Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was the last of her kind

Queen Elizabeth II sits on the sovereign's throne in the House of Lords chamber during the state opening of Parliament in London in May 2021. (Chris Jackson/AFP via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II sits on the sovereign's throne in the House of Lords chamber during the state opening of Parliament in London in May 2021. (Chris Jackson/AFP via Getty Images)

She was the last of her kind. It is safe to predict there will never be another monarch quite like Queen Elizabeth II, not in Britain, not anywhere in the world.

Elizabeth Windsor died Thursday just as she had lived throughout her long and eventful life — stoically, dutifully, regally. She passed away at 96, having reigned over the United Kingdom and a shrinking number of its former colonies for an incredible 70 years, longer than any other British king or queen.

She was born into a world where royalty still mattered. Her death, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, comes at a time when other European royals have either been cast out of their palaces or reduced to what British courtiers deride as “bicycle monarchs”, pedaling around Scandinavian capitals like ordinary citizens and trying not to be too much of a bother.

With the help of her late husband and principal adviser, Prince Philip, Elizabeth modernized the British monarchy, retaining all the pomp and circumstance but adapting as technology changed. In 1947, when she was still just heir to the throne, she gave a famous radio address promising her future subjects that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”. In 2014, she sent her first tweet, opening an Information Age exhibit at London’s Science Museum.

It is impossible to imagine any successor having such stature and longevity. Her heir, Charles, is 73; his heir, Prince William, is already 40. Neither shows any sign of having her steely force of will. I see bicycles in the British royals’ future.

Commentators have often said that during her seven decades on the throne, Elizabeth “never put a foot wrong”. But that is simply not true. She made her share of mistakes, including major ones, but managed to recover from them — and learn their lessons.

I was The Post’s London bureau chief in the early 1990s, when Charles’s marriage to Princess Diana was falling apart in the worst possible way — as a public scandal. The queen spent far too long pretending everything was fine, even as the marriages of two more of her children, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, also unraveled. To add to the queen’s misery, her favorite residence, Windsor Castle, was damaged by a major fire. Opinion makers debated whether the royal family was still worth all the bother and expense. A story I wrote about the situation was headlined “Britain’s Teflon monarchy finds life a bit sticky”.

But, finally, the queen faced the music. In a speech marking 40 years on the throne, she called 1992 an “annus horribilis” — a horrible year. She agreed to Charles and Diana’s separation and later their divorce. That sort of thing was not supposed to happen in the royal family, certainly not to the heir to the throne, but she faced reality.

In 1997, after Diana’s shocking death, Elizabeth committed perhaps her worst error. Her initial stiff-upper-lip stoicism was widely seen as cold and uncaring. But with nudging from advisers, including then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, she returned to Buckingham Palace from Scotland, did a very public walkabout to view the mountain of flowers and teddy bears deposited at the palace gates, and gave a brief address expressing shock and grief. That wasn’t the way she was taught monarchs should behave. But it was what the moment required.

I once had the opportunity to attend an investiture, the palace ceremony at which the queen conferred knighthoods and other honors to the great and the good. It was the first time I had seen her in person, and what struck me was how tiny she was. This woman who had been a larger-than-life presence on the world stage since before I was born — the first prime minister who served under her was Winston Churchill — was minute, dwarfed by her regal accoutrements and surroundings. Her voice was thin and soft, her words hard to follow.

Yet she did have a presence that dominated the vast room. On reflection, it occurred to me that this aura of authority and command was not emanating from the queen herself. It was being projected upon her by the audience.

And so it is with all the anachronistic stature and privilege the British royal family still enjoys in an egalitarian age. Elizabeth’s character, stamina and skill persuaded her subjects to suspend any possible disbelief in the divine right of a mostly German family to reign over the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Will they have such faith in Charles? In William?

“Après moi, le déluge”, King Louis XV of France is thought to have said, decades before the French Revolution. After Elizabeth, the British monarchy will find itself in rising waters and struggle not to be swept away.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.

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