The Queen at 95: Alone on her birthday – but she’ll never be lonely again

OPINION:

In 1861, when Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria was poleaxed. So great was her grief, so deep her mourning, that she retreated from the world and lived much of the rest of her life in virtual retirement. The “widow of Windsor” dressed in black for 40 years, neglecting her duties in her sorrow to such an extent that her prime ministers feared her invisibility ran the risk of jeopardising the monarchy.

Elizabeth II is not like her great-great-grandmother.

Our Queen, who marks her 95th birthday today, is a remarkable woman, driven by duty and sustained by faith. Much was made of photos from Prince Philip’s funeral of Her Majesty all alone at the end of her pew at St George’s Chapel – that spoke of her apparent loneliness, and the cruelty of it – but they did not tell the whole story.

I do not believe the Queen felt alone at her beloved husband’s funeral. She is accustomed to walking in procession and being seated on her own: she has been doing it all her life. She is Queen after all. She sat that way at the funeral because of the Covid regulations; she would not have dreamt of doing so otherwise. She leads by example.

But she does not feel alone in the house of God – it is perhaps where she feels most at ease, for her a place of comfort and consolation. The teachings of Christ are the foundation of her life – as she has made clear towards the end of every one of her Christmas broadcasts since her accession in 1952.

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Anyone who has had five minutes – let alone 74 years – to consider the Queen knows that when, as Princess Elizabeth, on another birthday, her 21st, back in 1947, she said: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” she meant it.

At her Coronation she made a commitment to God as well as to her people, and her faith sustains her in all she does. She is God’s anointed monarch. “Be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, who the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern …” were the words addressed to her by her first Archbishop of Canterbury at the most solemn moment of her Coronation – and she has not forgotten them. She lives by them.

From the Queen’s perspective a church is the least lonely place to be in your darkest hour. But not everyone understands that. On Sunday, August 31, 1997, when Princess Diana was killed in that terrible car accident in Paris, the Queen was at Balmoral, on holiday with her family. At 2am she was woken with news of the accident. At 3.30am, the British embassy in Paris confirmed that Diana was dead.

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That day – to the surprise of some and to criticism from the press – the Queen and Prince Philip did exactly what anyone who knew them would have expected them to do. They comforted their grandsons in private and, in public, went about their business as usual.

They took William and Harry to church with them on that fateful Sunday morning both because William and Harry wanted to go, and because the Queen believes that at times of tribulation there is no better place to be. Her faith is her rock, and doing things much as they have always been done is a practice that, on the whole, has served her well.

There is comfort to be had from familiar hymns and prayers. There is solace to be found in form and custom long-established, and in doing what you have to do in the way that you normally do it.

The Queen likes going to church. On a Sunday morning, she sometimes goes twice – first, privately, for Holy Communion, and then, later, dressed in an outfit in which to be photographed, for Matins with other members of the family. (The press, as a rule, respect her privacy and photographs and footage are rarely taken of her first church attendance.)

I got to know the Duke of Edinburgh through one of his pet charities, the National Playing Fields Association. He was the charity’s president, the Queen was its patron. When I was chairman, to mark the Duke’s 50 years as president, we thought we should have a celebration of some kind – perhaps a party or a show.

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The Queen had a different idea: a service of thanksgiving. It was held at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, a High Anglican church where there was so much incense floating about that the Duke remarked: “It feels more like a cremation than a celebration.” On that occasion, too, the Queen was seated apart from the rest of the congregation.

Over the years I had a number of conversations with Prince Philip about happiness and the ingredients required to lead a stable and stimulating life, and I later became his biographer.

He was a student of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology. He told me that towards the end of his life, Jung had looked back on his past case histories and reflected that among the happiest people were those who had a religious faith, “something to believe in, a philosophy to sustain you when things get tough”.

The Duke agreed. He also nodded enthusiastically when I told him that the Irish psychiatrist Dr Anthony Clare believed that one of the secrets of happiness is to have “a passion in your life, something you really enjoy doing”. Like carriage-driving, I suggested. “Absolutely,” said the Duke.

Seeing his empty carriage with his gloves and cap and the container for his ponies’ sugar lumps was one of the many poignant moments at Saturday’s funeral. Carriage driving was his sustaining passion, just as the Queen’s dogs and horses are hers. As the Duke said famously, “if it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.”

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The Queen’s love of animals will help sustain her in the years ahead. She will resume her regular evening catch-up calls to her horse trainers. She has already been seen walking her dogs in the grounds outside Frogmore Cottage in Windsor.

The Duke, whose paternal aunt, Marie Bonaparte, was a disciple and friend of Sigmund Freud, also liked to quote Freud’s dictum that happiness in life requires “love and work”. Those who study the Court Circular will know that the Queen wants us to know she is already back at work, performing official duties, taking calls from Commonwealth prime ministers.

Of course, there will be the sadness that comes with age. At 95, inevitably, she has lost many of those who were closest to her: her husband, her parents, her sister and many of her oldest friends. Another went this week: Sir Michael Oswald, the former manager of the Royal Studs, died a few days ago, aged 86.

But she is surrounded by love. In her “Windsor bubble” are ladies-in-waiting who have been friends for years and powers of life-enhancing positivity, such as her stylist and right-hand woman Angela Kelly, and her ever-smiling Master of the Household, Sir Tony Johnstone-Burt.

And she has her family and their families: her two older children, the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal, and her two younger ones, the Duke of York (who probably needs her as much as she needs him) and Prince Edward, who will soon be recreated Duke of Edinburgh, and whose much-loved wife Sophie will then be another Duchess of Edinburgh – as Elizabeth has been since 1947.

I doubt a sovereign has been so loved and respected in the history of the monarchy. As well as the many close to her whose love she holds dear, she has that of all of us, too.

– Gyles Brandreth is an English writer, broadcaster, actor, and former politician

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