A photograph of young Queen Elizabeth II

A photograph of young Queen Elizabeth II left at the gates of Buckingham Palace, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022.

The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

OK, that may be the most predictable line I’ve ever written, but a version of it has been working for the Brits for, what, about 1,100 years now? And as much turbulence as the Crown has faced through that millennium of time, it has endured. Seventy years under the reign of Elizabeth II — the longest in British history — came to an end with her death last week, at 96. She remained steadfast as her nation lurched through crises that ranged from a diminished world empire to brutal economies to wars to the Irish Troubles to, most recently, Brexit. And, of course, there was the anguished death of Princess Diana, 25 years ago; I expect conspiracy theories still circle.

I am neither defender nor detractor of the royals as a concept. Truth is, I don’t know enough about monarchy to feel entitled to more than a pop-culture opinion. And plenty of so-called democracies have their own issues to account for, as do churches, sports leagues, businesses, political parties. Pretty much any institution that combines the flaws of humans with the hunger for power tends to trip over itself. Is a monarchy that different in form or, as with so much, does it depend on the holder of the throne?

But I have always loved movies about the Crown — so much tangled intrigue! Also books, especially authoritative biographies that compel like fiction: Allison Weir’s “The Life of Elizabeth I” provided important insights when I was struggling with my own loyalty to authority; who needs Real Housewives from Anywhere when you can read Weir’s expansive “The Six Wives of Henry VIII?” I have forgiven Hilary Mantel her lapse into confusing pronouns after devouring the entire Wolf Hall trilogy about the somewhat imagined life of Thomas Cromwell (labeled “literary fiction”) as he went from blacksmith’s son to kingmaker to the guillotine; the next release of the BBC series, with Mark Rylance as Cromwell, can’t come soon enough. And of course, two words: “The Crown” on Netflix; filming of new episodes reportedly has been suspended in respect for Elizabeth’s death.

For all that, it took an embarrassingly long time for me to realize that, when chorusing my opening line above, people were, in one breath, heralding the death of one king and honoring the ascendance of another. (I once thought it represented a belief in a physical afterlife.) Things might change slowly in entrenched British culture, but those folks sure don’t waste time passing the torch.

History in the rear-view mirror

Despite my Cliff Notes knowledge of the British royals — do NOT ask me to recite the successions or even distinguish the Hanovers from the Windsors, I confess to a fascination. And as my appreciation of history has grown with age, so has my interest in the narratives that have been spun through time, and how those narratives are often proved flawed, or downright false, with deeper reporting. For one example, check out “The Last King of America,” a meaty biography of George III in which British historian Andrew Roberts challenges the notion of George as a less-than-sane brute who deserved to lose the colonies.

Within seconds of Elizabeth’s death last week, the narratives she has been wrapped in dominated news sites and social media. Another confession: I bookmarked most of the former for an extended indulgence in the latter. Even in the cheeky riffs, there was learning to be done.

Her neon-raubow wardrobe? Chosen so she can be easily seen in a crowd. The hats? An honored British royal tradition; women here do the same thing at the Kentucky Derby. And of course, this photo montage of Elizabeth’s outfits from a Telegraph story two years ago made the rounds again.

My favorite shared snippets from yesterday were the masterful publicity videos of Her Majesty with James Bond (as only Daniel Craig can play him) and Paddington Bear. They provide glimpses to a sense of humor that seldom showed in the Queen’s formal public appearances. And they demonstrate fine storytelling.

Lest this all seem frivolous, there is serious history to be gleaned from all of this. If you don’t think women’s clothing teaches us anything, spend some time in the Smithsonian at the exhibit of First Ladies inaugural gowns. One of the most enlightening afternoons I’ve ever spent was at the International Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam. And upon news of the Queen’s death, I revisited the essay by Poynter writing scholar Roy Peter Clark, who teaches the power of word placement in a pertinent line from Shakespeare: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

Language, constraints and changing times

For some reason, my first curiosity when hearing the news was about Charles and his wife Camilla. I admired Diana — who wouldn’t? She worked to draw attention to HIV-AIDS and the plight of children at risk from land mines, starvation, disease and all the other things we let children be at risk from. But that didn’t diminish my interest in Camilla, or the devotion she and Charles never abandoned. It always seemed to me that the three of them were trapped in constraints not of their making but those imposed by time and society. Those are, I think, part of the narratives that define — or confine — us.

My curiosity about Camilla had me digging through stories about changes in the rules governing the monarchy since King Edward VIII had to abdicate the throne to marry American divorcee Wallace Simpson. Those changes may have been begrudging but they were made, so when Charles became king, Camilla gained the courtesy title of Queen Consort. That had me looking up “consort,” a term that strikes me as entrenched as those royal hats. The primary definition refers to a spouse or companion, especially of a reigning monarch. The second: a frequent associate who is looked upon with disapproval. Camilla has worn both those narrative hats through the years, so I bow to what happiness she and the King can find. Say what you will, their love has tolerated and endured with the same steadfastness as the Crown. (I also had a bit of fun looking up “privy,” which can refer to the monarch’s sworn cabinet or to the loo. Interesting language, English.)

A final word, about opinions and narratives. My quick posts about royal titles and hats got one harsh push-back from a lawyer-friend who said “Who cares?” He described the monarchy as an “abomination & offensive to the rights of humanity grounded in the concept of fundamental equality.” My response: Unless we know history, we can’t change things. He acknowledged admiration for Elizabeth, but pushed back harder on the culture of monarchy: “The only interesting question about the entire phenomenon is to ask what its popular worship provides to the people who do so. In my opinion it reflects that there is a deep human need to idolize one’s moral and spiritual authority, and a historical track record of that almost always ending poorly.”

To which I simply said that we need only look in the mirror these days to see that reflected right here, in our proud-but-fragile democratic experiment.

Further Reading