I don’t go all gooey over royalty, especially British royalty, but that didn’t stop my daughter, when in middle school, from becoming an anglophile. She attended British-American high teas in Kansas City several times and, in company with a woman actually from London, sang God Save the Queen. Once, when we visited New York, she overhead English accents and made me go over and ask them to join our table. The couple did and we had a pleasant time, though they didn’t drink tea as she thought they should have. Now twenty-two, I think she’s mostly over it.
Maybe that’s because royalty have been such a disappointment to Americans, going back some years in fact. George III was said to weep time to time over the loss of his American colonies. Hey, his bad; I am a thorough republican.
I don’t think it was until George VI that the British monarchy finally accepted the fact the colonies were no more. Sometime during the 1939 hotdog dinner hosted by President Roosevelt at Hyde Park, the king must have caught on that the separation between the mother country and her American colonies was definitely permanent.
But for argument’s sake, I think the best chance for British reunion with the colonies is to join our Union. That might be a little complicated since our Constitution guarantees a republican form of government to each state and rules out hereditary titles, but we can decide the big question first and work out the details later.
I bring this up because the monarchy is in trouble and, strangely, there is a part of me that cares. The British Royal Mint has a problem. The image of Queen Elizabeth on British coinage needs to be updated to reflect how she actually looks. She looks old, or more precisely, older than her current portrait.
Her image has undergone four previous versions. Now, she’s due for another. What to do: something idealized or something more accurate, “warts and all,” as an American president once put it? The Royal Mint is inviting speculation, while incidentally whetting numismatic appetites everywhere with advance marketing to collectors. No other modern monarch will have had as many official portraits on the current money of the realm.
Though becoming queen in 1952, Elizabeth’s portrait did not appear on British currency until 1953, but it was a brilliant image. There we see a young, confident, and pretty queen, reflecting, it was said at the time, the self-assurance of the empire seven years after World War II. As the fortunes of the empire have moved through the years, so too has the queen relentlessly moved through time, on to age eighty-eight. She will be eighty-nine come April.
So the Royal Mint must take that into account. The present image, in use since 1998 when the queen was seventy-two, will be replaced by a fifth version The queen herself will have the final approvalone of her remaining royal prerogatives.
The only other British monarch whose coinage changed so much through time was Queen Victoria’s. She went from a vivacious young girl to an aged widow depicted in perpetual mourning dress for her beloved consort, Prince Albert. Elizabeth II is the longest living monarch, distancing Victoria by seven years. Victoria was the longest reigning, though with little more than a year and some months to go, Elizabeth II may acquire that record as well.
There is an unhappiness attached to age and aging. The whole business is one really beyond our understanding. Oh, biology explains it of course: cell reproduction breaks down, systems collapse, death arrives, and there you go. Yet we just don’t quite ever comprehend it, even as we progress through it.
If we have trouble comprehending it, it is unfortunately hardly beyond our observation. We age in public, and everyone is forced to watch us as we do it. A friend told me recently he had gone to his fiftieth high school reunion. Strangest thing, he observed, “There were a lot of old people there.”
If anyone is ever going to love us for just ourselves and not our good looks, well, time’s coming to give it a try.
I think of John Paul II, who struggled to keep his old frame moving long beyond sensible endurance would suggest prudent. He tended his ministry by his daily blessing and displayed in his own flesh, as we all must eventually, our common human fragility of age, pain, and illness. He did it, so it is said (though I can’t remember who said it), to spiritual and theological purpose, to show that life, his own life most particularly, nearing the end, can be buoyed by faith.
Popes, empires, queens, and numismatic marketing overtures don’t stand a chance against the doleful author of Ecclesiastes: “All come from dust, and to dust all return.” But it is also an Ecclesiastical faith that says God “has set eternity in the hearts of men.” If not an exactly buoyant evocation, still it will do.
For Elizabeth II, in the meanwhile: Long may she reign.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.