Obituary

Queen Elizabeth II Was a Pillar of Stability in Tumultuous Times

Her successor will need to adapt while also protecting the age-old magic of the monarchy.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles at the Chelsea Flower Show in London in 2009.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles at the Chelsea Flower Show in London in 2009.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles are seen at the Chelsea Flower Show in London on May 18, 2009. Sang Tan/Getty Images
By , the author of Stalin's Children.

When Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21, 1926, her grandfather King George V ruled a quarter of the Earth’s population. By the time she died on Sept. 8 at age 96, not only had Britain’s place in the world transformed, but the world itself had changed beyond recognition. Yet for most of that near-century of tumult—including 70 years on the throne—the queen was a reassuring constant, both a living link to a vanished national past and a symbol of continuity in a shifting world.

Elizabeth lived and reigned longer than any other British monarch. In her lifetime, Britain not only lost an empire but fought at least seven major wars and experienced socialist governments, damaging strikes, runaway inflation, and a pandemic. Her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, charged with the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, armed with only a sword and a pistol. Current British Prime Minister Liz Truss was not yet born when she came to the throne. Vanishingly few Britons now remember a pre-Elizabethan age.

Despite embodying an apparently obsolete system of values, Elizabeth not only succeeded in keeping the British monarchy at the heart of the nation’s collective identity, but she also preserved its popularity. Her personal approval ratings over the final years of her reign remained solidly around 70 percent, far higher than any elected politician in the Western world.

The Queen and Prince Charles at the Chelsea Flower Show in London in 2009.
The Queen and Prince Charles at the Chelsea Flower Show in London in 2009.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles are seen at the Chelsea Flower Show in London on May 18, 2009. Sang Tan/Getty Images

When Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21, 1926, her grandfather King George V ruled a quarter of the Earth’s population. By the time she died on Sept. 8 at age 96, not only had Britain’s place in the world transformed, but the world itself had changed beyond recognition. Yet for most of that near-century of tumult—including 70 years on the throne—the queen was a reassuring constant, both a living link to a vanished national past and a symbol of continuity in a shifting world.

Elizabeth lived and reigned longer than any other British monarch. In her lifetime, Britain not only lost an empire but fought at least seven major wars and experienced socialist governments, damaging strikes, runaway inflation, and a pandemic. Her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, charged with the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, armed with only a sword and a pistol. Current British Prime Minister Liz Truss was not yet born when she came to the throne. Vanishingly few Britons now remember a pre-Elizabethan age.

Despite embodying an apparently obsolete system of values, Elizabeth not only succeeded in keeping the British monarchy at the heart of the nation’s collective identity, but she also preserved its popularity. Her personal approval ratings over the final years of her reign remained solidly around 70 percent, far higher than any elected politician in the Western world.

Members of Britain's royal family pose for a portrait in 1972.
Members of Britain's royal family pose for a portrait in 1972.

Members of the royal family—(from left) Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Edward, and Prince Charles—pose for a portrait at Buckingham Palace in 1972.Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The queen and her family resisted the scaling down that most of Europe’s monarchies went through. They continued to live in fairy-tale splendor in their many palaces and castles, appearing at set-piece public occasions, such as weddings or the State Opening of Parliament, with a pomp unrivaled by any monarchy in the modern world. Rather than alienating her people, the queen’s distance and dignity helped preserve the mystique the monarchy rests on.

Remarkably, Elizabeth leaves behind an institution strengthened rather than weakened by the tumultuous decades she steered it through. That is perhaps her greatest achievement and legacy.

The question now is whether the nation’s affection is personal to Elizabeth or to the crown she represents. Her son Prince Charles has been heir to the throne for years. His style is very different from his mother’s. Part of the secret to the queen’s popularity was her scrupulous impartiality on political issues. Unlike Prince Charles, whose sometimes eccentrically conservative views on architecture as well as his progressive views on the environment have caused regular controversy, Elizabeth’s personal views on Brexit or the socialist prime ministers who served under her remained firmly private. And unlike earlier 20th-century monarchs who engaged in disastrous political interventions, Elizabeth reigned but never attempted to rule. It’s clearly a winning formula—one her successor could do worse than to follow.

[Read more: Queen Elizabeth II’s death will have important ramifications for the United Kingdom’s future, writes Robin Oakley, a former political editor at the BBC, the Times, and CNN.]


Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walk near a crowd holding British flags.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walk near a crowd holding British flags.

Elizabeth and Philip navigate a flag-waving crowd on a walkabout in London on Oct. 31, 1984.Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

Even left-wing firebrands like former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn found unfeigned words of praise for the monarch. “Whatever differing views people across this country have about the institution, the vast majority share an opinion that Her Majesty has served this country,” Corbyn told the House of Commons in 2016’s annual “humble address” on the monarch’s birthday. “And [she] has overwhelming support in doing so, with a clear sense of public service and public duty.”

