God Save the Queen
In the Fall of 2022 I received several emails, cards and a phone call offering me condolences because Queen Elizabeth II had died. I was touched but surprised. I hadn’t thought about the royals much since I left England in 1976, though I was aware of the queen’s failing health, especially after the death of Prince Philip. I decided not to watch the queen’s funeral. Televised royal occasions made me queasy these days. The “pomp and glory” echo Britain’s history of empire building, colonization, slavery, and today’s lack of recognition, apology, or reparation.
Waiting in the queue at the Food Lion, however, I picked up a glossy magazine with the late queen on the cover. It was a retrospective of her seventy-year reign. As I flipped through the pages, I realized Elizabeth had been the Queen of England my whole life: every minute of every day, year after year since I was born. I began to ponder how palpable the queen’s presence had been in my formative years. My posture, my accent and my opinions were still remnants of my English upbringing.
I was born just outside London on March 19, 1952, forty-two days after Princess Elizabeth became Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It had been almost 350 years since her namesake, Elizabeth I, died in 1558.
I grew up with photographs of the young Queen Elizabeth on the walls wherever I went: my nursery school, the sweet shop, the post office, even my father’s office up in the city. In the framed black and white photographs the queen looked very beautiful but, like my mother, she looked a bit strict. The queen and my mother had exactly the same hairstyles, permed, with curvy waves scooped over their foreheads. When I was very little, I often got the queen and my mother muddled up. Who was speaking? Which was which? They both peered down from on high, making sure my sister and I behaved.
Of course, the queen was on our money, too: our farthing, thru’penny piece, our sixpence, florin, and guinea coins. Queen Elizabeth gazed out at us from the green pound notes and the blue fivers, with her three strings of pearls and her crown. Sometimes I came across large old-fashioned pennies bearing Queen Victoria in the 1800s as well. She also looked very regal.
In 1957, when I was five, I watched the queen’s Christmas speech on my grandparents’ black and white television. While we waited, I stroked my granny’s corgi dog, lying in front of the fire. His coat was warm and smooth. “The queen loves corgies too,” my granny whispered. “Shh!” my grandad said, “She’s about to speak.” The queen spoke very slowly with pauses and proper grammar, like my mother, only she spoke more poshly. Her majesty sat up very tall and dignified, just like Mummy was always telling me to sit. The queen wore her pearl necklace and earrings, a shiny dress with a square neckline, but not her crown. She told us we British were all a big family and that we were setting an example to upright people everywhere. When they played God Save the Queen my grandfather stood to attention. I stood up too, tall as I could, and held his big, firm hand.
“I promise to do my duty to God’n the Queen,” we recited each week at Brownies. “God’n the Queen” rolled off the tongue. “God’n the Queen,” were together as One. At the end of a ballet or a film at the cinema we all stood and sang the national anthem. “God save our gracious queen, Long live our noble queen, God save the Queen.” We sang to God’n the Queen with vigor and virtue. “Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us, God save the queen.” The singing made me feel good, as if everything was right and proper and in its place.
One of the things that was extremely important to the royal family, we were told, was proper table manners. So, in my family we had an annual table-manner competition. My younger sister, Jennifer, and I had to compete against each other for a whole month. “Elbows off the table. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Fork in the left hand. Knife in the right. Fork prongs turned down, not up like a spoon, that’s awfully low class.” My sister and I tried diligently to be the little ladies my mother wanted, but we often forgot. One day when I thought my mother wasn’t looking, I flipped my fork over, prongs up like a spoon, and scooped my peas. My mother’s voice quietly reprimanded me across the table, “You wouldn’t do that if the queen were coming, now, would you dear?”
The result of the table manner competition was always the same, a tie. “You both did such a splendid job,” my mother would beam, “The queen would be proud of you. Daddy and I will take you out to a real restaurant on Saturday and you can even choose your own pudding.”
When I was nine and my sister was six, our mother took us up to London on the train to see the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace. We were early and as we walked toward the palace, we saw a huge crowd of people standing in front of the palace gates. Someone said the queen was coming so we waited. The police stopped the traffic and after a while we saw a big black car coming towards us, approaching the palace. Everyone started waving and cheering, then the gates opened, and as the car drove by us, I saw the queen inside. She had a silky headscarf on, not her crown. Queen Elizabeth smiled and waved slowly in my direction. I got goose pimples all down my arms and legs. When I told my friends I’d seen the queen they didn’t believe me.
As I was writing this piece of remembrance, I went on-line and watched the queen’s first ever televised broadcast. It was the speech I saw with my family the Christmas of 1957. Seeing it for the first time in color, I was stunned by the brightness of the queen’s emerald-green dress and her very red lipstick. She looked innocent and young, yet she spoke and sat with a bearing of dignity. Towards the end of her speech, she said, “Unlike the kings and queens of old, I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice. What I can give is my heart and my devotion, to all the peoples of our brotherhood, our commonwealth of nations.”
During my lifetime, Queen Elizabeth travelled millions of miles as an emissary of diplomacy. She hosted hundreds of dignitaries, including Nelson Mandela and the Beatles. She gave out numerous honours, from the Order of the Garter to the Order of St. George. She created hundreds of knights and dames, from army generals to pop stars. She had to welcome and work with elected prime ministers, no matter what she thought of their politics or personalities. Indeed, her role as queen disallowed her from having any voice or opinion regarding parliamentary issues. (Though she was known to be tight-lipped and stubborn on some issues, which made me smile.) During all this, the queen continued her administrative duties into her nineties, studying and signing documents apparently seven days a week, except Christmas Day.
Whether or not I am comfortable with all this system represents, whether or not I believe a monarchy has a place in the twenty-first century United Kingdom, I can see that Queen Elizabeth II stayed true to her mission. She maintained her position with a serious dedicated gravity during decades of dramatic changes and scandals. She devoted herself to the role of monarch and worked diligently throughout her long, long life. Dear God, Please Save the Queen. After more than seventy years of dutiful work, may she rest in peace.