04.21.09

To the Queen, on Her 83rd Birthday

Six years away from being Britain's longest-ever serving monarch, Elizabeth II is showing no signs of slowing down. Biographer Robert Lacey assesses her life and impact.

Elizabeth Windsor was born over what is now a motor-car showroom off Berkeley Square, and there must have been some people around on that April 21 who predicted the little girl would live so long. Few could have foreseen, however, that she would become Great Britain’s queen—and one of history’s finest.

We have Mrs. Simpson to thank for that. Just up the road in Bryanston Square, the wise-cracking broad from Baltimore would soon be canoodling Elizabeth’s malleable Uncle David—Edward VIII to his subjects—off his throne:

“Hark! the Herald Angels sing,
Mrs. Simpson’s stole our king.”

And good riddance. The abdication crisis of 1936 handed the throne to the unlikely, stammering figure of Prince Albert, Duke of York, whose bride, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the redoubtable Queen Mum of later years, restored in Bertie the self-belief that his parents had "educated” out of him. She gave him two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, and helped make Bertie the beloved and heroic King George VI—who even became famous, in due course, for his Christmas broadcast: From the stutterer came forth eloquence.

What a cool, unemotional creature she is, yet what torrents of love Elizabeth II generates!

His elder daughter, who succeeded him in February 1952, has shown a similar gift for paradox—which, of course, has always been one of the British monarchy’s fundamental delights and, for some of us, one of its principal reasons for existence. What a cool, unemotional creature she is, yet what torrents of love Elizabeth II generates! Michelle Obama hugged her for the rest of us three weeks ago, when she curled out an arm around that solid, horse-riding back. And how Her Maj flouted protocol by appearing to welcome the experience! It set the tone for quite a day of protocol-flouting at the palace, what with the president of the great republic bowing so low to King Abdullah. (“Michelle had reminded Barack,” said Saudi wags, “of the jewelry gifts Condoleezza received last time she went to Riyadh.”)

For decades British filmmakers have been churning out dreary costume dramas about Queen Victoria, young, old, and middle-aged. But it was the untheatrical Elizabeth II who won the Oscar in 2007 with The Queen, depicted by Helen Mirren no less, beloved for blending her sublime acting ability with a willingness to strip off her kit.

It is one of the strengths of Elizabeth II that she has never tried to be trendy. No mini-skirts for her in the swinging ’60s. She has stuck to the things in which she believes: doing her duty, the tenets of her unquestioning Anglican faith—and her dogs. Patricia Mountbatten once wrote to console her cousin and friend on the loss of a much-loved corgi, to receive by return screeds of hand-written, emotion-filled pages—rather more numerous and laden with feeling, Lady Mountbatten was forced to concede, than she had received about the tragic death of her father, Dickie, at the hands of the IRA.

The queen’s husband, Prince Philip (Dickie’s nephew), has always been her rock. Last week, the prince became Britain’s longest-ever serving consort to a monarch, notching up 57 years and 71 days, thus passing the record set by poor Queen Charlotte, whose fate was to be married to the mad King George III. Elizabeth was only 13 years old when she set eyes on Philip, a dashing young naval cadet at Dartmouth Royal Naval College, and the cautious young woman fell instantly in love with him. Their partnership has been another paradox—in public he defers to her; in private she defers to him—and another secret of her monarchy’s extraordinary survival. They are a thinking and creative couple, who between them have regenerated an institution that many thought would not outlive the 20th century.

What is no secret at all is that Elizabeth II will go on serving her country to the very end. Abdication brought her to the throne, but it will not be the way she leaves it. In six years’ time, she will become Britain’s longest-ever serving monarch, defeating Queen Victoria again, and chances are she will make it—in September 2015 she will still not be 90. She is probably keener to break the record than she would admit.

Perhaps the happiest result of her longevity has been to force her son to get himself a life. No disrespect to Prince Charles. He’ll make a perfectly decent Charles III, if the cards of mortality should deal him that hand. But by living so long, Elizabeth II has compelled her heir to aim higher than being a mere successor, and the prince’s ecological enthusiasms have helped him to identify that role—to become Britain’s Al Gore. Denied access to the ultimate position in their particular job markets, both men have been compelled to strive for a finer goal—why not try to save the planet?

In the dark days of 1939, young Elizabeth’s poetry-loving mother came across some verses by an American, Minnie Louise Haskins, and showed them to her husband, who decided to read them out in his Christmas broadcast, which became famous for catching the tone of the hour. Perhaps Her Majesty will accept their sentiments, with our loyal wishes, as she sets out today on her own new year:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!”

Robert Lacey, author of Majesty and The Kingdom, sent this from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he is completing his latest book, Inside the Kingdom , due to be published by Viking-Penguin this year.