Another component of her success was the queen’s personal charm and tireless program of public strolls, engagements, and official tours. As of 2018, a remarkable 31 percent of Britain’s then-66 million people reported having met or seen their monarch in person. During her reign, she made more than 260 official visits to at least 117 different countries, 32 of which she nominally ruled as head of state. Her face appears on stamps and bank notes not just in Britain but in at least 15 other countries, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

She also occupied an intimate space in Britain’s national psyche. In a 1972 book, Dreams About H.M. the Queen and Other Members of the Royal Family, journalist Brian Masters asked newspaper readers to write in and describe their subconscious encounters with royalty. Tens of thousands of people responded. The dreams frequently involved food and drink, especially cups of tea. The queen is almost always wearing her crown, though never (Freudians take note) wielding the royal scepter.

“Above all, the dreams evoke a sense of familial intimacy,” wrote John Sainsbury, a professor of history at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. “Often the Queen appears as a wise surrogate parent, who recognizes qualities and talents in dreamers that are lost on their dreary friends and actual family members.” In a very real sense, Elizabeth was the nation’s imaginary grandmother.


Elizabeth was not born to rule. Her father was second in line after his glamorous brother the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VIII). When Edward abdicated in favor of his brother in 1936, the course of then-Princess Elizabeth’s life was radically transformed.

In many ways, her father’s example shaped the style of Elizabeth’s own reign. Britain’s monarchy was over a millennium old when her father, King George VI, came to the throne, but it was he who pioneered the idea of the royal family being the public face of the crown. When World War II broke out, it was not just King George VI but his wife and daughters who became the focus of national unity. The royal couple refused to leave London during the Blitz—though their daughters were evacuated to Windsor, England.

Then-Princess Elizabeth works on a vehicle.
Then-Princess Elizabeth works on a vehicle.

Then-Princess Elizabeth works on a vehicle during her World War II military service in 1944.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“Now we can look the East End [of London] in the eye,” the queen mother said when Buckingham Palace was hit by German bombs. Elizabeth became an Auxiliary Territorial Service truck driver and mechanic. Upon victory in Europe in May 1945, she snuck outside to celebrate among rejoicing crowds around Buckingham Palace.

The queen was a survivor of Britain’s greatest generation, one that faced down fascism, a conflict that remains at the heart of modern Britain’s national mythology. “Her Majesty, iconic and perpetual as she sometimes seems, is not a symbol,” Northern Irish politician Nigel Dodds told Parliament on her 90th birthday. “She is a reminder to us all of the generation who did great things and stopped terrible things being done to us.”

Yet while the public image of the royal family—transmitted via several “at home with the Windsors”-style documentaries aired on BBC—helped make the monarchy more relatable, it was Elizabeth’s children who proved to be the monarchy’s Achilles’ heel.

The Grand Knockout Tournament, an attempt by her youngest son, Edward, to court popularity by involving the younger royals in a boisterous TV game show in 1987—was a profound embarrassment. Then, the very public breakdown of Prince Charles’s marriage—and Princess Diana’s subsequent death in a 1997 Paris car crash—brought charges of cruelty and indifference on the part of the queen and her courtiers.

Allegations of sexual abuse relating to the friendship of Elizabeth’s second son, Prince Andrew, with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein—made worse by a BBC interview with Andrew—further discredited the monarchy if not the monarch herself. All but one of her children’s marriages ended in divorce. Relatable, perhaps, but hardly ideally dignified.


The 19th-century constitutional writer Walter Bagehot wrote that the monarchy’s power lay in its mystery and warned that letting “daylight in on the magic” would be disastrous. In the news-hungry electronic age, the queen—whose coronation was the first in Britain to be televised in full—attempted to strike a balance between distance and intimacy. That proved to be a difficult challenge for someone who was to become, by some distance, the most famous human being on Earth.

Upon her death, the royal family’s Twitter account had 4.8 million followers. Tabloids around the world remain ravenous for gossip about members of her family—and, fatefully for the future, show little deference to the crown’s inheritors: Prince Charles, his son Prince William, and grandson Prince George.

Britain’s modern monarchy has to try to retain its magic while remaining more illuminated than ever before.

Queen Elizabeth II crowns son Prince Charles as new Prince of Wales.
Queen Elizabeth II crowns son Prince Charles as new Prince of Wales.

Elizabeth crowns her son Charles during his investiture as the new Prince of Wales in Caernarfon, Wales, on July 1, 1969.CENTRAL PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

Can the hereditary principle that underpins monarchy survive now that its most distinguished, respected, and popular modern incumbent is gone? For decades, the queen was the elderly holder of an even more ancient office, which made a certain sense. The pomp and ceremony that surrounded the British monarchy—from the queen’s archaically uniformed so-called Beefeaters and guardsmen to the horse-drawn carriages and vintage Rolls-Royces she traveled in—were as much relics of a glorious imperial past as Elizabeth was herself.

Of course, the notion of a king or queen as a parental figure is as old as the monarchy itself. But children have been known to rebel against their parents—be they the rebels in the American Revolution, who denounced King George III as a “royal brute” (in the words of then-activist Thomas Paine), or the many colonies that threw off British rule in the course of Elizabeth’s lifetime.

Perhaps Elizabeth’s greatest achievement was her skill at bending to the forces of modernity without breaking. Her successor will have to do likewise by embracing not only the office but also the magic.

Owen Matthews is the author of Stalin's Children and is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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