The death of Queen Elizabeth II was in no sense tragic, particularly as it occurred in her beloved Balmoral home amid the Cairngorm moors and mountains. Nor was it a surprise. Elizabeth had been ailing for some while, and particularly since the celebration of her Platinum Jubilee in June. I did not expect her to return from this visit to Balmoral, nor do I suspect she wanted to, for Balmoral is where she had hoped to die. From the ballroom, where in younger days she had danced highland reels, six Balmoral gamekeepers carried her coffin, draped not in the Sovereign’s Union Standard but in the Royal Standard of Scotland. So began her journey to Edinburgh to lie in state at St. Giles’ Cathedral, before proceeding to London.
The queen’s passing is a great loss to the United Kingdom, to the Commonwealth of Nations, and to the world. Eighty percent of the population of the UK was born during the seventy years of her reign, as was 90 percent of the world’s population. From the monarchy’s beginning 1,100 years ago with the reign of Alfred the Great, Elizabeth was the longest-reigning of all the English and then British kings and queens. She is exceeded in her longevity as a sovereign only by Louis XIV, who ruled France for seventy-two years (1643–1715).
Louis presented himself as the Sun King, Le Roi Soleil, a clever if immodest characterization. The solar emblem had powerful connotations both ancient and modern. It was a sign of radiant kingship and of haloed piety. After Copernicus, it was also the center around which all other bodies rotated, whose gravitational power held them in their orbits.
But the French solar system soon disintegrated. Within a century of Louis’s death, the colonial empire had been lost or sold off, and it left no enduring association in its wake. By contrast, as the British empire declined, it gave place to another kind of political association: the Commonwealth of Nations. Far from diminishing, the Commonwealth has grown—encouraged and loved by Elizabeth—so that it now comprises fifty-six states containing a third of the world’s population.
Its seeds were sown in the year of her birth. In 1926, an imperial conference was convened in London, attended by the prime ministers of the UK and the British Dominions: Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa. Rejecting proposals for a common imperial constitution, and for the dismemberment of the Empire, the conference produced instead the Balfour Declaration, which held that the dominions were equal, autonomous communities within the British Empire but not subordinate to the UK. In April 1947, Princess Elizabeth was touring South Africa with her parents and sister. On her twenty-first birthday, she broadcast from Cape Town a speech in which she dedicated her adult life:
I welcome the opportunity to speak to all the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire, wherever they live, whatever race they come from, and whatever language they speak. . . . 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.
With the independence of India four months later, the question arose of whether a republic could be a member. An affirmative answer opened the way to increasing membership. But it was not until the death of Princess Elizabeth’s father that the possible shape and scale of the Commonwealth became apparent. It would be a voluntary association of peoples, alumni of empire, from every quarter of the world, and of every religion and culture. The project might still have failed, and there were many moments when failure threatened. The abiding presence and commitment of the queen were, however, binding agents more powerful than any solvent.
Elizabeth acceded in 1952 and was crowned in June 1953. At the end of that year, she and the Duke of Edinburgh began a six-month tour of the Commonwealth. By Christmas Day they were in New Zealand, having visited Bermuda, Jamaica, Fiji, and Tonga, and with Australia, Ceylon, and other countries in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean still to go. In Auckland she recorded her second Christmas broadcast, saying of the nations of the Commonwealth:
every one . . . can be justly proud of what it has built for itself on its own soil. But their greatest achievement, I suggest, is the Commonwealth itself. . . . Thus formed [from their voluntary partnership], the Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past.
It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.
I wished to speak of it . . . this Christmas Day because we are celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, who preached the brotherhood of man. May that brotherhood be furthered by all our thoughts and deeds from year to year.
Time proved the sincerity of her commitment, and of her Christian faith. Princess Elizabeth had been educated at home, but upon the unexpected accession of her father to the throne, it was judged important that she be instructed in constitutional matters. To that end, at the age of twelve she began tutorials with Henry Marten, provost of Eton.
Marten, whom George VI later knighted, was a constitutional historian, co-founder of the Historical Association, and co-author of The Groundwork of British History and a series of history textbooks for children. He was also a strong advocate of the new Commonwealth idea. Elizabeth’s governess remembered Marten as nibbling the corner of his handkerchief and looking at the ceiling when thinking (and when he was not chewing sugar lumps). The princess was charmed by his kindness and eccentricities and during the war sent him two pounds of honey per week from Buckingham Palace.
She acquired from him a knowledge of the constitution and an enthusiasm for the idea of a new Commonwealth. She hoped, as she put it in her 1947 address, that the peoples of the Commonwealth would “go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart,” to make of it “an even grander thing—more free, more prosperous, more happy, and a more powerful influence for good in the world—than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers.” The 1649–60 republican Commonwealth of Cromwell was another matter. Marten is likely to have avoided the subject, given that his namesake and ancestor, the avid Republican Henry Marten, was described by Charles I as “an ugly rascal; and whore master.” The king demanded (unsuccessfully) his trial for high treason, and Marten later became a signatory of the king’s death warrant. From Henry Marten the regicide of Charles I to Henry Marten the tutor of a queen, mother of Charles III—such are the ironies of history.
Though committed to the tradition of monarchy, which she understood as a duty rather than a privilege, Elizabeth was in some respects more a Roundhead than a Cavalier. She preferred country to town, sports to arts, horses to operas, dogs to cats, plain to fancy. Her titles included Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but she was not at all an Anglo-Catholic, and she had no taste (indeed some distaste) for bells and smells, brocade and lace.
