The Queen, Her Death, and Why We Mourn

It’s difficult for a Brit, like myself, to explain the monarchy to a non-Brit, and why it is that we don’t all go down to Parliament Square demanding to become a republic. My American friends, while often admiring the Queen for her principles and longevity, can’t quite wrap their heads around why we’re okay with having a monarch “rule” over us. What did the monarchy ever do to deserve such adulation and prominence, after all? Aren’t we meant to be a democracy? Isn’t it all very antiquated and silly?

If you look at the monarchy through the glass of 2022, and especially if you’re from a country that revolted against that same monarchy, then of course the idea of having a king or queen—even just as a figurehead—seems a very stupid and outdated one. After all, they have no real power. Outside of constitutional duties, they have to do what Parliament dictates. So why even bother? Why act deferential? Why pay all that money (although not as much as you think)? And why all the pomp and circumstance? The truth is, almost anything rooted in tradition can be pulled apart when looked at through the cynical lens of the Modern Age.

The fabric of culture, of what we deem important, is built upon tradition and precedent. Yet it is still just a fabric, a well-worn fabric at that, and once you start pulling at its seams, the whole carpet comes undone in your hands, and you’re left with a country built on nothing. No myths, no legends, no traditions, no history, no pride. So yes, of course, I—and the vast majority of Brits—are able to admit that the concept of having a ruling monarch is a silly and outdated one, but it happens to be the one essential root that makes up the very essence of what the Kingdom of Great Britain is. For better or worse. And the Queen embodies our link to this past in a way no other human being on earth possibly could.

Queen Elizabeth ll arrives at Aberdeen Airport with her corgis to start her holidays in Balmoral, Scotland in 1974. Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

The death of Queen Elizabeth II truly is the end of an era. The last vestiges of a bygone time. Our final link to the war and Battle of Britain, when the British stood alone against the overwhelming Nazi tyranny, before the Soviet Union and United States joined in the fray. It’s not just that she was on the throne for a barely fathomable 70 years and that you reading this right now have probably never known the world without the Queen as the British Head of State, just as your parents have probably never known the world without her, and even your grandparents are having trouble remembering an age before her. It’s not just that she was probably the most famous woman in the world and that her face was on 33 different currencies, or that nobody in any country ever had to explain who they meant when they said “The Queen” – there was absolutely no chance they were discussing the queens of Spain, Denmark or any of the 14 other countries with queens. It’s that in her time on the throne, Elizabeth II saw such enormous changes while somehow remaining the same, that with her death, those final linkages to that older world, where things like kings and queens didn’t seem so quaint, have finally slipped away forever—and with them, most likely, the end of the monarchy itself. Or at least its central role in the lives of the British. Perhaps that is what we are mourning most of all. 

The last decade has been a particularly bitter one. Britain kickstarted a domino effect of upheaval by deciding to leave the European Union (Brexit). A pandemic and major European war have caused the worst energy crisis to hit the island since the early Thatcher years. The British government has gone through four Prime Ministers in the space of only six years, and crime in the major cities is rampant and on the rise.

“You reading this right now have probably never known the world without the Queen as the British Head of State, just as your parents have probably never known the world without her, and even your grandparents are having trouble remembering an age before her.”

Then again, the Queen had been through many other turbulent years—as in the days of the coal miners strikes and three-day weeks, the Falklands War, the IRA bombing campaigns, the Profumo scandal, July 7th, and any number of low-points. One constant throughout all these changes has always been Queen Elizabeth II. Knowing this served as a much-needed crutch to lean on, like going home to a nice hot meal at the end of a long cold day. There was comfort to be had in knowing that she was there, Britain’s grandmother, a paragon of virtue who would always put duty and country first. Because the queen had always done so, and in these cynical times where there doesn’t seem to be a politician anywhere in the world that puts the country they serve before their own career, having a Head of State who behaved the way we wished other elected officials would, was both reassuring and refreshing. It helped to know that she wouldn’t be swayed by flattery or money or corruption. That just by the virtue of the very length of her experience, she had seen it all before. 

As a teenager, Elizabeth Windsor lived through the Second World War and bore witness to Britain’s fight for survival against an overwhelming foreign power—for the first time since the Spanish Armada—that genuinely threatened the British Isles with destruction. When she later came to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II, Britain was still reeling from the trauma and deprivation of World War II, was not yet part of the European Union because no such thing even existed, and still had something of an empire of sorts (albeit, a dwindling one). Throughout her reign, Elizabeth lived through and witnessed the transformation of the commonwealth, the independence of multiple nations, the invention of rock ‘n roll, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the American Civil Rights movement, the end of apartheid, the release and election of Nelson Mandela, the building and crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the end of Soviet Power, the creation of the EU, the moon landing, the breaking of the coal unions, mass privatization, the rise of punk, the Good Friday Agreement, September 11th, an American insurrection, and, yes, Brexit. 

