Queen Elizabeth wants us to know ahead of the Jubilee that she is still very much around
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We don’t know if Queen Elizabeth has ever read Mark Twain. But it seems to send the same message (the actual text is disputed) that he sent to the press in 1897: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Over the past week, the Queen has suddenly gone from a regular absence at events she never missed before (such as the reading of the speech that opens a new parliament) to a fully engaged public figure. And it looks like she’s having fun doing it, there’s a twinkle of mischief in the royal eye as she demonstrates that she can still walk, talk and cast the magic spell of her presence. .
It started with horses. You can never underestimate the importance of horses in the Queen’s life. Being among them transforms her. A woman who is normally free of her emotions in public becomes very lively in a world where she is fluent in the language of thoroughbred breeding, training and racing.
That’s why the Royal Windsor Horse Show, always a passion for her, has stepped up this year to serve as a prologue to the main Platinum Jubilee events. It took place at Home Park, a short distance from her apartment at Windsor Castle but, even then, it was uncertain whether she would be there until her Range Rover suddenly entered the arena to one of the first events of the week.
The front passenger side window was rolled down and the monarch, making her first public appearance in a month, began chatting quietly with other riders. It was hesitant, like she wasn’t sure she was going out. But she did, and at this point it’s important to start looking at the wardrobe for clues as to how the royal return is staged. She walked to a spot in the stands with a stick, dressed in a dark raincoat and a headscarf, something she always preferred for rural sporting life, serving as a sort of leveler, a signal that she freed herself from the flunkey-ordered protocols of the palace.
It was very different for the show’s finale on Sunday. It was a taste of the long-planned shows to come, an amalgamation of Hollywood, the circus ring and a moving national narrative hailing the equestrian role in Britain’s imperial past. Tom Cruise looked particularly messianic as he introduced a triumphant number titled A Gallop Through History, performed by the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery. This is not an active duty unit, but a professional offshoot of the military that appears in 19th century uniforms to perform historical charts.
“Prince Andrew is the curse that haunts the family and can never be exorcised, no matter how good the show.”
This chauvinistic and rousing performance might have helped divert people’s attention from the fact that the mending of relations between the army and the monarchy has been underway since 150 veterans sent a letter to the Queen saying that “officers British Armed Forces must adhere to the highest standards of probity, honesty and honorable conduct. These are standards that Prince Andrew failed to meet.
But, of course, Andrew is the curse that haunts the family and can never be exorcised, no matter how good the show.
For that evening, the queen abandoned the sports kit. She looked more like the hostess of a country dinner, dressed in a long ice-blue dress studded with sequins, covered with a gray shawl. We were starting to wonder what the official line meant, that she had an “episodic mobility problem”. She was obviously independently mobile and comfortable with a cane.
None of this, however, prepared us for the Queen’s next appearance. Over the past decade, her wardrobe has been revitalized by Stewart Parvin, who encouraged her to embrace bright colors for her daytime engagements. The Queen never favored designers on fashion shows, but when she was younger she brought in designers, like Norman Hartnell, who seemed to make her look older than she was. Parvin does the opposite, and her majesty loves it. He’s a classic London bespoke tailor, as adept with cutting his coats as Coco Chanel.
So it was that the Queen came back to life wearing a lemon-yellow Parvin coat when she turned up, unannounced, at Paddington station for the opening of the new railway that bears her name, the Elizabeth Line. The impact was instantaneous, like a cry of “I’m back”.
There were other signals to savor. Among those waiting to greet the Queen was Boris Johnson, her least favorite prime minister. Knowledgeable jokers had speculated that the reason she had skipped, at the last moment, the reading of the opening speech of Parliament, as dictated by Johnson, was that once she had seen how it was childish, she had thrown it at Charles, whose grim expression when his reading indicated that he had detected the same scent.
By then it was obvious the monarch was much happier talking to her horses than Johnson, and she gave her a quick ride to Paddington, before confidently walking through the glittering lobby and seeing how to use the map digitized at the turnstiles.
Who are the hands behind this spirited performance? If anyone lies deep within the Queen’s inner sanctuaries, it’s Angela Kelly, her dresser. As Tina Brown writes in her new bestseller, the Palace documentsKelly is “the last person anyone in the Palace wants to offend” and is “the woman who sees the monarch four times a day in her tights”.
It was Kelly who discovered and hired Parvin, along with the royal hatter, Rachel Trevor-Morgan. Kelly is the only one of the Queen’s entourage to come from a working class background, the daughter of a Liverpool crane operator. Apparently, she and the Queen do some happy conspiratorial mischief together, which is expressed in the outfits that Kelly, Parvin and Trevor-Morgan control and craft together and which set the tone for the Queen’s comeback.
“Considered from the larger perspective of upcoming blockbuster Platinum Jubilee events, these three Queen appearances look a bit like a tease.”
Perhaps the most tantalizing speculation about the Queen’s ability to resume public appearances according to her own preferences is whether she will be heading to the Epsom Derby horse races over the big Jubilee weekend. In the social hierarchy of British racecourses, Ascot is the champagne and caviar event and Epsom is the fish and chips – London punters flock there and the toffs are vastly outnumbered. It’s the kind of place Kelly would like to see her majesty having fun.
In the larger perspective of the upcoming blockbuster Platinum Jubilee events, spread over three days during the first week of June, these three Queen appearances look a bit like a tease. To what extent is his new visibility part of a trial run for what is to come? So much will read about how she is now able to be engaged in the kind of public events that before she could take in her stride – most importantly, is she now fit enough to maintain a daily schedule that matches to her own declaration of resolving to stay on the throne as long as she is able to do the job?
Meanwhile, the big reveal in all of this is that the Jubilee is partly an exercise in using history as propaganda, to place the House of Windsor in the pantheon of great British monarchies. Nothing indicated this more than the appearance of Dame Helen Mirren playing Elizabeth I at the Windsor horse show. In a costume that seemed more Lord of the Rings than Tudor, Mirren delivered a 16th-century eulogy, thanking Her Majesty “for all these years you have carried our nation and been its heart and rhythm”.
Giving the link between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II the appearance of institutional continuity was particularly audacious. The virgin queen was second to none as a nation builder, transforming a boring offshore island into a dominant European power in 45 years. She left her own mission statement to remind that modesty and power are not incompatible: “Though God has raised me high, but I consider this the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves , I have no reason to wish more than to content the subject, which is a duty I have.
The days are long gone when a British monarch had the power to keep his subjects content. Elizabeth II is at least doing her best to entertain them.