Elizabeth II was the queen of our time

I want to stay on the subject of Queen Elizabeth II, whose death coverage has been heavy and culminates on Monday, at her funeral in Westminster Abbey. More than four billion people are expected to watch, a world record.

A friend asked the other night why she keeps watching and why her eyes fill with mysterious tears. She is an American, a New Yorker, who has never met the Queen. I had no answer, but my mind immediately went to the book on the chest and the pages being turned.

It was April 8, 2005, the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The Vatican had been surprised by the public reaction. He had been pope for 27 years and ill for at least the last five. The Vatican thought he was old news. Yet Rome was engulfed by millions of people when the news of his death came. They slept in the streets. They picked up the song that had spread: Holy immediately –“make him a saint.” Which they did nine years later.

They carried his plain cypress coffin down the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica so that the public could see it, and placed it in St. Peter’s Square for the funeral mass. On the coffin they placed a large ceremonial book of the Gospels, open in the middle. As the funeral proceeded, a fresh breeze came, and the breeze lifted the great pages, and they turned, one after the other, as if by an invisible hand. At one point during the mass, the wind blew the book shut and moved it a little, but the book remained on the coffin. On C-Span, Archbishop John Foley said the same thing had happened 27 years before at the funeral of John Paul I. When I rewatched that coverage this week, I couldn’t make out if he said “that’s interesting” or “again the wind cooperates” with the Catholic Church’s media-savvy strategists.” But when we saw it on television, many of us experienced it as a small public miracle.

On Thursday morning, the queue to see the Queen at the Palace of Westminster stretched more than 5 miles. People tried to explain to the reporters why they were there. To take part in history, they said. To recognize history. To see something you may never see again. To show respect and do it all together, as a people. To honor goodness, for she was a good woman, and everyone knew it. To say thank you.

I think they also see the page turning, time passing, our time with all its facts, symbols and fix points. She was there, as a repository for 1,000 years of history, from the London Blitz to the Great Pandemic. Now there are new fixed points, a new king. If presence implies that the story continues—the page turns, but the book remains, whether of faith or history or both.

It is said that the British do this sort of thing better than anyone but the Vatican, and it is true. The pomp and splendor of the processions, the gentlemen and ladies, the military regiments in all their distinctive regalia, is a nation telling its story to itself. It is a people who talk to themselves about the passage of time and the importance of it.

On Monday, the anchors of the major networks will talk about the emotions of the event, in keeping with the age, which is emotional and more responsive to images than the written or even the spoken word. I hope they are very specific and have a sense of history: “See that banner? It flew on a hill in the Crimea during the attack of the light brigade.”

This would be specificity in the service of pure historical romance. But I haven’t noticed too much historical romance running around and needs to be tamped down, have you? And how will children want to enter the story without it? Why would you, unless you thought you could be a part of something grand?

The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, in their pleated black hats, accompanied the Queen’s coffin this week. The Grenadier Guard was also in the procession. 80 years ago, during the Second World War, Princess Elizabeth became their honorary colonel. The Life Guards in their gold helmets and peak – two squadrons of them fought with Wellington in the Peninsular War. They led a charge at Waterloo.

The Royal Marines were among the last to leave Gallipoli in 1915. They were also in the Falklands, the Gulf War and Afghanistan.

The Scots Guards? The 15th Lord Lovat of Scotland joined them as a youth and later fought in the Second World War. Winston Churchill once called him the most handsome man who ever cut a throat. During the second world war he was in an army special service brigade, in the middle of the fighting at Sword Beach, in the invasion of Normandy. He and others, including Bill Millin of No. 4 Commando Unit, raced to relieve British troops pinned down at Pegasus Bridge. He was a piper, and suddenly the men at the bridge heard the sound of his bagpipes. They thought they were dreaming. But it was Millin who cheered on the reinforcements at the behest of Lord Lovat, who, as he struggled to the bridge, said, “Sorry, I’m a few minutes late,” as if he’d been in a traffic jam. Cornelius Ryan told the story in “The Longest Day”. Ronald Reagan loved to tell it.

The Blues and Royals will be there. Parts of their regiment were formed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. The Coldstream Guards fought from the English Civil War to Napoleon, from the Crimean War through Iraq. Their motto: “Second to none.”

The Irish Guards will be there, formed by Queen Victoria in 1900. She had been moved by the bravery of the Irish troops in the Boer War, and it is believed that an officer asked the sovereign if the Irish regiments of the British Army could wear the shamrock on their helmets at St. Patrick’s Day. She could do better than that, she said. In the First World War, the Guards were at the bloody Battle of Passchendaele, where two of its members won the Victoria Cross in one day. Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, died with the Guards at the Battle of Loos. Kipling later wrote a poem about them: “We are not so old in the army list / But we are not so new in the ring.”

A country’s history is not just a story of its struggles, nor should it be. And there were also all the wars and battles of wicked imperialism. The point is to know all the stories, to keep them alive in human memory. It’s not all just water under the bridge, it’s not just something that happened, it’s part of who you are, who you’ve been, what you absorbed and got into you.

It’s not bad to tell the story, to put it out there for the world to see, and for you. So I see the wisdom of the London crowds. They say: Respect the past, and respect your own memory. A 70-year reign contains signposts not only about your life, but also about your time. This one includes the story of a shy little girl who became a queen and a good one who graced her age.

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