The enduring legacy of Queen Elizabeth II


Courtesy Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand

Queen Elizabeth II leaves a royal legacy after 70 years on the throne

Father Jerome Joseph Day, O.S.B., Faculty Advisor

Duty is not a word we hear much these days. News stories abound about people who have shirked, abandoned or betrayed their duty, but there are few about those who are steadfast in their responsibilities. One such figure has now passed Sept. 8 from the world stage, but she will remain in the hearts and minds of her people – and, indeed, in much of the world – for undertaking her duty with resolve, humility and faith in God, along with a wry sense of humor. May God be good to Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022), who served as monarch in the United Kingdom for more than 70 years.

For Americans, the queen was sometimes a puzzle. We didn’t always understand what her gig was, but we nevertheless were excited by her presence among us and the heavy attention international media paid to her. Here, U.S. presidents come and go. In Britain, prime ministers are in and out. Revolutions, wars and uprisings shock us. Human accidents and natural disasters seem endless. But the Queen was always there – on glossy magazine pages with her tiara, sash and medallions, flickering on the television screen and sometimes only feet from us as she visited the U.S.

England can never be a foreign country to Americans who know something of our shared history. It is home on some fundamental level, perhaps not our first or only home, but still, home. The mother country, the shared democratic values, the roots of our First Amendment freedoms, a common language and literature, allies in two world wars and in the Cold War, stories of Robin Hood, Richard the Lion-hearted, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan and the Beatles – how could we not be at home with each other, despite all the real differences? An English teacher would have to see it. Elizabeth II presided over all of it, meeting not only 15 of her own prime ministers, but 13 U.S. presidents – Lyndon Johnson and the queen missed each other – and five popes, along with innumerable other world leaders. Although the Queen’s Birthday celebration was in June, her actual date of birth was April 21, the Feast of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, patron of our college.

Despite the rarefied environment surrounding her, Elizabeth’s sense of humor was hearty and robust. Who can forget her teaming up with Paddington Bear to for tea and a marmalade sandwich, or fail to smile at her date with James Bond, Daniel Craig, to parachute into the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics in 2012. She probably found amusement in the fact that people around the world loved her waves, her hats, handbags and outfits and her walkabouts. She could tease President George W. Bush about her age when he mistakenly included the American Revolution in the things that the Queen could remember. She could wait patiently while President Barack Obama missed the cue to stand for the national anthems and, instead, gave a toast. When President Donald Trump reviewed an honor guard at Windsor Castle and blocked her way, she simply trudged along behind him until the opportunity to walk with him opened up.

Elizabeth once was asked why she loved Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, whose royal pedigree stretched from Greece to Denmark to Russia and could give the House of Windsor something to ponder, and her response was simple: “He makes me laugh.” The Queen was caught giggling when she rounded a corner at Windsor and found the duke at attention and dressed in a red tunic and giant bearskin busby. I once heard an eminent English academic teaching in Ireland shake his head in dismay over an American colleague whose Anglophile affectations were a bit over the top. “Oh, him! He thinks he’s more English than the Queen’s corgis.” Over the years, there were about 40 of them running about Buckingham Palace – and the ones who watched James Bond whisk the Queen off in a helicopter were none too pleased.

I’m not really a monarchist in the strict sense of the word. I’m grateful for American democracy, strains and polarities notwithstanding, but for Britain, a constitutional (and democratic) monarchy seems altogether fitting. The United Kingdom, which now has a king, Charles III, is as much a democracy as we are, and Elizabeth, from 1952 to 2022, proved to be a most fitting crowned head of state. Such a figure speaks of history, continuity and tradition. Monarchy, if it is to rest happily in the 21st Century, can become a beacon for the human and the humane in a world of technology and bureaucracy. Moreover, the crown is meant to convey a dignity that sometimes gets lost in the political wrangling and brawling of Parliament and Congress. Queen Elizabeth, who ascended to the throne at the age of 25, usually seemed to float above the fray. When, for example, she was criticized for too much reserve in the wake of the 1997 death of Princess Diana, the Queen made a course correction amid a complex situation involving her son and heir and the most famous woman on the planet. Like all of us, Elizabeth found it hard to escape the attitudes with which her education and upbringing had equipped her. She kept a stiff upper lip in public; any emotional upheaval was displayed behind closed doors.

In a lifetime of colorful, dramatic and poignant moments, many of them cloaked with pageantry, three incidents express the features of Queen Elizabeth II that I find most admirable.

As any Irish American will admit, it’s never easy to forget the British conquest and long occupation of Ireland. It set the pattern for global conquest and colonization. But in 2011, when the Queen made a historic state visit to the Republic of Ireland, it nearly happened. She spoke with sincerity and a measure of regret about the misunderstandings and violence that the shared history of the islands exhibits. She stood somberly at the Garden of Remembrance, a site in Dublin commemorating the sacrifices of those who fought for freedom during the Easter Rising of 1916. That garden by extension commemorates all those whose blood was shed for freedom in the years before and afterward. The queen herself lost her beloved uncle, Louis Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, to IRA assassins in 1979. On a visit to Northern Ireland a year later, she shook hands and spoke graciously with Martin McGuinness, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander who fought during the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s until the Belfast Peace Accords were signed. In due course, McGuinness found himself serving as a top executive in the Northern Ireland government.

