Death of Queen Elizabeth II: The moment history stops – BBC

By Jonny Dymond
Royal correspondent

This is the moment history stops; for a minute, an hour, for a day or a week; this is the moment history stops.
Across a life and reign, two moments from two very different eras illuminate the thread that bound the many decades together. At each a chair, a desk, a microphone, a speech. In each, that high-pitched voice, those clipped precise vowels, that slight hesitation about public speaking that would never quite seem to leave her.
One moment is sun-dappled, though the British people were suffering through a terrible post-war winter. A young woman, barely more than a girl really, sits straight-backed, her dark hair pulled up, two strings of pearls around her neck. Her youthful skin is flawless, she is very beautiful. A life opens out ahead of her.
She pledges that life to her audience around the world. She tells them: "I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone." And she asks for their company in the years to come.
The other speech is more formal. More than seven decades later, on the 75th anniversary of the day the war in Europe ended, she sits behind a desk, a picture of her father, the late King, in uniform, to her right.
Her hair – still pulled up – is white now. She wears a blue dress, two brooches, three strings of pearls. The many decades have left their mark, but her eyes still sparkle and her voice is still clear. The desk is practically empty but for the photo and to the right, in the foreground, a dark khaki cap, with a badge on its front.
"All had a part to play," she says of a long-ago war.
The cap belonged to Second Subaltern Windsor, of the Auxiliary Territorial Service; the young Princess Elizabeth nagged her adoring father to allow her to join, so she could serve in uniform, even as the war that defined her – and for many decades her nation – drew to an end. Now, 75 years on, the cap has pride of place as she speaks to the nation on the anniversary of a great and heroic victory.
The cap is a simple reminder of what she admired most – service: the service she offered that golden day decades beforehand, the service she saw in her formative years as nation, Commonwealth and Empire gave life and limb so that others could be free; the service that she believed lay at the heart of the Crown she inherited and devoted her long life to.
Three decades on from that vow of service, she would allow herself a rare moment of public introspection; "Although that vow was made 'in my salad days when I was green in judgement'," she told the Guildhall on her Silver Jubilee, "I do not regret or retract one word of it."
Over the decades she spoke little, and revealed even less, about herself in public. She – a child of the broadcast age – never gave an interview. Once or twice she would be filmed "in conversation" with a trusted friend, talking amicably about something uncontroversial, like the royal jewellery collection.
Her words would be scoured for a hint of controversy or an opening into her character. But she was too careful – and her friends too loyal – for anything important to slip out.
She did not neglect the medium that came of age as she did. It was her decision to allow her coronation to be televised, her decision to televise the Christmas Broadcast, her decision to speak live to the nation after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. "I have to be seen to be believed," she would say.
Broadcast and newspaper coverage, the endless pictures of her in well-chosen gowns and dresses – these were part of what it was to be Queen, part of the job she had pledged her life to. Talking about her feelings publicly was not.
And she came from a generation – and from a nation – that did not feel the need to share its feelings. The nation would change. She would not.
Here fate and character would collide. It was her fate to take the Crown as the country moved into far-reaching change. But the Queen was open about her liking for tradition, for the ways things had always been done, and her dislike of change.
Her heart was in the countryside, and there, with horses and dogs and amongst those who loved animals as she did, was the reassurance of a place that changed incrementally, if at all.
"I find that one of the sad things," she would say in the late 1980s, is "that people don't take on jobs for life, they try different things the whole time."
Monarch and monarchy fitted hand-in-glove; a sovereign who relished tradition leading an institution established upon it.
Beyond the palace gates, a whirlwind of change would transform Britain. She came to the throne at a tipping point in British history. Victorious in – but exhausted by – war, the country was no longer a global, military or economic power.
The rise of trade unions, the collective provision of services and the creation of a universal welfare state signalled a sea-change in the organisation of state and economy. The stately withdrawal from Empire became a hurried exit.
As her reign progressed, the old order – Church and aristocracy, the gradations of class and knowing your place – crumbled. Financial success and celebrity overtook accident of birth as a measure of societal achievement.
Consumer goods – fridges, washing machines, televisions and vacuum cleaners – transformed homes and social lives. Women joined the workforce; old working-class communities were swept away with the slums that housed them; a society once cohesive and homogeneous became mobile, atomised and diverse, uprooted from old certainties and loyalties.
There was some change at the Palace too, especially early in the reign – the end of the debutante "season" would mean the daughters of the "best" families would no longer be presented at court, fresh faces were seen among those invited to lunch and dinner, and television meant Britons could see their Queen and how she lived – first for the Christmas broadcast, then for a full-length documentary in the late 1960s.
