She's endured scandal, rumours of infidelity, a graceless marriage. But her genes favour long life, and regal restraint keeps her young. Yes, the Queen will soon be 80, but why stop now?
Will she, or won’t she? There can’t be many octogenarians keeping the world guessing as they hold the future of a nation in the palm of their hand. But Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday on April 21 brings the long-nagging question into sharp focus: will she abdicate in favour of Charles? To many North Americans, nothing makes better sense. The time comes for every leader to step down. No one wants to go on forever, working till they drop. Let the next guy in line step up to the plate—he’s waited long enough. Give the kid a chance. (And Chuck is 57, for heaven’s sake!)
But abdication is a dodgy issue for the Brits. Renunciation of the throne has been rare in their royal house. Any mention of the A-word stirs painful memories of wars and crises, hideous murders and the loss of royal power. In 1327, Edward II was forced by his wife and her lover to give up the throne in favour of his son, and months later met a dreadful death. In the same vein, Richard II abdicated in 1399 with the sword of Henry of Bolingbroke at his throat, who then created himself Henry IV. Richard was soon dead.
Ancient history? Not for the Queen. Brought up on these stories, she associates abdication with royal weakness that allowed unscrupulous barons to seize power, and might to overcome right. The struggle between the monarchy and the lords is far from over. At Diana’s funeral, her overweening brother, Earl Spencer, used the oration to issue a blatant challenge to the Windsors. Young princes William and Harry should rely on their “blood family,” the Spencers, not the royals, in order to grow up to be like their mother. It was “a gratuitous insult to the Queen,” said veteran courtier Nigel Nicolson—the worst public provocation she has suffered during her reign.
And if she really has considered abdication, there are no positive precedents. By the early 19th century, the whole idea was so unpalatable that Brits preferred to keep the floridly mad George III on the throne, rather than allow his son to ascend early. In the more than 1,000-year history of the English monarchy, only one abdication was ever truly voluntary, and it touched Elizabeth to the quick. When Edward VIII sailed off into the sunset in 1936 to enjoy life with “the woman I love,” Elizabeth saw her family blown apart. Plucked from her school books at the age of 10 to become heiress presumptive, she had
a ringside seat as the burden forced on her own father, who became George VI, shortened his life. All this while Edward was in the south of France painting Wallis’s toenails, and his shattered subjects were weeping in the streets.
To Elizabeth, abdication is a massive trauma, and a wound to the royal family that never healed. She learned that renouncing the throne is more than a personal choice—it represents a major constitutional crisis for the Brits. As Queen Victoria grew old and retreated more and more from public life, many
muttered that the time had come for her to hand over power to her son. But Victoria had spent a lifetime overseeing the final triumph of constitutional monarchy in Britain, a work in progress since the reign of Charles II. She had no intention of undermining the security this gave the throne by providing Britain with two rulers instead of one.
And neither will the Queen. She will never copy her worthless uncle and abdicate. But what follows? How long will she go on, and who will then succeed? Elizabeth does not
NOBODY KNOWS BETTER THAN HER THAT ROYALTY IS MORE THAN
smoke, she hardly drinks, she eats modestly and exercises regularly, riding as often as she can. If things go wrong, she has the best medical
attention money can buy. And the genes are strong. Despite bearing nine children, Queen Victoria made it to 81 in an age so dangerous that her own husband, the Prince Consort, died of typhoid at the age of just 42. The Queen Mother chalked up a rousing 101. Elizabeth could live for another 20 years or more. If she does, Charles may never get his turn.
That throws the spotlight onto princes William and Harry, “the heir and the spare,” as the next in line. If the Queen outlives Charles, William may yet fulfill Diana’s fantasy that the succession would miraculously skip over her hated husband and light upon
her son. So far, William has kept out of trouble and shown a maturity beyond his years. But in the Princess Margaret tradition of the badly behaved second-born, Harry has been caught drinking, smoking and drugging, and sporting a swastika arm band at a costume party. Perversely, the Brits love him all the more, and his waxwork has just been included in Madame Tussauds by popular demand.
Meanwhile, the House ofWindsor rattles on. But in the soap opera that is the Queen’s private life, familiar themes are taking new turns. Far from still being a painful thorn in Elizabeth’s side, Diana is now a thing of the past. The Princess of Wales’s face on any magazine cover was once guaranteed to shift copies by the truckload. Now the only tabloid in Britain to cling to this formula, the Daily Express, has found that sales fall when Diana appears.
Other difficulties on the distaff side are disappearing, too. Once the most hated woman in Britain, Camilla Parker Bowles is now roaring away in the popularity stakes.
Her simple civil marriage to Charles touched the nation’s heart. This month, the Duchess of Cornwall has performed heroically on a gruelling tour of India with Charles. The British press were fulsome in their praise as Camilla soldiered on in temperatures of 42° C, enduring sheep-shearing and goat displays. At one fete, no less than 80 elephants lined up to parade in front of her, a number not without irony with Elizabeth’s 80th in sight.
Will Camilla eclipse the Queen? Elizabeth will certainly have noticed that, during the India visit, her new daughter-in-law was openly hailed as “Queen Camilla” by the British press, and by the Indians too. On Rajasthan Day, Camilla was installed next to Charles on an identical throne, while camels danced for them, clouds of flower petals were released overhead, and brass bands competed for the royal ear. The Queen would have cast a cold eye on all that. But the open revolt against Charles that the Queen feared if he married Camilla has not come to pass.
