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Princeton professors honored by Queen Elizabeth II reflect on her legacy

<h5>Paul Muldoon posing with Queen Elizabeth II after receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2017.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of the Royal Family’s Twitter page</h6>
Paul Muldoon posing with Queen Elizabeth II after receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2017.
Courtesy of the Royal Family’s Twitter page

On Sept. 8, Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 96. Upon her death, she was the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch, having served for more than 70 years. Over the course of her life, the Queen bestowed honors upon an array of Princeton professors who have made extraordinary contributions to their fields. The Daily Princetonian sat down with several professors to discuss their award ceremonies and reflections on the Queen’s life.

In 2009, Professor of History David Cannadine was in Britain when he received a brown envelope in the mail.

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“[The letter inside] said in the event of my being offered a knighthood, would I accept it, and then there were two boxes to tick at the bottom — either yes or no … And so I ticked yes, of course,” he said.

In Great Britain, being knighted is one of the highest honors an individual can receive. The reigning British monarch announces honors — including knighthoods — twice each year: once for the new year and once on their official birthday. Cannadine was knighted as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s 2009 British New Year Honours List.

About six months after opening his letter, Cannadine arrived at Buckingham Palace for his knighting ceremony, which was preceded by a rehearsal. 

“Those getting knighthoods have to kneel down on a very strange piece of furniture which is ergonomically rather odd,” Cannadine explained. “So that kneeling down and getting up is not as straightforward as you think it might ordinarily ought to be. So [we] practiced that.”

While Cannadine was honored by the Queen, then-Prince Charles performed the actual knighting ceremony on the Queen’s behalf, which took place in a ballroom in Buckingham Palace. 

“It’s a great occasion,” Cannadine said, reflecting on the ceremony. “And they do it very well. They know that for many people, it’s the great moment of their life. They make it memorable and splendid.” 

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Sir Cannadine is not the only knight on Princeton’s campus.

For Professor of Chemistry David MacMillan, the past 12 months have constituted “the craziest year of [his] life.”

On Oct. 6, 2021, MacMillan received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In May 2022, MacMillan was in South Korea for the inauguration of the new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, when at around 4 a.m., the hotel contacted him and told him that the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. was trying to reach him.

“[The Dame on the phone] said that as part of [the Queen’s] Jubilee celebration, you’ve been selected to become a Knight of the British Empire … or words to that effect,” MacMillan shared.

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MacMillan said he was very emotional upon hearing the news and began crying on the phone.

“I grew up as a working class kid, a steelworker’s son in the middle of Scotland. To be knighted … it’s amazing, wonderful,” MacMillan reflected.

MacMillan was named a Knight Bachelor as a part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2022 Overseas and International List. Also honored on this list is Sir Cannadine’s wife, history professor Linda Colley. In 2009, Colley was previously honored by the Queen with a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. This year, she was promoted to Dame of the Order of the British Empire.

Dame Colley did not respond to requests for comment by the ‘Prince.’

Since that phone call, MacMillan has learned that knighthood comes with some special perks.

“So they’ve just contacted me so that I can now receive a coat of arms, and then that coat of arms can be handed down from generation to generation which is totally bizarre to me,” he said.

MacMillan’s investiture ceremony — the process of giving someone power, a rank, or an official title — has yet to occur, and due to the timing of the Queen’s death, he finds himself in a unique situation.

“When I go over for the investment — where I have to kneel down and they put the sword on my shoulder — that’ll probably be King Charles who does that. So it’s kind of really unique and unusual because you’re knighted by the Queen, but the investiture will probably be performed by the King,” he said.

While neither Cannadine nor MacMillan actually met the Queen, Professor in the Humanities Paul Muldoon had the opportunity to meet her when he received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2017. The Gold Medal is an award presented for outstanding work in poetry to any resident of the United Kingdom or a Commonwealth realm. 

“The ceremony involved meeting the Queen in Buckingham Palace,” wrote Muldoon in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “I understand that the presentation of the Gold Medal is often a very peremptory affair, but I ended up spending half an hour with the Queen. The person whom she saw immediately before me was [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan of Turkey, so I must have seemed like a blessed relief after that.”

Muldoon recalled the Queen’s sense of humor, saying, “As it happens, we had a hilarious time together. I told her how much her 2011 visit to Ireland had meant and she mentioned how she still got a salmon each year from a fishmonger in Cork. I teased her about the possibility that an Irish salmon might be even better than a Scottish salmon. She was amused by that.”

Muldoon added, “We discussed quite a number of topics, including the upcoming wedding of Meghan and Harry. She spoke of that in an extremely unbuttoned way.”    

For Muldoon, the recent death of the Queen was emotional.

“I must say I was saddened to think of her death,” Muldoon wrote. “My sense of her was that she was a lovely person.”

Cannadine, born in 1950, recalled that his earliest childhood memories are of the Queen’s coronation, which happened when he was two years old. Now a distinguished professor of British history, Cannadine was invited by the BBC several years ago to help with the Queen’s funeral coverage when she died. He arrived in England the Sunday before the funeral to assist with commentary.

“It was an amazing day,” he reflected. “I mean, it’s the grandest funeral in its scale that any monarch has ever had.”

He explained, “In part, insofar as these occasions have meanings, it was about the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, highlighted by the whole set of new ceremonials in Scotland and by the fact that between her death and the funeral, King Charles, as he had by then become, went to Belfast.”

MacMillan said he was surprised by the magnitude of his own emotional response to learning of her passing. MacMillan attributes that response to the weight of losing a fixture in British politics.

“However you feel about the monarchy or royalty, this is a person who’s just been there your whole life. It feels like a complete constant that has never really changed and then all of a sudden, she’s not there anymore,” he said.

Cannadine attributed the “sense of disorientation” surrounding the Queen’s passing to the fact that “she was the last great link with the Second World War.” “She had known 14 American presidents and seen all of them except LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson]. She had 15 prime ministers. So it was a very long life.” 

“She was a public figure for more than 70 years, and there’s almost nobody who you can say that [about],” he continued.

MacMillan reflected on the fact that he was one of the last people to be knighted by the Queen. “It would have been remarkable to go meet the Queen. But it’s still the same — it’ll be remarkable. [I’ll] meet the King,” he said.

Julie Levey is an assistant Features editor for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at jlevey@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @juliehlevey.

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