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Last Thursday, Sept. 8, the world witnessed the decline in health and death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Despite her advanced age of 96 years, her long reign and constant presence in public life — she had just appointed her 15th prime minister two days before — made her departure feel sudden and unexpected. Her passing prompted mourning in Britain, the Commonwealth, and worldwide.
Despite my lack of affiliation to either Britain or the Commonwealth, I was among those who felt the Queen’s death acutely. But why should I, or any of us, mourn Queen Elizabeth? Some have suggested it is because her death closes the chapter on a romanticized bygone era — but this is not why. Instead, we should mourn her because she embodied something larger than herself or any of us: the continuity of her nation, its laws, and its history. The Queen discharged this task with visible dutifulness until the very day she died.
Among the ancient Latin maxims of the English Common Law, one stands out, both in its puzzling, mystical language, and importance: Rex nunquam moritur, “the King never dies.” Despite its origins as a piece of medieval political theology, it still very much is part of the law. It declares the utter and unbreakable continuity of the Crown, from which all governing authority flows. This is why, upon the moment of the Queen’s death, the Crown passed invisibly, imperceptibly, and immediately, to her son King Charles III.
This feature of the law, however, does much more than merely secure the survival and continuity of government. It palpably transforms the one on the throne into the embodiment of the nation, the keeper of its laws, justice, and legacy. It is often said that the monarch has two bodies: a Body Natural “subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident,” and a Body Politic “that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal ... utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects.” These words, recorded by Elizabethan jurist Sir Edmund Plowden, do not, of course, represent current legal reasoning. However, the spirit of the King’s Two Bodies lives on not only in the law but in the very culture of Britain. It features prominently in works such as Shakespeare’s “Henry V”:
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
(Act IV, Scene 1)
Queen Elizabeth II embodied her nation for more than 70 years. Most of us did not know a world without her. While during her life and reign the Queen accomplished much — and made mistakes — her personal actions are not the main source of people’s admiration and subsequent grief. Rather, she is mourned principally as the deceased vessel of Britain’s and the Commonwealth’s essence, stability, and endurance. The successful execution of this great duty is in itself quite a feat, as it requires the monarch to almost renounce their own humanity, giving up much of their personal freedom, privacy, and even sometimes their name to serve their people. Queen Elizabeth’s success in this endeavor is magnified by the visible and undeniable sense of duty that she displayed in her role. On her 21st birthday in 1947 she made an often-quoted pledge, declaring that her “whole life, whether it be long or short” would be devoted to her people’s service. She fulfilled this promise, as she discharged her constitutional duties even in infirmity, to her very last day.
To an American audience, this system of national continuity may seem esoteric and borderline mystical — almost the stuff of fairy tales. However, each country has their own way to symbolize national unity. For Americans, it may have been, until recently, the dignity of the presidential office. In Britain, the Crown serves this unifying and stabilizing role. The monarchy is effective due to its historic tradition and powerful dignity. The monarch is there in moments of national celebrations large and small, whether it be the end of a great war or the opening of a new school or hospital. The Crown also leads in moments of crisis and uncertainty, comforting its people as the Queen did when she addressed the nation in 2020, during the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Throughout her life, from the years following World War II to the present day, she became the foremost cultural icon of Britain. Now she is gone and, inevitably, Britain has changed forever.
Queen Elizabeth II touched many lives abroad, both through her service as an agent of peace and diplomacy, and by the example of her leadership. It is very possible that I may not have ended up as a scholar of medieval history, society, and kingship without the Queen’s far-reaching influence. It was my first visit to Britain at the age of 10 that began my fascination with stories of the past and their lessons. My passion for history began when a very young and eager version of myself memorized the succession of monarchs from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen’s role and duty opened my eyes to the endlessly intriguing progress of history, which enables some things to evolve deeply yet somehow stay the same.
I admired the Queen for the continuity and stability that she represented. Being born and raised in Venezuela, I knew nothing but national instability and the partisan corruption of my people’s country. In Queen Elizabeth II, I saw hope of unity and solidity that, though they can be tested, always prevail.
Symbols are important and powerful things. In a modern world where a pragmatic, materialist view of the world dominates, it is easy to assert that they do not matter anymore. But the millions who mourn the loss of Elizabeth II are witnesses to the power of symbols. These are forces for good, forming links among peoples with disagreements and enabling them to carry on in progress. To become a living symbol, as the Queen did, involves a great act of sacrifice.
We should not mourn Queen Elizabeth II because she represented some element of a romanticized, bygone era, as some have suggested, for the “good old days” were not always good. Instead, we should commemorate her for serving as the warrantor of national unity, cultural continuity, and steady leader of her people as history progressed. Indeed, she was a link to the past, one that did not look backwards to it, but instead anchored her nation’s future on it. This role has now been passed to her son, King Charles III, whose immediate assumption of duty and service profoundly demonstrates once again that the Queen never dies.
Juan José López Haddad ’22 concentrated in History and is from Caracas, Venezuela. He is a former Senior Columnist for the ‘Prince.’ He is now a PhD student in Medieval History at Johns Hopkins University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.