It’s April 21st, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II turns 96.
We wish her a very happy birthday. Last February 6, the queen celebrated 70 years since she ascended to the throne at age 25, the same age as Elizabeth I in 1558, who reigned for 45 years.
Elizabeth II’s long reign, now the subject of the Netflix series The Crown, has provided insights and some intimate moments that my American friends find quite revealing. When they ask if it is accurate, I politely remind them of dramatic license used to emphasize a point. There are some noted historians who have publicly criticized glaring errors in the series. No matter. What comes across is her deep sincerity and commitment to royal duty; Elizabeth’s finest example to all who follow her.
Why is it Americans seem to love royalty? Article One, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution bans “titles” of any kind. The queen has been criticized for sending her children away to school at an early age. But that is not unusual. In the upper echelons of the English class system — which is still rife — children are sent away from age 8 to be educated.
Prince Charles, her oldest son and heir, who should have gone to Eton, instead went to Gordonstoun, his father Prince Philip’s high school, where the boys run four miles over the Scottish Highlands before breakfast and take cold showers twice a day. Charles wrote essays about his terrible experiences there to his father’s chagrin, setting up a lifelong enmity between the two men.
The essays were published in the British press. Charles’ boys, William and Harry, were sent to Eton, openly breaking with the Duke of Edinburgh’s tradition.
My writer friend on The Guardian, John Grigg, formerly Lord Altrincham, was assaulted by a man in the street for criticizing the queen. John wanted to give up his inherited title and rushed an act through Parliament saying he could. Two other lords joined him: Anthony Wedgewood-Benn and Prime Minister Lord Alec Douglas-Home.
John was upset with the men advising Her Majesty and said so in print, but the bully boy did not make that distinction when he knocked him to the ground in London. Today, few hereditary peers sit in the House of Lords; most are now retired party politicians with peerages that only last a lifetime. Amusingly, after leaving the premiership, Alec Douglas-Home took back his four titles.
A setback for the queen came on Aug. 27, 1979, when Prince Philip’s famous uncle, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, was assassinated. A brilliant World War ll naval commander and the last viceroy of India, he advised Elizabeth on foreign affairs, saying of her, ‘’she is a very savvy lady on this subject; the glue that holds the Commonwealth together.”
Alistair Cooke was my chief of bureau at The Guardian’s New York office. The queen invited him for lunch at Buckingham Palace in 1985. Alistair was famous on CBS as the presenter for Omnibus, eight years; PBS for 17 years presenting Masterpiece Theatre; and 58 years broadcasting Letter from America on BBC radio every Sunday morning at 9:10 a.m. to Britain and 105 other countries. His book, America, sold over two-and-a-half million copies.
At lunch he sat at the queen’s right hand. Halfway through the meal she leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Mr. Cooke, you’ll never believe where I listen to your Sunday morning talk.” “I have no idea, Ma’am,’’ he replied. Again leaning over, and again with a whisper, the queen said, “In my bath, before I go to church.’’ Telling me this story, Alistair pointed to piles of letters in his study from women the world over, saying the very same thing.
The queen was criticized by the public for her standoffish attitude to the Diana and Charles situation. Surely it was between the two adults. Diana thought so and aired her grievances publicly in a BBC interview. A divorce followed. The queen’s late nationwide broadcast at the time of Princess Diana’s tragic death spoke of her beauty and the caring she had for her two boys. A very unusual thing expected of a mother-in-law, even a queen, but she chose to do it, her advisers realizing how very popular Diana had been in Britain.
Closer to home, it must have been a wrench for her to ask her second son, Prince Andrew, known as her favorite, to hand over all his military titles, honorary presidencies and the H.R.H. prefix for his scandalous association with Jeffrey Epstein, the Palm Beach procurer of young women.
Two million pounds of the multimillion-dollar settlement has been paid by the queen to the Virginia Giuffre nonprofit Speak Out. Andrew’s annual privy purse pension is $27,000, though his private wealth exceeds $45 million. The Palm Beach Post reported that Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein dined at Ruth’s Chris Steak House here in North Palm Beach. That restaurant is now mysteriously closed.
The queen’s recent visit to Westminster Abbey for Prince Philip’s Remembrance Service showed a lady very much in charge, slightly stooped with age, standing like the rest, but still a remarkable example of a woman doing her duty by her late husband of 67 years.
Recently I wrote to Her Majesty asking her if she would add the suffix “Royal” to our very active St. George’s Society of Palm Beach, who support many charities here and in England. Her honest reply, by a secretary of course, was to suggest we write to the Cabinet Office, because she does not hand out such titles, but they do. I have yet to receive a reply from the Cabinet Office.
On my last visit to England, in 2002, my wife and I saw the queen up close. She looked radiant. An old friend was driving us south out of Manchester to have lunch at a Cheshire pub. The traffic lights changed to red. My friend said he had to pull over and stop because the queen was coming into the city to merge two universities. We saw her magnificent Rolls-Royce appear on the horizon, all traffic lights changed to green.
And there she was, but 10 feet away on the other side of the road. Busily engaged in conversation, she turned to wave to us. My American wife waved back. Her presence was felt so immediately, the lighting in the back of the Rolls-Royce showed her off to great advantage. It was a lovely experience, and so unexpected.
A coda. Some of you may remember that in her 70th year anniversary broadcast she quietly slipped in the hope that when Charles ascends to the throne the public will refer to Camilla Parker-Bowles, his second wife, as his queen consort, brushing aside the controversy that surrounded the late Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, in 1936.
He was determined to make Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American with social ambitions, his queen. The Archbishop of Canterbury blocked the marriage. Stanley Baldwin the prime minister promised him 80,000 pounds a year if he would abdicate. Was the queen hinting at her possible retirement?
This is the first time in 70 years she has missed distributing the Royal Maundy Thursday money to the aged poor of London. Numismatists trade big money in these coins when they come on the market.
Come on, Ma’am, you’ve had a good run, time to give Charles and Camilla a chance. There’ll always be an England.
Rex Hearn, who writes opera reviews for Palm Beach ArtsPaper, was president of the Royal British Legion, Florida Branch, from 2008 to 2012, and is a member of the St. George’s Society of Palm Beach with his wife Kathleen. A retired captain in the British Army, he’s had six brushes with royalty and gives talks about them.