The Queen’s Twinkling Pre-Jubilee Message: I’m Still Here!

·7 min read
Andrew Matthews - WPA Pool/Getty
Andrew Matthews - WPA Pool/Getty

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We don’t know if Queen Elizabeth has ever read Mark Twain. But she seems to be sending the same message (the actual text is disputed) he sent to the press in 1897: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

In the last week , the queen has suddenly gone from being a regular no-show at events she formerly never missed (like reading the speech that opens a new parliament) to being a fully engaged public figure. And it feels like she’s having fun doing it, that there’s a twinkle of mischief in the regal eye when demonstrating that she can still actually walk, talk, and cast the magic spell of her presence.

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It began 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 spare with her emotions in public becomes highly animated in a world where she is fluent in the language of the breeding, training, and racing of thoroughbreds.

That’s why the Royal Windsor Horse Show, always a passion of hers, was pumped up this year to serve as prologue to the main events of the platinum jubilee. It was held in Home Park, only a short distance from her apartment in Windsor castle but, even then, it was not certain that she would be there until her Range Rover suddenly drove into the arena for one of the week’s early events.

The front passenger side window was rolled down and the monarch, making her first public appearance for a month, began quietly chatting to fellow equestrians. It felt tentative, as though she was unsure of stepping out. But step out she did, and at this point it is important to start watching the wardrobe for clues to how the royal comeback is being stage-managed. She walked to a place in the bleachers with a stick, wearing a dark waterproof coat and a headscarf, something she has always favored for the rural sporting life, serving as a kind of leveler, a signal that she’s broken free of the flunkey-ordered palace protocols.

It was very different for the show’s finale on Sunday. This was a first taste of the long-planned spectaculars to come, a fusion of Hollywood, the circus ring and a stirring national narrative saluting the equestrian role in the British imperial past. Tom Cruise looked particularly messianic as he introduced a triumphalist number entitled A Gallop Through History, performed by the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery. This is not an active service unit but a professionally thespian offshoot of the army who appear in 19th-century uniforms to perform historic tableaux.

This rousingly jingoistic performance might have helped to take peoples’ minds off the fact that repairing relations between the military and the monarchy has been under way since 150 veterans sent a letter to the queen saying that, “Officers of the British armed forces must adhere to the very highest standards of probity, honesty and honorable conduct. These are standards which Prince Andrew has fallen well short of.”

But, of course, Andrew is the curse haunting the family that can never be exorcised, however great the show.

For that evening the queen abandoned the sportswoman kit. She was more like the hostess of a country house dinner party, wearing a long ice-blue dress studded with sequins, covered in a grey shawl. We were beginning to wonder what the official line meant, that she had an “episodic mobility problem.” She was obviously independently mobile and comfortable using a walking stick.

None of this, however, prepared us for the queen’s next appearance. For the last decade her wardrobe has been revitalized by Stewart Parvin, who encouraged her to adopt striking colors for her daytime engagements. The queen has never favored amped-up catwalk couturiers, but when she was younger she used some designers, like Norman Hartnell, who seemed to make her look older than she was. Parvin does the reverse, and her majesty loves it. He is a classic London bespoke tailor, as deft with the cut of his coats as Coco Chanel.

Thus it was that the queen burst again into life wearing a lemon-yellow Parvin coat when she turned up, unexpected, at Paddington station for the opening of the new railway named for her, the Elizabeth Line. The impact was instantaneous—like a cry of “I’m back.”

There were other signals to be savored. Among those waiting to greet the queen was Boris Johnson, her least favorite prime minister. Well-informed wags had been speculating that the reason she had skipped, at the last moment, reading the speech that opens parliament, as dictated by Johnson, was that once she saw how puerile it was she dumped it on Charles, whose doleful expression when reading it indicated that he had detected the same odor.

By now it was apparent that the monarch was far happier talking to her horses than Johnson, and she gave him short shrift at Paddington, before striding confidently through the glittering concourse and being shown how to use the digitized card at the turnstiles.

Whose hands are behind this zestful performance? If anyone is in the innermost of the inner sanctums of the queen it is Angela Kelly, her dresser. As Tina Brown writes in her new bestseller, The Palace Papers, Kelly is “the last person anyone at the Palace wants to offend” and is “the woman who sees the monarch four times a day in her pantyhose.”

It was Kelly who discovered and hired Parvin, as well as the royal hat-maker, Rachel Trevor-Morgan. Kelly is the only one of those around the queen who has a working-class background, the daughter of a Liverpool crane operator. Apparently, she and the queen make happy conspiratorial mischief together, which gets expressed in the outfits that Kelly, Parvin and Trevor-Morgan together control and craft and which set the tone of the comeback queen.

Perhaps the most tantalizing speculation about the queen’s capacity to resume public appearances according to her own preferences centers on whether she will make it to the Epsom Derby horse races on 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 to it, and the toffs are greatly outnumbered. It’s the kind of place where Kelly would love to see her majesty having fun.

Looked at in the broader perspective of the coming Platinum Jubilee blockbuster events, spread over three days in the first week of June, these three appearances by the queen feel like a bit of a tease. How far is her new visibility part of a try-out for what is to come? So much will be read into how engaged she is now able to be in the kind of public events which before she could take in her stride – most of all, is she now fit enough to keep up a daily schedule that accords with her own stated resolve to remain on the throne as long as she is able to do the job?

In the meantime, 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 an encomium from the 16th century, thanking Her Majesty “for all those years you have carried our nation and been its heart and drumbeat.”

Giving the link between Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II the appearance of institutional continuity was particularly audacious. The Virgin Queen had no equal as a nation builder, transforming in 45 years an irksome offshore island into a dominant European power. She left her own mission statement as a reminder that modesty and power are not incompatible: “Though God hath raised me high, yet I count this the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves, I have cause to wish nothing more than to content the subject, which is a duty that I owe.”

The time has long since passed when a British monarch had the power to keep their subjects content. Elizabeth II is at least trying her best to keep them entertained.

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