LONDON — She was Queen by the Grace of God. She was a mum. She was Defender of the Faith. With a stable full of racehorses. She was Queen of this Realm and many other realms. Who loved big hats and her nipping corgis and who stood astride a century of cataclysmic history and a sprawling royal family notorious for its tabloid dysfunction.
The world is demonstrably fascinated by Queen Elizabeth II. Her funeral on Monday is expected to draw nearly 500 foreign dignitaries, with hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets to see her coffin pass by and many millions watching on television.
Why? What accounts for an outpouring of affection that has stunned even her most devoted courtiers?
No one is enthralled — to be honest, no offense — in the same way by the king of the Belgians, the sultan of Brunei, the emperor of Japan, Hereditary Prince Alois of Liechtenstein or the “bicycling royals” of northern Europe — interesting and colorful as they may be.
The BBC and the royal biographers — alongside world leaders, British rappers and the public — have hit the repeat button in praise of Elizabeth’s duty, service, steadfastness.
But that alone can’t explain her transcendent appeal.
Perhaps it’s because her long life allows people to pick which memories they want to embrace: the young queen, in the black-and-white movie star head shots of the 1950s; or the middle-aged, more matronly queen, struggling with her children’s divorces and scandals; or the “dear Grannie” era, suggested by millennial Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice in statement Saturday, when she offered comfort and tea and kitsch against a world of dizzying change.
The queen was a TV show the whole family could agree to watch.
Or maybe it’s this: She never quit. No ballplayer could best her record.
She served, she survived, in the longest reign in Britain — and the second-longest reign of any monarch in the history of monarchs.
A queen from the Greatest Generation
Elizabeth’s tangible legacy is harder to pinpoint.
As a constitutional monarch, she did not build Britain’s postwar welfare state or create the National Health Service. She cut ribbons on new hospitals; she didn’t pay for them. Elizabeth was the head of the armed forces; she didn’t send British troops to war. She took pains not to say or do anything remotely political.
But she embodied a tireless work ethic that earned her admiration. Even the pope retired. The queen never did.
By royal yacht, by propeller plane, then jets, Elizabeth ceaselessly traveled the globe. The Telegraph newspaper counted 290 state visits to 117 different nations.
“We have to be seen to be believed,” the queen is quoted as saying, and it is remarkable that in interviews with people standing in the queue to view her coffin, many recall her visits — to Nepal, Mexico, Iceland, Australia, Ethiopia, Japan, Oman, Norway, etc., etc.
That commitment harked back to the soldiering-on mentality of the Greatest Generation, to the good old days.
Elizabeth was the long-lived embodiment of those who endured the Blitz, defeated fascism, won the war. She was just a young princess during World War II, but she served on the home front, trained as a army driver and mechanic with the rank of second subaltern.
Her funeral is drawing a global who’s who — showing again how the queen’s stature allowed Britain, an island nation that is the second-largest economy in Europe, to consistently punch above its weight.
“Even in death, she’s still working, isn’t she?” mused Christopher Matthews, a cabbie in Edinburgh, when the queen’s coffin passed through the Scottish capital.
The queen of a shrinking empire
There’s clearly nostalgia at work, too. Elizabeth was a link to the past that bled into the present — connecting Winston Churchill to the Beatles to the internet age.
Of course, looking back also offers many reasons to dislike — even despise — the figures of the British monarchy, especially if you live in the former possessions, in the former colonies, in India, in Ireland, in the Caribbean.
But unlike previous monarchs, this queen wasn’t conquering new lands. In the postwar years, the British Empire wasn’t expanding. It was shrinking.
The queen’s job was very different from her predecessors. “She's the first one who comes to the throne with the writing on the wall that the reign is going to be about handing all this stuff back,” said Robert Hardman, a royal biographer.
“And you’ve got to get rid of it in a nice way, with a smile and a handshake, and try and keep everyone happy,” he said.
The result was the Commonwealth, a global club of 56 nations, 15 of which chose to keep the queen as their monarch. Some of those realms are now, following the death of Elizabeth, reassessing their relationships with the crown.
“Her Majesty was the anchor that held our country within the Commonwealth,” the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, wrote in a eulogy.
The British royal family’s website declares that as head of the Commonwealth, Elizabeth was a link “for more than two billion people worldwide.”
Fascination with royalty and all its trappings
As to why many Americans remain in thrall to the queen?
The short answer may be the popular Netflix series “The Crown.”
But all these years after revolting against the British monarchy? Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham was among those who said she didn’t get it.
