Queen Elizabeth II: A life well lived

·8-min read
Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images

The death of Her Majesty will leave our nation bereft. Her legacy is one to last the ages - she was a monarch but she was so much more.

A woman who touched generations with humility and humour and with her steadfast duty to family and country. Penny Junor looks back on a remarkable life...

Many years ago, the Queen and her daughter, Princess Anne, were being driven down the Mall from Buckingham Palace in her official car, which had no number plate, when a young police officer pulled it over. One can only presume that, in his haste to book the driver, the rookie had failed to notice the royal insignia on the roof. Ignoring the driver’s frantic gestures to warn him that someone important was in the back of the car, the policeman took out his notebook and ploughed on.

In the back, meanwhile, the Queen and Princess Anne, tactfully, slid off their seats onto the floor of the car, so they were out of sight. Finally, the penny dropped and the policeman peered through the window at the back seat. He couldn’t see anyone. But the driver was insistent, so, he pressed his face against the glass and found himself eyeball to eyeball with the familiar and unmistakable face of his sovereign. In that instant, his dearest wish was granted: he vanished into thin air and was neither seen nor heard of again.

Photo credit: Fox Photos - Getty Images
Photo credit: Fox Photos - Getty Images

The Queen had a delightful and, at times, playful sense of humour – she was a talented mimic, she sang, she danced, she loved parlour games – but that side of her was generally reserved for family and people who knew her well. Partly, I suspect, because she was shy, and partly, because she understood completely the nature of her fame.

People travelled great distances to catch a glimpse of her, they waited in all weathers, but she never allowed herself to think it was because of who she was. They came, she knew, because of what she was. And she didn’t disappoint. She was always gracious, always interested, always professional. Her devotion to duty, to Britain and the Commonwealth, was second to none and she was wise beyond words.

It was no particular talent but an accident of birth that had made her so famous and she was never tempted to think otherwise. And that, I suspect, is one of the reasons why she was so loved and admired the world over. She was never on an ego trip. She never exploited her position, never pulled rank, never felt superior. She had surprising humility for someone who had been the centre of attention for most of her life. She also understood the importance of separating the public and the private.

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

After her uncle’s abdication in 1939, which thrust her father, the Duke of York, ill-equipped as he was, into the top job, her dream of living quietly as a countrywoman surrounded by dogs and horses, vanished as surely as that policeman in the Mall.

From that day on, her life was no longer her own. She would follow in her father’s footsteps and say goodbye to so many of the freedoms that we all take for granted.

The saddest loss, possibly, was being treated as a normal person. The divine right of kings died with James I, 300 years before Elizabeth was born, but in 1952, a third of the population believed she had been chosen by God. Even all these years later, in a far more secular society, people still treated her as someone not quite like the rest of us.

The revelation, from a tabloid journalist who bogusly got himself a job at Buckingham Palace as a footman in the 1980s, that she ate her cornflakes out of a Tupperware box and warmed herself with a two-bar electric heater, did a great deal to endear people to the Queen. Yet still they behaved unnaturally in her presence. It was not unusual for people receiving honours from her at investitures, to be completely unable to speak.

Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images

Someone who found himself speechless in her presence, although for entirely different reasons, was David Knott, the surgeon who volunteers his expertise for two months every year in the world’s most dangerous war zones. He had just returned from Syria, where he had been at the centre of the fiercest fighting and was suffering from post-traumatic stress. He was sitting on the Queen’s left-hand side at lunch, and when she turned to him and said, ‘I hear you’ve just been in Aleppo’, he said he felt his bottom lip quivering and couldn’t say a word. ‘All I could do was stare long and hard at the wall.

‘She realised something was terribly wrong and said she’d try to help me. Then she started talking about her dogs and asked if I’d like to see them. I was trying not to cry, to hold it all together, and suddenly a courtier appeared with the corgis, who went under the table. Then a silver tin with a screw-top lid labelled ‘Dog biscuits’ was brought to the table. The Queen opened it, broke a biscuit in two and gave half to me, and she said, “Why don’t we feed the dogs?”’

For the next half hour, they stroked and fed the dogs while the Queen talked about them. ‘The humanity of what she did was unbelievable,’ he said. ‘She wasn’t the Queen any more, but this lovely person with a human face. There’s no doubt she helped me.’

It was with dogs and horses that the Queen was almost certainly at her happiest, and it was amongst fellow enthusiasts, particularly from the racing and gundog worlds, that she came closest to being seen not as Queen but as one of them. She was respected throughout the bloodstock fraternity as one of the most knowledgeable breeders in the world. Although many a racegoer could identify with her excitement at the track, breeding horses is a rich man’s game but breeding dogs is not. Dogs are a great social leveller, they attract people from all walks of life, and over the years, the Queen had strong and genuine friendships with people up and down the country who shared her passion.

For although she was best known for her devotion to corgis and dorgis - the crossbreed she championed - they were not her only dogs. She had kennels at Sandringham where she bred Labradors and spaniels and produced some of the top field-trial champions in the country. Fellow handlers held her in the highest esteem; not because she was our sovereign but because she knew her stuff and because she was also remarkably skilled at working her dogs.

Photo credit: Central Press - Getty Images
Photo credit: Central Press - Getty Images

But, of course, most of us saw her simply as the Queen, that familiar and reassuring figure who had been in our lives for as long as most people alive today can remember. She was the one constant in a rapidly changing world.

Her face has been on our stamps, coins, and bank notes. We’ve watched her open Parliament – one of the rare occasions when she wore a crown – and watched her address the nation on Christmas afternoon. We’ve watched her lay wreaths at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, sitting side-saddle while Trooping the Colour, we’ve seen her surrounded by family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace. These scenes and more are engraved on our national memory.

When the country was triumphant, she decorated and congratulated our heroes, and it was she who offered words of comfort in times of national tragedy and grief. She represented the nation to itself. Although she had no power, she had influence.

Photo credit: JOE GIDDENS - Getty Images
Photo credit: JOE GIDDENS - Getty Images

And it was during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, that the true purpose and value of monarchy was admirably demonstrated. The hospitals were filling up, the daily death tolls were rising, and the country was locked down, unable to see loved ones. We had had daily briefings from 10 Downing Street, we had had changes of mind and U-turns, and were rapidly losing faith in our politicians. We were wanting a leader.

Then the Queen addressed the nation, and many people, I suspect, felt reassured; at last, here was someone whose words they could trust. She spoke with calm authority. She acknowledged ‘the painful sense of separation’ we all felt but thanked people for obeying government rules to stay at home. She thanked NHS staff, care workers and key workers and she gave us hope.

‘We should take comfort’ she said, ‘that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.’

Sadly, Queen Elizabeth is someone we will not meet again, but her values and her love of Britain and the Commonwealth will live on in her heirs.

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