Elizabeth II wasn’t born to be queen. She was the elder daughter of Albert, the Duke of York, second son of the formidable (although no brain-trust) George V, who led the United Kingdom through the Great War and the beginning of the end of empire. His eldest son, known as “David” among his friends, but whose name has gone down in history rarely as Edward VIII, more often as the Duke of Windsor, almost always as the Edward of “Edward and Mrs. Simpson” and without exception as a failure (sometimes even as a potential traitor) lasted no more than a year before he let an unprincipled whore pull him down from his throne and into the shadow of disapproval. Hearing the announcement, the precocious princess, barely 10 years old, remarked to her younger sister Margaret that “Papa is to be king.” Supposedly Margaret said something to the effect of “then you’ll be queen? Poor you.”
C.S. Lewis said once that it’s the princes that have all the fun. He was partly right, although whether that fun actually does some good or is mere self-pleasing is another story. Elizabeth’s father could not have come to the throne at a worse time for him, but also not at a better time for the rest of the world as two years into his reign Hitler moved on Poland and the UK and France moved on Hitler… a day late and a dollar short.
Many wanted her and her mom and sister evacuated to Canada, but, to their credit, they stayed on to look their own people in the eye during the darkest days any free nation has ever seen. Now, much has been made of the fact that Elizabeth was in fact a member of the military during WW2. The full truth is that she was, but only from February 1945 on (although the war still wasn’t a sure thing yet), after she became 18 and decided to personally contribute to the war effort. She had the honorary rank of second subaltern (basically 2Lt) but did later get promoted one step to junior commander on her own merits. She learned to read maps, drive large trucks, and repair diesel engines.
This was not something the privileged sought to avoid in the wartime UK—even Churchill’s daughter served—but it did give her a valuable view of life for non-royals. She did sleep at Windsor Castle though rather than at the camp where her unit was based, for security reasons as much as comfort (never mind cloak and dagger stuff, it only takes one idiot fellow junior officer looking for 15 minutes of fame to do something stupid with major unintended consequences).
With the end of the war (on V-E Day she and her sister mingled with the London crowds, a happy but very foolish thing to do), she took her place as a working royal alongside her parents. In 1947, during a tour of southern Africa, she delivered the speech which included the promise, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” The speech had been written by one-time journalist Dermot Morrah, so I’m sure she delivered it as she would have any other prepared speech, but one is left to wonder if she really grasped what she was getting herself into.
In the 1930s she had met then-Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. She found herself falling in love with him in about 1939, and the two courted mostly by letters, since, as a serving naval officer, Philip was, ah, otherwise engaged until 1945. Truth be told, her family was iffy about the match: Philip was a prince without a kingdom (both Denmark and Greece having been conquered by the Nazis and left in ashes), and his family included some Nazi-connected in-laws. Nonetheless, their engagement was announced in 1947 and they were married November of that year. Philip gave up his Greek and Danish titles, left active service with the Royal Navy (which he had hoped to command one day) and converted to Anglicanism from Greek Orthodoxy. Essentially, he gave up his whole world to be part of Elizabeth’s.
Much has been made of his sometimes blunt and less than politically correct manner of speech, but he would spend the next 70 years by and away from Elizabeth, doing endless speeches, events, parades, ribbon cuttings, and who knows what else, as a living symbol of empire and commonwealth, until he bowed out of public duties in 2017 and died four years later.
To describe her life from there to the end would be to describe the history of the UK. She had already been a witness to the Berlin Airlift, the partition of India, the formation of NATO, and the Korean War, so she knew going in that there was no unlimited future of peace nor return to the dreamy green southern countryside of the Edwardian era at hand. The Suez crisis, the withdrawal from east of Suez, the Cold War, the Falklands Crisis, Operation Banner, the Troubles, the Good Friday Agreement, the near- secession of Scotland, the War on Terror, Brexit, all happened on her watch. Throughout, she studiously avoided taking political positions, serving instead as a living symbol that the country could rally around irrespective of party or perspective.
