“Whether it be long or short”
The death of Queen Elizabeth II brings Britain’s second Elizabethan age to an end
“The Queen is dead, long live the King.”
The history of the world has revealed only a few lasting arguments for political legitimacy, and the most venerable of all is a hereditary monarchy. In the modern age, no monarch has been the equal of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in dignity and long reign. The queen’s death at her beloved Balmoral Castle marks the end of Britain’s second Elizabethan age, and the nation’s outpouring of grief is not only for the loss of their queen but the loss of the truths and principles to which she had dedicated her long life and historic reign.
There will not be another like her, at least for a long time. Britain’s second Elizabethan age, like its first, marked a great transition in history. Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, ruled over Britain during a period of remarkable transition from medieval England into the early modern age. Her father, after all, had been King Henry VIII, who with Henry I, king of France; Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor; and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, had ruled most of the known world. Elizabeth I ruled over a tumultuous but golden era, and she is remembered for establishing the respect and power of her throne and the English nation.
Elizabeth II will be remembered for a similar if less world-shaking significance. The 20th century saw monarchy in decline and often in collapse. Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, had saved the British monarchy by serving as a model of devotion, stability, and respectability. His close relatives, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, came to ruin, their monarchies destroyed. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone and so was the emperor. George V was succeeded by Edward VIII, who put the entire monarchy at risk by his recklessness and insistence on marrying a twice-divorced American. His abdication meant that his brother, Elizabeth’s father, would become King George VI, and the 10-year-old princess would be first in the line of succession. Divine providence had provided Britain a princess of promise.
Elizabeth was only 25 years old when she became queen in 1952. She received the news in Kenya, where she and her husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were on a royal visit. (Philip would be made prince consort in 1957.) The young woman flew to Kenya as a princess but landed back in London as queen. A new age had begun.
Queen Elizabeth’s famous pledge, made on her 21st birthday in 1947, set the tone of her reign: “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.” We now know that her service was long, indeed the second-longest of any known monarch in history.
Her coronation included her consecration as God’s anointed, with a priestly ministration of oil, as the choir sang Handel’s thunderous “Zadok the Priest.” She saw herself in a royal line that hearkened back to Samuel the Prophet and Zadok the Priest of the Lord.
History will record the length of her reign to be marked by unprecedented moral, cultural, and technological transformations. Britain lost its empire but maintained its pride. She reigned through a revolution in morality and culture that she could hardly have appreciated. She was a moral traditionalist and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a position she maintained with dignity. But, in the end, the age of Elizabeth II was defined as much by the moral transformation of her own family as by the shocking moral shifts in the culture. Her father became king only because it was unthinkable that his brother could marry a divorced woman and retain moral credibility to reign. Elizabeth’s long marriage to Prince Philip, who died just last year, was a source of national stability. But, by the end of her reign, it was clear that her children were reckless and worse.
Charles, Prince of Wales, would infamously divorce his wife, Princess Diana, after a long adulterous relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, now his wife and the Duchess of Cornwall. Anne, Princess Royal, divorced her husband in 1992. Elizabeth’s second son, Prince Andrew, became such a focus of world scandal that he had to withdraw completely from public view, by order of the queen herself. That leaves Prince Edward as the only offspring of Elizabeth and Philip who has not divorced.
Queen Elizabeth reigned through 15 British prime ministers—her first was Winston Churchill—and she, in herself, was the continuity of government. Her Christmas messages often revealed her explicit affirmation of Christian truth. Her personal stability and rectitude defined her dignity, and her dignity was grounded in centuries of royal duty and British history behind her. She understood herself to be the living representation of the nation and the embodiment of its legitimacy. When the nation suffered, she suffered. When the nation rejoiced, she rejoiced.
She could not look at a British coin or stamp without seeing her own image, and yet she was no Caesar. She was the head of state but not the head of government. She loved horses and, we are told, had a sense of humor. She could never understand a figure like Diana, and she appeared both disappointed and perplexed by the bizarre trajectory of her grandson, Prince Harry. There were signs she had much more hope invested in Prince William, second in line of succession. She was in absolutely no hurry to leave the throne open for Charles, but she surely knew she would have no control over who would follow her there.
Duty fell to her at such an early age, and she carried it so well, for so long, on behalf of so many. Americans sense that the British people are our near relatives and that the British monarch remains a part of our own identity. Few could have predicted, even just a century ago, that Americans would come to love a British monarch. America had respected Queen Victoria and then, to a greater and lesser degree, a succession of kings. But Americans loved Elizabeth from the start. Her death brings an end to an age, not just for the British people, but for us all.
We will not see her equal in our lifetimes. Britain’s grief is surely grounded in that knowledge. But the late queen would be the first to insist that both parts of the sad announcement are true: “The Queen is dead, long live the King.” May God bless the memory of the queen and guide Britain’s new king and his nation.
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