Those of us who find it strange that a country should be deeply shocked by the death of a ninety-six-year-old woman must remind ourselves that it is a crime in England to let your thoughts dwell on the death of the monarch. The Treason Act of 1351, still in force, makes clear that this most terrible of offenses is committed by anyone who can “compass or imagine the Death” of the sovereign. This thought-crime arises, presumably, from the belief that a world beyond the reign of the anointed queen or king ought to be unimaginable. For if it is not, that supremacy is deprived of its most potent magic: the illusion of permanence. The subject is compelled to feel for the ruler the love that Shakespeare calls “an ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”
Monarchy seeks, above all, to put on a show of timelessness in which the ruler floats above contingency and change. The hereditary principle rests on a notion of “always”: this is how it has always been and how it will always be. In defiance of historical evidence, it proposes itself as the great repository of all that does not alter. For as Walter Bagehot put it in The English Constitution, published in 1867:
If a king is a useful public functionary who may be changed, and in whose place you may make another, you cannot regard him with mystic awe and wonder; and if you are bound to worship him, of course you cannot change him.
Which invites the question that now faces Britain: What do you do when you have no choice but to “make another” monarch—a seventy-three-year-old man who has spent his life lurking side stage, waiting so long for his entrance that his act has gone stale before he has even properly trod the boards?
The great achievement of Elizabeth II was that, merely by reigning for seventy years, she created and sustained the necessary illusion of permanence. While her United Kingdom was being transformed from a global imperial power to a Northern European country at odds with its neighbors and with itself—while its ideal of greatness was moving from reality to puffed-up pretense—she was always there. Even the obviously anachronistic nature of her reign served to emphasize its remarkable persistence as the only imperial and multinational monarchy left in Europe.
Her biggest interest in life was racehorses, and her specialist subject was their bloodlines. This was hardly accidental. It was useful to study the form, to be able to make an educated guess about which branch of a lineage might be a dead end and which might thrive. Her own bloodline, after all, included her grandfather’s first cousins, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, neither of whose dynasties were able to stay the course when the going got heavy. Her husband’s father, Prince Andrew, was turfed out of Greece after the revolution of 1922 and died in the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo. She knew very well that the louche resorts of Europe contained the human detritus of royal houses, some of which (like the unfortunate tsar’s) could claim much deeper historical roots than her own.
She understood, from this, that the best way to survive was to say and do as little as possible. It was merely to persist unshaken through the tempests of the times. In the grammar of her reign, the operative tense was the present infinitive: to be. She was very good at being there, at carrying on for so long that the infinitive came to seem infinite.
The problem with infinity, though, is that it’s hard to imagine what might come after it. Bagehot—thinking of Queen Victoria, whose sixty-three-year reign was the only one to rival Elizabeth’s for longevity—wrote that “the use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English Government would fail and pass away.” Less elevated, but no less elegant, is the premature lament of the Smiths, “The Queen Is Dead,” released in 1986, in which Morrissey’s plaintive wail seems to foreshadow an England bereft and forlorn: “The Queen is dead, boys/And it’s so lonely on a limb.” The record fades out into infinity with the repeated line “Life is very long when you’re lonely.” It is as if, after Elizabeth’s death, there can be nothing but an eternity of solitude. Even more apocalyptic is the Pet Shop Boys’ hit of 1993, “Dreaming of the Queen,” in which, after Elizabeth appears to the narrator in a dream,
I woke up in a sweat
That there are no more lovers left alive
No one has survived
Shakespeare’s insistence that real love carries on “even to the edge of doom” seems to be echoed in these strange hymns to Her Majesty. Perhaps such imaginings of the death of the sovereign were not judged to be treasonous because they chime with the intention of the 1351 law: to make the end of the reign seem like the end of the world. Even the Sex Pistols’ snarling “God Save the Queen” concluded on the same note: “There is no future in England’s dreaming.”
This morbidity was part of the monarchy. Elizabeth II had been playing dead most of her life. In his classic work of 1957, Ernst Kantorowicz explored the concept summarized in his title: The King’s Two Bodies. He began with an extract from a legal ruling from the period of the first Queen Elizabeth:
For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government.
For Elizabeth II, we might add the twist that she had two bodies—one alive, one dead. Her “body natural” was clearly that of a lively, physical, intelligent, quizzical woman. Her “body politic,” being a feudal ghost in the machine of a democratic state, had to seem as if it could not be “seen or handled.” (In 1992, when she was on a state visit to Australia, Prime Minister Paul Keating put his hand on her back to guide her gently through a crowd. The British tabloids screamed in outrage: “Hands Off.”) To occupy her royal persona, Elizabeth had to suppress her human one, to make herself as much like a dead person as possible.