The Queen had one overriding ambition on that historic trip – to help establish a just and lasting peace for all in the North and to renew ties of trade, culture and cooperation with the republic in the south. She wore a beautiful white gold, diamond-studded harp as a brooch on her gown at the state banquet at Dublin Castle, once the seat of British power in Ireland and now a showpiece for an Rialtas Eireann, the Irish Government. She even began her speech as Gaelige, that is, in Irish Gaelic – something even some Irish political leaders are afraid to do! She joked with salesman in an open-air market, visited the Guinness brewery, walked cobbled courtyards of Trinity College Dublin, established by her namesake Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, and visited an Irish horse breeding farm. The effect was to show her interest, respect and appreciation for her neighbors – and by and large, they bought it … because it was genuine. The Queen did her bit, and more than her bit, for peace in Ireland.

A second feature of the Queen that I have long loved is her attention to the human details. In this regard, I mention an old soldier and an old monk. Now, admittedly, the old monk was Basil Cardinal Hume, O.S.B., the late archbishop of Westminster, and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. Cardinal Hume, formerly the abbot of Ampleforth Abbey, home of a renowned boys school in Yorkshire, was a brilliant spiritual guide and writer. As archbishop, he came to know the Queen, who was deeply impressed by his compassion, wisdom and intellect. She came to love their encounters, and when Cardinal Hume was approaching death, she was determined to honor him in a unique way. She arranged to have a man she called “my cardinal” receive the Order of Merit, Britain’s highest civilian honor just before he died in 1999. In 2002, she traveled to Newcastle upon Tyne, Hume’s birthplace, to unveil a statue of him. I hope she had time to lift a glass of Newcastle Brown Ale, the only English beer that comes near Guinness, and had Abbot Basil been with her, he would have joined her.

In like fashion, the Queen, with due precautions because of the Covid-19 pandemic, met and knighted Captain Tom Moore, the British army officer who, in retirement, decided to walk 100 lengths in his garden enough times to raise 1,000 pounds for the National Health Service, Britain’s medical care organization for all people. In the face of the demands imposed by Covid-19 on the NHS, he raised 33 million pounds – to the amazement of the country and world. One of the hundreds the Queen dubbed with a sword, Moore became Sir Tom at Windsor Castle in 2020 and won promotion in rank to honorary colonel. Alas, he died not long afterwards of the very disease he fought. During World War II, he had served in Burma, now Myanmar, and returned to England to work in and manage construction supply firms. He appeared on a BBC game show as a contestant in 1981 and, after his pandemic fundraising, he did a cover version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sung by Michael Ball. That effort landed him at the top of the British charts, the oldest man to do so. Captain Tom raced motorcycles in his earlier years – and the competitive bug never left him. Like Tom Moore, the Queen was part of the World War II generation, its youngest part, but she too had served as a truck repair worker.

The third moment is actually a string of moments filmed and recorded by the BBC. One was her observation in the wake of 9/11 in 2001, an event that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 individuals, including 70 British. In connection with a memorial service at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, the Queen said simply, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Never have I heard a more cogent and succinct explanation of this fundamental emotion. The Queen’s annual Christmas messages to the nation, the Commonwealth and the world provide many profound moments. Gradually, but steadily, one can hear Queen Elizabeth adjust, adapt and accommodate to the changing world – yet she never surrendered one iota of dignity and grace. Even more important, she always put her faith, hope and love, she always put Christ at the heart of her annual message. The center of duty for her was not simply endless repetition of ceremonial requirements: openings of Parliament, commissioning ships in the Royal Navy, greeting new ambassadors, making international visits and receiving heads of state. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader whom she met several times, and who changed the world in the grand gestures of glasnost and perestroika, she both maintained and changed the world bit by bit for seven decades. Surely, duty for her demanded service to her people and a sense of history and destiny, but at the center was a covenant she had made with God himself on the day was crowned and anointed on behalf of her people; she would serve Him and each of them all her days. And so she did, and the keeping of that covenant was sealed in many respects by a sign. Only hours after her death at her beloved Balmoral estate in Scotland, a brilliant double rainbow that tourists and residents alike saw shimmering over Buckingham Palace.

For all that was, and for all that will endure, I would join Paddington Bear and people across the U.S. and around the world in lifting a cup of tea to Queen Elizabeth II and saying “thank you, Your Majesty … for everything!”

Father Jerome is an assistant professor of English and communication studies and serves as faculty adviser to The Saint Anselm Crier.◄