Queen Elizabeth’s first Prime Minister was none other than Winston Churchill, and she would go on to have 15 Prime Ministers serve her in total, including such controversial figures as Thatcher, Blair, and Johnson. She also met with everyone you could possibly conjure up in your mind. Popes, Heads of State. Giants like Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Neil Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, Mother Theresa, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles. And no less than 13 Presidents—including Ike, Kennedy, Reagan and Bush.

She strived to represent the Crown above herself and to keep it relevant and indispensable, like the gas in a heater.”

Like all countries, England’s national identity (and Britain’s) is built off its history, which in turn is built on a series of traditions and myths. For Brits, certain dates pop out across time as obvious markers: 1066, the Norman Invasion and last military conquest of the country. 1215, the Magna Carta. 1666, The Great Fire of London. 1815, Waterloo. 1939. Then there’s the other bullet points of history: Chaucer, Agincourt, Tower of London, Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Queen Victoria. Countries, even ones which have stood for over a 1,000 years, as England has, can often be reduced to a handful of words and phrases—which, like the snows of yesteryear, seem impossibly distant and therefore irrelevant to the man trying to make ends meet in 2022.

But the Queen was a very real and modern link to this country’s history, much like the descendants of Kennedy are still revered in the US. The Queen is an actual descendant of Queen Victoria, but much more importantly, she represents an institution – an idea – that goes all the way back to William the Conqueror, conjuring comparisons (real or not) to the first Elizabethan Age and beyond. The average Brit knows this, even if he or she doesn’t fully realize it. The monarchy is part of our DNA. Remove it and Britain becomes just another country without any real influence and a common language with America. Queen Elizabeth realized this more than anyone else. She strived to represent the Crown above herself and to keep it relevant and indispensable, like the gas in a heater.

November 5, 1952, London, England. Queen Elizabeth II, 26. History was made as the young queen appeared in the House of Lords to open the First Parliament of her reign.

Over the years, the Queen enjoyed her enormous popularity because she was such a stalwart, because she never gave an opinion, and stuck to her duties diligently without fuss or grimace, rarely letting down her guard or poker face. She never got annoyed because a pen didn’t work, or accidentally wrote the wrong date, or said something stupid (she left that job to her husband). The Queen was always the calm at the center of the storm.

She didn’t lose her poise when a man fired a blank at her while on horseback, or panic when she awoke to find a deranged man sitting on the edge of her bed in Buckingham Palace. Even when Diana gave her damaging interview and half of Windsor Castle burned down, the worst she ever clapped back was to call it an “annus horribilis”. On the rare occasion that the Queen did let you know what she was thinking, like when she differed in opinion with Margaret Thatcher on how to handle apartheid (the Queen was in favor of backing sanctions against South Africa, Thatcher was not), it made international news.

Even now, with her passing, it is near impossible to categorize her thoughts or feelings on any one subject—as opposed to the opinions of Lady Diana, King Charles III, Harry and Meghan, and the rest of the clan—because, the way she saw it, giving an opinion outside of her private weekly meetings with the Prime Minister is not the job of the monarch. The job of the monarch is to stand as a beacon to her subjects, and this the Queen did with exception, dedicating her entire life to the cause and Crown, and surviving the entire 70 years scandal free… Something we definitely cannot say about her relatives. Imagine the restraint it must’ve taken to shake the hand of IRA military leader Martin McGuinness upon her first state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2012, and to smile through it! The man who had overseen the para-military group which had tried to kill her and assassinated her beloved cousin Lord Mountbatten by blowing up his boat, along with two boys aged 14 and 15. And yet, there she was, doing her duty. All smiles and photo ops and dry jokes.

Après moi, le deluge.” So said Louis XV, and sure enough his son got beheaded (you know, Marie Antionette’s husband). Had the Queen said it on her deathbed, I could not think of a more fitting set of final words, for after Elizabeth II will indeed come the flood. .

First to go will be Scotland. Then Australia will likely have a referendum. Possibly Canada. And so will go all the other nations in the commonwealth, the majority of which remained attached to Britain because of their peoples’ love of the Queen. Without her, and with the UK leaving the EU (making it very hard to convince others not to leave us), it seems very unlikely that anything resembling the current commonwealth will remain intact. 

And so we mourn. We mourn an era coming to its end. The death of a queen and institution. But mainly, we mourn the death of a much-loved woman who led by example and stood for something distinctly British, who took on an unwanted job faithfully and sacrificed herself for her duty, and who served her country selflessly for 70 years. There will never be another like her.