Of all the images of Queen Elizabeth II, I think most about a black-and-white photograph taken of her in 1952, less than a year into her reign, at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Economic Conference. In front of an ornate backdrop stand nine male leaders from around the world. Most of them are old, all of them are wearing dark jackets and stern expressions. And in the middle of the pack is the 26-year-old Queen of England clad in a voluminous tiered-skirt gown, elbow-length gloves, and a sparkling tiara. Her hands are folded neatly in front of her, holding her clutch, and her face is set in an even smile, a glaring reminder that she became queen as a very young woman, and on a male-dominated global stage.
To me, the photo sums up so much of her legacy and her appeal, explaining the outpouring of grief happening now. Elizabeth is standing resolutely in her position, with her relentless femininity on full display. She dispensed it early on as a way to dazzle and delight, to win hearts around the globe and lay the foundation for her time as a benevolent ruler (at least in the public imagination). The power she depicts is glamorous and graceful, the most romanticized ideal of royalty. The institution’s violent, horrifying history replaced by a nurturer, a mother of a nation.
Elizabeth was the only Queen of England most of us have ever known, and with her death on Thursday, September 8, at the age of 96, she was the only queen we will likely ever know. The reign of King Charles III has begun; Princes William and George are next in line. The conversation around the royal family, as well as its problematic past and uncertain future, changes markedly when a man enters the equation. What has made the monarchy so fascinating to follow under Elizabeth II was the fact it was a queen at the helm, a woman undertaking the complicated and sometimes competing roles of head of state and family matriarch.
And to think, in the aftermath of her uncle’s chaotic abdication that thrust her father onto the throne, there were holdouts still hoping a boy would come along and overtake her in the line of succession. The 10-year-old princess was initially known in the British press as the “heir presumptive” instead of the “heir apparent,” a title that hinted at the hope that her father, King George VI, would produce a son. Yet the royal family leaned into her feminine side from her earliest days, staging her public persona around the traditional ways young girls were expected to excel. A story in the Nottingham Evening Post reported that the 13-year-old princess was baking a cake for her sister’s birthday, calling the future queen “a really good cook” who could “prepare and serve a four-course dinner, as well as make all kinds of fancy pastries.”
Elizabeth played the polished part, but at her core she was happiest when she was “rather grubby,” according to her governess, Marion Crawford. In 1945, at the age of 18, Elizabeth was granted permission by her father to join the war efforts as a mechanic. She became the first female member of the royal family to serve in full-time active service; pictures of her kneeling down changing a tire conveyed an important sense of commitment and duty.
That was the extent of her teenage rebellion, if you can even call it that. As soon as the war was over, the palace returned their heiress to her traditional princess role. War-battered Britain needed romance and hope to lift its spirits, and Elizabeth did as she was told, donning her mother’s hand-me-down gowns and perching for portraits surrounded by flowers. “The 19-year-old princess exemplified the greatness that they had all been fighting for,” Kate Williams wrote in Young Elizabeth: The Making of the Queen.
Ever aware that the future of the monarchy rested on the public’s affection for the institution, the Firm carefully positioned Elizabeth for her future role as monarch. Her power, when the time came, would be less about authority and more about duty. The throne would be occupied by someone humbly and willingly giving herself to the crown. For her 1947 radio address, marking her 21st birthday, she delivered the now famous embrace of her fate in her signature cut-glass English accent, in a pitch she never lowered: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.”
As heiress, the princess trappings were a selling point. During her visit to the U.S. in 1951, President Harry Truman said, “When I was a little boy, I read about a fairy-tale princess, and here she is.” But when she became queen just a few months later, her seriousness was called into question. “She is only a child,” Winston Churchill famously lamented of the 25-year-old sovereign. The question this statement poses is an obvious one: Would he have remarked the same about a prince becoming king? Elizabeth, to her credit, did not waver. She embarked on a charm offensive, convincing the grizzled politician with her commitment to her role. “The queen very quickly captivated him, he fell under her spell,” Churchill’s youngest daughter remarked. “I think he felt early on her immense sense of duty.”
Indeed, there was something about her presence — resolute and remote — that seemed to either mystify or win public figures over. She met with 13 U.S. presidents and the only hint of negativity that ever leaked from those encounters was from Jackie Kennedy. Photographer Cecil Beaton wrote in his diary that the former First Lady had been unimpressed by both the queen and Buckingham Palace, a sentiment that has since been memorialized by The Crown.
