For royal biographer Hugo Vickers, the Queen was incomparable
We have lived through sad and yet stirring days since the news came from Balmoral on the evening of Thursday 8 September. I became distinctly uneasy when I heard that a Privy Council Zoom had been cancelled on doctor’s orders, as this was the first time in 70 years that the Queen had been unable to perform an important constitutional duty – signing in the new members of the Cabinet. I know we did not see her very much in the summer and wisely she did not read a convoluted political speech at the State Opening of Parliament, but Zooms are not usually a great strain to do. And she was very good at them.
We then saw two things happen. First, there was the affirmation of the new King. I witnessed the warmth of the welcome given to him as his car moved along the Mall, and no one could fault his inspirational address the night after the Queen’s death. He was plunged into his new role. In 1952 the new Queen did not have to make visits to Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff in the days before her father’s funeral. Even on his day of rest, the Court Circular recorded one telephone call after another between him and the President of the United States, Governor Generals and others.
And then there was the long and magnificent farewell to the Queen. I felt so sorry for all those on the Balmoral estate as the hearse left. There were the stirring scenes in Edinburgh and I am sure there was deep sadness when that military plane took off and the people of Scotland realised they would never see her again. Her arrival at Buckingham Palace in the rain and the darkness was followed the next day by the great procession to Westminster Hall in September sunshine. The majority of those who queued for the Lying-in-State would never have seen anything like it, or even known that a Gentleman at Arms existed. And finally we saw the coffin descend slowly into the Royal Vault.
The Queen should be called Elizabeth the Steadfast. Or perhaps Elizabeth the Conciliator. Even way back in 1958 when President Heuss of Germany came on his state visit, her line was:
The tragic events of the past half-century in the relations between our two countries are a part of history. We must now look to the future and through our alliance and our association with each other and with other countries of the west we must forge anew the bonds of amity and peace.
The Queen and the Government were way ahead of the British people on that visit.
Her first Private Secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, wrote of the Queen: ‘Her serenity was constant, her wisdom faultless. On the whole I consider her the most remarkable woman I have ever met.’ During the 22 months he served her, he saw her almost daily:
Her immediate grasp of the routine business of kingship was remarkable. She never seemed to need an explanation on any point. Time after time I would submit to her papers on which several decisions were possible. She would look out of the window for half a minute and then say: ‘The second or third suggestion is the right decision’ – and she was invariably right. She had an intuitive grasp of the problems of government and indeed of life generally, that I suppose had descended to her from Queen Victoria.
And her first Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill made a good point when he stepped down in 1955. He wrote to her that she had resolved ‘to serve as well as rule, and indeed rule by serving’. There can be few finer epitaphs to the Queen and it came from a great man.
A good verdict was given in a sermon on the Sunday after her death by Lord Waldegrave, Provost of Eton, who said that she ‘was not some titanic writer or scientist, politician or soldier who had led nations to triumph or glory, a Mandela or Tolstoy or Newton or Napoleon. She was an honest, decent, hardworking woman with a sharp sense of humour and a heavenly smile; an iron memory for faces, a fascination with people, a great expertise in bloodstock, a quiet but profound Christian faith, the rock on which she built her life.’
He made the point that an intolerable burden had been placed on her which caused her to sacrifice virtually all her freedom and voluntarily circumscribe her own individuality into the role of physically embodying the values and traditions of the nations of which she was sovereign.
Most remarkably, in 1947, when she was 21, she promised to serve all her life. And she never failed to keep that promise. That is surely unique in public life.