ONE YOUNG Englishman was exhilarated by the queen’s Diamond Jubilee, as he had been ten years earlier when the Golden Jubilee had celebrated her first half-century on the throne. Then twelve years old, he had written to his mother: “P.S. Remember the Jubilee,” followed by a series of letters begging to be taken to see the great event. They were signed, “Your loving son Winny.”
That Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, in the summer of 1887, had seen European royalty gather in Westminster Abbey, while across the land, bonfires were lit. In A.E. Housman’s words:
Look left, look right, the hills are bright, The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.
By the time of the Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Hussars—as little “Winny” had become—was on leave in England, but his festivities were interrupted by riveting news. A force was being raised by General Sir Bindon Blood (a name only the rashest author of imperial yarns would confer on a character), and Churchill was attached to it as a correspondent. He rushed back to India, where he wrote newspaper reports and then quickly produced his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, telling of how this expedition had meted out condign punishment to the Afghan tribesmen.
Astonishingly enough, 55 years later, when Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter succeeded to the throne in 1952, the young Queen Elizabeth II was greeted by a 77-year-old prime minister: Churchill himself, in his rather eerie last phase at Downing Street. He was enchanted by the young queen. In a broadcast to welcome her, he said tellingly that his own youth “was passed in the ... tranquil glories of the Victorian Era,” though not everyone thought the era merely glorious even at the time, and it was scarcely tranquil. In between, there had been another celebration, the Silver Jubilee of George V in 1935, which became a great national street party, as “English people, very sensibly,” in AJP Taylor’s words, “turned the Jubilee into a personal tribute to a king who, in a modest conservative way, had a better record as constitutional sovereign than any monarch since William III.”
So it was this month. To the impotent rage of malcontents, the country has been swept with delight in the Jubilee and affection for the queen. Every town and village seems to have been swaddled in bunting and Union Jacks, while the splendid flotilla coming down the Thames was watched from the banks by more than a million people, despite the rain (damn it all, this is England). Just as in Housman’s lines, the hills were bright with bonfires, including a fine one in our village, and all culminating with the great service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Victoria’s procession had stopped in June 1897. Americans might find this enthusiasm hard to understand, but Churchill provides a clue: The queen and her husband are one of the last surviving links to what “Winny” called our finest hour.
AT 86, ELIZABETH II is sprightlier than Victoria at 78, when her Diamond Jubilee fell. And yet, if you look back at the low ebbs of her reign—from the “annus horribilis” of 1992, with the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, to “Diana Week” of 1997, with its incontinent synthetic mourning for the dead princess and Rupert Murdoch–inspired hostility to the queen—her latest sky-high popularity ratings (and the monarchy’s) might perplex even our sovereign. But then she could already have noticed how affectionate recent theatrical and cinematic portrayals of the monarchy have been. Alan Bennett, no reactionary royalist, gave us an engaging look at our present queen in A Question of Attribution. The King’s Speech was wildly unhistorical but served as almost a mash note to George VI. Most striking of all was The Queen, which—one suspects, unintentionally—came across as royalist propaganda.
One of that film’s minor scenes might hold the key. Played by Helen Mirren, the queen is driving a Land Rover when it breaks down, and she calls for help on her cell phone. When given patronizing advice, she replies: “You forget I worked as a mechanic in the war.” And so she did. She is the only living head of state to have worn a uniform in World War II. Prince Philip, who was taken ill and unable to attend the service in St. Paul’s, is today certainly the only spouse of a head of state to have seen action in that war. On Jubilee Sunday, he smiled as he stood aboard the Royal barge in his admiral’s uniform, 71 years after the 19-year-old Philip Mountbatten had been a junior officer in HMS Valiant at the Battle of Cape Matapan, which sank most of the Italian cruiser fleet in a brilliant night action. His father-in-law, George VI, had likewise been present as a midshipman at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
The queen herself served in the ranks of the ATS, the women’s army service. Its commander-in-chief was her mother, a woman whose life was more than touched by the reality of war. The late Queen Mother’s brother Fergus was killed serving with the Black Watch in 1915, and her nephew John was killed with the Scots Guards in 1941. When the Queen Mother died ten years ago, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian wrote, not contemptuously but rather dismissively, that few would mark the passing of this figure from a bygone age. To his credit, he subsequently acknowledged just how wrong he had been: 200,000 people came to her lying-in-state, and very many more watched her funeral procession.
And this spontaneous demonstration of feeling wasn’t so much about a plump elderly lady with a fondness for racehorses and gin. It was about 1940. In May of that year, the shy, inarticulate king, who had never expected or wanted to succeed to the throne, appointed Winston Churchill prime minister (it was a most uneasy relationship at first). The king and queen refused to send their children to safety in Canada or so much as contemplate leaving themselves; George practiced target-shooting with a revolver in the garden at Buckingham Palace and intended to die fighting if a German invasion came. Our memories of that year were jogged by the presence in the flotilla of some of the surviving little ships that had helped bring the army back from Dunkirk, then on Tuesday by a flypast of jets—and Spitfires, whose sight and sound always pluck a heartstring in the least jingoist soul.
In the six decades that the queen has reigned, our country has changed unimaginably, and to say whether for better or worse is pointless: Obviously enough, it’s something of both. The empire has gone, along with national greatness and military glory, despite the uncomfortable echoes of Churchill’s Malakand force, with British soldiers in Afghanistan. Maybe the Jubilee could be decried as pageantry or a nation living on memories. But the memories are of something real: a time of which we remain proud, and which the queen—in conspicuous contrast to modern politicians more keen to order wars than to serve in them—still embodies.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author, most recently, of Yo Blair! This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.