As monarch, Elizabeth traveled more than a million miles to 117 countries. Her reign coincided with the dismantling of the British Empire; the downsizing had begun in earnest during her father’s tenure after the war. But rather than a public acknowledgement of the harm the monarchy had caused, she tended to bid them farewell with a statement issued from afar. In 1973, when the Bahamas became an independent country after 325 years of British rule, a 24-year-old Prince Charles was dispatched to witness the proceedings. (In 2021, he fulfilled the same role when Barbados became a republic.)
For as prominent a public figure as she was, Elizabeth said very little. She was a woman of few words, made in scripted speeches and the occasional off-the-cuff quip. A calculated choice, informed in part by her stiff-upper-lip wartime upbringing and in part by the history of the institution, which prized itself on ruling from a distance. Think of a gloved hand waving rather than bare hands shaking. It was a source of criticism, to be sure, but in the end a tremendous asset, allowing the public to project its needs on her. Her silence made her a pop culture icon, depicted and dramatized in song and on the screen. With her steadfast apolitical stance, however, the question of whether Elizabeth was a feminist remains unanswered.
The reality of reigning as the modern media landscape exploded with glossy magazines and 24/7 cable news coverage meant the queen was more visible in more ways and to more people than her predecessors could ever fathom. Her face was no longer confined to currency and teacups. She was everywhere from the moment of her coronation, the first to be televised.
Fashion was an integral part of her public presence — and a subject of great attention, by a female-dominated royal fanbase. She deployed style strategically, with bold, candy-colored shades (think: hot pink and lemon yellow) that helped her stand out in the crowd and sturdy block heels that allowed her to remain comfortably on her feet. Her formula was based on formality, and accessories of a bygone era: hats, stockings, brooches. She rarely was seen in trousers, favoring dresses and skirts instead. But within those tight guardrails were glimpses of her spirit, best seen in the whimsical prints of her silk head scarves worn during her country retreats. More than one featured a dog print.
Her prolonged time in the spotlight meant she aged in front of us all, too, a reminder that the role of sovereign was not a term one can serve but a life one had to fulfill. She morphed from a princess admired for her pin-up looks to a silver-haired nonagenarian seen as the grandmother of a country. The in-between, as a graying, softening middle-aged mother, gets far less attention. But even then she refused to fade from public view, experimenting with different shapes of hats because they made for more interesting photographs.
The nature of the royal family as a family, with a hereditary line of succession, made her role as mother perhaps the most consequential. Elizabeth was a working mom before that term or concept was widely embraced; not even the queen could have it all. She did make the occasional concession, like moving her weekly audience with the prime minister back an hour so that she could say good night to her children. (Tough to imagine a king doing something similar.) But more often than not, work won, which was made possible by her extremely privileged position that afforded her a host of nannies, governesses, and other caretakers. The new King Charles told his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, that he was not raised by his parents but rather “the nursery staff.”
When touring the globe for long stretches of time, the monarch left her children behind. Returning home from a nearly six-month excursion of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth fretted to her own mother that her children wouldn’t know their parents. “No, not you dear,” Elizabeth told Charles when she saw him, opting instead to greet the waiting dignitaries first.
Could more concessions have been made to allow for the queen to be a more active mother? Did she not request them due to the pressures of the role — or perhaps she did not want them? What we do know is that she fulfilled her duties, even the most mundane ribbon cutting or tree planting, with vigor. She liked her job very much. And while Elizabeth was celebrated for that commitment, she was simultaneously judged for what that meant about her approach to motherhood.
“Nothing, but nothing, deflected her from duty,” her assistant private secretary, Sir Edward Ford, told biographer Sally Bedell Smith. The queen had her third and fourth children during her reign. “She’d go into labor and have a baby, so we knew we weren’t going to see her for a while,” Ford said. “But within a very short time, 24 or 48 hours at most, she’d be asking whether there were any papers and would we care to send them up?”
The queen’s reserve was respected, perhaps even understood, until Lady Diana Spencer burst onto the scene in the early 1980s. The Princess of Wales wore her heart on her sleeve, and made a point of being a very present, and very affectionate, mother in public. The queen came off as cold and dowdy by comparison. Throughout the decade-long drama of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s tumultuous marriage, the queen looked, at best, like a stern mother-in-law and, at worse, the mastermind who had pressured her son to marry the wrong woman and produce an heir. She forbade Charles and Diana from divorcing until she demanded it, writing to the couple following her daughter-in-law’s explosive 1995 Panorama interview.