Although she found some of the popes personally engaging and admired the humanity and courage of John Paul II, she had no interest in, and shared classic reservations about, the Church of Rome. She regarded her other Anglican title, “Defender of the Faith,” in a manner different than does her son, who has spoken of aspiring to be a “defender of faiths.” She looked in the direction of Reformed Christianity and was most at ease with the style of worship and preaching she encountered in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. In 1952, in her accession oath, she recited the formula, “I do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion as established by the Laws made in Scotland . . .”
The Church of England remains Established and is thereby the state religion. The Church of Scotland, disestablished in the early twentieth century, can claim to be a national church only by dint of history and legal protection. In consequence, when the Sovereign travels north across the border, he or she no longer has ecclesiastical standing, notwithstanding the oath to maintain and preserve Scottish Protestantism. This disengagement from state religion was a relief for the queen, and she much appreciated the plainness of services at the small kirk in Crathie where she and the royal family worshiped when in residence at Balmoral.
This combination of roles and attitudes shaped the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in 2010. I had two privileged perspectives on this event. Since 2005 I had served as a Consultor to the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture. This office, and the fact that I had been writing and broadcasting as a Catholic for some years, meant that I was often called upon by the BBC to comment on issues to do with the Catholic Church and the Vatican. At the same time, Rome often asked me to interpret and comment on matters in the UK.
When Prime Minister Gordon Brown (a Presbyterian Scot) invited the pope to visit the UK on a state visit, it was initially assumed that Benedict would go first to London and be received by the queen at Buckingham Palace. In the event, it was determined that she would receive him in Edinburgh, where she was not the head of the national church. One consideration was the recent defection of some of her Anglican bishops to Rome. Had she welcomed Benedict in London, she would have been in the personally and constitutionally compromising position, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of its Faith, of welcoming the head of an opposed church, which some regarded as engaged in a hostile takeover.
Up with this she could not reasonably be expected to put. So Benedict flew to Scotland, to be met by the British Sovereign and not the head of a church. The reception was at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the Sovereign in Scotland. I was present in my capacity as a Vatican Consultor, I think (but who can follow the intricacies of court protocol?). Pope Benedict was evidently nervous, and his advisers had served him ill by declining a gracious invitation from the queen to join her for a private lunch or personal meeting prior to the formal reception. The refusal created an impression of pontifical aloofness, which quite needlessly stiffened the public meeting.
Thereafter, I switched roles, joining the BBC coverage of the papal visit and serving as a TV commentator on the papal Mass in Glasgow. As the broadcast team traveled from Edinburgh by train, we fell to talking. A producer let slip that they had recently been reviewing “Operation London Bridge”—the state plan in the event of the death of the queen, the code phrase being “London Bridge Is Down,” that is, the queen has died. But there was a separate code for the initial stage, should she die in Scotland: “Operation Unicorn.” The plan comprehended every stage from announcement to interment, and the BBC had a strategy for covering all of these events through a series of studio and outside broadcasts.
I learned then that the Welsh broadcaster Huw Edwards had been selected to lead the BBC coverage at Westminster, as in previous times had the legendary Richard Dimbleby, who covered the state funeral of George VI, Elizabeth’s coronation, and the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill, and whose son, David Dimbleby, would cover the queen’s reception and interment at Windsor Castle. I learned that the understanding was that if the queen knew she was dying, she would choose to die at Balmoral. Though queen of the United Kingdom, and enjoying her English homes in Windsor and Sandringham House, she found Scotland more congenial to her moral disposition and aesthetic taste (that definitely not being a phrase she would have used).
Five years earlier I had attended a reception at Holyrood Palace at which she and the Duke of Edinburgh presided, and I spoke with the duke about his grandson, Prince William, who had recently graduated from St. Andrews, where I was a professor of moral philosophy. The duke came back with one of his quips—“Fat lot of good that did him!” or “So that’s who’s to blame!” or some such. I did not for a moment take offense. The duke had a low threshold for boredom and much to be bored about, and he relieved himself with his famous barbs. The queen might at times have been no less bored, but her greater virtue enabled her not to show it.
A couple of years ago I was back at Holyrood Palace with my wife for one of the queen’s seasonal garden parties. She was stooped but remained present for much longer than can have been easy to manage. Then last year we were staying at St. George’s House in the grounds of Windsor Castle, adjacent to St. George’s Chapel, where her mortal remains are now entombed. (By tradition, the house’s Vicars Hall is the site of the first performance of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor before Elizabeth I.) The queen was then in Balmoral, but she returned, though we did not catch sight of her.
Now all that is past, and she is gone. No more the chance to see the world’s greatest head of state. She was a model of personal and public virtue, an exemplar of Christian observance and service, and in her own way a merry Windsorian. Although she loved her father and grieved his loss, I think that she more expressed the lineage of her mother: Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon of Glamis Castle, descendent of the Royal House of Stewart, a countrywoman. It is out of Scotland that part of her came, and it was to Scotland she returned to make her soul and to die in peace.
It is almost impossible to suppose that we will ever see her like again—though, formed and trained by her, King Charles seems ready to carry forward her spirit and demeanor. And perhaps, when his time approaches, he too will retire to Balmoral where the red deer run and the amber waters leap and flow.
John Haldane is Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews.
Image by Aashish Rao via Creative Commons. Image cropped.