On Sunday, for just the fifth time in her record 68-year reign, the queen broadcast a single-subject address to the nation and beyond. Alluding to the sacrifices made by Britons during World War II, she sought to inspire with a message that paid tribute to front-line health-care workers and citizens staying home to reduce the pandemic threat. In a remarkable performance even for someone far younger than her nearly 94 years, Elizabeth projected the wisdom of experience. Sporting her usual pearls and gazing steadily at the camera, she spoke as head of state, head of the Commonwealth and grandmother in chief.
At just over four minutes, the address was a brief but stirring tutorial in leadership. The queen referred to challenging times while sticking to broader themes: a shared humanity, “an instinctive compassion to heal,” the discipline and sacrifice required of all, and the need to remain united. “Together we are tackling this disease,” she said. “While we may have more still to endure, better days will return.”
The queen’s words were interspersed with video of National Health Service staff tending to patients, Britons clapping for front-line workers and footage from her first radio address, in 1940. The black-and-white image of 14-year-old Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, recording a message to other children during the Battle of Britain was a visual reminder of the Queen’s many decades of service to her country.
Praise erupted on social media for #QueensSpeech.
Then, about an hour later, Downing Street announced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been hospitalized with “persistent” symptoms of the coronavirus. He stayed overnight and was moved to intensive care Monday when his condition worsened.
It has been a long month for Britain. Clarence House announced March 25 that the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Two days later, Johnson tweeted that he had tested positive. Other officials, including Britain’s health secretary and England’s chief medical officer, soon announced that they had tested positive or had experienced symptoms consistent with covid-19. As of Monday, Britain had more than 48,000 confirmed cases and over 4,900 deaths.
And it has been a challenging season for the House of Windsor. For months, the royal family’s narrative was dominated by the high-profile departure of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, as well as the disturbing saga of Prince Andrew’s ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein (including Andrew’s tone-deaf BBC interview, which led to his ouster from public duties).
The queen said nothing Sunday about a royal reboot. But her focus on collective experience and shared sacrifice carried an emotional resonance that could lead to greater popularity. One needn’t be a monarchist to appreciate how the sovereign’s neutrality enhances her ability to unify in a crisis, or to see value in leadership separate from politics, particularly amid a deep and years-long British divide about whether and how to cut ties with Europe.
In a 2017 interview, Prince Harry said that “the monarchy is a force for good” and that “the British public and the whole world need institutions like it.” The prince also said of the responsibilities that come with royal life: “We don’t want to be just a bunch of celebrities but instead use our role for good.”
His grandmother did just that on Sunday by breaking her usual silence to inspire confidence and calm fears during a public health threat. By appealing to shared values, she might have made it easier for not just Britons but people everywhere to support one another through the pandemic — and boosted the royals’ appeal in the process.