September 9, 2022 - 7:30am

The death of a ruling sovereign is a strange thing, at once a private tragedy and public spectacle. In more unsettled times, Parliament would be dissolved and all officers of the Crown dismissed, marking the advent of a new political order. As monarchical power ebbed, so did the political implications of a demise of the crown; yet the democratic form of monarchy merely increased the intensity with which the event is felt. As the Queen’s forebears gave up their last state prerogatives, they gained a new place in their subjects’ consciousness; and private and public grief became one.

The Queen, we were told, was “comfortable and resting”, that most deadly of postures, the whitest of lies from the Royal Household, perhaps the last bastion of euphemism in an age notable for its bluntness. We all knew what it meant; yet a superstitious reticence stopped many from saying it out loud. But then the event would occur, the recent evasions would be forgotten, and the mourning would begin.

It is almost impossible to say anything about The Queen’s reign which has not been said before. Hopes of a second Elizabethan age which accompanied her accession, it is often said, have not been borne out; but they have been, just not in the manner people expected. Her subjects have gained a degree of prosperity which would have delighted their ancestors who witnessed her Coronation; yet there is also a widespread sense that the civic unity of her peoples has decayed at the same time, along with their sense of national purpose.

But little of this was her own doing: we asked her to give her imprimatur, to lend her name to the choices we made. Whatever decline might have occurred under her reign, we do not begrudge her for that reason. The image that will endure of her, even more than that of the beautiful young Queen, is that of the grandmother, familiar and intimate rather than heroic. And that is all right.

Because her reign has been so long, she inevitably became an anachronism, but in the best sense of the world, embodying the last remnants of public virtues which have long since disappeared almost everywhere else. She could have retired decades ago with little public comment; yet she chose to carry on because of an oath she took. What a fantastically antiquated notion in an age of employment laws, to believe that you held office from God. But she truly believed it was her sworn duty to carry on, and we were all secretly glad she did.

When George II passed away in the middle of the Seven Years’ War, Horace Walpole envied him for dying “in perfect tranquillity at home… without a pang, before any reverse of fortune, or any distasted peace, nay, but two days before a shipload of bad news”. We do not know what news the next shipload will bring, but we will have to face it without her reassuring presence, telling us that “in the end all will be well”. We hope our new king will be equal to the task. May God preserve him.

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.