roads on the rolling estate, talking all the time while they swerved and bumped. Abdullah sweated and blanched and implored her through his interpreter to slow down and keep her eyes on the road.
And earlier this year, when the Queen inaugurated the Elizabeth Line, a light rail transit system, she wore a yellow hat with blue flowers—the colors of Ukraine—to show her solidarity.
Finding Fun in Life
The Queen had a remarkable sense of humor. If an occasion was overly pompous and stuffy, she said something droll that made people smile and sent some into stitches, but never to the extent that the solemnity of the occasion was compromised. Here are two video clips that show her mischievously funny side.
In the first, she becomes a Bond girl and accompanies 007 across London on a top notch mission—the inauguration of the 2012 Olympic Games.
The filmmakers had only asked for permission to shoot the exterior of Buckingham Palace and use a lookalike actress, but the Queen said she was willing to star in it. They rushed to the drawing board and wrote a whole new script.
In the second video, the Queen kicks off her Platinum Jubilee celebration with that very British ceremony—tea—at Buckingham Palace with Paddington Bear, in a comic sequence that includes the prudence of keeping a little something aside for emergencies.
The video ends with the Queen and Paddington tapping a distinctive rhythm on their teacups, the famous song “We Will Rock You” which was performed by a band called—what else?—Queen.
Such things have endeared the Queen to her subjects—even to those who are not fans of the monarchy. And cries for the abolition of the monarchy are often met with, “What? You really want to destroy tourism?” There is truth in that. One of the accomplishments of the Queen is creating a brand for the monarchy. In 2017, Brand Finance Canada valued the British monarchy—its actual assets plus intangible impacts on the British economy—at £67.5 billion (about US$ 77 billion). It was the fourth most valuable brand that year, the first three being Alphabet, Apple, and Amazon, and the fifth, AT&T. Brand Finance estimated that the monarchy’s brand contributes around £2.5 billion to the British economy each year. This was almost entirely because of the Queen. It remains to be seen how the brand fares during the reign of Charles III.
Pulse of the Nation
The way the Queen felt the pulse of the nation was uncanny, but even she occasionally slipped up. One such occasion was the death of Princess Diana, the subject of the gripping 2006 film The Queen. Elizabeth (in an Oscar-winning portrayal by Helen Mirren) is hell bent on distancing the royal family from the death of the divorced Diana, who was legally no longer a royal. Diana not only broke away from the Establishment, but she made eyebrow-raising dating choices after her divorce. She died in a car chase, pursued by the paparazzi when she was with her paramour, the Egyptian business heir Dodi Fayed. But the Queen misread the public mood, which demanded an expression of sympathy from the crown for “the People’s Princess.”
The story of Charles and Diana simmers with tragedy. It was a hardboiled arranged marriage in every sense: She was an aristocrat, was photogenic, and provided the heirs. Charles did not love her enough to stop his affair with his old flame, Camilla Parker-Bowles, then a married woman (and today, the Queen-Consort). Diana openly mentioned this on the television show Panorama, with the actual clip shown in the movie: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” Diana was not being entirely truthful. The marriage was indeed crowded, but by much more than three. Diana took her husband’s affair with Camilla as carte blanche to have her own dalliances, with James Hewitt, Oliver Hoare, Hasnat Khan, and possibly some others.
So it was straightforward to the Queen: Her son and daughter-in-law were both errant, Diana was no longer a royal, and an established protocol was in place. But the things that made Diana attractive to the royal family—her physical beauty, her aura of purity—now played against them. The public, charmed by Diana, believed her every word and was convinced that the royal family had her blood on their hands. One in four wanted the monarchy abolished; their anger was not feigned. The Queen’s character in the movie says in disbelief, “I’ve never been hated like that before.” The Queen is correct in all she says about tradition and protocol but finally bows to the public and holds a royal funeral for Diana in lieu of a private one. While the movie is a fictional account of events, it is a fascinating backstage look at the monarchy.
In Life and in Death
The Queen’s death brought a worldwide outpouring of grief. Nowhere was it as poignant as in Great Britain. Most Britons knew no other monarch, and the Queen was a household fixture in intangible and surprisingly intimate ways. The line to view her coffin as she lay in state at the Palace of Westminster stretched over five miles along the Thames. Wait times of 13 to over 24 hours and cold night temperatures did not faze her subjects from paying their last respects.
At the funeral, the Archbishop of Canterbury summarized: “Her late Majesty famously declared on her 21st birthday broadcast that her whole life would be dedicated to serving the nation and Commonwealth. Rarely has such a promise been so well kept.”
