On the cusp of her 94th birthday, Queen Elizabeth II gave a pair of addresses which drew upon two resources for coping with adversity – history and faith. The first she uniquely possesses after 68 years on the throne; the second from the office she uniquely holds, head of the Church of England.
Some years back, at a public interview with Conrad Black – former proprietor of this newspaper – I asked him what helped him endure his unjust incarceration. Knowledge of his innocence and the support of family and friends, he answered, as one might expect. But Lord Black also added that he drew succour from his knowledge of history and his religious faith.
That came to mind in thinking about the two coronavirus addresses given by the Queen. The first, a rare special broadcast, only the fifth of her nearly-70 reign, on Palm Sunday, emphasized the comfort of history. The second, released on Holy Saturday, was her first-ever Easter message and spoke about faith.
As Lord Black said to me, “Anyone who reads much history is aware that people have the most astonishing changes of fortune at times.” Knowledge of history provides the comfort that dark times often pass, that hardships thought at the time unbearable can be endured. That’s true for individuals, but also in the life of nations.
The Queen’s special broadcast argued that history has tested the mettle of Britain before, and therefore gives confidence that the challenges of the pandemic would be met.
“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” the Queen said. “And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country.”
It was not exactly a Churchillian “finest hour” but evoked it, or at least proposed that Britons today are the equal of those during World War II. Whether Britain is “still” what it used to be is not exactly what is being tested now, as the sacrifices of war were far more burdensome, but the point remains.
“The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future,” claimed the Queen.
For Elizabeth that’s true; she is both past and present. In a line utterly singular which no one else could ever utter, she referred to her debut speech an astonishing eighty years ago.
“It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made, in 1940, helped by my sister,” Elizabeth said. “We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety… Now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.”
The comfort of history – uniquely evoked by a Queen who lived through so much of it – is that what might seem difficult, or even impossible, has already been accomplished. If they did then, we can do it now.
The Easter message was historic, as the Queen had never made one before. It was clearly not required, as Her Majesty had just spoken to the nation and commonwealth the week previous. The Christmas message is an annual event and a favoured tradition for many, but evidently the Queen thought that Easter was an important occasion to speak in the midst of pandemic anxiety, sickness and death.
“Easter isn’t cancelled,” she reminded her subjects. “Indeed, we need Easter as much as ever.”
The Easter message was framed by liturgical imagery, taken from the great vigil of Easter. Released on Holy Saturday, the Queen spoke of the beginning of the most solemn night.
“As darkness falls on the Saturday before Easter Day, many Christians would normally light candles together,” she said. “In church, one light would pass to another, spreading slowly and then more rapidly as more candles are lit. It’s a way of showing how the good news of Christ’s resurrection has been passed on from the first Easter by every generation until now.”
It may have been the most explicitly religious of any of the Queen’s recent messages. The Christmas message always contains a reference to the birth of Christ, but here the Queen did a little preaching.
“The discovery of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day gave his followers new hope and fresh purpose, and we can all take heart from this,” the Queen said. “We know that Coronavirus will not overcome us. As dark as death can be – particularly for those suffering with grief – light and life are greater. May the living flame of the Easter hope be a steady guide as we face the future.”
The ultimate answer to this pandemic – or any other calamity of history – is not the debate about re-opening shops. It is the opening of the tomb to discover that it is empty.
History and faith are the great consolations in the face of adversity. All the more for a Christian, whose faith is rooted in a fact of history, that life did indeed prove stronger than death that Easter morning.