Sometimes the Heavens truly do declare, and it’s obvious in the moment. As onlookers gathered outside Buckingham Palace when news broke of Queen Elizabeth II’s ill health, a double-rainbow appeared. It shined brightly “over London near Buckingham Palace and Elizabeth Tower,” and people could see it across the Thames River. Soon after its appearance, news broke of the Queen’s passing.
It was a fitting tribute to one of the greatest monarchs in the United Kingdom’s history and the last stateswoman of her era. The BBC did its best to summarize her staggering reign, “Queen Elizabeth II’s tenure as head of state spanned post-war austerity, the transition from empire to Commonwealth, the end of the Cold War and the UK’s entry into – and withdrawal from – the European Union. Her reign spanned 15 prime ministers starting with Winston Churchill, born in 1874, and including Ms Truss, born 101 years later in 1975.”
The new Prime Minister Liz Truss called this the “passing of the second Elizabethan age.” Though we know the King that will follow the Queen on the throne, the age we enter now is far less sure. And that’s because there’s simply no one else like her remaining.
In 1947, before ascending to the throne, the then young, 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth said, “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.”
It began her place as one of the great stateswomen in the United Kingdom’s history. She not only served but elevated the British monarchy in a century where Kings and Queens fell out of governing norms worldwide. Whereas many countries came to see their monarchs as a curse, the British found in Her Majesty a blessing.
In her 1957 Christmas address, the first speech by the Queen on television, she remarked on her role:
In the old days the monarch led his soldiers on the battlefield and his leadership at all times was close and personal.
Today things are very different. I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else, I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.
I believe in our qualities and in our strength, I believe that together we can set an example to the world which will encourage upright people everywhere.
And lead she did, in ways many did not expect. In one of her early acts, she breached protocol to honor the great Winston Churchill at his funeral.
A recent documentary revealed, “In the documentary ‘Elizabeth: Our Queen,’ it was revealed that the Queen usually arrives last and leaves first during various events and gatherings. But at Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, Queen Elizabeth II arrived before Churchill’s coffin was brought to the venue.[S]he arrived before the coffin and before the Churchill family and left after both of them. The Queen had put her royal privilege aside and bestowed the honor of arriving last to Churchill’s family and his coffin.”
Americans experienced a similar graciousness after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The following day, she ordered that “The Star Spangled Banner” be played during the changing of the guard. Reporters at the time taped it and saw weeping Americans gratefully witnessing this display. She repeated this tribute 20 years later, in 2021.
These small acts speak volumes. She had a penchant for understanding the moment and how she could help or provide comfort in times of great distress. Her steadying hand provided compassion and guidance from everything from World War II to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the earliest recorded instances of Winston Churchill encountering Elizabeth was when she was two years old. Churchill remarked, “There is no one here at all except the Family, the Household & Queen Elizabeth—aged 2. The last is a character. She has an air of authority & reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.”
Churchill later tutored the young Queen on matters of state and the monarchy, as he was her first Prime Minister. In his final toast to her, Churchill said, “Never have the august duties which fall upon the British monarch been discharged with more devotion than in the brilliant opening to your Majesty’s reign. We thank God for the gift he has bestowed upon us and vow ourselves anew to the sacred cause, and wise and kindly way of life of which your Majesty is the young, gleaming champion.”
Queen Elizabeth took those lessons from Churchill and advanced them in ways that likely would have surprised him. Her leadership and ideals contain that Churchillian mark, which has a romantic tinge on both history and our place in the present. This background prepared the Queen to serve the people across the Commonwealth and meet and advise leaders across the spectrum for 70 years.
Without her, our society lacks such leadership. Statesmen or stateswomen are impossible to find. Queen Elizabeth II was the last of a kind we have not seen since the age of Churchill. That makes her the last stateswoman of her era and one of the few we had remaining.
God Save the Queen.