Queen Elizabeth turned privilege into a life of Christian service
Editor's Note: James Hanvey, S.J., a British Jesuit, is the former master of Campion Hall in Oxford and a native of Northern Ireland.
It seemed as if some sort of stability might finally arrive. The British government had been in a terminal state since Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “partygate.” The Downing Street “Covid jollies” stood in contrast to the dignified but lonely presence of Queen Elizabeth II at the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, in St. George’s Chapel in April 2021. She symbolized the situation of so many who had lost a loved one during the pandemic but had complied with the government’s rules on large gatherings and social distancing. For several long, hot summer months, the country was held hostage by the interminable Conservative Party leadership election. Crises seemed to multiply while the government went into paralysis waiting for the outcome: the Ukrainian war, the sudden and crippling rise in energy costs, inflation, stagnation, strikes, the National Health Service buckling under pressure.
In all of this, the queen continued the reassuring customary rhythms of her year and made her regular summer progress through Scotland to her holiday retreat at Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire.
On Saturday, Sept. 3, Liz Truss was elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party. On Tuesday, she met with the queen at Balmoral, who asked her to form a new government. The unwritten British constitution continued its seamless operation and, through the monarch, the peaceful transfer of power was once more effected. The queen’s first prime minister was Winston Churchill; Liz Truss was her 15th.
Forty-eight hours later the queen was dead.
On Friday, the period of national mourning began. At Westminster Abbey, the ancient shrine of St. Edward the Confessor and final resting place of 17 monarchs, a single bell tolled 96 times; one for each year of her life. In this moment of great loss, crowds gathered at Balmoral, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, laying flowers with messages of affection, gratitude and deep respect. As queen and person, Elizabeth II was the focus of national identity and unity; she was so much part of people’s lives.
As the depth of the public mourning now reveals, the queen herself was substance and not illusion. She was always the queen, never a celebrity.
The queen had visited every part of her realm and was patron of over 600 charities in the United Kingdom alone. She lived and served through World War II and oversaw Britain’s relatively peaceful transition from an exhausted imperial power to become one among the nations of the world. She was the head of the 54 countries of the Commonwealth, and it is estimated that she had met over three million people during her long and active life. The queen was the reassuring center of the nation as it endured domestic and international crises from terrorist bombings, foreign wars and pandemics, as well as celebrations and commemorations. By any standard, Elizabeth II was a remarkable woman, an international figure, who inspired respect and affection among all her peoples, even those who would object to monarchies. Even so, perhaps only now, as we begin to see her life in whole, we also see something more.
In 1867, Walter Bagehot, wrote his influential book The English Constitution. Bagehot was interested in probing the actual workings of power in the unwritten British constitution. He considers it under two aspects: “the dignified,” or largely symbolic function, and “the efficient” function (the executive and legislative powers), or “how things were done.” The monarchy, he argues, is of incalculable value to a government. It serves to bring a “mystique,” investing the “efficient” exercises of power with a dignity and stability that reassures ordinary people, commanding their trust and obedience even through the normal turmoil of party politics.
Bagehot was a shrewd and pragmatic, if somewhat elitist, observer of the political scene of his day, and his book has been significant in shaping the expectations of monarchy. Certainly, all Her Majesty’s governments understood the national value of a respected queen and the international benefits of a royal ambassador. It is generally recognized that throughout her long reign, Queen Elizabeth never put a constitutional foot wrong. Even so, I think she unconsciously exposes a flaw in Bagehot’s analysis.
In a media-hungry age, if the queen’s role had only been that of ceremonial spectacles and popular crowd-pleasing events, it would quickly have been exposed as an illusion—an entertaining Sunday evening diversion like “Downton Abbey.” Indeed, on many occasions the press and glossy fashion magazines have done their best to turn it into such a production. They never succeeded. As the depth of the public mourning now reveals, the queen herself was substance and not illusion. She was always the queen, never a celebrity.
The key, so often missed by the media but intuitively grasped by her people, was that for her, monarchy was not about privilege; it was about vocation.
The key, so often missed by the media but intuitively grasped by her people, was that for her, monarchy was not about privilege; it was about vocation. It was not something she had chosen; it had been asked of her, and, with her whole life, she assented. In that gracious “yes,” whatever the challenges, criticisms and vicissitudes, personal as well as political, the queen showed us how to convert privilege, whatever its form, into service.
In a time when democracy itself is precarious and so much political discourse is seen as vacuous, self-serving rhetoric, we need embodied substance, words tested by deeds and marked by the constancy of a dedicated life. When we have become accustomed to distrusting the offices of government and the incessant claims and counterclaims of “fake news,” Bagehot’s “efficient” organs of the state can themselves seem to be the very products of manipulation and illusion.
In the life of Queen Elizabeth II, however, we begin to see a strange paradox: Her stability and authenticity present us with the capacity of monarchy to rescue democracy. Not through theater or spectacle but by character and deep personal faith. With a monarch who can show how to convert privilege to service, authoritarian populism faces a constitutional as well as personal obstacle. A prime minister can be strong, but she or he cannot rise to be an authoritarian leader; the crown protects people against such volatile hegemonies. It is the queen who, beyond the petty party struggles, became the touchstone of what is genuine and of lasting value and the measure of public service.