Consider two possible glimpses of her. One is by Elton John, recorded in his memoir, Me. He has been invited to a party in one of the royal residences. (He does not say which or exactly when.) As he is watching the queen, she approaches her nephew Viscount Linley. His sister Sarah had taken ill and retired to her room. Elizabeth asks Linley to go and check on her:
When he repeatedly tried to fob her off, the Queen lightly slapped him across the face, saying “Don’t”—SLAP—“argue”—SLAP—“with”—SLAP—“me”—SLAP—“I”—SLAP—“am”—SLAP—“THE QUEEN!” That seemed to do the trick. As she left, she saw me staring at her, gave me a wink and walked off.
The pleasure of this anecdote is that it is pure camp. The sovereign sends up her own authority. Her wink expresses a depth of knowingness, a playful collusiveness, close to the way gay men of her generation used to signal that they had another, truer identity behind their official selves.
The historian James Pope-Hennessy, who met her at Balmoral in 1957, noted in his diary that “she is extremely animated, gesticulates when telling anecdotes, makes comic or pathetic faces, and simply cannot remain still…. She mimes stories.” Yet “extremely animated” is the last phrase anyone would use about her royal self.
For if that winking and miming was the living body, the dead one was encountered, over the decades, by thousands of guests who had to sit beside her. At lunch, Pope-Hennessy encountered her other, official persona: “On the whole it is clockwork conversation, not at all difficult on either side, but not, on the other hand, memorable, interesting or worth the paper it could be typed on.” Clockwork conversation was her constitutional duty. Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever you say, say nothing” was her watchword. The survival of the monarchy depended on her not saying anything memorable or interesting. It required her to be animated only in the other sense—a cartoon of empty sovereignty.
It is striking that arguably the most effective public statements of her reign were silent. In 1947 the then Princess Elizabeth celebrated her twenty-first birthday in Cape Town. Yet she did not return to South Africa for forty-eight years, visiting the country again only when Nelson Mandela was president. She managed, in other words, not to go, while the apartheid system was in place, to what had been an important part of the empire. This was an eloquent absence. She understood that Margaret Thatcher’s support for the white supremacist regime threatened the survival of the British Commonwealth in the rest of Africa, and thus undermined her own position as its head. Equally, in Ireland in 2011, Elizabeth performed a deeply resonant act when she bowed silently before the monument in Dublin to “those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.” Being a kind of ghost herself, she could lay to rest the ghosts of a long history.
These were episodes when her two selves could come together, when what she might feel as a woman and what she could express as a monarch were in intimate touch with each other. But such episodes were rare. Mostly, the point of her public personage was not to project her private self but to kill it.
This, perhaps, is why the queen was so hard for visual artists to represent. According to the National Portrait Gallery in London, “she is the most portrayed person in the world.” Its collection houses 967 portraits of her. The photographs of Elizabeth as a child have an uncanny presence, capturing the weirdly premature ability to sit ramrod-straight, as though on a throne, that unnerved Winston Churchill when he encountered her as a two-year-old and reported to his wife that “she has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.” But there is not one image that could be placed in any collection of great portrayals of British monarchs. In almost all of them, she is all pose and no persona. They do not seem to have been taken from life at all, perhaps because, in a sense, they were not. They are images of her undead political body, not her living natural one.
Indeed, one of the few truly fine portraits of her is powerful because it confronts this very problem. Chris Levine’s 2007 color print on a lightbox, called Lightness of Being, was an outtake from an official commission. Elizabeth is in her regalia, with crown, pearls, and white fur stole. A soft white light falls on her face, showing all the lines around her mouth, deepened, presumably, by decades of professional smiling. But her eyes are closed. She looks like she has just died and been laid out, ready to lie in state. The excessively red lipstick, which was visually enhanced by Levine in his development of the picture, seems like it has been applied by an undertaker. If the image had a text it would be Shakespeare’s Richard II meditating on the deathliness of the English monarchy: “Within the hollow crown/That rounds the mortal temples of a king/Keeps Death his court.” Levine’s picture ought, therefore, to have been treasonous: it thoroughly imagines the death of the sovereign.
Yet the portrait was and is hugely popular, and its air of the moribund is scarcely remarked on. It seems, somehow, natural. What makes it so is that the British monarchy is itself a form of life-in-death. Thomas Hobbes called the papacy “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” Elizabeth was the ghost of the British Empire sitting crowned on top of its tomb.
