Queen Elizabeth II was known around the world but still a royal mystery
She wasn’t just Britain’s Queen — Elizabeth II belonged to the world. It’s moving how the peoples of so many nations embraced this quiet, emotionally reticent woman who reigned in a country that once bestrode the world as an empire. In her decades at the helm, she found a different role, with monarchy as the glue of continuity.
In the pantheon of postwar greats, Nelson Mandela is revered as the man who healed his divided nation’s wounds after years in captivity, Pope John Paul II is remembered for his spiritual and physical courage in the face of Nazi and Communist dictatorships, and Martin Luther King Jr. is immortalized for his crusade against racial injustice. A number of world leaders have given stirring speeches that marked and even changed the course of history.
But the Queen? What heroic feats did she perform? What memorable lines did she deliver to match the soaring rhetoric of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, let alone the orotund phrase-making of her first prime minister, Winston Churchill? Yet Elizabeth would become the most recognizable human being on the planet. Millions paid attention when she spoke and, crucially for a job that often was more significant in its silences, what she embodied.
Her talent was to seem so unknowable while living a life exposed to the attention of millions. Biographers and the watchful royal press have searched in vain for memorable bons mots or opinions that the longest-serving monarch in British history uttered in private. Yet every attempt to chart her inner life results in telling you more about the writer than the subject. When she did allow an opinion to shimmer through the careful calibration (as during her sometimes tense relationship with Margaret Thatcher), it was expressed in nuance or reported facial twitches — never in a showdown.
We might have expected that the subjects of her native United Kingdom would be intensely loyal to their homegrown monarch. In 1969, for instance, more British people — 70% of the country — watched a television program about a royal picnic where she doled out the salad than viewed the landing of the first man on the moon. The Scandinavians are similarly proud of their royal families, the Dutch have long had their bicycling queens and kings and the Japanese honor emperors whose venerable dynasty is shrouded in greater antiquity and quasi-religious mystery than the upstart House of Windsor.
But the Queen’s popularity around the world was unmatched. When she embarked upon her first royal tour of Japan, a million people took to the streets of Tokyo to greet her. Her speech at a state banquet broadcast by the cameras attracted an audience of 75 million, the highest Japanese television audience recorded thus far.
Her openness as much as her popularity astonished her hosts. Yet glasnost was not her aim, durability was. The Queen always thought she had “to be seen to be believed.” Although her courtiers made mistakes, they were right to advise on offering maximum exposure with minimum of real intimacy — a winning formula that was to her personal taste and inclination.
In Britain’s times of trouble — think of the economic crises of the 1970s, the domestic divisions of the 1980s caused by mass unemployment — the Queen continued to be honored abroad.
Republics in which the chief executive is also head of state, such as the United States and France, in theory, separate the failings of the individual from the dignity of the office. We remember how Americans forgave president Bill Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky affair. But when millions watched Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron engage in a hand-squeezing contest before the cameras, the appeal of a well-mannered sovereign becomes apparent. While the world indulges occasional clowning in leaders, it ultimately craves respectability — and that was a quality Elizabeth had in abundance.
That is not to say the antics of her family didn’t often let her down. If the Queen, it was said, “never put a foot wrong,” then some of her children could be likened to clodhopping rhinos. Elizabeth’s greatest fault in the eyes of some Buckingham Palace courtiers as well as her subjects was “ostriching,” of ignoring disagreements in her family and household — like the disaster of her eldest son’s unhappy marriage and the foolishness of her second son Andrew’s friendships, including the damaging link to Jeffrey Epstein. She sometimes failed where a more full-frontal response was required — the downside perhaps of discretion. But in that she was typical of a woman of her time and class.
Slowly, she adapted her ways — embracing more of her sly humor by taking part in a James Bond-themed opening of the Olympic games and allowing Brian May from Queen to play guitar on top of Buckingham Palace. For her 70th birthday, she issued a film of herself having tea with Paddington Bear.
Queen Elizabeth was a fixed constant in giddily changing times and the steady heart of Britain’s odd but enduring constitution. She was also very much herself — familiar and a mystery at the same time. It is that which we may miss, most of all.
To contact the author of this story:
Martin Ivens at firstname.lastname@example.org