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.Queen Elizabeth II (as HRH Princess Elizabeth), April 21, 1947
Popular culture recently marked two fairly major events — International Women’s Day this past Monday, and the Sunday pot-stirrer of an interview (to put it mildly) between Oprah and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (a.k.a. Harry & Meghan).
Where the second one is concerned, you’ve probably read a lot of hot takes. It got Piers Morgan fired up enough to tell “Good Morning Britain” g’bye.
And I do have an opinion, but I’ve honestly heard and read enough of those, and so I’m going to hit the public square with a different approach.
I’m going to focus — for a belated International Women’s Day send-off — on the character and incredible fortitude of Queen Elizabeth II.
Then-Princess Elizabeth came of age during the greatest crisis of the 20th century, WWII. She saw her country escape by a hair’s breadth from being completely routed by Hitler’s Germany. As a teenager, she benefited from the example of her parents, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, who elected to stay in London despite the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids — in 1940, they narrowly avoided death when a bomb exploded at Buckingham Palace. Though undeniably privileged, they abided by the same rationing restrictions throughout the war as civilians.
Even before this catastrophic conflict, Elizabeth was witness to another crisis which would change her life forever — the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII. It’s surprising to me that we don’t hear more about this now, in terms of comparison, but Prince Harry is far from the first British royal who decided The Firm was not for him. “David,” as Edward VIII was called by family, was universally adored as the Prince of Wales — handsome, modern, and debonair. Yet he abdicated less than a year after becoming King in order to marry Wallis Simpson (a divorced American socialite — sound familiar?).
King Edward’s desire to marry a (twice!) divorced woman caused a constitutional crisis, but he had long been critical of the institution of the monarchy and felt uneasy about inheriting the throne. When it came down to it, Wallis begged him not to renege on his duty — but I believe, whether consciously or subconsciously, he was grateful for the out. He married Wallis and became a lifelong British expatriate. History, in some sense, has repeated itself.
The abdication, of course, meant that the crown had to pass to the next in the line of succession, and Elizabeth’s family, which had long lived with the certainty and peace of being relatively out of the spotlight, suddenly became The Royal Family. Elizabeth’s father, King George VI (“Bertie”), was also a reluctant king, but chose to make the best of it. Famously dramatized in the movie The King’s Speech, he was sickly, introverted, and spoke with a pronounced stutter, which he had to work through in order to address his people. Over the course of his life, Elizabeth would see the toll that the mantle of kingship took on him, especially in aiding Churchill to guide Britain through a World War, and her mother never truly forgave David for abandoning it.
Far from growing bitter, though, Princess Elizabeth (in becoming the heir) seemed to embrace the knowledge and concept of duty wholeheartedly.
Her father’s health began to fail in his 50s, and it was recognized that it was time for Elizabeth to prepare. She began to position herself publicly as being more involved in royal activities, and during her first overseas tour with her parents (in South Africa), she delivered her 21st birthday address:
In it, she promised that hers would be a life of service to the British Commonwealth. She is 94 years old and has kept that promise her whole life long.
I could continue with her biography, but I really want to examine the undervalued (at least currently) notion of service and the service of Queen Elizabeth II in particular.
You will likely notice that very few women would do as I have done and posit Queen Elizabeth II as someone we should be looking up to for International Women’s Day.
Why is that? Well, because she’s a monarch — the monarchy is an archaic institution that most who vocally celebrate International Women’s Day would do away with, like, yesterday. Queen Elizabeth did not embark on a career to earn her position, and she in fact benefited from traditional structures rather than challenging them.
I have a friend, for example, who was explaining to me the other day why the monarchy should disappear — the absurdity of the idea of being born into this sort of vestigial, aristocratic circus where one is supposed to have no real choice about how to live one’s life (And then Harry decides to choose differently, she went on — the nerve!).
But I think Queen Elizabeth II — “an anchor for our age,” as she was once called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon — is a guiding light at a time when examples of steadfastness, commitment, and dedication to the unglamorous concept of duty are painfully few. In the culture at large, the highest good has become the pursuit of developing and enacting one’s personal identity. Subordination to a principle greater and larger than oneself is rare — and oftentimes when people claim it, they are doing so for public adulation (“virtue signaling”) or personal gain.
Make no mistake, Queen Elizabeth’s journey has not been easy. She has endured vicissitudes of public opinion, unprecedented amounts of social change, family dysfunction, assassination attempts, and interminable molestation by the press. She is the embodiment of the now-meme of a Britishism, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
And I do want to be clear that much of this social change was necessary — it was necessary for the British “empire,” in any meaningful sense, to collapse; it was only fair that the Queen begin paying income tax (as established in 1993). But I don’t mean for the anachronistic nature of monarchy — even constitutional monarchy — and all that has traditionally come with it to distract from my central point, which is calling attention to what character looks like in action.
My friend objected to the notion of being born into a certain set of intractable circumstances — and indeed, being born as the Prince of Wales, for instance, is a set of circumstances more intractable than most. Yet, none of us decides where or to whom we are born. For the vast majority of us, we have significant input into our destinies, good or ill, as we live our lives. But it is ALL of our responsibilities to accept and to work with the hand we are dealt.
The idea of victimhood is currently a fashionable one, but I maintain that we all have choices. Harry and his ancestor David before him felt oppressed by the demands of their position, but like them, we are all “born into” something. We are born into a historical timeframe, a culture, a family, possibly a faith, a community, and innumerable other structures. How we respond and act to influence those structures is up to us — and how we do so is through character. We decide to be forces for good. We decide which principles to subordinate ourselves to — if we decide that there’s anything greater than ourselves worth dedicating our lives to at all.
In Elizabeth II’s case, she decided early on to dedicate herself to her people, and as she has said on other occasions, to God.
Queen Elizabeth II is so esteemed and so loved because she is the embodiment of a shared history, the history of a nation — for the British — and a sterling example of how to stand up to time itself. We do so by realizing that we are the sand in the hourglass and the principles are what endure. We are their instruments — the instruments of faith, hope, love, the national and public good — and true dignity is gained through self-denying service rather than ego-driven agitation.
If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing – more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world – than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers.
To accomplish that we must give nothing less than the whole of ourselves.