ON TUESDAY, 22 JUNE 1897, my Grandfather, William Marshall, rode through the streets of London to honour Queen Victoria. As a trooper in the North Otago Mounted Rifles he was part of the New Zealand military contingent sent to celebrate Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. For sixty glorious years Victoria had reigned over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and an empire of unsurpassed extent and power.One hundred and twenty-five years later, the streets of London are again filled with cheering crowds. Queen Elizabeth II has easily exceeded Victoria’s record, reigning for an astonishing 70 years. Her Platinum Jubilee has given the British people what is almost certainly their last opportunity to mark a milestone in the reign of the only monarch most of them have ever known.
To have a clear memory of King George VI, one would need to have been born in, or before, the late-1940s. And yet, when I was growing up in the 1960s, the late King’s image was everywhere. On ha’pennies, pennies, threepences, sixpences, shillings and florins. George wasn’t merely a “Rex”, he was an “Imp”: the King-Emperor from whom my father received his commission during the Second World War.
George’s daughter, Elizabeth’s, coins were never stamped with the “Imp”. India was gone by the time she became Elizabeth R in 1952. Her seventy years as queen have been distinguished not by the Imperial might to which my grandfather contributed (by helping Victoria’s ministers seize the Boer republics) but by imperial decline.
The British Empire is no more, and the United Kingdom itself is becoming an increasingly dubious proposition. The unification of Ireland has moved from an utter impossibility to a distinct likelihood. Scotland, too, is moving away from the “Great Britain” forged by the accession of James I in 1603. Even Wales is teetering.
Who else but Elizabeth II could have held this strange heraldic menagerie in check? Her great age encompasses so much of the UK’s recent history. She was there when Hitler’s bombers filled England’s skies. She donned a scratchy khaki uniform to “do her bit” for the “war effort”, saluting bravely alongside millions of her father’s subjects, caught up, like her, in the most terrible event of human history.
As the handful of still airworthy Spitfires and Hurricanes roared over the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Friday, Queen Elizabeth’s participation in the Second World War was acknowledged. It brought to mind my father’s own experiences as a Pilot Officer in the RNZAF, and my mother’s vivid high-school memories of “the War”. Both of them are gone now, but somehow, miraculously, Elizabeth endures.
But she is faltering. Unable to attend so many of the Jubilee’s dazzling spectacles, the Queen’s frailty attests to the unalterable fact of human mortality. Unlike palaces and castles, human-beings cannot be strengthened and renovated. Time, remorseless and unforgiving exacts its toll. New Zealand’s banknotes have told the story. From the young and radiant Elizabeth; to the mature mother of a fractious royal brood; to the Old Queen of today. The planet’s seventy journey’s around the Sun are etched upon her face for all to see.
There are some who say that she has carried her royal burden for far too long. At 73, Charles, Prince of Wales, appears to many as a man wronged and ruined by a surfeit of waiting. Had his mother abdicated in his favour at the age of 75, King Charles III would now be in the twenty-first year of his reign. Moreover, with the precedent of a retiring age of 75 firmly set, Charles would now be readying his own son, Prince William, to ascend to the throne in 2024.
Why, then, is the above counter-factual, rather than actual, history? Blame it on Elizabeth’s wicked uncle, Edward VIII. Thanks to him, abdication became a dirty word. A king or queen of England does not shrug off the solemn duties owed to the Realm like a soiled overcoat. Duties, no matter how burdensome, are to be borne to the bitter end – to the last breath.
And then, sadly, there is Charles himself. The poor man would have been so much better suited to the role of an eccentric aristocrat, only distantly related to the reigning monarch, whose peculiar interests, even more peculiar opinions, and “difficult” relationships with women, could inflict no lasting damage on the Royal Family. In the Heir Apparent to the Throne, however, these eccentricities were always going to give his royal mother and her ministers serious cause for concern.
Indeed, with the possible exception of her youngest son, Edward, all of the Queen’s children have allowed themselves to provide unfavourable contrasts with the unblemished track-record of their mother. It isn’t difficult to grasp why the disadvantages of stepping down from the Throne have always struck Elizabeth as being vastly greater than the advantages. Schooled by her grandmother, Queen Mary, in the sacredness of duty; and by her father, the King, in the obligations of service, Her Majesty has chosen to stiffen her shoulders, set her chin, keep calm – and carry on.
And so, as the years have passed, the sprawling ramshackle family pile that is the British Monarchy, has shown increasing signs of wear and tear. There’s a fragility about the whole edifice now that poses, to all who still care about it, an uncomfortable question: “Can it survive the present Queen’s demise?” Will the old “Dominions” – Canada, Australia, New Zealand – embrace King Charles III? Will the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
Perhaps, if Charles set a limit upon his reign of five years, or, with more prospect of saving “The Firm”, abdicated in favour of his 40-something son and his glamorous wife. That just might work. Indeed, skipping an entire generation, and crowning Princess Diana’s son King William IV, strikes many royalists as the only viable strategy for preventing the British people, and their far-flung progeny, from rather quickly falling out of love with the whole anachronistic notion of a head-of-state who is born – not chosen.
And yet, and yet … My grandfather Marshall (now a captain) was back in England for the Coronation of the King Emperor, Edward VII. As a little boy, I would, from time to time, be allowed to draw his dress sword from its scabbard. With shining eyes, I would trace Edward’s royal initials woven into the hilt. King’s man. That was my grandfather. And Marshall is my middle name. Passed down. Inherited.