Nobility that didn’t need a crown
Bryan Zepp Jamieson
September 8th, 2022
It’s going to be strange. Elizabeth was monarch since before I was born. As a kid, she seemed to be everywhere: her image peered over every classroom. Her face was on every coin and bill. Her insignia initials, EIIR, Elizabeth 2 Regina were on the stamps (as was she) and the cap of my dad’s naval uniform.
She oversaw the most tumultuous period of all of Britain’s history. Since 1066, England has seen periods of more violence, of more tragedy (the 17th century alone) but never a 70 year period of more change. During that convulsive and often strange and challenging time, she managed to be the soul of an entire nation. It was a fantastically difficult role, and she was often beset on all sides, but right to her final day, she carried out her duties and was, in the strongest sense of the word, a true trouper.
She grew up not expecting to be Queen. She was the eldest daughter of the second son of George V, and seemed to be just another spear-carrier royal, close enough to the throne that she would appear at various official functions such as royal weddings or Epsom Downs, but far enough out of the limelight that she could, if she wished, shop for herself at her local grocers’.
That changed in 1936, when she was 9. Her grandfather died, and her uncle Albert became King Edward VIII. But Edward wanted to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and the nation found it unacceptable that the monarch and head of the state church would marry a twice-divorced Yank. While not widely known at the time, England dodged a bullet: Uncle Albert was a big admirer of Adolf Hitler and when he married Simpson in 1937, they took their honeymoon in Nazi Germany.
His brother, now George VI proved to be a very different sort of royal. Far from being a Nazi sympathizer, he was second only to Winston Churchill in stiffening British resolve against the mad dictator.
At the age of ten, Elizabeth was suddenly the heir to the throne. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and what’s more, it happened during one of the darkest moments in British history, an existential threat to end the United Kingdom. Elizabeth was doubtlessly very high on Hitler’s list of planned executions once he held London.
At the age of 14, Princess Elizabeth addressed the nation for the first time over the BBC. It became clear instantly that she had inherited her father’s courage and resolve, and her piping but lucid teenage voice galvanized the nation. It was 1940, and many believed England was doomed.
During the war she worked full-time as a mechanic in the Royal Army motor pool. This was an era before the notion of ‘photo ops’; she really did work as a mechanic, and the overalls and oil-and-grease stains were real, and legitimately earned. She exemplified the spirit of “we’re all in this together” that raised British spirits.
Hitler was defeated, and the greatest period of change in British history began. The once mighty British Empire was now the British Commonwealth, and major possessions—America, Canada, Australia, and most recently India—had declared independence. It was a shell of its former self, and in the first dozen years of Elizabeth’s reign, nearly all of the remaining colonies left. The map of the world, once dominated by the characteristic pink tones of the Empire, was changed beyond recognition.
My parents bought a television set—nearly a month’s salary—just so they could watch Elizabeth’s coronation two years after it happened, on an 11 inch black and white screen. It was one of the very first things broadcast in Canada, and while I don’t remember that, I remember the TV set.
Since she ascended, England saw the discovery of DNA, the four minute mile fell, the ITV was formed, the first nuclear power plant was built, the death penalty was abolished, homosexuality was decriminalized, abortion was legalized, and the Concorde became the first supersonic commercial jet. That was just in the first 15 years of her reign. In 1971 the very money changed, going from pounds, shillings and pence to the 100 pence to the pound we have today. The continuity, of course, was her visage on the reverse of every coin struck.
Elizabeth was the face of Britain during the Troubles, andwhen the UK joined the Common Market (later the European Union). National Health was thoroughly ingrained in the culture, and England led in such developments as in vitro fertilization. Charles married Diana, one of the most jubilant and popular moments in all of England’s history. The Chunnel was an item of trust, removing the barrier the Channel always posed to thwart European depredations. Dolly was born and Diana died. The millennium happened.
In 2002 Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret, died as did her mother, the much-beloved “Queen Mum”. Scotland decided to Remain, but the UK voted to Leave, the disastrous ‘Brexit’ vote.
Then came the pandemic, and the near-total collapse of the British economy.
Throughout it all, she was the one constant. Her image on the money was updated every 12 years or so to allow for the passage of the years, but she was always there, and her voice was a part of every British Christmas.
To give you some idea of the length, if not the breadth of her reign, her first Prime Minister, Winston S. Churchill, was born in 1874. Her nineteenth and final PM was Liz Truss, born in 1975.
She was one of the few monarchs in history to voluntarily relinquish some of the royal powers, allowing England to escape some of the shackles of the dead past.
She was subjected to attacks on all sides, particular the trashy tabloid press. It would have destroyed a weaker person.
I’m a republican, ideologically opposed to monarchies and monarchs. But I always had love and respect for her, not because of the jewelry, but because of who she was.
And I admit, even as I am very dubious about King Charles III, I’ll be intensely curious to see what next year’s coins look like in Canada and the UK. I’ve never seen that face change before.
She was far better than the system that produced her.
To quote what she told the world in 1940, 82 years ago:
Before I finish I can truthfully say to you all that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage. 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.
We know, everyone of us, that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.