Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, known by her professional name Queen Elizabeth II, spoke to the world about the Covid-19 pandemic Sunday night. Her speech demonstrated why modern skeptics – including small-d democrats and small-r republicans — still find themselves awestruck by the ancient institution of monarchy.
Of course, Queen Elizabeth is not just any monarch. She carries with her person the aura of lengthy history. When she first addressed her realm she was a 14-year old Princess. World War II was in its early stages, Winston Churchill had been Prime Minister for only 5 months, the United States was neutral, and Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany were cooperative partners in a non-aggression pact. Her speech was designed to comfort evacuated British children who had been sent to the Commonwealth nations and the United States for safety. The broadcast was Churchill’s idea. He thought to use the young Princess to charm America into entering the war on Britain’s side.
On her 21st birthday, when she addressed her people again, she spoke as a confident young woman, who was nobody’s tool. She 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.”
Her life has certainly been long. She is almost 94 years old. She has ruled Great Britain and the Commonwealth for 68 years, longer than any other British monarch: 20 years longer than her namesake Queen Elizabeth I, and 5 years longer than her paternal great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
Her reign has had its share of successes and scandals, of family heroism and squalor. Just a few months ago, before anyone had heard of Covid-19, the press was full of stories about Prince William, Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry: where they were living, who was talking to whom, and other such delectable irrelevancies. None of that seems to matter now. On Sunday night, the Queen spoke as if her long and eventful life had been a preparation for the moment.