A Crown Worn Well
An American reflection on the life of Queen Elizabeth II, 1926-2022.
America is haunted by monarchy, but Elizabeth II made its presence feel comforting and familial, rather than eerie. For a republic, the United States has been fairly inundated with a deluge of royalist media, from the funeral of Diana to a massively popular Netflix series like The Crown. Though sometimes overshadowed by more trivial elements of our royal fascination, the late queen’s 70 years as sovereign modeled to us in the United States a public life of stoic duty, humble piety, and ageless continuity.
Her time as queen of the United Kingdom, among fourteen other Commonwealth realms, has been so extensive that it would be difficult to summarize in any obituary. From her coronation onwards, her reign has been the constant in a stream of incessant change and crisis. Her first great task was to guide Great Britain through the dangers of decline and decolonization. Early on she was faced with the resignation of her prime minister in the wake of the Suez crisis and, without any formal mechanism for choosing his replacement, having to select his successor herself. She eventually appointed Harold Macmillan, the man who would repair the rift in the special relationship and craft Britain’s decolonization policy.
She was, furthermore, instrumental in the institution of the Commonwealth as a means of preserving the United Kingdom’s influence throughout the 20th century. This role as head of the Commonwealth became even more critical in the midst of the Cold War, as many former colonies were courted by the Soviet Union. In his tome The Cold War, Casey Wineman explained how her soft power, exercised through royal visits, helped keep Commonwealth nations within the western orbit and how her “quiet determined spirit helped lead Britain through” the global conflict.
Throughout her time as queen many underestimated her, only to repeatedly find themselves outmatched. Prime Minister Macmillan found that "the Queen has been absolutely determined all through.... She loves her duty and means to be a Queen” rather than be treated as a “film star.” When Lord Mountbatten discussed the potential of unseating her prime minister and installing himself, Elizabeth stood her ground. Historians debate how far Mountbatten was prepared to go but Alex von Tunzelmann cites a source in her book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, noting, "It was not Solly Zuckerman who talked Mountbatten out of staging a coup and making himself president of Britain. It was the Queen herself." Even as recently as the premiership of Tony Blair, Elizabeth II confronted her minister, “exasperated and frustrated” with his overstretching of the armed forces and his lack of understanding of rural Britain.
Additionally, Elizabeth’s reign was marked by a consistent commitment to duty, even as the role of the monarch became more constitutionally limited. Before her coronation, then-Princess Elizabeth was a full part of the war effort as Great Britain fought for her life. At 14 she assured the children of Britain, “We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers, and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war.” She would go on to be an accomplished driver, serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. (She remained fond of driving as queen, even to the point of terrifying the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah on her Balmoral estate).
As the patroness of over 500 charities, raising more £1 billion, the indefatigable Elizabeth had a nearly impossible schedule. As late as 2019 she conducted more than 295 public engagements. In all, she demonstrated that duty done under the law is not beneath the dignity of anyone, not even a monarch. While politicians flouted public health restrictions, even as they forced Britons to avoid seeing their own sick and dying family, Elizabeth II attended the funeral of her late husband, Prince Philip, by herself. The image of an anointed queen suffering under the same imposed conditions as her subjects, unlike elected legislators, was a stark contrast, and for Americans, an unexpected image of gravitas.
Finally, she was a picture of religious devotion in our secular era. In her speeches she routinely upheld religion as “critical guidance for the way we live our lives, and for the way in which we treat each other.” Even more astonishingly in a dechristianized Europe, the queen spoke publicly as monarch about her Christian faith, noting, “To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ's words and example.” Unlike so many other world leaders, her Christian faith, in particular her evangelical Anglicanism, was not mere window dressing but an inseparable part of her role as a stateswoman.
Here in the United States, Elizabeth II occupied a strange position. While naturally holding no official position in the American government, she was almost omnipresent, as she remained on the throne through fourteen presidencies. If one mentioned “the Queen” no one asked if he had meant Margrethe II of Denmark or Letizia of Spain. For us, no doubt, she was a symbol of constancy, harking back to something simultaneously familiar and yet altogether alien.
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Despite ourselves we have always retained some attachment to the idea of a monarchy, and to the British monarchy in particular. In our Declaration of Independence, while we forswore allegiance to Elizabeth’s predecessor we still appealed to “the ties of our common kindred.” As Founding Fathers like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton pondered the potential need for some kind of monarch, the American presidency was crafted explicitly as a “Republican form of government founded on the principles of monarchy,’” in the words of Mercy Otis Warren. The pomp and circumstance of the White House, the First Lady, and the State of the Union more than slightly resemble Buckingham Palace, the Royal family, and the Speech from the Throne.
This royal appeal goes deeper than simple politics, however. As the penultimate symbol of Britishness and hierarchy, Elizabeth II became a paragon of continuity and order. Even in our liberal republic, we sense a need for some kind of an ordered society. Americans can’t get enough of shows like The Crown or Downton Abbey, which show sympathetic characters make full throated appeals to an old school Toryism. An admiration for Elizabeth II transcends her commendable personal qualities, reaching to a deep and natural fascination with institutional longevity, cultural rootedness, and an enduring order.
Like a Shakespearean ghost, the British monarchy in the form of Elizabeth II has, for the better part of a lifetime, pointed us towards deeper truths about ourselves. For her subject peoples in her various realms, Elizabeth II has faithfully executed her oath under her coronation, which remains largely unchanged since the days of Edward the Confessor. For multiple generations of Americans, she has gracefully reflected to us something that we feel a longing for in our own civic life: the necessity of religion, a commitment to the common good, and a defense of the timeless. Now that she has lain down her charge, to quote an older royal Charles than her son, she goes “from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown.”