The Queen is dead, long live the King



Many words have already been shared in tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II, with the title «great Elizabeth» emerging as a clear public cry.

In the United Kingdom, the commonwealth countries, and well beyond, we will have perhaps shared or heard stories of public sightings of the Queen when she’s visited our country and local community. In years to come people might ask us where we were when we heard the news that the Queen died, and in an era of 24 hours news and push notifications we are less likely to “hear” the news from a stranger in the street than we are to “see” the news light up on our phone screen.

For me this global shock reached me in a highly undignified moment in the aftermath of my first ever spin class. With sweat abounding, and failing to put on shoes without shudders of pain, a voice carried across the room: «what am I going to do – she’s always been there in my life». Only as the conversation developed did it become clear that they were referring to the now deceased Queen and not a loved one.

Here lies a remarkable feat: that Queen Elizabeth II palpably connected with people despite difficult views shared about the monarchy. Her impact in life, and indeed articulating the experience of her death, has been keenly felt in the development of people’s personal narratives; as though she helped domesticate a distant and fraying institution, be that literally through stamps on a letter bearing the image of her head or in cups designed in jubilee print, or through her symbolic presence that has endured over 70 years.

This was confirmed the subsequent day when walking through a rain-soaked town in the south of England in a clerical collar various people paused to share how «God is weeping because the monarch has passed»; and another, musing how «the sky is crying». In literary criticism we use the term pathetic fallacy when an inanimate object is described in human terms and it’s remarkable that when the seemingly remote – be it an institution, the sky, Queen, or indeed God – draws near, individuals intrinsically feel part of something greater.

What is curious in this public expression of grief is that it is conveyed, partially, in the language of Christianity.

To a certain extent, the connection between the Queen and the Church of England creates this context since the Queen was anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1953, and King Charles III will be anointed by the Archbishop too. At her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II declared an oath to «maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England» [1].

Within the formal relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and the established Church of England, there is a deeply personal faith that finds articulation within her public addresses, particularly her Christmas messages where she most recently referred to «life of Jesus — a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith» [2, italics added]. Here again we witness how the institutional and the personal interplay and it’s no surprise that this is echoed in grief upon her death.

King Charles III in his first televised address paid tribute to his cherished «mama» whom he describes as making her «last great journey to join my dear late Papa» [3]. This image of an epic-like pilgrimage to an after-life, akin to Homer or Virgil, is then grounded in his citation from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet with an edited form of these words uttered over the dying Hamlet by his oldest friend Horatio: «Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest» [4].

There are many layers of meaning in this citation with a former prince declaring these poignant words to his beloved mother, the late queen; with words that are spoken over the dying prince by a person he can fully trust in a play that centres on mistrust; in a play that is staged in a royal court while also musing on eternal truths.

The King’s choice of words represents an overture to an everlasting life that is at once a personal expression of love and faith but also an accessible and delicate nod to concrete hope expressed in Christian funeral liturgy via Shakespeare. In this way, the heavens really have drawn near and the «rest is silence» [5].




[4] William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2, line 365.

[5] Ibid. 5.2.364.

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