This is a useful thing in time of war or national crisis, and not the easiest or safest thing to do. At least three attempts were made on Her Majesty’s life, although the latest rumor of that, in 2014, I believe, was just that, a rumor. None succeeded, but it can’t be too easy lying down to sleep each evening knowing there are some people out there who want you dead simply because of who you are and what you stand for and rising wondering if today will be the day your luck runs out. or one critical error or omission gets made.
I think what often gets lost on people used to seeing this rock-steady, gray-haired monarch in her colorful suits or dark overcoat is that she was just 25 years old and a mom of two (Andrew and Edward would come later) when she had to assume the throne. It was not supposed to happen that way. George VI was only 56 years old when he died in 1952 of a coronary thrombosis, although the fact that he also had such advanced lung cancer that it resulted in his left lung being removed certainly didn’t help (that’ll teach you not to smoke). In the best of all possible worlds she would have been looking at at least another decade of time as Crown Princess (she was never Princess of Wales since the Principality of Wales only goes to the sovereign’s eldest son) to raise her children and learn her role.
Unfortunately, the stress of WW2 and the fact that her dad didn’t take very good care of himself denied her that. She would just have to learn on the job. This she did admirably, and almost always was there with the right thing to say to boost her nation along when it needed it.
I can’t say as much for her abilities as a parent, or maybe I can. Her children all did achieve great things, although I have to say I’m unimpressed with Prince Edward washing out of Royal Marines training, since other members of the family have served successfully. That said, just pushing for that kind of success is only half the equation. Although she and Philip clearly knew how to conduct themselves in a model marriage, somehow it appears that they were unable to pass that model on to their children. Prince Edward and Princess Sophie are the only couple in the next generation who have made and maintained a stable first and only marriage. Then again, they married for love, not for show nor with needing anyone’s approval. I “get” that with royalty marrying the rules are different, heck, before George V the royal family was only allowed to marry foreign royalty, (Edward VII’s wife, Alexandra, was a princess of Denmark), but I have to say, given that her own marriage was against the odds and met with some disapproval, I wonder if, in supposedly much more enlightened 1981, she could not have found it in her wisdom to allow Charles some leeway and grace in choosing his own partner, rather than enclosing his choices to lead him to Diana, who was not a good match for him and whom he really never loved.
That said, she did wisely not get in his way when he married Camilla in 2005. Still, I think a lot of heartbreak and scandal could have been avoided earlier with a bit more leeway. Not sure what she could have done with Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, because their marriage ran into trouble due to him being away from home so much with the Royal Navy. Andrew was her favorite, but eventually even she couldn’t turn a blind eye to his indiscretions, and, acting as queen rather than mom, effectively banished him from royal life.
I also applaud her for standing up to Meghan Markle’s attempts to usurp the spotlight and elbow her way around the Royal Family the way she elbowed her way around Hollywood. The Royal Family’s role is to be nonpartisan heads and symbols of state, not to be a platform for one woman to launch her brand of wokeness on the world.
Still, she was also astute enough not to refuse royal assent to things like same-sex marriage (proposed, ironically, by the Conservatives), which would have been a major problem. Her motto was never to explain and never to complain, which well encapsulates the UK “stiff upper lip” mentality, useful when dealing with a crisis or a reverse. Of course, she had the luxury of not having to explain anything to anyone. Most of us don’t have that luxury.
Overall, she was a good and faithful sovereign who spent her entire life serving her people. I think the fact that she welcomed incoming Prime Minister Liz Truss 48 HOURS before she died, give or take, is proof positive that, whether or not she really understood what she was promising in Africa in 1947, she eventually came to understand and fulfill that promise as few other people have filled any. For that, as well as for many other reasons, I believe she should be designated a Hero of the Realm, if not a Servant of God.
Oh, and to that American professor who tweeted that she hoped her death was excruciating? 1. Be careful what you wish on others, it has a funny way of coming back on your own head, 2. Better to go down in history as a long-serving ruler of an empire that was of its time and didn’t always get everything right than as a self-righteous jerkass who no one will remember except for that one act that made her a self-righteous jerkass.
Steven Olivo works as a lawyer in the state of New Jersey. This article was first published on Olivo's personal Facebook page. Reprinted by Don McCullen with premission from the author.