Flags at half mast, crowds gathered in front of British embassies, non-stop tributes on television channels around the world… The disappearance of Elizabeth II of England, on September 8 around 4 p.m., had the effect of an earthquake. Very tired for a year, she still found the strength to greet the country’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, two days earlier. If the emotion is universal, it is because the sovereign reigned for seventy years as if in an immutable background of our lives. And that she represented a unifying figure, well beyond her people.
An early destiny
From the Cold War to the collapse of the Berlin Wall; from the decolonization of the British Empire to the Falklands War; from the parade of 15 successive Prime Ministers, without her making the slightest comment, to the advent of the miniskirt, the Beatles then Harry Potter as typically British fashion phenomena… The Queen has remained the same, upright and amiable, wearing the inscrutable smile that befits his position. “My task is not to do but to be” she confided to her chaplain during one of her very rare confidences which confirms that she knows her role perfectly.
On February 6, 1952, the princess was on safari in Kenya with her husband, Prince Philip Mountbatten, married in 1947, when she received the terrible news: her beloved father, King George VI, had just died. We must return to Great Britain quickly. Because, at 26, Elizabeth is the heir to the kingdom.
And on June 2, 1953 at Westminster Abbey, live in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers – it was a media first – the young woman did not give in under the heavy crown of 3 kilos of precious stones. The previous week, she trained with dictionaries, to maintain a “queen’s posture” in all circumstances! Quite a symbol…
It must be said that since the age of 10, the very popular George VI prepared her to play her majestic representative role. Unlike his older brother, Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936, George VI supported the British war effort against the Nazis, refusing to leave London under the bombs. Elizabeth, 16, had then participated in the national mobilization in the auxiliary territorial service as colonel of grenadiers.
An unfailing sense of duty
This unfailing sense of duty has always earned him the admiration of the British, even if, over the years, the royalty’s popularity has waned somewhat. Part of the public regularly criticizes the royal family for weighing heavily on the national budget, even if, over the years, Elizabeth II has accepted several budgetary restrictions and has been paying taxes since 1992.
She was said to be stubborn and not very bright. Especially loving the company of dogs and horses, stays at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. But in reality, little filtered through his thoughts. If, in 1953, the British understood that her sister Margaret had to sacrifice her love for Peter Towsen, divorced, for reasons of state, they would no longer accept the intransigence of the Queen, who was too respectful of protocols of another age facing the free loving choices of those around him, when it comes to his children. The most serious popularity crisis she experienced took place in 1997, after the death of Lady Di, ex-wife of Prince Charles. Strictly speaking, the Queen is right: this woman – who ridiculed her in interviews – has not been part of the royal family since the previous year. She has no business getting involved in his funeral. But the public who adored this accessible and warm princess think otherwise. On the wise advice of Charles, her eldest son, and her Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, Elizabeth swallowed her pride and announced on television a state funeral for the mother of William and Harry, her grandsons, direct heirs to the throne.
After this delicate episode, Her Gracious Majesty has evolved: she lets it be known that she appreciates the commoner Sophie Rhys-Jones, wife of her youngest son Edward since 1999. No doubt she is relieved that at least one of her children don’t be divorced! Because she also had to endure that of her daughter, Princess Anne in 1992, then of Prince Andrew in 1996.
The art of balancing
In April 2011, while England was experiencing unprecedented austerity, Elizabeth II in a canary yellow coat-dress suit attended in Westminster the wedding of William, Charles’s eldest son, and the gracious and popular Kate Middleton – who , she too, was not born an aristocrat.
Charles, now the new king of England, is already 73 years old. His mother having refused to abdicate until the end. His own son, William, born in 1982, therefore has every chance of one day being crowned. Even though his brother, Harry, after another flamboyant marriage, celebrated in Windsor in 2018, with Megan Markle, a divorced and mixed-race American actress, preferred to give up his role of representing the British crown to live as a “simple” Duke of Sussex, United States. Because opinion is fickle, under the influence of British tabloid newspapers and social networks. And the private and public lives of each member of the royal family require mastering the art of balancing: first adored for the air of modernity that she embodied, Megan ended up being hated for the same reasons.
Elizabeth II knew this well and resisted better than anyone by never revealing anything about herself, having only granted one interview, during her jubilee in 2018.
Words for history
What will remain in history of the thousands of official trips of this impassive queen? Without doubt the so-called “reconciliation” one carried out in May 2011 in the Republic of Ireland. Elizabeth II knew how to find the right words, in a speech considered one of the most memorable of her reign, to express her “deep compassion” towards the Irish victims of the British army, during the war of independence of the Ireland, between 1920 and 1922.
* To read She didn’t want to be queen, by Marc Roche, Ed. Albin Michel, 348 p. ; €19.90
April 21, 1926. Birth in London of Elizabeth, Alexandra, Mary, eldest daughter of the future George VI, nicknamed “lilbeth” by those close to her.
1943. Participated in the British war effort as colonel of brigadiers.
November 20, 1947. Married Philip Mountbatten, Prince of Greece and Denmark.
November 14, 1948. Birth of her first child, Prince Charles.
June 2, 1953. Coronation of Elizabeth II as Queen of the United Kingdom and head of the Commonwealth (bringing together 53 states).
June 21, 1982. Birth of his first grandson, William, son of Charles, now crown prince.
February 6, 2022. The Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth’s 70-year reign begins. On this occasion, she authorized Camilla, Charles’s second wife, to bear the title of queen consort when he acceded to the throne.
September 8, 2022. Death of Elizabeth II.