In her twenty-first-birthday speech in Cape Town, less than two years after the end of World War II, she claimed that “in our time we may say that the British Empire has saved the world first, and has now to save itself after the battle is won.” Both parts of this claim were delusional: the British had not saved the world and the peoples of the empire had no desire for the instrument of their oppression to be “saved.” If keeping the empire alive was to be the test of her reign, she was a complete failure. She was declared queen while in Kenya in February 1952; in October there was another declaration in Kenya—of a state of emergency in the face of the Mau Mau uprising. The seventy territories she theoretically reigned over when she became queen have shrunk to the Falkland Islands and a smattering of convenient tax havens.
How, then, could she preside over the death of a British world and yet be enormously successful in keeping alive the monarchy that symbolized it? The answer lies in an English dreamtime, a time in which there may be “no future” but there is a sort of eternal present. In this make-believe terrain, Elizabeth could be two people, at once royal and familiar. When the writer Brian Masters published a collection of dream narratives he had solicited from the British public, called Dreams About HM the Queen and Other Members of the Royal Family (1972), he noted an inverse relationship between reverie and real life. The less likely people were to encounter the queen in the flesh, the more likely they were to dream about her.
Masters was struck, too, by the blandness of Her Majesty’s presence in most of these imaginary encounters. The sleepers who met her usually had clockwork conversations over that most characteristic of down-home English comforts, a cup of tea. As Masters noted, Her Majesty’s chat, when she drops in for a cuppa, “turns out usually to be suitably dull…. The Queen is the very essence of banality in these dreams…. She is ordinary Betty.” There is an awareness of how bored she must be by her official duties. In one delightful dream, she is encountered at Niagara Falls, wearing a plastic coat and hat to keep her clothes and hair dry:
“Betty!” I yelled. “What on earth are you doing here?” She sighed. “Well, you see, dear,” she said, “we’ve got this State Visit to do, and you know how it is, one always has to look at the Falls and say nice things about them. I do so dislike wearing this ghastly mackintosh.”
It is a short step, in the logic of dreams, to imagining nice, ordinary Betty and Elizabeth II as two different people. There is an anxiety that the queen’s two bodies might divide from each other and go their separate ways. Kantorowicz quoted one medieval political thinker claiming that “two things concur in the [monarch]: the person and the signification.” But what if they were parted? In one elaborate and vivid nightmare, a man encounters the queen alone on a beach in Spain. She explains that “someone has impersonated me, and gone back in my place. She is now sitting in Buckingham Palace.” He takes the real queen back to London, where she lives in his apartment, darning his socks and cooking him shepherd’s pie like a good little wife. But when they turn on the television, she becomes distressed at the sight of her doppelgänger performing her royal functions: “There she is! That’s the woman who’s pretending to be me.” The dreamer goes to see the archbishop of Canterbury and the prime minister, Harold Wilson, to alert them to the problem. There is a “discussion as to whether it was constitutionally possible to have two Queens in a country at once.” But “no one listened. I was in despair.”
Yet it was indeed possible to have two queens in the country at once—and this was the secret of Elizabeth’s success. Even fifty years ago, in these dreams, there is little of the feeling that Bagehot believed to be crucial to the survival of the monarchy: “Mystic awe and wonder.” If anything, there is the opposite—a desire to imagine the queen as ordinary, familiar, merely human. This desire ought to be republican: If she is just like us, why bother? Antimonarchists often thought they could demystify the queen by calling her Betty Windsor. But the real mystery is how her subjects could in fact think of her as Betty and yet still afford her a privileged space in their imaginations, so that imagining her death made them feel lonely and desolate.
The contradiction could be sustained because, while Betty lived in the present, Elizabeth always existed in the hereafter. The queen’s afterlife did not begin with her actual death, but a long time ago, with the rapid melting of the pall of sacral meaning that was laid on thickly at her coronation in 1953. In her broadcast address after her crowning, she informed her subjects that “the ceremonies you have seen today are ancient, and some of their origins are veiled in the mists of the past.” They were in fact invented traditions, few of them dating back much beyond the nineteenth century. The need for bogus antiquity betrayed a deep worry that without mystic awe the sacred monarch, head of the Church of England and embodiment of empire, might be reduced to mere equality. The remarkable thing, however, is that the reduction happened but did not matter very much. It was familiar human sympathy, not religious awe, that made her seem special. She doubled as ordinary Betty, not as God’s anointed.
