18th September, 2022
When she was a very small girl, nobody expected that Elizabeth Alexandra Mary would become Queen.
She was born on the 21st April 1926, at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, when her grandfather, George V, was King.
Her uncle David, the Prince of Wales, who was the heir apparent, was still a young, unmarried man; and it was generally expected that he would marry and have children and heirs of his own.
And then in 1936 the old King died.
David ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII, but, less than a year later, abdicated.
The monarchy – and indeed, the entire country – was thrown into turmoil.
Elizabeth’s father, the Duke of York, replaced Edward, as King George VI; and Elizabeth became heir presumptive.
It was a time when the very institution of the monarchy was apparently in doubt, but George was a good King and steadied the ship.
Nevertheless, it was clear that a lot was now riding on the young princess.
Her mother, also Elizabeth, instilled in her the strong Christian faith that she carried with her throughout her life.
And her grandmother, Queen Mary, played her own part by helping to instruct her in the duties of a monarch and the basis of statecraft.
And then, the country was plunged into the Second World War.
The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was keen that Elizabeth and her sister Margaret should, for their own safety, move to Canada.
But her mother, Queen Elizabeth, would have none of it.
“They would never leave without me,“ said the Queen.
“And I will never leave without the King.”
So Elizabeth continued to live at the Royal Lodge in Windsor; and, with the rest of her family, remained in the country throughout the war.
And at the age of 14, she made her first radio broadcast, to the children of the Commonwealth, which concluded with these words:
“We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace.
“And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.”
The war – paradoxically – was in many respects the making of the future Queen, just as it was also arguably – and also paradoxically- the redemption of the monarchy after the traumas of 1936.
Buckingham Palace was struck by German bombs in the Blitz of September 1940 and when she inspected the damage, Elizabeth’s mother, the Queen, told a policeman:
“I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
Elizabeth herself also proved during the war that she was anxious to play her own part: to roll up her sleeves and get stuck in – literally.
After much nagging by her, the King allowed her to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the ATS, where she learned to strip down an engine and reassemble it.
After several weeks of training, she declared with delight:
“I’m a mechanic at last!
“I’ve scraped the skin off my knuckles.”
And in the ATS she also learned to drive military lorries, a skill she later deployed to practical advantage when transporting her beloved horses around the countryside.
In the spring of 1947, Elizabeth toured South Africa with her parents. On her 21st birthday, the 21st April, she broadcast a message that included the now-famous words:
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
And she was true to her word.
The Queen’s long life – her very long life – was indeed devoted to the service of her nation and the Commonwealth, from which that “great imperial family” evolved.
It was shortly after the South Africa tour that Elizabeth became engaged to Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, otherwise Philip Mountbatten.
They married later the same year, and it was the beginning of a partnership that endured for over 70 years.
Philip was a perfect support – and foil – to Elizabeth, and she to him.
He was not an easy individual; indeed he was sometimes prone to irascibility, a characteristic seemingly inherited by our new King – as witness his altercation with an inkwell only a few days ago.
The Queen, by contrast, was famously imperturbable (one of her ladies-in-waiting said the she had never seen her lose her temper in over 60 years).
She was a steadying influence on Philip, and together they made a formidable team.
Together, they travelled the world; indeed, Elizabeth was the most travelled monarch in British history.
She considered it important to be seen in every part of the Commonwealth and it was on such a visit to Kenya in 1952 that she became Queen.
She was only 25 years old – still not fully prepared for the duties that fell to her.
For over 70 years she reigned over us.
And that reign, sadly, has now ended.
But what a reign!
And what a life!
She was the longest-reigning monarch in British history.
And her reign coincided with some of the most tumultuous events of that history.
When she came to the throne, Britain had a large empire, from which it was gradually disengaging.
That has now evolved into the Commonwealth, the largest and most important association of free, liberal democracies, comprising around a third of the population of the entire world.
The Queen always regarded the wellbeing of the Commonwealth as one of her most important priorities.
After her coronation until 2015, when she last made an overseas journey, she visited all but two countries of the Commonwealth, and those were Cameroon and Rwanda, which were previously part of the French Empire and had voluntarily applied for Commonwealth membership.
The Queen also made a point of attending Commonwealth Heads of Government conferences and missed only two of them during her reign.
The fact that the Commonwealth remains vibrant is a testimonial to her personal hard work; and I have no doubt that the new King will continue that commitment.
The technological advances during her reign were also breathtaking.
The very secrets of life were unlocked by the discovery of DNA in the year of her coronation.
Men walked on the moon.
The internet transformed communication, turning the planet into a global village.
Economically, there were peaks and troughs, but overall we are considerably more affluent than we were in 1952.
So yes, it was an era of huge progress, but it also had a less happy side.
It was an era that began in the aftermath of the Second World War and ended with yet another war continuing on the continent of Europe, with British forces deployed on the shores of the Black Sea and in the Baltic states.
Climate change is a stubborn reality and mankind has yet to find a way of controlling it.
And the capacity for human beings to pursue conflict rather than harmony remains stubbornly undimmed.
Elizabeth witnessed it all.
She had 15 separate British Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson came round twice) and goodness knows how many more in her other realms around the world.
She held weekly audiences at Buckingham Palace and was, as Theresa May remarked, the only Prime Ministerial confidante who never leaked.
She met Kings, Queens, Presidents, democrats, despots and dictators.
She was the most politically experienced head of state in the world.
And whatever she heard, whatever advice she gave, she kept her counsel and gained universal respect.
But we must also remember that she was, too, a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother.
She knew both the joys of family life and its sorrows and disappointments.
She took enormous pride in her family’s achievements and she felt the pain when things went wrong.
She was, palpably, a human being.
For seven decades she was a figure of constancy in our national life.
She knew that, as monarch, she had a lifelong duty that could not be the subject of resignation.
She kept the promise that she made to her people in Cape Town in 1947.
And that is why, over the past few days, we have seen from our fellow-citizens in London, across the country and around the world an outpouring of grief that reflects more than just respect for Her Majesty.
It reflects love.
And sustaining the Queen through all the years has been her strong Christian faith.
In her broadcast at Christmas 2000, she said:
“For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I tried to lead my life.”
And that faith was very evident at the end.
Her last constitutional act was to receive and appoint her new Prime Minister at Balmoral, only two days before she died.
We have all seen the photographs: the Queen was her usual calm, smiling self.
She must have known that she was close to death, yet it was also clear that she did not fear it.
In that remarkable documentary “Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen”, which was broadcast at the time of her platinum jubilee, the Queen repeated the words she first spoke at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in 2011.
They are the words of an Australian aboriginal proverb:
“We are all visitors to this time, this place.
“We are just passing through.
“Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love.
“And then we return home.”
And though we, with our fellow-citizens, must inevitably feel the most profound grief at the passing of a woman who has been so central to all our lives for so many years, we must also find comfort in knowing that Her Majesty, strong in the Christian faith that sustained her throughout her long, illustrious, eventful life, has now returned home; and is at peace.
May God bless the memory of Her Majesty.
God save the King.