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BRITAIN: The Informal Queen

4 minute read

The pomp and circumstance that surrounded Queen Elizabeth’s marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh would have greatly pleased her distant ancestor, Charles I, who insisted that “a subject and a sovereign are clean different things.” But when the Queen and Prince Philip celebrate their silver wedding anniversary this week, Charles may be twitching in his burial vault at Windsor Castle. As one part of the celebration, Elizabeth has invited to a commemorative service in Westminster Abbey 100 couples from round the realm whose only connection with royalty is that they share Her Majesty’s wedding date.

The folksy gesture is typical of Elizabeth’s reign, at least in recent years. Disturbed by signs of creeping apathy toward the crown among her subjects, the Queen, now 46, has tried to make herself and her family seem more accessible to her people and less remote from reality. Perhaps the Queen’s most significant attempt to take the mystery out of monarchy was her sanctioning of a candid, 1¾-hour television documentary showing how she and her flock behaved in private. Although still every inch a Queen, she has projected the image of a modestly attractive matron whom anybody would be proud to have as an aunt. That is, if she were not, by dint of birth and the abdication of an uncle, tied up with the responsibilities of the world’s most prestigious surviving monarchy.

British royal families have long endured heavy schedules of public duties (opening a hospital here, launching a ship there or welcoming with royal flourish some visiting head of state). Elizabeth, Prince Philip and their brood have tried hard to give the impression that it is not all a big bore (see PEOPLE, page 42). Elizabeth herself, for instance, periodically goes on what palace aides call a “walkabout,” strolling among crowds of her subjects, chatting casually with whomever she bumps into. She has become considerably sophisticated in the years since her coronation when, as one court observer puts it, she appeared to be a “terribly stiff, cardboard figure.” On a visit to Stirling University in Scotland a few weeks ago, the Queen kept her cool even though she was jeered and jostled by a mob of angry students. “Did you know that I had to miss school because you’re here today?” one of them shouted at her. Elizabeth smiled and calmly replied: “Aside from that, how are you enjoying your work here?”

Touches of Splendor. Even Elizabeth’s formal appearances have become more informal. They are more likely to be marked by the strains of something hummable from Rodgers and Hammerstein than by flourishes of trumpets. The investiture of knighthoods, for instance, still takes place in the gilded ballroom of Buckingham Palace, with its enormous mirrors and rows of chandeliers. But two weeks ago, as the Queen tapped the sword on each shoulder of an honored subject kneeling before her, the band implausibly played June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.

The same kind of informality extends into the private life of the Queen and her family. Her favorite party game when she entertains friends at the palace is a form of charades; she delights in feeding her five corgis daily on a sheet spread out on the floor of her flower-filled sitting room; she starts each day by reading Sporting Life, a daily racing sheet. Although it has shrunk by 15% since Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1953, the Queen’s household staff still numbers more than 300 full-time employees, and she does preserve some touches of splendor. Each morning while she eats breakfast a bagpiper plays outside her window (a royal tradition that Philip has vainly opposed); her butter pats carry the royal monogram; when she feeds the corgis, it is with a silver fork and spoon.

There may be some danger in stripping the mystery from monarchy. More than a century ago, British Social Scientist Walter Bagehot wrote: “Above all this our royalty is to be reverenced…In its mystery is its life. We must not let daylight in upon magic.” Perhaps. But the crown shows no signs yet of resting uneasily on the head of Queen Elizabeth II. A Harris Poll conducted last year showed that most Britons believe that the monarchy not only acts as a check against military or political leaders becoming too powerful, but also sets standards of morality and family behavior. The poll also indicated that if a vote were held, Elizabeth would overwhelmingly be elected Queen.

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