“The king is dead. Long live the king.”
When I was young I was very confused by these two sentences. It seemed like they were invoking some sort of a spirit that would bring the dead king back to life, a reincarnation of sorts. I was even more confused when the genders were mixed – “the king is dead. Long live the queen”, although as I became increasingly cognizant of male-female dynamics the idea of a queen actually coming to life upon the death of her husband did not seem so far fetched! Eventually, of course, I learned the truth. The sentence referred to two different people – acknowledging the passing of one member of royalty while wishing long life on his/her successor. This sentence has been in my head for the past few days, with the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II filling the news, and the announcement Sunday of her sister, Princess Margaret’s, death at age 71. I’m not a monarchist, in fact I’m not sure I hold any strong opinion one way or another. But I can’t help but find myself fascinated by the mystique of the monarchy.
There seems to be some innate desire among humans to desire a ruler of some sort. The ancient tribe of Israel, according to the Bible, was not satisfied with the system of judges their god Yahweh had given them, and demanded a king. Their wish was granted, and while they had many oppressive kings, the system also gave birth to great historic men such as King Solomon and King David.
Virtually every nation on earth has a line of kings through history, whether they be Aztecs, Incas, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians or English. Many of these kings and queens were outstanding men and women who led their nations with strength and vision. Others were weak; some were cruel. But their legacy is one that continues to intrigue us.
Monarchies have largely been eliminated in today’s world – with a few exceptions, Canada among them. Why does Canada still cling to the monarchy when so many others (such as the United States) have moved to a more “?democratic’ form of government that relies on elected representatives rather than an inherited line of royal heads?
According to what I’ve been reading this past week, it is Queen Elizabeth II herself who has kept the monarchy alive for Canadians. Many learned opinions speculate that had she abdicated the throne in favour of her son Charles, Canadians would have long since come to the realization that the monarchy is redundant and unnecessary to our nation. This could well be true, although I think Canadians have other motivations for continuing the monarchy. It seems to fit with our image of polite, traditional peacemakers, and our respect for others is embodied in our respect for the ceremonial legacy and tradition of the monarchy.
Regardless of why Canadians continue to accept the monarchy, or for how long the status quo will continue, I have nothing but respect for three women who have been part of the royal family within my lifetime – Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. Why?
At a youthful age of 25, Elizabeth ascended to the throne upon the death of her father, King George VI. No period of mourning was allowed – it was simply “the king is dead, long live the queen”. From that point, Elizabeth has governed with grace and dignity, always aware of her role as queen. I recall when she travelled to Edmonton to open the Commonwealth Games in 1978. My father was part of the volunteer team organizing the games, and we took a keen interest in happenings. One of the most commented-upon was the need for Commonwealth stadium to solve one urgent problem. What would happen if the queen should happen to need to use the bathroom facilities before or after her opening speech? Certainly protocol would not allow her to climb the stairs with the masses and use the public toilet! City Council and organizers struggled with the question for days, finally deciding to build a special bathroom facility just for the queen, incurring costs of thousands of dollars. Edmontonians eagerly watched the opening ceremonies to see what would happen, but as it turned out, the queen never made use of what came to be known as the “royal biffy”.
As humorous as the story may seem, it really highlights the odd kind of life Queen Elizabeth II is required to lead by nature of her station. I doubt that it is an easy life. What touched me most deeply was reading a story in the Edmonton Journal on Saturday, February 9, about all the different portraits that have been done of Elizabeth, and the various artists’ comments about the experience. Right from the time she was a small girl, she was described as being extremely remote and coolly detached during these sessions. The only time her eyes would light up would be when she turned to look out the window. I cannot help but wonder if that window represented some sort of freedom to a young girl who was imprisoned by the weight of her responsibility from a young age.
Her younger sister, Margaret, also made sacrifices in the name of responsibility. While a young woman, she fell in love with Captain Peter Townsend, a match considered unsuitable due to his age difference (16 years her senior) and his divorced status. This relationship mirrored that of Margaret’s uncle, King Edward VIII, who twenty years previously fell in love with divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward realized that the monarchy would be harmed by that relationship, and made the decision to abdicate the throne for his love after only 11 months as king. This resulted in both being exiled from England and rejection from the royal family; the throne passed to King George VI, father of Margaret and Elizabeth. Perhaps the memory of this was all too vivid in Margaret’s mind – certainly exile and rejection from family can be a soul-destroying experience, even when you have the comfort of a beloved mate. Perhaps Margaret simply had a strong sense of responsibility to both her family and her country and was willing to sacrifice her own emotional well-being as a result (Margaret was second in line to the throne at the time, her sister Elizabeth the newly-reigning monarch).
Whatever the reason, Margaret made the decision to forgo love for duty. How far that decision contributed to her subsequent lifestyle choices is a matter for speculation. The princess reportedly was a heavy smoker and drinker, with a reputation as a wild partier. Although she married a ‘suitable’ man some years later, it only lasted a decade before she became involved in an affair with a much younger man. After a cancer scare and subsequent stroke, her health began to decline, and rumour was that she suffered severe depression. On February 9 a third, fatal stroke occurred, and she died in her sleep. Prince Charles paid tribute (http://www.canada.com/search/site/story.asp?id=18FCADDB-90EE-4823-891B-D0C041A9DA14), stating, “my darling aunt had such a dreadful time in the last few years with her awful illness, and it was hard for the family let alone her to bear it:.particularly as she had such a wonderfully free spirit and she loved life and lived it to the full”. These words seem all the more poignant when you consider the sacrifices Margaret made – her life was not particularly ‘free’ nor “lived to the fullest”.
At the age of 101, the Queen Mother will bury her youngest daughter. The Queen Mother, christened “Elizabeth Angela Marguerite”, became queen upon her marriage to George VI in 1923. No doubt she played a major role in instilling the strong sense of duty and responsibility that her daughters embraced. The queen mother is beloved among Britons, and with good reason. She has always fulfilled her role impeccably, performing her duties to country and family in a manner that has earned her not only the deep love of the Commonwealth, but also the respect of nations beyond her realm. Writing about these three unique, strong women has made me reflect on not only the monarchy and possible reasons why Canadians continue to embrace it; but it has made me think about the significant and successful role women have played in many governmental power structures. Women bring a different perspective to leadership, and it is no doubt this perspective that has contributed to the longevity of the English monarchy. Once Charles or William succeeds to the throne, a different era of rulership will begin. Whether the words, “the queen is dead, long live the king”, will spell the end of the monarchy in Canada remains to be seen. However, the contributions of these three women will echo long into the future and may well sustain the royal family for years to come.