“The House of Windsor is beholden only to its own bloodlines and the absurd notion that their family has been divinely chosen to rule with the people as their subjects,” she wrote. “Until the queen’s death, I don’t think I realized how appealing that concept is to some Americans.”
For millions globally, the queen held another mystique — the fantasy of a glittering European dynasty, and the spell of real royalty. The House of Windsor has certainly swaddled itself in a History Channel come alive, with its “invention of tradition,” its bejeweled symbols and kitsch, of scepters, crowns, orbs, with the queen attended and guarded into the 21st century by ladies in waiting and yeoman warders from the Tower of London.
Unlike in the Netherlands, where royals get around by bike, the Windsors have always kept up appearances, rolling in Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, Jaguars and Land Rovers.
The queen was known for frugality and unfussiness. But she was one of the richest people in Britain, and her royal estates, golden carriages, formal gardens and crown jewels suggested her grand station, and held the gaze of daydreamers and Hello magazine subscribers.
Artist Henry Ward, 51, describes meeting with the queen, in preparation to paint her portrait, as an almost mystical event.
At Windsor Castle, Ward said he was granted access to a yellow drawing room where she would she later sit for him in heavy regalia.
“Nothing can prepare you for the sort of the beauty of the place,” he said of Windsor. “I mean, you know, everything dripping with gold from floor to ceiling to window. Wonderful paintings by [Thomas] Gainsborough and [John] Constable everywhere.”
The day of their meeting in 2015, he recalled, “she was diminutive in stature, you know, quite short. And yet, she was the biggest person I’ve ever met, like she had an almost palpable aura about her.”
Ward said “you had to steel yourself” to focus on the work to be done: “Because it’s been said that heads of state and world leaders have been reduced to speechlessness when meeting her.”
A master image-maker
On both sides of the Atlantic, the queen became a siren for political notables across eras.
President Ronald Reagan made horseback riding with the queen a top priority during his 1982 tour of Europe, according to Foreign Office files. President Barack Obama called her “truly one of my favorite people.”
Churchill, her first prime minister, had declared her the champion of the future. Boris Johnson was emotional in professing how her death punched him in the gut. He saw her when she accepted his resignation two days before she died, and he reported that she was “clearly not well,” but “bright” and “focused” and quoting statesmen from the 1950s.
But what the public knew about the queen was most often precisely what the royals wanted us to know.
The members of the House of Windsor — a line of the German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, its name changed to convey Britishness amid anti-German sentiment during World War I — were the original influencers, who mostly embraced being celebrities, even as they shrank from the tabloid glare.
In the queen’s home movies, she was, essentially, doing Instagram before Instagram, a curated image. Happy kids on the lawn. A day in the countryside.
The images of the queen were micromanaged, designed to stir patriotism, convey a sense of national identity and always to perpetuate a hereditary monarchy into the modern era.
From the queen’s home movies (she personally approved the release of hundreds of reels) to her star turns with Paddington Bear during her Platinum Jubilee or James Bond during the 2012 Olympics, what the public saw might be considered empire-building for hearts and minds.
“Almost all royal ‘work’ is a staged photo opportunity,” said Hannah Yelin, senior lecturer in media and culture at Oxford Brookes University. “All of it is image management to manufacture consent for their continuation as an institution. Every single charity photo op is a reproduction of power. The queen was always acutely aware of this and adept at cultivating an image underpinned by concepts like ‘duty’ and ‘sacrifice.’”
Yelin added, “this is essential to diffuse public anger at the inequality the monarchy represents. As part of this, the queen has been a pioneer of public image management, understanding that the monarchy needed Twitter, then Instagram and then TikTok. These newer media platforms are at odds with the queen’s traditional stance of dignity and distance.”
Andrew Ross, 27, of Cambridge, was in the queue on the very first night possible to see the queen’s lying-in-state at Westminster Hall. He said the queen united families: “As a monarch over us for 70 years, me, my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, we all experience the same feeling.”
“She’s the world’s queen,” he added. “She’s incredibly special not only our small, wee country, but to the entire world.”
He suggested that her appeal was related to her inscrutable politics — that no one really knew what the queen thought.
She entertained many leaders deemed controversial over the years. Visits from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe all raised eyebrows at the time. Protesters launched a “Trump baby blimp” above London when President Donald Trump arrived for his state visit.
The queen rolled out the red carpet for all.
“She was very welcoming even to leaders that most would say wouldn’t deserve it,” Ross said. “She showed complete grace and decorum to whomever she met.”