The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When it came to her image, Queen Elizabeth II ruled until the end

The monarch we’ll remember is both real and imagined, thanks to pop culture, palace PR and the woman herself

Royal Navy sailors walk with the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II as it travels from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch in London on Monday. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

The state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II on Monday was a solemn, spiritually grounded affair. From the Anglican service at Westminster Abbey to the procession to Wellington Arch and eventual journey to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, the six-hour public commemorations were both simple and spectacular, befitting a woman who came to embody her own unique kind of renown.

The United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch was sincerely beloved, to which “the Queue” — the thousands of people who waited for up to 25 hours to express their grief and gratitude at London’s Westminster Hall — movingly attested. Meanwhile, the nearly nonstop news coverage that attended the 10 days between her death on Sept. 8 and Monday’s rites and rituals was reminiscent of the kind of obsessive attention paid to the passing of Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe — a nod to the pop culture icon the queen warily became.

The artful messaging of the queen’s funeral: The monarchy endures

Queen Elizabeth became a public figure at a young age: Her coronation, at 27, brought a welcome gust of glamour to the dreary rubble of postwar Britain, where her wedding to Prince Philip and the birth of their first child, Charles, had already been the subjects of collective fascination. Since her 20s, she’s been fodder for both adoration and crass exploitation, reflected in the steady market for cups, plates and queen-adjacent collectibles.

Despite her seeming ubiquity, for much of her reign the queen was afforded a level of unheard-of privacy. The contours of her official and personal lives were meticulously shaped within a now obsolete one-way media universe, which dovetailed perfectly with the priorities of a royal family whose public-facing persona was key to preserving its legitimacy, even as the trappings of global empire, fusty social hierarchies and economic caste were falling away. (Of all the portraits made of the queen, the most scathing might be Karl Lohnes’s limited-edition print “It’s All Mine Now, ’53,” at one point sold by the hip home furnishings outlet CB2.)

In America, it’s often been said that movie stars are the closest thing we have to royalty; with the onset of 24/7 news cycles, the infotainment-industrial complex and the tabloidization of modern life, it became clear that the royals themselves were destined to morph from empyrean aristocrats to celebrities, earning their very own vertical on People.com.

More on Queen Elizabeth II

As technologies and audience expectations changed, the queen proved to be something of a late adopter: Her obliviousness to, and begrudging acceptance of, the new realities were the dramatic crux of Peter Morgan’s 2006 drama “The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren. The plot turns on the 1997 death of Diana, the queen’s former daughter-in-law and “the people’s princess,” whose untimely demise led to an outpouring of public grief that Elizabeth initially underestimated. The film’s dramatic tension lies in whether the queen will remain a distant, emotionally detached figure or bend to the demands of relatability (spoiler alert: she bends).

By the time Morgan began producing the Netflix series “The Crown” in 2016, the ground under Her Majesty’s feet had shifted even more seismically. Buckingham Palace was forced to confront an onslaught of negative press, such as stories involving Prince Andrew’s friendship with Jeffrey Epstein and increasingly vocal criticism of the family’s disproportionate wealth and ties to Britain’s ruinous colonial legacy. The queen accommodated yet again, often with a twinkle in her eye, such as when she helped open the 2012 Summer Olympics by appearing in a slyly amusing skit with Daniel Craig as James Bond. By now celebrity itself had morphed into a new form of radical transparency, with “unscripted” viral moments and unfiltered access the new coin of an ever-evolving realm. Once, the fairy tale might have been enough; now, the queen’s subjects — her audience — wanted all the tea.

While the queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sat down with Oprah Winfrey in an effort to reclaim their narrative, the queen maintained her careful balance of concealment and legibility. (She always made sure to wear colors bright enough that she could be espied in a crowd.) Until the end, when the occasion called for it, she proved willing to puncture the veil of her scrupulously tended inscrutability — if not spilling the tea with Oprah, at least taking a tasteful drop with Paddington Bear during her Platinum Jubilee.

When most of us tuned in to Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on Monday, we were saying goodbye to a character both real and imagined: an amalgam of Hollywood myth, romantic fantasy, palace PR and the redoubtable sovereign herself. In their grandeur and intimacy, ethereal transcendence and military precision, the queen’s funeral and homegoing to Windsor were suffused with the dignity and sense of duty befitting a leader who embodied both for almost a century. And they were as multifaceted and contradictory as the queen’s peculiar kind of fame — one that was thrust upon her, one that she learned and relearned how to manage, and one that she eventually came to cultivate with such skill.

The unexpected addition of a spider to the proceedings notwithstanding, we shouldn’t be surprised that the queen’s final ceremonies were executed so flawlessly. She helped plan them, leaving us with a last act of fan service from a woman who became a reluctant but surpassingly gifted master of the form.

Loading...