Much British commentary still finds this hard to grasp. Even now, an otherwise rational publication like The Economist can look back, in its obituary for the queen, on her anointment with holy oil during the coronation as “a sign that her election came not just from good Hanoverian blood, but from God. It was a reminder that kingship was a holy and permanent duty.” This kind of nonsense lingers in the groundwater and comes to the surface with her death. But even in the nineteenth century a monarchist like Bagehot was realistic enough to acknowledge that the English had severed the veins carrying the royal blood and obliterated the divine right of monarchs when they overthrew James II in 1688: “If there was a mystic right in any one, that right was plainly in James II; if it was an English duty to obey any one whatever he did, he was the person to be so obeyed.”
After 1688 the primary claim of the monarchy was not the sacredness of its blue blood but the imperative of a Protestant succession. Under Elizabeth, however, this religious dimension shrank almost as fast as the empire did. In 1956, 34 percent of those surveyed in Britain thought that the queen was “especially chosen by God.” By 1992, a survey found among respondents “no spontaneous…awareness of the monarchy’s religious dimension.” Only about 2 percent of British people now attend the weekly services of the queen’s Anglican church. If Elizabeth’s allure depended on God, the monarchy would have been abolished decades ago.
It survived for other reasons. One was that what was lost in holiness was gained in its contemporary equivalent: celebrity. It is not just that the queen was immensely famous, but that the nature of fame shifted in her favor. It divorced itself from achievement—a beneficial development for a woman whose defining attainment was being born first into the right family. But celebrity only goes so far, not least because it is notoriously fickle: for a time, Elizabeth was not even the most famous person in her own family, and the one who outshone her, Princess Diana, sparked in death the nearest thing to an antimonarchical revolt during the queen’s reign. The fame game is as dangerous as it is rewarding.
The idea of continuity was certainly part of it also, though it worked in paradoxical ways. In her broadcast address after her crowning, Elizabeth insisted that “I am sure that this, my Coronation, is not the symbol of a power and a splendor that are gone.” It was precisely her inability to live up to that assurance that made her own presence increasingly necessary. If the power and the splendor were not going or gone, she herself would have been much less important as a link to the past and a conjurer of the illusion that, so long as she was alive, the past was too.
The need for this illusion became ever deeper in her later years, as the derangements of the Conservative Party produced both the succession of four prime ministers in six years and the collapse, under Boris Johnson, of all notions of decorum and public dignity. Simply by way of contrast, the queen became ever more queenly. She was never more so than when, during the Covid pandemic, she sat alone at the funeral of her husband, the day after two alcohol-fueled parties were held at Downing Street. Yet this was an image not of majesty or might but of human frailty, of an ordinary stoicism that most people, because of their own sorrows, could identify with. The two queens, the regal and the relatable, coexisted perfectly.
What really accounts for her potency—and what makes her irreplaceable—is precisely that doubleness, the way the public could choose to see her at any given moment either as Elizabeth II or as Betty. It meant that the weaknesses of the sovereign could immediately become the strengths of the woman. Thus, the banality of her majesty’s clockwork conversations could become the heroic self-sacrifice involved in the repression of her true personality. The more boring she was, the more this dullness could be configured as duty—and the more her life of wealth and privilege could be thought of as one of endless fortitude.
Thus the idiocies and embarrassments of her offspring—Charles’s infidelity, Andrew’s sordid relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the self-indulgent wars between William and Harry—could be understood as happening not to the monarch (in which case they would have highlighted the folly of hereditary office) but to poor Betty who, like the rest of us, has trouble with the kids. Thus even age itself—the ultimate enemy of royalty—could make her stronger. The closer she came to inevitable death, and the more rational it therefore was to think about what would come after her, the closer British people felt to her as their collective grandmother. She was never so loved as when she was a little old lady, subject “to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People.” The more obvious the approach of her demise, the more painful it was to imagine it.
This dual monarchy is not repeatable—and certainly not by King Charles III. It was a female phenomenon, rooted in a patriarchal habit of construing as nobility a woman’s effacement of her own thoughts and desires. Self-suppression is a feminine virtue. It is not one ever practiced by Charles, who has spent his adult life expecting to be listened to and taken seriously merely because of who he is. (Or rather, until now, of who his mother is.) He will moderate himself as king, but it is too late. His persona as a meddler is already far too deeply embedded in public consciousness. He can never have the quality Levine invoked as the title for his haunting image: lightness of being. Elizabeth was stereo; Charles is mono. The terror now for those who look to the monarchy to hold the UK together is that, instead of the queen’s two bodies, they will have only the busybody king. As Oscar Wilde’s Algernon puts it: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”