On June 2, 1953, in the splendor of Westminster Abbey, a twenty-five-year-old woman knelt before the archbishop of Canterbury to seal the oaths she had just sworn. “Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?” he had asked. “I will,” Queen Elizabeth had replied. Strictly speaking, this was a rather ambitious promise, given how little executive power the queen wields in the British system. Strictly speaking, although the archbishop went on to place St. Edward’s Crown on her head, historians have since discovered that it contains not an ounce of St. Edward the Confessor’s ancient headgear. But people who saw all this as mere illusion, and who asked what the point of a monarchy was anyway, showed that they hadn’t begun to understand.
The purpose of the modern monarchy has been to offer a focus of national unity, an object of loyalty, in the form of a person; and to ensure that the person, rather than having campaigned and flattered his or her way into such an exalted position, is someone who never chose it. (Indeed, as a girl Elizabeth prayed that her parents would give birth to a son and so spare her the burden of leadership.) As Roger Scruton once wrote, the monarchy “has made it possible for people who disagree radically about how the nation should be governed nevertheless to share an object of affection by which the nation as a whole is symbolised.” No better argument for that view has ever existed than the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. So much did she represent the nation that with her death most Britons feel a part of their identity, their footing in the world, has been lost.
Politicians and commentators keep saying that the queen lived through “great changes.” This is a nice way of putting it. The hammer-blow, three years after the coronation, of the Suez Crisis; the crumbling of the Empire, and of Britain’s global status; the rise of nationalisms that threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom itself; the loss of our historical myths; the repackaging of our land and industry as a bundle of assets to be sold off to financial institutions, property developers, and foreign investors; the depredations of the sexual revolution; the melting-away of the armed forces, the churches, the trade unions, and the mass-membership political parties; the dwindling of the police force and politicians to national laughingstocks. The food has improved a hundredfold, some of our universities are excellent, and in the Premier League we have invented perhaps the most successful form of entertainment in human history. But this has basically been a time of decline, and the queen has provided a kind of national consolation.
For even as the scenery collapsed around her, she moved through public life—while remaining above it—with an uncanny gracefulness and tact, someone who was not only born for the role but had clearly dedicated herself to it in the spirit of service and unquestioning duty that was the glory of her generation. Each year she opened Parliament with due solemnity and by her presence reminded us that the United Kingdom is more than the squabbles of our elected politicians. Each Christmas, she addressed the nation and generally pulled off the feat of being reassuring without banality. When she met individuals, she sometimes showed a brilliantly human touch; when she greeted the public, she made them feel that Britain, that elusive thing, really existed and was as simply loveable as your grandma. Watching her supremely dignified and gentle discharge of so many tedious official duties, one was put in mind of Belloc’s lines:
Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than courage of heart or holiness
Yet in my walks it seems to me
That the grace of God is in Courtesy.
This morning I went for a walk by the Thames under an impenetrable gray sky, sensed the September chill in the air and felt—this will sound a bit superstitious unless, like millions of others, you felt it too—that today we were rather less sheltered from the cold. In the coming months and years, Britain could face a dramatic fall of living standards, the very real possibility of a devastating currency crisis, and our leaders are . . . well, maybe this day of mourning is not the time for politics.
But it is a time for prayer. We need not just consolation for national decline but a remedy for it, and ultimately that can only come from one place. There’s a lovely story from the life of St. Dunstan, the great revitalizer of monasticism, morality, and Christian belief in tenth-century England. When Dunstan’s mother was pregnant with him, she went to church for Candlemas, an occasion when the whole congregation hold lit candles before them. Suddenly, the candles went out and the people found themselves in darkness, until a flame descended from above and lit the candle that Dunstan’s mother was holding in front of her belly. “And then one by one they approached the fire sent down from heaven and from it they regained the light that had been lost.”
God save the king—and even more pertinently, God save the country.
Dan Hitchens is senior editor at First Things.
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