Today is the 21st April 2016 and a special day in the life
of a great-grandmother in London. But it’s also a special day in the life of
the country, because she’s no ordinary great-grandmother. Queen Elizabeth II
celebrates her ninetieth birthday, which takes place in her sixty-fourth year
on the British throne. She can look back on a life that has witnessed two great
storms, both of which shook the monarchy to its foundations.
The first storm was the Second World War, when she was
Princess Elizabeth and her father George VI was still head of an empire on
which the sun never set. If the Germans had won the war and conquered Britain,
King George might have died defending his nation or been imprisoned or sent
into exile. He would certainly never have remained on the throne, which would
mean his heir Elizabeth would never have sat there in her turn.
But the Germans lost and in 1945 it was clear that the royal
family had been central to British victory. The King and Queen remained in
London throughout the war, braving the bombs and machine-guns of the Luftwaffe
alongside their subjects. The monarchy entered the 1950s firmly cemented in the
nation’s affections. When George VI died in 1952, the nation’s grief was mixed
with anticipation of Elizabeth’s coronation. The new Queen was young and
beautiful, and a new Elizabethan age beckoned Britain into the second half of
the twentieth century.
By then the Empire was well on its way to dissolution, but
the coronation in June 1953 coincided with the first ascent of Everest by the
New Zealander Edmund Hilary and the Nepali Tenzing Norgay under the leadership
of the Briton Lord Hunt. The ascent was dedicated to Elizabeth and demonstrated
that the young nations of the British Commonwealth could achieve great things
in their own right.
Elizabeth’s young family, first her daughter Anne, then her
sons Charles, Andrew and Edward, were a symbol of continuity and reassurance
during the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s. Then came
the 1980s and the event that seemed to promise a rosy future for the monarchy
for many decades to come: the marriage of Princess Charles and Lady Diana
Spencer. Diana seemed the perfect choice: young, beautiful and obedient. She
would bear the Queen’s grandchildren, charm the nation and Commonwealth, and
one day take her place beside Charles on the throne.
As we all know, Diana did not fit the role she was chosen
for. She had a mind and a will of her own. Her marriage to Charles, which had
promised soon much, ended in divorce and she began a feud with her former
in-laws that threatened the monarchy with decades of turmoil and scandal. Then
came that fatal night beneath the streets of Paris, when Diana died with her
lover Dodi Al-Fayed in a high-speed crash. The days of world-wide mourning that
followed were the second great storm of Elizabeth’s life. She met it with calm
and dignity, acknowledging the tragedy for her grandsons William and Harry, but
refusing to mourn in public or to pretend a grief that in all honesty she could
Since then she has guided the royal family slowly back towards
the esteem and affection that it enjoyed at her coronation. On her ninetieth
birthday, there is no question that the monarchy will continue. The only question
is that of who will succeed her. Will it be her son Charles, now happily
married to Camilla, or her grandson William and his wife Kate? William and Kate
have given the Queen great-grandsons, and William honours his grandmother as
one of his most important guides and mentors.
Today the nation and Commonwealth will join Charles, William
and the rest of the royal family in celebrating the life of a Queen who has
never wavered in her commitment to duty. She did not choose the role of monarch
and if King George had had a son she would never have come to the throne.
History and fate decreed otherwise. She has borne her destiny and its burdens
uncomplainingly and been central to the peace and prosperity of the British
Isles throughout her reign. No-one can predict what the future may hold, but
the monarchy faces it with a strength and confidence that are owed to one
figure above all others: Queen Elizabeth II. Governments have come and gone,
but the Queen remains. Her place in history is assured, whatever the years
ahead may bring.