But this was change with a very small "c"; as her seventh decade on the throne drew to a close, the rhythm of the monarchy remained one which would be recognisable from the first, one which her father or even her grandfather would be unsurprised by: Christmas and New year at Sandringham, Easter at Windsor, the long summer break in Balmoral, Trooping the Colour, Royal Ascot, the Investitures, the Changing of the Guard, Remembrance Sunday.
When change pressed in all around, she resisted. Her fate was to inherit the crown as the country stood on the cusp of change, and to reign as change swirled around the palace. Her character dictated that she would not change with it, would not bend to fashion. That resistance, that deep appreciation – love, even – of tradition, was her greatest strength, and led to perhaps her greatest test and gravest crisis, as her family unravelled.
Family always came second to the Crown. When her first two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, were little more than toddlers, they were left behind – as she and her sister Princess Margaret had been left behind by their parents two decades earlier – as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh went on a six-month world tour.
She was not an unfeeling mother, but she was a remote one. The Crown and its responsibilities had come to her when she was just 25, and she took those responsibilities very seriously. Many decisions about the children were delegated to the duke.
Three of her four children's marriages would end in divorce. She believed in marriage, it was part of her Christian faith and her understanding of what knitted society together. "Divorce and separation," she once said, "are responsible for some of the darkest evils in our society today."
No doubt that view, held by many in the late 1940s, mellowed as the years went by. But no parent relishes seeing their child's marriage fail. The Queen's self-proclaimed "annus horribilis" in 1992 saw the separation of the Duke and Duchess of York, the divorce of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips and the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
"A low point in her life," wrote one biographer, not because of what had led to the rare public admission of tough times, "but because of the lack of gratitude, even derision, with which her 40 years of dedication appeared to have been crowned."
Her first decade had passed in a dazzle of adulation, at home and abroad. Vast crowds turned out for her on international tours. Back home, some proclaimed a new Elizabethan Age, although the Queen was clever enough to immediately disavow it.
The 1960s saw a slow cooling off – the Queen was more involved with her family, the novelty of a new monarch had passed, the generation of the post-war baby boom now coming of age was gripped by different passions than their parents. The 1970s and 80s saw no let-up in her service, but the focus of some Royalty enthusiasts – and the media – shifted to her children, their marriages and their partners.
By the mid-90s, the monarchy seemed to some to be out of touch with the popular mood; in the newspaper comment columns there was direct criticism of the Queen, and contemplation of the monarchy's future. Her reign at times seemed associated with another epoch. What was her place – and the monarchy's – in the new "Cool Britannia" and the informal style embraced by Tony Blair? How did the Palace – repository of tradition – fit in with the popular demand for change expressed in Labour's crushing election victory?
Just months after that victory, one hot August night in Paris, came the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. A broiling carpet of flowers soon stretched out in front of Kensington Palace. The flag-pole above Buckingham Palace remained bare. Many in the nation found themselves desolate at the loss of the Princess.
"Show us you care, Ma'am" bayed the Daily Express headline. "Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?" demanded the Sun. For five long days, the Queen remained in Balmoral, seemingly unaware of the spasm sweeping parts of the country. Perhaps, as the Palace would brief afterwards, it was to protect and console the young Princes William and Harry.
But given her character, that deep dislike of change appears to have driven the decisions taken at the time; Balmoral was not to be interrupted, no flag ever flew from Buckingham Palace in her absence, the Royal Standard never flew at half-mast.
It was a terrible misjudgement. She hurried back to the capital, back to Buckingham Palace. She stopped to look at the flowers piling up all around. "We were not confident," one former official told a biographer, "that when the Queen got out of the car, she would not be hissed and jeered." It was that bad.
She had refused to broadcast at first, then yielded, then agreed to speak live. She spoke to the nation, just before the BBC Six O'clock news. She – who had once driven broadcast executives to despair with her wooden delivery – barely had time to prepare.
Her performance was flawless, her speech brief but perfectly pitched. She spoke of "lessons to be learned"; she spoke "as a grandmother"; she spoke of the "determination to cherish" Diana's memory.
It was a triumph, pulled from the jaws of deep crisis. The poison swirling around the Royal Family, around the Palace and around the very institution of the monarchy, was drawn. Once in her reign – just once – fate and character had collided with near-disastrous consequences.
They would combine more happily in the Queen's international role. By the time of her death, she had not toured for many years. But for decades she was not only a global celebrity like no other, but also a subtle instrument of influence.
Nothing would compare to the first dazzling decade of her reign, before television made her image commonplace and her tours accessible from the living room. On her long 1954 tour of Australia, two-thirds of the country is thought to have turned out to see her; in 1961 two million people lined the road from the airport to the Indian capital Delhi; in Calcutta three-and-half million would stand and wait to see the daughter of the last Emperor.