In the life of Queen Elizabeth II, however, we begin to see a strange paradox: Her stability and authenticity present us with the capacity of monarchy to rescue democracy.
The most sacred element in the liturgy of coronation is the anointing. It is a deeply private and intimate moment that is hidden from view. The Holy Spirit is invoked. While the anointing recalls the Old Testament anointing of Israel’s kings, it also recalls the anointing of Christ. In the ancient rite this moment has a sacramental force. In it the monarchy ceases to be a ceremonial role only; it becomes a sacred office. To those in her close circle, the queen on several occasions spoke of how significant her anointing was for her. She was overcome with a great peace; it was a sacramental moment that never left her. It was also received by her in deep faith—a faith that she was not embarrassed to profess.
We can speak lightly and, perhaps, skeptically about the grace of office. In Queen Elizabeth, we saw that grace working. Like all grace, it worked through nature. We saw it working through 70 years in her own generous nature and gifts; we saw it fulfilled in her fidelity to her vows as queen and lived in a life of duty, sacrifice and service. Through her, we can glimpse how grace may work through the conventions of public office and tradition that allowed the queen to be both a symbol and a person, a person of deep humanity, warmth and humor.
Whether in the service of the nations of the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, there was also a quiet diplomacy—a ministry—of reconciliation. There are many moments when that grace was in evidence but none more so than her visit to the Republic of Ireland in May 2011. In her presence and gestures there was healing and reconciliation of a still painfully alive history between the two nations and between the North and the South. As with so many of her subjects and citizens of the Republic, it was a personal as well as political history, something she acknowledged in her speech at Dublin Castle. “Indeed, so much of this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions,” she said, “but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it.”
We can speak lightly and, perhaps, skeptically about the grace of office. In Queen Elizabeth, we saw that grace working.
With consummate delicacy, and fully aware of the unstable power of symbols, the queen planted new seeds of reconciliation that continue to bear fruit. Such sensitivity does not come from constitutional forms; it comes from a deep, personal grasp of what is needed humanly as well as politically; for in Ireland, history is always personal. It was a moment when memory could begin to heal. This surely is the example of patience and self-transcendence that realizes the full grace of office.
The queen is dead. Long live the king! Even though mourning has barely begun, a new reign has commenced. King Charles III, following the example of his mother and grandfather, George VI, may yet introduce us to an aspect of monarchy that seems to have completely escaped Bagehot: the prophetic role of the sovereign. Of course, prophecy is a gift or charism and is not automatically conferred with the crown. We often think of it as a dramatic gesture or intervention, but prophecy is about transformation rather than information and it can also take other forms. There is certainly something prophetic in the faithful dedication to duty and service that manifests the best values of public office, especially when there are so many counterexamples.
In an older sense, such dedication can speak of a sacred covenant between power—monarchical or democratic—and the people. It is not dramatic but a constant true note and, as such, it can act as a quiet prophetic presence able to renew and correct the political order when necessary. In his mother, Charles III will have recognized this and will have learned from her the wisdom of such understatement and example. We can see it, too, present in all our communities: those whose faithful, dedicated service upholds our lives and preserves our humanity.
The queen is dead. Long live the king! The shout goes out, but her memory and her legacy does not fade.
The fact that the crown is above the calculating pragmatism of party politics allows it to have a longer, deeper and more comprehensive view of people’s needs and the enduring good that societies must build. The virtual absence of any reflection on the ecological crisis during the campaign for Tory leadership was astonishing. It was an example of the pragmatic myopia that politics is prey to. Yet long before care for the environment was either fashionable or urgent, Prince Charles was speaking about it. In practical projects and support for rural and urban communities, he has shown how we can live in a better way with the earth, our common home. This is just one example of many where the new king has already shown his capacity for foresight and an ability to translate vision into effective action for the common good. Already he has made a difference to so many lives, especially the young, through the unsung work of his charitable network, the Prince’s Trust.
All of these efforts require the sort of vision and commitment over many years that political parties, even those in government for a long time, can rarely achieve. The work of the common good takes time and dedication that can be lost in the distracting ephemera of contemporary life. In the queen and now in her son, King Charles, we can see that this “dignified” dimension of government can, in fact, recognize and remind us of the dignity of every member of the nation—something that “the efficient” dimension can speak of but may forget in practice. The quiet prophetic work of monarchy has the capacity to call us to be our best selves as members of our communities and our nations.
The queen is dead. Long live the king! The shout goes out, but her memory and her legacy does not fade. It remains not only as an example but a question to all who enjoy the privileges of birth, wealth, intellect and power. Can you convert your privilege into the grace of service? Noblesse oblige—something democracies cannot afford to forget. For this reason, the queen’s life has been a gift, and her memory will remain a blessing.