Elizabeth Alexandra Mary died yesterday.
That’s the name she was given, 96 years ago, when she was born on a busy London street, in a townhouse that was bulldozed by property developers soon after (the spot is now occupied by a chain Chinese restaurant, among other businesses). She was delivered via Caesarean section, and christened in honor of her mom, her grandma, and her great-grandma. Her baby photos show kissable cheeks and beautiful curls, the kind of little girl you want to pick up and cuddle.
As the world mourns the woman who became Elizabeth II, and prepares for the pageantry of her funeral and the spectacle of her son Charles III’s coronation, it’s easy to overlook what she accomplished as a flesh and blood human being. Commentators will discuss her work in the British Commonwealth organization and her position as a symbol of national unity. The dreaded discourse on social media has already begun about her possible political responsibility for the United Kingdom’s imperialist misdeeds in its African colonies.
But all that chatter misses the point of how Elizabeth saw her own role. The late Queen didn’t really have a job—she had a vocation. Her life’s work was to be.
On her 21st birthday in 1947, then-Princess Elizabeth gave a radio address laying out her philosophy in plain language. “We must give nothing less than the whole of ourselves,” she said. “There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors—a noble motto, "I serve.” Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did.
“But . . . I can make my solemn act of dedication with a whole Empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple. 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.
“I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone, unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do,” she continued. “I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
The Queen’s sense of the sacredness of her calling was underlined in her 1953 coronation ceremony. In a historical first, the festival was televised in all its pomp and splendor—except for one event. The cameras cut away for the key moment when the 27-year-old Elizabeth was anointed with holy oil. For this ritual, she doffed her crimson robe and her jewels, revealing a simple white frock that recalled the snowy purity of her wedding dress and her baptismal gown. Four knights held a golden canopy above her, as the Archbishop of Canterbury blessed her with oil of oranges, roses, cinnamon, and other essences, tracing the sign of the cross on her and whispering, “Be thy head anointed with holy oil: as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed. And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be you anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern."
Elizabeth’s understanding of her Queenhood as a form of consecration meant she never became a celebrity in the way latter day royals have. Being a “star” was quite beside the point. It also meant that she had no interest in resigning, although in recent times tabloids frequently claimed she was preparing to abdicate so her eldest son, Prince Charles, could take over.
There was zero chance of that happening, even though in the last year her declining health made it difficult for her to go out in public. In the U.K., there’s some fun poked at the royals, because while their ancestors were saints or fought at the head of armies, their modern daily work typically involves attending a lot of ribbon-cutting events around a geographical area roughly the size of Oregon. In the satirical series The Windsors, available on Netflix, “Prince Charles” remarks, “It seems that if we’re not actually there to open a leisure center, after some initial confusion, they just use the leisure center.” But as she aged, Elizabeth fulfilled her vocation as Queen whether she was shaking hands or sick in bed. Like a marriage, her calling wasn’t something she clocked in and out of. Whether waking or sleeping, doing a walk-about or living in seclusion at her castle in Scotland, she was the Queen, and by being the Queen, she served.
Elizabeth promised to give her whole self—“her whole life, whether it be long or short.” It turned out to be the longest reign in her country’s history. She no doubt had moments of frustration and exhaustion. And isolation, too. Could there be a lonelier calling than to be the Queen of England? No peer-support group chat is possible.
Yet she proved that a 21-year-old is capable of making a solemn vow, and keeping it. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary’s life came down to simply being Elizabeth: gracefully, firmly, and faithfully.
Rest in peace, Your Majesty.