In July 2003, when I was Director of The Historic Churches Preservation Trust, I had to organise a celebration of the Trust’s 50th anniversary. Our Patron was Her Majesty the Queen. The cause was always dear to the Queen’s heart, because her father King George VI had been responsible for campaigning to bring it into being (although he didn’t live to see that achievement). The photo above was taken on that occasion.
Many people meet the Queen, but few are lucky enough to spend more than 15 minutes in her company, as I did then. The reason was that we had a service of celebration in St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, followed by a reception at Haberdashers’ Hall. In my liaison with Buckingham Palace, I was advised that I needed to put my thinking cap on, as Her Majesty was, under royal protocols, always the last to arrive at any event, and the first to leave. What were we going to do with the Queen, for the time it took us to get 300 invited guests out of the church at the end of the service and into Haberdashers’ Hall, ahead of Her Majesty? The idea that was eventually adopted was to put on a mini exhibition. I was duly given the job of escorting Her Majesty, whilst others organised the emptying of the church.
I can’t, of course, claim to have known her as a result of that one brief encounter, but I’m left with some reflections, following the sad announcement of her death yesterday.
My first observation would be that she actually came across as quite an insecure person. She did, of course, have a real ‘presence’ and in later years her insecurity was shrouded by her almost tangible sense of wisdom. But to understand her properly, I think you need to see that she was the very antithesis of arrogant or aloof.
Her second attribute was an old-fashioned sense of duty and service – a characteristic that’s much despised in the modern world. There have been many examples of monarchs around the world who’ve abdicated when they reached old age, in order to pass on the heavy duties to the next generation. I was one of many who was absolutely certain that she would carry on to the day of her death. Why? On her 21st birthday, in 1947, she said this in a broadcast to her people, and to the Empire and Commonwealth:
‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong, but I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone, unless you join in with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.’
This was a solemn dedication of her whole life; she could not imagine for a second renouncing it in any circumstances. The last photo that we have is of her shaking hands with our new Prime Minister, two days before her death. She’s smiling, but there’s a clue that all isn’t well – her hands in the picture are dark purple in colour. She probably knew that she was dying at that moment, but there was no question of her shirking that responsibility. She died as she had lived, in self-sacrificial service to her people. Her self-sacrifice was at the heart of who she was. And it underlined her Christianity.
She was a person of the deepest integrity. Do we know what she thought about any of her 15 Prime Ministers? No. Do we know what she thought about the great political events of her lifetime? No. The most that we know for sure is that she cared very deeply about the Commonwealth, that she was a lover of animals and horseracing and that she prayed for the continuation of the United Kingdom. Balmoral was her favourite place, but by deciding to spend her last hours there she would, I’m sure, have been aware of the subliminal message that she was sending to those who would like to rip apart her United Kingdom.
She was not just legally the Head of the Church of England, but she was a deeply committed Christian. I witnessed this at first hand, seeing her pray in St Bartholomew the Great that day in 2003, but she also seldom made a broadcast or a statement without wearing her faith on her sleeve. For example this:
‘Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.’
Her faith was at the heart of who she was. Everywhere she went, people bowed and curtsied before her and treated her with deference. She, for her own part, deferred to and knelt before her Lord, in humble adoration. There are a few people that I’ve met during my life who have exuded the kind of inner spirituality, the kind of inner glow that you sense in someone who’s spent a long life in God’s presence. She was most certainly one of them. In this, she was probably the most holy monarch that we’ve had since St Edward the Confessor (1042 to 1066).
We also know that she and Philip were absolutely inseparable. They were completely complimentary personalities, as is often the case with the longest and happiest unions. No one really knew in what way she consulted Philip and she was instinctively aware that it wouldn’t have been appropriate for her to reveal that he may have guided her on occasions. But there’s little doubt in my mind that one or two decisions that have been made since his death in April 2021 might have been different, if she’d been able to draw on his wisdom. Although we all came to think of her as almost immortal, there was no doubt at all that she felt his loss at a very deep human and personal level. They were so close that losing him must have been very like being cut in half. Can we blame her if she longed to be reunited with her beloved Philip?
She was, of course, our longest serving monarch and close to being the longest in world history. And despite the length of her reign, she’s become deeply loved by her people. No-one really knew her outside her immediate family, but we all feel a sense of loss. Why? One of the reasons has to be that she was a constant symbol of unity amongst us. She ruled without political power, or at least with no power that she could, or would, wield. But she’s acted as someone who’s been like a rock running through our nation for more than seventy years. Only people as old as I am have lived under any other monarch (I was not quite 13 months old when her father died). Can any of us imagine any President or Prime Minister, of any nation, managing to remain in the public eye for so long, without ever putting their foot in their mouth? Precisely.
So what happens now?
Maybe the last characteristic that I wish to mention is that she’s been the most perfect role model for those that must now follow. We have to pray that they’re sensible enough to realise why she’s been so loved and to keep their counsel about subjects that may be dear to their hearts. To be as loved as she’s been, there is quite literally no alternative – you have to be humble and self-effacing; these are not attributes that are much valued in our world. We’ll learn soon enough whether this lesson will pass down the succeeding royal generations, or not.
And for those of us who, like me, consider themselves to be ‘New Elizabethans’, maybe this fits?
Send her victorious, happy and glorious into the safe and loving arms of her Saviour, around whom her entire existence has revolved.
And may God’s blessing be upon our new King. In the lesser-known words of the second verse of our national anthem:
‘May he defend our laws, and ever give us cause to sing with heart and voice, God save the King.’