Queen funeral mask alone duty dutiful
Meditation and Reflection

The dutiful Queen

The image of Her Majesty the Queen seated alone at the funeral of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, was one of the most arresting and abiding images of 2021. Those who saw it originally remember it well, but for any who missed it, it has re-entered the news cycle, now being reproduced to contrast many people’s experiences during the early part of the Covid pandemic with the ongoing story of the behaviour in Downing Street which was happening at the same time. It has prompted headlines about the Prime Minister’s hypocrisy and inadequacy, but there is another matter we might usefully think about, and that is the concept of duty.

Duty is not a fashionable virtue. Is it even discussed in our schools as part of our children’s civic education? Does it feature at all in our national narrative? Yet if anything characterises and defines the life and reign of our sovereign Head of State, it is surely the importance of duty.

Her father set her a clear example after his brother Edward VIII elevated personal considerations before his duty, and abdicated the Throne to marry Mrs Simpson. Temperamentally, George VI was less attuned to the role, and his speech impediment made public engagements especially onerous. He lacked his brother’s easy charm and charisma. The Queen Mother reportedly never forgave her brother-in-law for imposing the horrendous burden of lifelong public life on her family.

The Royal Family remained in London during the Blitz, and the young Princess Elizabeth served in the Armed Forces. She performed her national duty alongside those over whom she would later reign.

She succeeded to the Throne earlier than expected, and plainly took both her Coronation Oath and the symbolism of being anointed with holy oil seriously. Dutifully leaving her young children, she first travelled widely to meet her new subjects worldwide, having acceded to an Empire that extended over a quarter of the globe. When her Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, identified the ‘Winds of Change’ sweeping across Africa, she embraced the zeitgeist and not only presided over the independence of many of her former colonies, but carefully promoted the amicable replacement of those ties with a voluntary Commonwealth of Nations that is still a major projection of soft power on behalf of these small islands.

Duty required her to meet and greet former enemies; it can’t have been easy to have shared a ceremonial carriage with the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, to have entertained the appalling Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, or to shake hands with the IRA leader Martin McGuinness, but duty required her to do so, and so she did what was required of her.

There are many similar examples, but to fast-forward to the present she has just executed another controlled exercise of duty in removal of Prince Andrew from all public association following developments in the litigation against him over his misjudged relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. Although he is entitled to a presumption of innocence and is, reportedly, her much loved favourite child, our Monarch acted decisively and without sentimentality. Her duty is to protect the Monarchy and to guarantee succession. Personal choice or sentimentality do not enter into the equation. When Andrew had to go, he went.

Even atheist republicans will acknowledge this personal integrity, and concede that it is hard to think of a more dutiful or trusted head of state. Having such a fine example of service in public life, one might ask why we spend so little time thinking about it. How can we not be curious about what has gone awry, when contrasting this example with so may others in public life.

The difference between Her Majesty and her Prime Minister could scarcely be more marked, yet surely he is far from unique in suffering from the comparison. For all our fashionable conversations about morality and hypocrisy, especially as we scrutinise the character of our our political opponents, how often do we invite our leaders to expound publicly their personal commitment to duty and understanding of integrity?

Royal watchers tell us that much that Her Majesty does is imbued with symbolism: what she chooses to do or not to do; what she wears; of which organisations she becomes patron; which art works she shows and discusses with visiting dignitaries, all are carefully communicating something deeper even as she remains strictly non-partisan on controversial issues.

Understanding this helps us to read correctly that poignant image of her at her husband’s funeral. She could have sat closer to her family, but chose not to. Her grief and commitment was ultimately private; she understood that she was on her own, yet she also sat as a symbol and example of and to the many who had suffered a similar loss. She sat close to her Prince, but also for and with all of her people. Notwithstanding her elevated status, the poignancy of parting was a common grief: it was personal, and yet communal. She sat in faith, trusting in the God who called her and whom she has followed dutifully. She was not going to publicly emote, to lift the veil on her innermost thoughts, but pondered silently in her heart, dignified, controlled and dutiful.

Rarely will she have been closer to her people. Rarely will they have felt for her more.

God Save the Queen.