During BBC interviews with people on the street in recent days, one person described the Queen as “the great common denominator.” That sums up Her late Majesty’s significance brilliantly. In a turbulent world, where everything and everyone seem to come and go, she was a constant presence of grace, humanity, compassion and steadfastness. In her quiet, encouraging way, she made the world a better place for countless people.
Despite the challenging aftermath of empire, frequent family scandals, and republican rumblings, she soldiered on, keeping to her solemn vow on her 21st birthday in 1947 to serve until her death, daily living the dictum, “never complain, never explain.” In spite of the relentless tedium of heading “the firm,” her genuine interest in people, her infectious sense of humour, and her deep faith got her through it all for more than seven decades, a record that will probably never be surpassed. She also had the wisdom to adapt her role as the world changed and so remained relevant. As a result, she was loved and respected by people around the world, even those who were not monarchists.
I was born two years after the Queen’s accession to the throne. Until a few days ago, like the majority of people now alive, I had never known any other sovereign. My maternal grandmother kept a large, gold-framed portrait of Queen Elizabeth on her dining room wall. Everywhere I went, the Queen’s portrait seemed to be watching over us, whether it was in my classroom, the post office or government offices. She seemed to be this remote, awe-inspiring, almost divine personage. Her importance was unspoken, a given in our lives.
As a student, I wrote letters of congratulations and condolences to the Queen, and, as a young person, was thrilled to receive a response on royal letterhead from one of her ladies in waiting. Probably because of those letters, I became a lifelong fan. In 1977, as a university student, I travelled to Britain to take part in the Silver Jubilee celebrations. I first caught a glimpse of the Queen and Prince Philip in Edinburgh as they returned from a formal evening engagement. When the glass-topped, illuminated limousine headed down the Royal Mile, I could see the Queen’s tiara glistening. It was a surreal moment. Soon afterwards, thanks to the Canadian High Commission in London, I had the privilege of attending a Royal Garden Party at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
I also visited London to witness Trooping the Colour on the monarch’s official birthday. As I stood in the pouring rain under an umbrella near the Victoria Memorial, I saw the Queen pass by in military uniform, riding sidesaddle on horseback. Her head was tilted determinedly into the torrent of wind and rain, her one hand securing her headdress and her other hand holding the reins of her horse. Sometime later, when the sun had come out, she appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in an identical dry uniform to acknowledge a sea of well-wishers.
Later that year, the Queen visited Canada to open Parliament. I saw her lay a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. On that chilly autumn morning, she stood out in a stunning orange coat and white fur hat. That evening, I saw her enter the National Arts Centre to attend a command performance.
However, my most memorable experience of that visit took place at Dow’s Lake, where she attended a regatta. As she left the covered pavilion where the VIP guests were seated and walked down the hill, the massive crowd surged forward to get a closer view of their Queen. It was a terrifying moment, because the security force appeared to have lost control. The Queen never flinched and moved calmly towards her waiting car, smiling and waving to the crowd.
… the security force appeared to have lost control. (But) the Queen never flinched and moved calmly towards her waiting car, smiling and waving to the crowd.
In the early 1980s, I visited London to do graduate research. Each day, I would walk from the archives where I was working to Westminster Abbey to sit in the choir and attend Evensong. As I arrived late one afternoon, I discovered that the service was closed to the public. I had barely finished reading the notice when I saw a limousine drive up to the great west door of the abbey and the Queen alight without fanfare to attend a service for widows of Church of England clergy — just another working engagement in the Queen’s hectic annual schedule.
My most vivid memory of the Queen occurred in 1984 when she visited New Brunswick to celebrate the province’s bicentennial. My wife and I were presented to the Queen at a private reception at Government House in Fredericton, where my father-in-law, the Hon. George F. G. Stanley, was then serving as lieutenant-governor. After the formal presentations, the Queen circulated casually among the guests and I was astonished to see how diminutive she was. I remember her asking us about our research interests as aspiring academics. As the reception drew to a close, Prince Philip pulled the official itinerary out of his breast pocket, pivoted on one heel, and announced very audibly that it was time to go. Afterwards, we joked that it was probably a well-rehearsed ploy for escaping tiresome small talk at such events.
My last encounter with the Queen took place in 2016 back in Edinburgh. My wife was giving a paper at an international conference, and we happened to be present when the Queen attended a service at Canongate Kirk. This was our 15-year-old daughter’s first royal sighting, and she was so ecstatic that she climbed atop a metal railing to get a better view and photo of the Queen, who passed on the cobblestones only a few feet away. It was déjà vu for me, witnessing my daughter, as I had when a teenager, being drawn irresistibly to the mystique of monarchy.
We were all delighted that, despite failing health, the Queen lived to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee. I will always remember that wave on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to the acclaim of thousands of admirers packed into the Mall. But perhaps the most poignant moment of the Jubilee was the Queen’s enchanting tea party with Paddington Bear. People of all ages were deeply touched by the innocence, joy and authenticity of that exchange. And we were reminded of her great affection for animals, particularly horses and dogs, which were a constant delight in her life.
In her early years on the throne, we saw a shy and sometimes stiff monarch, who struggled to find her own style and approach to this ancient role in a rapidly evolving world. As time went on, she became comfortable and confident, setting aside some of the formality. In contradiction to Walter Bagehot’s warning, “don’t let the daylight in upon the magic of monarchy,” she came to realize that “I have to be seen to be believed.” She stepped down from her pedestal and truly became the People’s Queen, who was not above being a Bond Girl when she opened the Olympic Games in London.
At Prince Philip’s funeral in St. George’s Chapel, we saw this tiny dot of a woman, bent over, dressed in black, and seated alone. She seemed to be disappearing before our eyes. Our reverence became compassion for a very real person who had suffered the devastating loss of her life partner of 73 years. And in that magical Platinum Jubilee moment with Paddington, we glimpsed the Queen’s humanity, humility, vulnerability, humour and goodness, which made the pomp and circumstance fade into insignificance. We were all Paddington, awkwardly trying not to misbehave for a cherished grandmother, who saw the best in everyone and wanted fervently to help make the world a better place.
For seven decades, the Queen led by dignified example, performing what for some may have seemed a peculiar, anachronistic, perhaps even irrelevant role. However, the outpouring of respect, gratitude and love, and the widespread sharing of personal reminiscences during the days since her death, have shown the huge impact she had on people’s lives.
Her loyal admirers have thought nothing of standing in line for hours to pay their personal respects and show their appreciation in front of her coffin. That is because she helped inspire us all to be our better selves. Such is her lasting legacy. In reflecting on the Queen’s selfless life of service and what that meant to so many, I can do no better than echo Paddington’s farewell words: “Thank you, Ma’am, for everything.”
John Blackwell is a retired university research administrator and academic librarian, and Dr. Laurie Stanley-Blackwell is a senior research professor in the History Department at St. Francis Xavier University.