But the Queen’s death also drew opposite reactions: joy, exhilaration, outpourings of delight. An example is a tweet posted in the hours before the Queen’s death by Uju Anya, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Anya explained that she was born during the genocide in the late 1960s when the Igbo people of Nigeria, who tried to form an independent nation, Biafra, were massacred with British support during Elizabeth II’s reign.
Those who exult in the Queen’s death have this in common: They equate her with the evils of the British Empire. This is unfair. As an example, let us look at India, widely considered the “jewel in the crown” of the Empire.
India, once a conglomeration of independent kingdoms, was subjugated not by the British government but, rather, by a corporation, the East India Company (EIC). Founded in 1600, the EIC first traded with India and then realized that if it ruled the territories, it could repeatedly plunder them. The EIC’s naval and military forces were far larger than those of the British government. The rapacious nature of the EIC, fuelled by uninhibited greed for profit without a care about the chilling human costs of their looting, has been meticulously documented by many. One of them is the historian William Dalrymple, through his magisterial work, The Anarchy.
Then, in 1857, Indian soldiers rose against their British officers in what is now called The Sepoy Mutiny. In 1858, Queen Victoria proclaimed that henceforth India would be governed by and in the name of the British monarch through a Viceroy. The EIC was out, and the British Raj began.
On to regnal power: Ever since King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, the powers of the sovereign slowly dwindled. The Empire also rose, peaked, and started falling. This is reflected in the Royal Cyphers (the stylized monogram of the sovereign interwoven with a crown). Victoria’s was VRI, George the Fifth’s was GVRI, the R standing for Rex or Regina (king or queen in Latin), the I standing for Imperator or Imperatrix (Emperor or Empress). The Queen’s Cypher is EIIR. In other words, Victoria and George V were Queen-Empress and King-Emperor, but Elizabeth II was just queen.
Victoria saw her power diminish over her six decades on the throne, ruling less and reigning more. While Elizabeth II was not entirely powerless, many do not realize that she had little control over matters where she appeared to be in charge. The Queen gives a formal speech from the throne at the State Opening of the Parliament each year. But that speech is written by 10 Downing Street; the Queen reads what she is told to read. And while the Queen can choose who she knights in certain categories like the Order of the Garter, the recipients of many of the honors she bestows are determined by her government.
Coming now to the spate of personal attacks on the Queen for the atrocities of the British Empire, it is important to recall that many of them like the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in India, the destruction of Ventersburg and the Boer concentration camps in South Africa, and the British involvement in the Atlantic Slave trade occurred before she was born. There were carnages during her reign—the brutal suppression of the Mau-Mau uprising and of the Kikuyus in Kenya (which began during her father’s reign), the Briggs Plan directed against the communists in Malaya, and the Nigerian Civil War. And brutal they were. For example, some Kiyuku were dragged by military vehicles for miles on rough terrain until their bodies broke into pieces. Others were mauled by guard dogs before being executed.
The heinous chapters of the British Empire should not be swept under the rug. However, one should also remember that the Queen had little say in how her government acted in those situations and of course was not responsible for her predecessors’ actions. Blaming her is an assassination of sorts. Elizabeth II deserves to be remembered with respect for the selfless life that she led, for how she brought relevance to an anachronistic institution like the monarchy, her role in pulling her nation from the devastation of a world war, and the way in which she, an intensely private person, played out a public role in the spotlight with gravitas, not for five years, nor twenty, but for a lifetime.
In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony begins his funeral speech for the assassinated Caesar with these words:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
These lines resonate with the attacks on the Queen after her death. Much of the good that the Queen has done may be interred with her bones in the vaults of Windsor Castle. The evil that men have done in the Queen’s name lives on. And how much these men who, for the last four centuries were responsible for all the horrors of the Empire, must be chortling in their graves and thanking everybody who has skewered the Queen for all their misdeeds! This includes the professor who, unable or unwilling to differentiate between the roles of Queen and the administrators of the Empire, wished upon this gracious lady the throes of “excruciating pain” on her deathbed.
From that distant day when I saw her ride down Poonamallee High Road in Madras, the epitome of regality and restraint, Elizabeth II did her best in balancing the demands of tradition, the weight of history, the requirements of society and culture both at home and abroad, and also attended to her family. She had a long life, and she lived it well.
Rest well, Your Majesty.
Vishwas R. Gaitonde is an Indian-American writer and has previously contributed at outlets including The Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, and Santa Monica Review.