Fate would dictate that she would oversee the long twilight of Empire, though not once did the Queen attend a flag-lowering ceremony. Many times in the 1950s and 60s, a member of the Royal Family would stand as the Union flag came down over a former colony, the national anthem playing one last time.
A determination that something should emerge from the imperial family which she had pledged to serve, would mean that she would build a new association on the ashes of Britain's imperial legacy.
In palaces and houses dotted across the capital and the country, lived her blood family. Across the world was spread her territorial family – a group of wildly diverse nations, vast and tiny, rich and impoverished, republics and monarchies – that she charmed and cajoled and nudged to remember what bound them together, and what together they might achieve.
International tours were taken on behalf of the government of the day; they were tools of foreign policy – if not explicitly, then on the understanding that the Queen's influence would be beneficial to the relationships between Britain and the places she visited.
It looked glamorous – the Royal Yacht, the Queen's Flight, banquets and galas – and before international air travel became commonplace, it was an extraordinary experience. But it was always hard work, long days and weeks of receptions, exhibitions, openings, lunches with officials, state dinners and speeches given and listened to patiently. Those who have observed a royal tour find it hard to imagine it is any fun for those at the heart of it.
She would rarely take a holiday outside the UK – travelling abroad meant work. Her foreign travel would mark the step-changes in Britain's relationship with the places she visited: post-war Germany in 1965; a liberalising China in 1986; Russia in 1994, once the regime that had murdered her relatives had been swept away.
A trip to post-apartheid South Africa in 1995 she would call: "One of the most outstanding experiences of my life". President Nelson Mandela replied: "One of the most unforgettable moments in our history."
And no visit marked and sealed a changed relationship more than her trip to Ireland in 2011. Not for a century had a British monarch been to the south. When her grandfather had visited in 1911 the island of Ireland was one, part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Violent revolt, partition and independence would follow.
After World War Two came acts of violence against the existence of the partition border and then, for 30 terrible years, a brutal terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland and Britain against British rule, with harsh acts of repression by the British government which polarised opinion in the Republic.
There was never a right time for a royal visit, because of the distrust across the narrow stretch of water which separates Britain and Ireland. With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of a power-sharing assembly, came the end of Ireland's constitutional claim to the six counties that make up Northern Ireland.
On her state visit, extended by the Queen's wish, there was no escaping history. In the Garden of Remembrance, in the centre of Georgian Dublin, where all who fought for Ireland's independence are remembered and honoured, she laid a wreath and, unscripted and spontaneous, bowed her head to the men and women who had fought against British rule, an electrifying moment.
At dinner she would open her speech in the Irish language, winning nearly every Irish heart. In that speech she spoke the language, if not the words, of apology; "With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all."
Before the Ireland state visit one biographer would write that "it was difficult to point to major achievements" in her reign. That judgement would not hold afterwards. The four days of pitch-perfect words and actions helped sweep away centuries of ill-will and distrust. Perhaps no greater single service did the Queen give her Crown, or her country.
Ireland had haunted so many of her prime ministers. Her first, Winston Churchill, had spoken of the "dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" rising again after World War One to bedevil British politics. One of her last, Boris Johnson, would grapple with the implications of the border within the island, and how to square that with the UK's departure from the European Union.
All had the benefit of her ear, her experience, her perspective on British and world history. Her job in the weekly audiences she shared with the prime minister of the day was not to lobby for any individual cause, or to try to sway a government one way or another. She was there to advise, to encourage and to warn.
And she was there to listen. All her prime ministers could be entirely confident that nothing they told her would escape. So she was the one person to whom they could freely talk who truly understood the machinery of state. For so many prime ministers, so often embattled, this was also a relief, an escape from watching their back and holding their tongue when around colleagues and rivals.
"They unburden themselves to me or tell me what's going on," she would say mid-reign. "If they've got any problems, sometimes one can help in that way too. I think it's…as if one's sort of a sponge."
Here she was too self-deprecating. Almost nothing broke the confessional silence around those audiences, apart from praise for the extraordinary effort the Queen put into her work. The red boxes containing state papers – in Whitehall she was known as Reader No. 1 – went everywhere with her, to Balmoral, on tour, on the royal train, even winched aboard the Royal Yacht.
For three hours a day, her private secretary estimated in the early 1970s, she read Foreign Office telegrams, reports of parliamentary proceedings, ministerial memoranda and cabinet minutes.
And she remembered what she read, sometimes catching her prime ministers out with her grasp and her recall. "I was astonished," wrote Harold Macmillan "at Her Majesty's grasp of all the details sent in messages and telegrams."
