One of the things I remember most from my summer in England was the excitement when, while touring Windsor Castle, we were informed by a raised flag that the Queen had come to visit. I wouldn’t get to see her, obviously, but the air around the castle seemed to change the instant we knew that not far away was the country’s monarch. For a young American college student with only a passing knowledge of the British royals, the trappings of the British royalty were fascinating. And as I was told repeatedly by my British friends, “You Americans can look on in fascination, but only we can have opinions about the royals. They’re ours.”
At its heart, that is how a subject should feel about their sovereign. My classmates had critiques of the royals, for sure, but they also deeply loved them and what they represented. The royals were able to inhabit a world that was above the political fray and the partisan identity. The royals were an image of the ideals of what it meant to be British, an embodiment of the best of the nation’s values and hopes.
C.S. Lewis had similar reflections when he wrote of the crowning of the first king and queen of Narnia, Frank and Helen. Frank, a cabby, and his wife were not native to Narnia, and would have fit no one’s pattern for royalty. Frank himself is very concerned and asks if Aslan is sure. Aslan responds by asking a series of questions: Will you rule over the creatures justly? Will you protect them from their enemies? Will you work hard for your subjects? Will you raise your children to do the same? Will you be the first in a battle charge and the last in a retreat? Frank responds that he would do all those things to the best of his ability, which Aslan says is all that a King can do.
The qualifications for a good monarch in Lewis schema is not that one be the best, but that one have the best character. The potential monarch must see their life as one of service to their subjects, doing all that they can to enact justice for their people. It’s a life characterized not by the excesses of money and extravagance, but by the inward sense of duty to the best interest of the nation and its people. Frank and Helen may not have possessed royal blood, but they possessed a royal character.
Queen Elizabeth II possessed the same sense of duty and love for her country and its people. To read accounts of her is to be struck by her desire to fulfill the obligations incumbent on a monarch. For example, in 1944 then Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army where she was trained as a mechanic. She did not begin at a special rank but started as a lowly second subaltern. She was the first female of the royal family to serve in active duty of the British Armed Forces. At the time of her death, she was also the last surviving head of state to have served in World War II.
The longing we were made for
This is not often what comes to mind when Americans think of royalty. We think of the banners flapping, swords raised in honor, and patriotic shouts of “God Save the Queen.” We lack language for the kind of grandeur and majesty that is embodied by a figure like a monarch. We don’t have a concept for a figure like Queen Elizabeth who has been the nation’s symbol for 70 years, while our presidents change every four or eight years. Just for comparison, her reign has been almost one-third of the entire history of the United States. And yet when we hear the British national anthem with thousands singing it, and see the military parade, and witness the pomp of a coronation or royal wedding, we understand just how unique this is and something within us stirs with longing.
It taps into that part of us that longs for a monarchy and all the splendor that comes with it. Reflecting on her coronation, C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter that the Queen herself was “overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it.” The spectators were filled with “awe—pity—pathos—mystery.” Because in that moment, was the story of humanity: “humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said, ‘In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding’. . . . One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour.”
In monarchs we see small reflections of what we are supposed to have been as God’s rulers on this earth. Those who care for the world, steward creation, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God. If as an American I was to make a case for monarchy, my first piece of evidence would be the life and example of Elizabeth. Was she perfect? Of course not. But did she understand and fulfill her duty to embody for her citizens the best of the nation’s ideals? Certainly. And in the face of her own fear of inadequacy, she committed herself to trying because it was her duty. There are worse things to hold up in an age such as ours as a figure who committed her life to public service and the duty she owed the nation she loved.