Britain does well under an old queen. Our greatest monarchs have been women: Elizabeth I, Victoria, Elizabeth II. Children, trying to recall hazy history, or horrible history, might remember Richard the Lionheart, or Henries V and VIII, but they all know something about the three queens whose faces are stamped on to the body of the nation.
Those long-lived and long-reigning female monarchs each ascended to the throne very young in life and carried time with them. They outlived their subjects, their favourites, their enemies and younger family members. In the cases of Elizabeth I and Victoria, alive at a time when life expectancy was far shorter than it is now, they must have seemed sustained by a magical or divine presence. The first Elizabeth’s quasi-goddess mystique in later life, England’s Gloriana, owed much to her astonishing longevity. She was the Virgin Queen eternally renewed.
Our own Queen had been “old” for 25 years – she was grandmother to a generation, many of whom are bored by royalty, and would call themselves republicans, not monarchists. Yet, to them, too, the Queen was “her maj”, affectionately nicknamed, just like the other Elizabeth – Gloriana, for sure, but also “good queen Bess”. Well-loved, and a fixture in the best sense of the word. The outpouring of sadness and mourning at the death of the Queen crosses age, class, politics, race and gender. Black cabs in their hundreds, neatly lined up on the Mall after the news broke, were a spontaneous and moving tribute, and so will be the thousands of ordinary people, old and young, who will stand all night to pay their respects as her funeral coffin passes. This is sincere, and much more of a touchstone of feeling than the usual words from the usual suspects.
Like the two great queens before her, Elizabeth II transcended her restricted coordinates. There she was, an upper-class woman with a silly accent, who loved horses and dogs, never went to school or had a job, yet found herself representing her country for 70 years.
She was an icon, and it doesn’t matter how much of that was projection. That’s the point and purpose of an icon – it’s a representative symbol, and its symbolic value is far greater and more complex than any intrinsic value. That’s why there is little to be gained from poring over what the Queen was, or wasn’t, in her own right. Was she progressive? Was she racist? Was she a good mother? What were her views on Brexit? Why didn’t she help Diana? We could go on for ever – and people do. But what do we learn? In my view, nothing. Her private self was irrelevant to an understanding of her symbolism.
The continuity that Elizabeth II brought to this country was more than that of a long life spanning so much change; she was the embodiment of our connection with history – history as a lived and living past, a rope slung across time.
It is strange that the second Elizabethan age began, almost 400 years after the first, confronting the same problem: national identity.
Both Elizabeths ascended to the throne aged 25, the first in 1558, the second in 1952. Britain after the second world war was going to be a very different Britain from the great power of its imperial past. The Britain of Queen Victoria, the Britain of empire, was breaking apart, no matter how much the engines of state worked to prove otherwise. In any case, after two world wars in such rapid succession, people wanted a brave new world – fairer, more equal, with access to healthcare, to education, to opportunity. The old hierarchies had had their day. We needed a social contract. Ours was a Britain that would have to reimagine itself.
The other Elizabeth, 400 years earlier, became queen of a country ripped apart by religious battles: her father, Henry VIII, had broken with Rome – its power and its faith – and declared himself CEO of an upstart startup religious institution – the Church of England. Elizabeth’s new-to-history roles as head of church and head of state demanded absolute determination and political astuteness. Civil war was a real fear, as was invasion by hostile powers backed by the church of Rome. It was after the defeat of the Spanish armada that Elizabeth moved from young queen to national icon – her Gloriana moment. Her job was to be the fixed point in turbulence. To persuade England to remedy the national migraine caused by its double vision of a Catholic past and a Protestant present, and to focus on itself as a healthy new nation shaping a robust new identity.
The Church of England and Shakespeare – what could be more British, across the globe? And yet what seems to be the time-honoured fabric of this country’s physical and mental landscapes – our village churches, our prayers and worship, our learning, our letters, our arts, our common language, starts here – phenomena, because that’s what they were, held together in the person of a young woman when women had no status and no power.
Fast-forward four centuries, and another young woman, also called Elizabeth, is facing her destiny across what Shakespeare called “the gap of time”.
Time, though, is only superficially linear. History repeats itself, perhaps because we fail to reimagine ourselves. What is the balance between tradition and innovation? Is custom superstition? Is custom just the way we have always done things because we fear doing things differently? The wrecking ball of revolution, big or small, smashes what we have loved, as well as clearing the way for something new. New doesn’t always mean better – as the exhausting disruption and acceleration of our own times makes clear. And yet, nations, and their people, must reimagine themselves.
Our Elizabeth was born in 1926, two years before all women could vote on equal terms with men. Growing up in a house in Piccadilly, overlooking Green Park, she did not expect to be queen, and she was dismayed to become queen so young. That meant leaving behind the ordinary pleasures of a happy marriage, out of the public eye. But, as she had said in a remarkable speech in 1947, when she turned 21: “My whole life, whether it be short or long, will be devoted to your service.”
