There was more than a touch of Blitz spirit on display, as the Queen directly referenced World War Two and the fortitude of the British people when she sought to rally the nation in the fight against coronavirus.
At 8pm local time on Sunday (3pm EST), the Queen addressed Britain in a special national TV broadcast. Wearing a beautiful green dress and green brooch—echoing maybe the hospital scrubs of the medics she praised so fulsomely—the Queen noted this was “a time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all.”
After many days of increasingly unsubtle briefings, the British government was wheeling out the biggest gun of all: Queen Elizabeth II, 93, in their quest to stop people breaking quarantine and going sunbathing on what was an unseasonably warm weekend as U.K. deaths from Coronavirus marched inexorably towards the 5,000 mark.
The queen sat at a desk in Windsor Castle’s White Drawing Room, taking time out from the lonely business of simply staying alive to first thank “everyone on the NHS front line, as well as care workers and those carrying out essential roles, who selflessly continue their day-to-day duties outside the home in support of us all. I am sure the nation will join me in assuring you that what you do is appreciated and every hour of your hard work brings us closer to a return to more normal times.”
The queen in her gentle, firm way also sought to rally the nation into compliance with the lockdown, saying, “I also want to thank those of you who are staying at home, thereby helping to protect the vulnerable and sparing many families the pain already felt by those who have lost loved ones. Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it.”
Sources had said that for the recording of the message this week she was attended by just one cameraman, wearing a full hazmat suit, which may have accounted for her look of slight bewilderment, but also posed the question of whether she had been required to do her own makeup.
The queen is at Windsor Castle with husband Prince Philip; the royal family has been directly caught up in the coronavirus crisis, after Prince Charles’ diagnosis with it, and subsequent recovery.
“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” the queen said. “And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.”
The queen sought to bring together the whole country in her vision of stoic, collective support, verbalizing the essence of “stiff upper lip.” Her message to stay home was the most lyrical version of that instruction. Help each other to stay well, the queen was saying.
“The moments when the United Kingdom has come together to applaud its care and essential workers will be remembered as an expression of our national spirit; and its symbol will be the rainbows drawn by children,” she said.
“Across the Commonwealth and around the world, we have seen heart-warming stories of people coming together to help others, be it through delivering food parcels and medicines, checking on neighbors, or converting businesses to help the relief effort. And though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.”
The queen is one of a group of elderly Britons still alive to have lived through a world war, to which the battle against the coronavirus is now so often being compared.
Her father, George VI, made what was arguably the ancestor of today's speech at the dawn of that war, when he told Britons, by radio: “There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God.”
Today, the queen directly referenced she and her sister Princess Margaret addressing evacuated children in 1940 during World War Two; and then directly invoked Dame Vera Lynn's famous wartime lyric, “We'll meet again.” Her tone recalled the famous moment her mother, the Queen Mother, said she was glad Buckingham Palace had been bombed in 1940 so she could “look the East End in the face.”
“We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety,” the queen said in her address. “Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do. While we have faced challenges before, this one is different.
“This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed—and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
The government had reportedly encouraged the queen to speak today over fears that Britons were beginning to resist the lockdown as the weather turned warmer. One government source told The Sunday Times that ministers regarded the 93-year-old monarch as their “trump card” in persuading wavering citizens to stick to government guidelines.
Her Majesty has made a televised address (other than at Christmas) just four other times before in her long reign; on the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, following the death of her mother in 2002, and in 2012 following celebrations to mark her 60th year as queen.
While her televised eulogy for her mother has perhaps slipped from popular imagination as has her Gulf War message, her address following the death of her deceased former daughter-in-law remains a famous example of crisis management to this day.
Having been pilloried for staying up in Scotland in the days after Diana’s death, where she had been on holiday, the queen eventually returned to London and made the broadcast, live, from the balcony at Buckingham Palace.
Outside and clearly visible behind the queen were crowds of thousands who had gathered outside the palace gates to lay flowers and pay tribute.
The queen said she was speaking “from the heart” as “your queen and as a grandmother”, called Diana an “exceptional and gifted human being” and that she “admired and respected her for her energy and commitment to others and especially for her devotion to her two boys.”
The queen ended her historic coronavirus speech on Sunday with characteristic humility. “For now, I send my thanks and warmest good wishes to you all.” The message had been delivered. This ultimate royal tough was saying: “Thank you to those on the frontline. To everyone else: Stay home. Support each other. We’re in this together.”