The one time that Elizabeth perhaps took a page from Diana’s playbook — choosing humanity over duty — it came at great cost. It was following the princess’s tragic, sudden death in 1997. Her Majesty chose to stay out of public view at Balmoral Castle in Scotland to comfort her grieving grandsons. In hindsight it seems like the most gracious of gestures; Prince William hinted at in his statement thanking his grandmother Saturday, saying she was “by my side during the saddest days of my life.”
But the outcry at the time over her absence was so great that it felt as if the mourners would single-handedly abolish the monarchy if they could. Their cries were those of abandoned children, seemingly pleading, “We need you, too!” Only when she did appear, the loyal servant turning up at the memorial outside of Buckingham Palace and calming the nation in a televised address, did the anger dissipate.
If Diana’s death was a low point in the queen’s life, her handling of Prince Andrew was a stain. She protected her second son for years, through his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and when he was accused of sexual abuse himself. It took a well-underway lawsuit before Buckingham Palace issued a statement, with the queen’s “approval and agreement,” stripping him of his military titles and patronages. When he settled out of court with his accuser, Virginia Giuffre, Andrew turned to his mother for money; according to the Telegraph, the queen reportedly helped with the $16 million payment. The suit was swiftly wrapped up before it could risk tainting Her Majesty’s historic Platinum Jubilee earlier this summer, a four-day celebration of the world’s most famous grandmother.
By that record-breaking milestone, the queen had been returned to a new pedestal. She was now living history, always untouchable in a literal sense but also now a figurative one. A remarkable makeover in her last decade, masterminded by her close confidante and dresser Angela Kelly, took her public image from aging monarch to quirky old queen. Her signature bright colors were cranked up to megawatt status. On her 90th birthday, in 2016, she appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in neon green, inspiring the hashtag #Neonat90.
The death of her husband, 99-year-old Prince Philip, in 2021 was the source of another swell of the public’s collective heart. The pair had been married for 73 years; she famously called him her “strength and stay.” The image of her sitting alone at his funeral in the throes of the pandemic, her head bowed and a black mask covering most of her face, was almost too much to bear, an agonizing portrait of a grieving widow.
All of this points to why, through the considerable royal turmoil of the last few years, when the ugly underbelly of the Firm was exposed once again, the queen’s reputation stayed mostly intact. When Harry and Meghan announced in 2020 their desire for a “progressive new role within this institution,” their requests were largely denied. Harry was stripped of his military titles and the couple were told they could no longer use “royal” on social media. Defenders of the couple blamed the harsh sendoff not on Her Majesty but on the unnamed, unseen courtiers around her. The queen was seen as a sad grandmother, and the hints of emotion she showed in the public statements — after a lifetime of reserve — gave her a pass. She referred to Harry as her grandson and expressed her wish that the arrangement would allow them “to start building a happy and peaceful new life.”
Harry and Meghan have returned the gesture, ensuring even in their most jaw-dropping disclosures to Oprah Winfrey, to never express anything but kindness toward the monarch. Meghan told Winfrey that the queen reminded her of her own grandmother. “She’s always been warm and inviting,” the duchess said, “and really welcoming.”
And it’s on that note that the queen left us, at the age of 96. The last glimpse of her was just two days before her death at Balmoral Castle. The photographs elicited a sort of collective “awwwww” from around the globe; I can’t imagine the world cooing over the decline of a male leader in the same way. The monarch greeted her 15th prime minister in a soft-green, flower-filled sitting room, a fire blazing behind her. She accessorized her gray cardigan and plaid pleated skirt with pearls and pink lipstick. Standing with her trusty black handbag on her arm, Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled above her glasses.
The tenderness in the final portrait, of royal power expressed in such a soft way, invites the question: How long will the halo of affection for the queen last? The days since her death have been visual whiplash, a reeling jump cut to Charles clad in formal black signing the oath at the Accession Council. As I scanned the images of the new sovereign on Saturday, my 3-year-old daughter eyed my phone. “Is this the new queen?” she asked.
No, I said. There won’t be another queen.
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