Steady as her ubiquitous profile on stamps and coins, the Queen embodied the British stiff-upper lip.

 

London: Being in the presence of the monarch was always magical. Beneath Queen Elizabeth’s modest stature existed a gigantic personality. When those deep blue sparkling eyes looked at you, accompanied by a smile so warm that it could melt an iceberg, you knew all was well. “She was the rock on which modern Britain was built”, said newly minted Prime Minister Liz Truss, before adding “she was the very spirit of Britain, and that spirit will endure”. She’s so right.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was not destined to be Queen when she was born on 21 April 1926. Her father, named Prince Albert at birth, was the second son of King George V and spent his early life in the shadow of his elder brother, Prince Edward, the heir apparent. Had Edward married according to the convention and had his own children, Elizabeth would have been just another princess of the Royal Family. But shortly after he ascended the throne as Edward VIII in 1936, the new King abdicated in order to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. Suddenly the world changed for Elizabeth when her father became King George VI and she was next in line to the throne. For twelve years, George VI held the title “Emperor of India”, which he relinquished in June 1948, becoming the Head of the Commonwealth. Beset by smoking-related health problems in the later years of his reign he died of a coronary thrombosis on 6 February 1952, and the 25-year-old Elizabeth became Queen, a 70-year reign which only ended last Thursday.

So much has been written about the late-Queen, but so little is known about her personal views. Steady as her ubiquitous profile on stamps and coins, the Queen embodied the British stiff-upper lip. While other members of the Royal family were vocal about their private lives and opinions, including the new King Charles III, she put the monarchy before the monarch, prioritizing duty over personal or family interests. Elizabeth understood her duty to efface herself in service to a highly abstract role: The Queen. The same tomorrow, the same next year, the same more than 70 years after she began.

Her reign encompassed a period that saw some of the greatest changes in technological development, industrial, economic and social life across the world of any era. Impeccably playing the part of a modern constitutional monarch, she was a symbolic figurehead with a right to be consulted and to advise and warn political leaders privately. She showed herself publicly as a focus of national life, celebration and commemoration.

During the course of her reign, she was served by 15 Prime Ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss, whom she received as Prime Minister only two days before her death. She met more than a quarter of all the American Presidents who have ever lived, five Popes, hundreds of national leaders, from the saintly, such as Nelson Mandela, to the tyrannical, including Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceausescu. It has been calculated that she also met more than 2 million “ordinary people”.

In addition to being the sixth Queen-Sovereign of England and the fourth of the UK, Elizabeth was Queen and Head of State of 15 other countries, stretching from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand to the Bahamas and Canada, all once part of the former British Empire. For seven decades she was head of the Commonwealth, whose 54 countries comprise 2.1 billion people, a third of the globe’s population, the largest of course being India. When Queen Elizabeth II visited India for the first time in January 1961, the route from the airport in Delhi to the official residence of the Indian President was reportedly packed with nearly a million people. Trains, buses and oxcarts ferried people to the capital, where they wandered on the streets and loitered on lawns hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal couple. The New York Times reported that the people “seemed to look upon the Queen and Prince Philip as impresarios who made it possible to forget and have fun”. Two decades later, in November 1983, the Queen made her second trip to India, and in October 1997 she made her third and final visit. She always made it clear that she cherished her time during these three state visits to India, saying on the record that “the warmth and hospitality of the Indian people have been an inspiration to all of us”.

Of the thousands of anecdotes attributable to Queen Elizabeth, perhaps the all-time favourite is the one told by her former protection officer during the jubilee celebrations earlier this year. It’s available on Twitter, but here’s a transcript to savour. The scene is the Queen on a remote picnic site in Scotland alone with her protection officer, called Dickie, who tells the story:

 

‘Normally on these picnic sites you meet nobody, but there appeared two hikers walking towards us. It turns out that they were two Americans on a walking holiday. It was clear from the moment they stopped that they hadn’t recognised the Queen. The American gentleman started to tell the Queen where they came from, where they were going to next and where they had been in Britain. I could see it coming—and sure enough he said to Her Majesty “and where do you live?” She said “I live in London, but I’ve got a holiday home just the other side of the hills.” The American then said “how often have you been coming up here?”“Oh, I’ve been coming up here since I was a little girl over 80 years,” said the Queen. You could then see the American’s mind clicking. “Well if you’ve been coming up here for 80 years, you must have met the Queen.” As quick as a flash, the Queen said “well I haven’t, but Dickie here meets her regularly.” The guy then said to me, “you’ve met the Queen! What’s she like?” Because I had been with her for a long time and I could pull her leg, I said that she could be very cantankerous at times, but she’s got a lovely sense of humour. Anyway, the next thing I knew, this guy comes around, puts his arm around my shoulder, and before I can see what is happening he gets his camera out, gives it to the Queen and says “could you take a picture of the two of us?” Anyway, we swapped places and I took a picture of them with the Queen, but I never let on. We waved goodbye and the Queen said to me “I would love to be a fly on the wall when they show those pictures to their friends in America—and hopefully someone tells him who I am!”’

 

May she rest in peace.

 

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.