I was chatting on the phone the other day with my brother-in-law, who is English, when I thought I ought to offer condolences. “Sorry to hear about the queen,” I said, or words to that effect. At least part of his response was to observe that many Americans appeared moved by it, too.
And this is true. Many Americans have long had a fascination with the royal family, and, of course, Queen Elizabeth II was no ordinary monarch. Until a week or so ago, she was the only British monarch of my lifetime. She died at 96, having spent 70 years on the throne.
I can’t say I’ve been an ardent follower of royalty, though the last time I was in London, just before the onset of the pandemic, I made a point of taking the opportunity to walk by the Diana Memorial Playground, also known as the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground, near Kensington Palace.
But generally when it comes to royal families I prefer an historical, or literary perspective, as in Henry V and his famous speeches from Shakespeare, as in the St. Crispin’s Day speech before the battle of Agincourt, when he tells his troops that even though they’ll likely get wiped out the folks back home will wish they were with them: “the fewer men, the greater share of honor.” Now that’s motivational speaking!
As Americans, we are the descendants of a famous rejection of monarchy, and yet we seem ceaselessly fascinated by it. On my screen this morning is a teaser proclaiming “Harry, Meghan ‘furious’ their kids won’t get HRH titles.” How do you not click on that? (Answer, you don’t not click on that — and the answer to the teaser is that they are not working royals, or something like that).
Moving on. Over the years I’ve read about, or entertained the idea that one of the many roles a monarchy now fills is grabbing attention and filling the demands of being a celebrity, and thus leaving those doing the business of government, now Prime Minister Liz Truss’ task, to focus on the business of government.
In the U.S., you have to run the country and be like a Hollywood star at the same time, and it’s not so easy. Ronald Reagan did it — he was an actual Hollywood star — but he’s a tough act to follow. Better to adopt a celebrity family, and the royals offer that opportunity.
Of course, Queen Elizabeth II was far more than a celebrity. As the Associated Press put it the day following her death, “Elizabeth reigned over a Britain that rebuilt from a destructive and financially exhausting war and lost its empire; joined the European Union and then left it; and made the painful transition into the 21st century.”
The AP also noted that Truss, who called the queen “the rock on which modern Britain was built,” was appointed by the queen 48 hours before the queen died. Elizabeth’s reign spanned 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Truss, becoming, as the AP noted, “a reassuring presence even for those who ignored or loathed the monarchy.”
There’s a rhyme that helps people remember the English kings and queens since 1066, the year of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. It starts “Willie, Willie, Harry …”
Now King Charles III joins the list.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at email@example.com.