Richard Berthelsen: The Queen's first major public appearance since death of Prince Philip
TORONTO -- Many eyes were on the Queen today as she performed one of her key constitutional and ceremonial duties, the State Opening of Parliament in London, similar to what Canadians know as a Throne Speech.
A much-diminished affair owing to the pandemic, it was the first occasion the Queen has undertaken a public engagement outside Windsor Castle since the death of Prince Philip, just over one month ago. There was a nod to the prince in the choice of the dress that the Queen wore under her coat, last seen in a photo taken for Philip’s 99th birthday last June.
In 1974, 2017 and 2019, the State Opening was conducted in a "dressed-down" manner, due to unexpected general elections held in those years. But in 2021, the few who were able to be present along with the absence of military ceremonial gave the event a sombre, hollow feeling and it seemed quiet and sad, as if a continuation of the mourning for the Duke of Edinburgh and all that has been lost because of the public health crisis. This was the Queen’s 67th opening, having only missed it when she was pregnant in 1959 and 1963.
Like the last three openings when Philip was ill or since his retirement, the Queen was accompanied by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. It was 2016 when Prince Philip sat beside the Queen in the House of Lords. The throne of the consort has now been removed, a poignant reminder that Her Majesty is now a widow and alone at the head of the chamber. Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, sat on chairs to the Queen’s left, a reminder that in due course, they will be fulfilling this duty together.
It has been five years since the Queen wore the two-pound Imperial State Crown which is now carried in front of her instead. The Queen has said that the wearing of the Crown could break her neck if she were to move her head the wrong way and it makes for difficult reading as she must look down to read the speech, which is written by the PM and cabinet. Regardless of the level of ceremonial, it is unlikely we will see her wear the Crown again as she is now 95.
Prince Charles and other members of the Royal Family have been prominent in accompanying the Queen to public duties over the past few years, taking the place of Prince Philip, and this is now likely to become more pronounced as the Queen moves into the twilight years of her reign, alone.
Looking beyond the pandemic, there has been speculation that the Queen is unlikely to return to the same robust schedule which she had prior to March of last year. It was remarkable for someone of her age at the time. In the years ahead, where she is without her strength and stay, and owing to her age, she is likely to be seen in public only for the major state occasions, hosting events at Royal residences, and to travel from Windsor Castle to another residence. Indeed, the Queen is unlikely to return to Buckingham Palace very much, choosing to remain at Windsor while spending late summer vacation at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands and Christmas and winter at Sandringham, once it is safe to do so.
While this will be a change and a reduced presence, it is more than Queen Victoria managed 150 years ago following the death of Prince Albert, the last consort to predecease a reigning monarch. Queen Victoria was rarely seen after 1861 and had to be coaxed to appear in public by her prime ministers and family. Indeed, Victoria did not appear in parliament for five years following the death of Albert and scarcely opened parliament in person for the last 40 years of her reign. Even when she did, the speech was read for her by the Lord Chamberlain.
Today’s appearance makes very clear, just a few short weeks since Prince Philip was laid to rest, that the Queen intends to continue in her remaining years and will fulfil her duty much as she has throughout the past 70 years.
There is speculation from time to time about abdication or the establishment of a regency, where Prince Charles would essentially take over the constitutional duties, it is not likely that the Queen would agree, provided her health and mental acuity remains sharp. As we have seen throughout the past year in the Queen’s interaction with people on Zoom calls, Her Majesty retains her vitality as well as her sense of humor in addition to her recall of events of a long time ago. Just this week, the Queen was recalling her own swimming lessons when she was the first to achieve a junior award from the Royal Lifesaving Society at the age of 16, some 80 years ago.
While the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall have been stepping up in recent years taking on international travel as well as many other duties, this has been evolutionary rather than sudden, which is the Queen’s style. Other members of the Royal Family will be taking on more, which will be a challenge given the much-reduced size of the working Royal Family and the relatively few members who are under the age of 50. But with a 54-nation Commonwealth and 16 countries who, like Canada, have the Queen as their head of state, this will be essential if the Crown is to be seen and play an active role in the lives of people which it purports to represent and serve.
In an era of dynamic change and with many institutions being called into question, the Queen remains at the heart of constitutional and ceremonial life. She continues to act as head of the nation in a symbolic and inspirational way, particularly at her age and as she walks alone. The Queen will always put the interest of Crown and country ahead of her own, and so only if her health or ability to do the job were impacted would she consider any formal stepping back. As ever, with Elizabeth II, duty will come ahead of personal consideration as it always has.
Until then, the Queen remains at the head of the Royal Family and the family of nations in the Commonwealth, as the last years unfold in what has been a record-setting reign and a long, healthy, and purposed filled life.