Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, as they both later became, married in the wake of wartime – during 1947. She came to the throne after the death of her father six years later. To have any real memory of his reign now, one would have been roughly ten years old then, at least.
A small boy or girl of that age in 1953 would be the better part of 75 now. One has to be a quarter of a century old, or older, to remember well a time before her reign.
In other words, most of us have got used to the longest-serving monarch in not only British but also English history. “May the king live forever,” the choir sings in that great coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest. We enthusiastically join the chorus: “Amen, amen, allelluia, allueluia – amen”.
Spouses often survive the deaths of their other halves for many years, and naturally we hope that the Queen will be one of them. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.
But either way, that fervent wish in Handel’s chorus can’t come about. The king doesn’t live together. So as Andrew Gimson wrote on this site yesterday, we must all – whether older or younger than 75 – begin to prepare ourselves for the fact that the Duke’s death is a sign that this Elizabethan era is nearing its end.
We may not be prepared for it. For with the possible exception of a few tempestous days in 1997, in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, and for perhaps a period during the 1960s, to which the making of Royal Family was a response, the Queen and the monarchy have been extremely popular.
This monarchical popularity is less unusual than we may think. Indeed, the very idea may make no sense at all before the coming of age of mass enfranchisment – say, roughly the time of Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act. Since then, neither Edward VII, George V nor George VI, the Queen’s father, experienced serious public hostility.
Even the king missing from that list, Edward VIII, seems to have divided opinion. At the time of his abdication, respectable opinion seems to have been against him and unrespectable opinion for. The latter is sometimes greater and wiser than the former (though not the second in this case and probably not the first either).
That leaves Queen Victoria, who undoubtedly did become unpopular for a period. Nonetheless, it can’t be assumed that the opposite will always be the case for our future monarchs, just because it has been so with this one.
The Duke of Edinburgh didn’t shy away from making his views known, and was no less loved for it. Although they weren’t party political ones – he was scrupulously neutral in that way – they did have a certain flavour, and its safe to say that he was no enthusiast for the big state.
The Queen balanced his outspokenness out (as so many spouses in so many marriages balance each other out) by expressing no views at all – or, rather, by expressing what our times call values and previous ones would have called virtues: stoicism, duty, service, fortitude, unselfishness, self-sacrifice.
When the time comes, the Prince of Wales, who undoubtedly “has views”, will face having to do the same, and so leaving behind – stepping beyond? – his take on the environment, architecture, education, medicine, and so on.
Perhaps our sense that he will need to do so is wrong, and we misjudge the mood of the times. More to the point, he seems to be making that change already – pushing, for example, for fewer members of the Royal Family to be on the taxpayer-funded payroll.
But it is only common sense to suggest that the safest course to follow in due course will be his mother’s. Are we getting ahead of ourselves, never mind the rest of the country, in looking forward in this way? Is it out place to wonder if the next monarch will be less popular than this one during the course of his reign?
Our case for the defence is that the Duke of Edinburgh himself always seemed to be looking forward, not back: indeed, he was the original moderniser of the Royal Family during this reign.
He dispensed with powdered hair for footmen; put in intercoms; shut down a palace kitchen set up to feed the Royal Family only; set up new, informal lunches for the Queen to meet people from new, broader backgrounds; was instrumental in planning Royal Family (not one of his better ideas).
Some of passions preceded his oldest son’s: the environment, inter-faith. It was the Duke of Edinburgh who reportedly first called the Royal Family “The Firm”. In seeking to modernise it by reforming it, his son is showing that, in one telling sense at least, he’s a chip off the old block.
So we make no apology in warning supporters of our monarchy to prepare for rougher water. For although the Queen is extremely popular and the monarchy scarcely less so, this isn’t always true of all members of the Royal Family.
But rather than linger over the mistakes of the Duke of York and the plight of the Duke of Sussex, we end on an optimistic note, in keeping we hope with the Duke of Edinburgh’s character. Monarchy is the United Kingdom’s default setting.
It was England’s before that, when the Commonwealth ran out of legitimacy, and Charles II was invited to take up his throne. Or when, in 1689, it passed from a Catholic monarch to Protestant ones.
Or when a woman who was originally fifth in line to the throne, and whose mother was ready to govern as regent instead of her, began her reign less than a month after her eighteenth birthday. That was Queen Victoria, the great-great grandmother of both the present Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
We wrote earlier that the king doesn’t live forever. But that isn’t the full story. For as the cry on the death of a monarch has it: “the king is dead. Long live the king!”