At 80, then, what does the Queen think as
she lies in bed at night? No one knows better than she that royalty is more than a fairytale life of dancing camels and gilded thrones, with vassals and serfs in assorted marble halls. Deep trials and humiliations accompany the job. As a constitutional monarch, she is compelled to follow the policies of the government of the day, no matter how misplaced. When some bright spark at the Foreign Office hatched the notion of cultivating relations with Romania, she had to spend four interminable days in 1978 hosting the ghastly Ceau§escus. When Britain’s Arabists were sucking up to Arab monarchies, the Queen was sent to Morocco, where the king kept her waiting for hours in the North African heat.
Her public role has also twice brought her close to death. One narrow shave came in 1981, when a deranged student fired at her as she was riding sidesaddle in the traditional long skirt for the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony. The gun contained blanks, and the assailant was immediately detained. But the Queen’s terrified horse bolted off in total panic, and only a miracle of Elizabeth’s horsemanship saved her neck. Even more serious was the unimaginable breach in royal security the following year that allowed a madman to climb the walls of Buckingham Palace at night and gain entrance to the Queen’s bedroom, armed with a chunk of a broken ashtray. The Queen had to placate him for the 10 minutes or so that it took her to get him out of her boudoir and into the hands of a passing footman. As the story broke, she continued her royal rounds as usual, revealing nothing behind the eternal smile and wave.
Where is the woman in all this, the female heart beneath the robes and crown? Elizabeth has lived through 59 years of knowing that her husband sees himself as a martyr to his marriage, yoked to a short, undemonstrative woman when gossip had it that leggy sophisticates turn him on. The graceless Philip also had a malign influence on Charles, forcing him to endure a brutal Germanic education “to make a man of him.” The man who emerged never pleased Philip at all; careless of Charles’s feelings, he openly favoured his younger daughter, Princess Anne, and proclaimed her tougher than her brother.
Such behaviour on Philip’s part did nothing to dispel a persistent rumour about the Queen’s own private life. Could Prince Andrew not be the Duke of Edinburgh’s son? Tiring of her husband’s suspected infidelities, the gossip goes, the Queen turned for comfort to a horsey childhood friend, now the Earl of Carnarvon, and went for a quick canter outside the rails. Result: a child who bears no resemblance to Philip. True or false? We may never know. But Elizabeth would have known that Elizabeth I faced the identical
slur about her horse master, the dashing Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Sexual scandal even touched Victoria herself. In the film Mrs. Brown, modern audiences were treated to a rerun of the innuendo that she had had a relationship with her Scots servant, John Brown, and the same whisper went round about her Indian secretary, Abdul Karim.
Elizabeth rode out this storm. But not to be avoided was the mess of Charles’s collapsing marriage, with Diana appearing on TV to confess to adultery, batting her tragic, kohl-ringed eyes like a battered wife. Charles hit back by proclaiming his own affair with Camilla, a revelation topped off by the publication of tapes showing just how physical the relationship was. No mother should have to
SHE WILL NEVER COPY HER WORTHLESS UNCLE AND ABDICATE THE THRONE
hear the intimate indecencies of her adult son. But Elizabeth puts her royal role above all else, and the greater hurt would have been to her sense of the monarchy and its place in the nation’s life. Would her father have done this? Where was the dignity, the self-restraint, to be expected of a future king?
Through it all, the Queen has given nothing away. “Never complain, never explain” is her watchword. More than any of her subjects, she incarnates the classic British traits of decency, reserve and self-control. She also lives by the wartime motto, “Keep Smiling Through,” no matter what is going on.
More and more, there is a Mona Lisa quality to her smile. She still has plenty to smile about. Her idyllic early years as a longed-for child, beautiful and beloved, instilled a rocksolid sense of personal worth. She can look
back on growing into a lovely woman with a heart-shaped face, hourglass figure, perfect English rose complexion, and a gift of winning hearts. It was once said that all men in Britain, from Churchill down, were in love with her. In old age her cavalier, Nigel Nicolson, who died in 2004, still dreamed of the “magical” night he danced with the young princess.
To the early Britons, their queens were the Goddess Herself on earth, “the Sovereignty,” the spirit of the land who was married to the tribe. To most Brits, Elizabeth still fulfills that role. “When she came to the throne,” Nicolson said, “it was like a long engagement, and the coronation was the wedding.” Statistics show large numbers of her subjects dream of her every night, and the nation sees her as the Mother-of-us-all. As with Elizabeth I and Victoria, her rule feels natural and inevitable-given that no one under 80 can remember when she wasn’t around.
At the end of her reign, the first Elizabeth, bothered by questions about her successor, brushed them away: “Why should I direct all eyes to the rising sun?” Elizabeth II knows the sense of this. She has watched as Tony Blair’s prime ministership has gone into free fall after his rash announcement he would step down. “It was a mistake,” Blair says now. It’s a mistake the Queen will not make.
So it’s business as usual for Elizabeth. And as a bonus, she has her husband back, now that Philip has been brought to heel by time. Tamed at last by age, 85 in June, the cock of the walk has turned into an impotent old rooster, sulking on his perch. But he’s her old rooster, and he no longer flies the coop. These days, she’s the one more likely to be flying around, to Australia for the Commonwealth Games, or visiting countries that still need the blast of England, queen and country only she can provide. Why give up? She still enjoys the job, and she is more popular than ever. At the end of her life, Elizabeth I told her subjects, “I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves.” It’s a copper-bottomed certainty Elizabeth II will be able to say the same. M
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