Did it make a difference, this not wanting to be queen? We are used to witnessing the unedifying scrambles of greasy pole politics, where ambition is the name of the game, and public service is a series of empty words. We are used to entitlement, too, those whose background and privilege cause them to believe in their own right to rule. The British empire whitewashed its landgrabs and brutality, its missionary coercion and robber-baron raids as the “white man’s burden” and “service”. Victoria’s reign saw this notion of service reach cult levels of self-justification. The civil service, the Foreign Service, military service, missionary service, the ubiquity of domestic service, all wrapped up in a word that implied selflessness and self-sacrifice – a word that reached its apogee in the slaughterhouse of the first world war, and never recovered its shine.
Elizabeth II, though, believed in service as a religious and moral imperative. It is duty, yes, but duty with humility. In theory, at least. And this explains why, as a monarch, she has been impatient and dismayed when others in her family do not recognise their duty of service.
That we might serve a higher purpose than ourselves is anathema to a modern society raised on neoliberal anti-values, where money and power are all that matters, and where society either doesn’t exist (Thatcher), or is an asset to be stripped. Liz Truss’s first act as prime minister has been to decide that the UK must take on yet more debt to manage the energy crisis – borrow from the future rather than tax the present-day profiteering of fossil fuel companies. What a depressing sight it was to see the Queen, whose first prime minister was Winston Churchill, greeting Truss, the PM no one voted for apart from 80,000 or so ageing Tories.
The volatility forced on Britain since 2016 and Brexit has been contained – somewhat – in the person of the Queen. Surely, if she was still there, we were still there, a permanent presence on the world stage, part James Bond, part Paddington Bear, icons both, and how we fondly imagine ourselves – daring and successful, recognised and loved, eccentric, doing things our own way, world class, but sitting down with a sandwich and a pot of tea.
It was testimony to the Queen’s savvy that she made those two short films, one with Bond and one with the bear. Fictional characters both. British inventions, like herself, playing a part that was real. Real live fictions existing simultaneously in 3D and in psychological space. In the national mythology.
The Queen always understood the power of radio – of voice – from when she made broadcasts during the war, but she began to understand the power of the image from the moment she agreed to the BBC televising her coronation in 1953. That alone marked her out as a new monarch for a new age.
Queen Victoria had been a photophile, an early adopter of the camera, enthusiastic about this 19th-century innovation. Early photographs of her date from the 1840s, but were kept private. By the 1860s, with the empire in full swing, she was prepared to issue images of herself to an eager public across the globe. Most of us have a photo image of her in our heads – older, fatter, a round figure in black bombazine, as unsmiling as that other, modern Victoria, Posh Spice.
Elizabeth II smiled. That was a new look for monarchs. As royal photography moved from the stagey theatre of Cecil Beaton to the fast informality of Princess Margaret’s husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, snapping overtook the staged portrait, followed by the real-time impact of the moving image, and the Queen realised she would be on show constantly, and judged accordingly. Better to grin and bear it.
The Queen’s home movies, recently released, delighted viewers. There is no doubt that she shared her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s fascination with visual records – and Elizabeth embodied the transition to a visual age, where selfies, Insta, TikTok, non-language, cross-culture communication via images would start to supersede the written word as our primary means of record – ephemeral and not.
No, time is not linear. The Tudors would have loved Photoshop and deepfake – it’s what they paid court painters to do, after all. Elizabeth I never aged.
I will miss the Queen. As an adopted person, she has been the one and only stable female in my life. Her portrait (Beaton) hung over our coal fire above the brass flying ducks. When Mrs Winterson was at her most volatile, taking my dad’s service (there’s that word again) revolver out of the duster and fiddling with the bullets embedded in a tin of Pledge, I looked to the Queen for help. She was better than Jesus because she was alive, as well as possessing special powers.
Our family stood for the national anthem. We listened to the Queen’s speech standing up, and I do still, on the radio, on Christmas Day. When I realised there was going to be an announcement about the Queen’s death, I changed into black and waited. She deserved that. Not the fetishised mourning that Queen Victoria made into a gruesome fashion, but, yes, those black cabs, those lines of people. Part of us goes with her. We mourn ourselves.
My friend, the American writer AM Homes, also adopted, texted me immediately, and said: “We’re orphans now.”
The Queen was never a maternal figure, either to her own children, it seems, or to the nation, but we were held by her in important ways. I go back to the speech Elizabeth I made in 1601, addressing the palace council chamber, her last speech before her death:
It is not my desire to live or reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.
This is how many millions feel, I think, at the loss of Queen Elizabeth II.
• This article was amended on 13 September and 20 October 2022. The spelling of Antony Armstrong-Jones’s title, which was given in an earlier version as “Lord Snowden” rather than Lord Snowdon, was corrected. And Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, not 1553.