The Queen has died and with her, something singular and precious in British national life. I heard the announcement as I was leaving London to return to my home in the north-east of Scotland, not far from Balmoral. Striding through historic Westminster to catch a train, it felt poignant to be making that trip at that moment. As I passed the Palace of Westminster, bells chiming softly in nearby Westminster Abbey, the air was thick with sadness and anticipation. What now?
A unifying figure, Queen Elizabeth was admired by critics of the monarchy as much as its supporters – not something that is common in the long and eccentric line of sovereigns who populate British history. Her personality – warm, gentle, joyful, and calm – won people over, from Prime Ministers and heads of state around the world, to ordinary citizens from all walks of life. She was likeable, relatable even, despite the vestiges of state she embodied.
Personally speaking, I have always admired the Queen, if not the royal family as a whole. I wouldn’t identify as a monarchist, or even a unionist. But there was something special about this woman. I’m blessed to have crossed paths with people from a wide range of backgrounds in my life and work, and I must say this is a common view I’ve encountered. I’ve often heard people say: ‘I don’t like the royal family but I like the Queen’. Or ‘I’m a republican but I don’t mind the Queen as a person’. It’s striking.
A word that has been used repeatedly to describe Queen Elizabeth is “humble”. She was fallible, of course, as we all are. But her self-emptying service over seven long decades is unmissable, and remarkable. As one tribute stated, she was a “servant leader”. Her character, the values she ascribed to, arose from her Christian faith, which she spoke about frequently and unashamedly. The servant Queen followed a servant King, Jesus Christ, and embodied his service in her own.
In her December 2000 Christmas address, on the cusp of a new millennium, the Queen made reference to the stable rock underpinning her journey through the tumultuous decades of the 20th century: her faith in Christ. “For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.” Queen Elizabeth submitted to God, and to others. This is the essence of Christianity – to love and obey God and love others as one’s self.
As a believer facing her last hours of life, the Queen would have drawn immense comfort from her faith. For her, death was not truly an end, but a beginning. Eternity with her Saviour, Jesus, stretches on ahead. As the frail monarch drew her last breaths, a crown would have been foremost in her mind. Not that famous one of gold and diamonds. No, exceedingly more valuable than that. As the Psalmist wrote: “The LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.”
In the hours following her death, Queen Elizabeth has also been described as “enduring”. Throughout her 70-year reign, the UK has seen: wars; economic crashes; political scandals; poverty; and protest. She was always there. A still, small voice of encouragement and perseverance. Whilst The West has endured a rising tide of moral relativism – an attack on what’s foundational, on truth itself – Britain’s Queen has in some sense typified that which is timeless, and changeless.
Sebastian Millbank captured this idea very well in an article for The Critic yesterday: “The monarchy has survived in a world that came to reject social hierarchy, deference, aristocracy, tradition and religion. With every force and sensibility turning away from it, the Queen still found ways to connect with ordinary people, to articulate a shared life, and mutely embodied in her conduct what our newly progressive nation no longer wished to hear explicitly articulated.
“Far more than an empty signifier, or a maudlin symbol of unity — some sort of collective granny — the Queen fully embraced a mode of life and a set of values utterly alien to modern Britons. Duty, religious piety, humility and service to her fellow man and woman. Like the Israelites bearing the Ark of the Covenant across the desert, our Queen has carried the hidden heart of British life within her through a secular and disenchanted age.”
The new monarch, King Charles, will be different to his mother. He doesn’t share her outlook on life, and on faith. He isn’t tethered, as she was, to the epoch she lived through. The new monarch will fit a new era of British history and shape Britain’s national story in ways yet to be seen. For now though, we mourn and feel a great loss. A unique kind of emptiness is upon us. One that I sense will be felt on these islands for some time.
Jamie Gillies is a commentator on politics and culture. He Tweets at @jmgillies