The Crown's political role had dwindled to almost nothing by the time she came to the throne. Two areas of discretion – where she as monarch had a say – survived: who to call to become prime minister and form a government, and when Parliament could be dissolved.
Early in her reign, before the Conservatives started electing their leaders, she exercised her judgement, amid some controversy, as to who she would call to form a government when a Conservative prime minister resigned between general elections.
But once the Conservatives started electing their leaders, that judgement was no longer called for. And over the decades, the very idea of the Palace becoming involved in such a decision became alien to British politics. The talk around closely fought elections was of "protecting" the Palace from having to make political decisions over who to call to form a government if there were no decisive winner.
The Queen never had reason to deny a dissolution of Parliament, and it would have been an extraordinary act to do so. She well understood the tightly circumscribed role she had inherited.
And the Crown's political voice was almost silent too. Much – too much, really – has been read into what one biographer calls the "truism" that she got on better with Labour leaders than their Conservative counterparts. For all the social difficulties there may have been with Margaret Thatcher, the Queen would attend her funeral, an honour bestowed on a prime minister only once before – Winston Churchill.
Her personal political belief may well have leaned towards the centre; she came of age at the creation of that peacetime monument to wartime struggle, the National Health Service, and as the state extended its responsibilities for citizens' welfare and education. The strife of the early 1980s – rocketing unemployment, riots in the great cities, budget cuts and the miners' strike setting communities against each other – marked the end of one vision of Britain.
An over-enthusiastic briefing by a Palace press officer to the Sunday Times in 1986 suggested unhappiness with the direction of government policy and what he said the Queen saw as the corrosion of the post-war political consensus. It was a brief glimpse into the thinking of a sovereign who believed that one of her roles was to unify an increasingly divided and disparate nation.
And twice she stepped – very gingerly – into the debate over Scottish independence, once in a speech in the 1970s and once just before the referendum of 2014. Was this too political? To some nationalists, yes. But it was hardly surprising that she would urge a little caution on those preparing to decide on the break-up of her kingdom.
Did her conservative character drive the way she carried out her political role? Perhaps, to some degree. But the last monarch to involve himself in political matters was her grandfather George V. By the time she took the throne, the political role had fallen away. Her institutional fate was to be a cipher, someone who did the bidding of others. That she would have understood from the start. Here, fate and character walked hand in hand.
It was this avoidance of any political controversy as head of state, and her refusal to bend the monarchy to the winds of fashion, that enabled her to triumph in the role that would earn her the love and respect of so many, as head of nation.
This is the great unwritten role of modern monarchy. This is where, unprotected by tradition and unprepared by precedent, character alone drove her reign.
Her grandfather laid the foundations for a monarchy that served rather than ruled the nation, but spent much of his time blasting birds from the skies. Her father's reign was decided for him by fate: he was thrust into a role he did not expect and wore military uniform for much of his time as King.
After catastrophe and criticism in the 1990s, the monarchy's fortunes rose again. As disillusionment followed the high hopes for political change, as cynicism became entrenched and political leaders derided, an uncontroversial and never-too-fashionable Queen became a figure of incorruptible continuity to a nation buffeted by change, disappointment and division.
This was the nation's reward for her endless patience, for her refusal to emote in public, to share her thoughts, to lean left or right, to involve herself in fashionable causes or respond to the slings and arrows hurled at her and her family over the many decades.
She remained apart from all that not because of hierarchy but because she – with a prescience that still rather astonishes – never engaged in the superficial of the day-to-day, the back and forth of modern life.
She understood that the rhythm of monarchy – the traditions and ceremonies, the births and the weddings and the deaths – provided a comfort to those sometimes bewildered by the uprooting of the past, and served as a reminder that the drumbeat of life was shared across class, age and circumstance.
And she understood that not everything in national life had to have an explicit purpose, that for a conservative nation in the throes of near-ceaseless change, the continuity she represented in person and in office had a value beyond measure.
She, who with intuition beyond her years, pledged a life of service so many decades ago, made the monarchy the repository of much that the nation loved of itself.
She could do that because her character reflected much of what Britons like to think of as the best of themselves; modest, uncomplaining, thrifty, intelligent if not intellectual, sensible, feet-on-the-ground, unfussy, a dry sense of humour with a great big laugh, slow to anger and always well-mannered.
"I am the last bastion of standards," she once said. She was not boasting of better manners or finer etiquette than others. She was explaining her role and her life. It was her life and her work to be the best of Britain. This was the service she gave.
Picture credits: Alamy, Getty Images, National Portrait Gallery and Jersey Heritage Trust.
© 2022 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read about our approach to external linking.


Leave a Comment