Opinion and the monarchy during the Queen’s reign
Our series turns to consider how opinion on the monarchy has varied over the years of Her Majesty’s long reign.
Life for members of the Royal Family is conducted in the public eye. Newspaper columnists, broadcasters and, in more recent years, bloggers, vloggers and those who like to tweet have not held back in sharing opinions on the Royals.
The Church of Ireland Gazette, while generally sympathetic to the monarchy, has not been backward about making comment about the traditions of the Crown, and activities of members of the Royal Family, including the Queen herself.
We go back to May 29 1953, just before the Coronation, when a front page article in the Gazette urged people to pray for their new queen. “There is New Testament authority for any Christian who feels led to pray for Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day,” it stated
The writer estimated that there may be as much, if not more, prayer for the young Queen in the Republic of Ireland as in Northern Ireland.
“Time changes emphasis. Few people would contend now to establish the divine right of kings. Where royalty still reigns, duty rather than right is the watchword. When Queen Elizabeth II is crowned one further step will be taken in accordance with the teaching of the Church Catechism on the obligation ‘to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.’
“The course of history has made the call of God to her inescapable, except by way of renunciation. Her Majesty has recognised this in public utterance, and has asked often for the prayers of her people. The British Commonwealth of Nations may well thank God that it has a Queen who does not sit lightly to the claims of religion.”
The writer goes on to say: “It is a time for the stirring of the spirit in the lives of all sorts and conditions of men, a time for prayer ‘for all that are in high place.’”
In a separate article in that same issue, entitled ‘Exclusively for Laymen’ the Gazette states: “In a few days’ time, a young woman will be crowned queen of a country which has suffered in one generation the material and spiritual exhaustion of two world wars, and is still among the leaders of the world. It will be a great occasion. And there’s no use in anyone in Ireland pretending they’re not interested. We all are. Romance calls forth strong emotions, even in the breasts of our professional and amateur politicians.”
Queen Elizabeth was not always the sole focus of media interest, and in November 1955, the Gazette turned its attentions to her sister, Princess Margaret, after the princess announced she would not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend. She said at the time [not recorded in the Gazette]: “I have been aware that, subject to my renouncing my rights of succession, it might have been possible for me to contract a civil marriage. But, mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have decided to put these considerations before any others.”
Her decision was applauded in the Gazette’s columns, which referenced the abdication of King Edward VIII who chose to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson.
“Some 18 years ago, a large part of the civilized world listened to a last message from a King of England who had made the decision to abdicate in order to be able to live his life in his own way. It was a memorable speech on a memorable if regrettable occasion.
“We recalled it as we listened to the simple statement of Princess Margaret… There can be no doubt as to which will live in history as an expression of royalty at its finest and best. To act in accordance with the teaching of the Church and the dictates of duty when they conflict with human aims and ambitions must seem almost old–fashioned in this day and age.”
The commentator continued to say that Princess Margaret had shown the way, not so much by word as by deed, to the source of true joys.
“The Princess has said, at whatever tremendous personal cost, something that a lifetime of preaching could never have said so effectively. We pray, with every confidence, that she may have the real peace and happiness which she deserves.”
On May 10 1957, in an article headlined ‘Your problems discussed’, the Gazette appears to take umbrage at an article published in the Sunday Dispatch. The article in question was penned by Hugh Ross Williamson, apparently ‘a leading Anglo–Catholic clergyman until 1955 when he became a [Roman] Catholic.’
On the topic of Queen Elizabeth, Mr Williamson apparently stated: “But there is one thing all Anglicans… must believe. They must believe that Queen Elizabeth II is the successor of St Peter as Head of the Church of England.”
The Gazette writer queries whether Mr Hugh Ross Williamson is ‘an historian’ as he claims to be. “When Henry VIII wished to be regarded as Supreme Head of the Church of England Convocation limited his claim with the words ‘so far as the law of Christ doth allow.’ And in any event Henry never represented himself as the source of spiritual power… Behind the King’s assertion of authority was the determination that the Pope should not be the source of jurisdiction in England. That was the whole point.
“Elizabeth I altered the title to ‘Supreme Governor.’ The change avoided any ambiguity which her father’s title might have suggested… But like her father, Elizabeth did not say that she was taking to herself spiritual authority or pre–eminence. She never sought recognition of power in the ministry of the divine offices within the Church.”
The Gazette continued: “Today, Queen Elizabeth II is even more circumscribed in her authority over Church matters. The power of the Crown over churchmen as such is no greater than it is over the same citizens as members of the civil realm. In fact, in many ways it has less power in matters ecclesiastical than it has in temporal affairs.”
The Gazette was vocal in August 1957, following what it described as ‘the outspoken comments of Lord Altrincham on Queen Elizabeth and her court.’
“Much of what the noble lord, who is neither a Socialist nor even one of the angrier young Tories, had to say was bound to give offence in many quarters. But a substantial body of opinion, itself by no means extremist, appears to exist to support the basic substance of his argument,” the Gazette stated.
‘RACING AND POLO’
“For instance, many commentators who would not admit a necessity for the democratization of court circles do concede that the Commonwealth ought to be substantially represented amongst those who surround and advise the Queen. The point is also made that the Royal engagement book should include a greater variety of appointments, especially in the spheres of sport and entertainment. As things are, it is argued, only those of Her Majesty’s subjects who patronize racing and polo have much chance of seeing her as a fellow–spectator.”
The article continued: “But, on the whole, the general feeling appears to be that the Royal Family are doing a good job of work, though they may not always have the benefit of the best advice. It is likely that the criticisms of Lord Altrincham and the subsequent debate in the Press will not have passed unnoticed in court circles, and it may be that changes will be made, albeit gradually and with discretion.”
In the summer of 1959, Her Majesty was pregnant with her third child. On August 14 the Gazette reflected on the forthcoming royal event. “The thoughts and prayers of people everywhere throughout the world will be with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth during the coming months,” it stated. “Not since the middle of the last century has a child been born to a reigning British monarch and the implications of the event in those days were much less far–reaching.
“The British Commonwealth has come to take for granted the ability and willingness of the sovereign to make proper appearances at the proper times and in the proper places and an enforced and prolonged withdrawal from public affairs must post a novel situation. But apart from the natural rejoicing attaching to such an event, there would seem to be every reason to expect that the birth of a third child to Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh will result in the strengthening of the ties that bind them to their people.
“Already there have been signs that the ‘royal tour,’ involving brief and formal appearances at one public function after another, is not only wearing to those who make it, but unsatisfactory to those amongst whom it is made. Opinion in Canada has been outspoken on the matter. We venture to predict that the months ahead will forge a stronger link between Her Majesty and her people than could many a year of carefully planned and dutifully performed public appearances.”
On June 10 1977, the Gazette’s coverage of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee included tributes paid by the Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop Simms, in his address at a Service of Thanksgiving.
The Queen, with ‘characteristic consistency and well–known readiness to help’ had carried out heavy and exacting responsibilities through years of rapid change. It had meant strain, Archbishop Simms said.
“The personal influence which she exerts has meant much to an uncounted number of people all over the world, through a period of history in which the developing communications of radio and television have brought her in touch personally with people in a new way.”
In a random article on the concept of Kingship, published in the Gazette on January 7 1983, Dominic Wilson of the Order of the Holy Cross wrote: “We humans have always placed a high respect and admiration on the person of the monarch. It always seems like a race between the Pope and Queen Elizabeth to which will be the ‘most admired’ person in this year’s poll. Monarchs either seem to be despised or loved. Few are met with indifference. If they are, they soon fade away.”
The occasion of the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday gave the Gazette further opportunity for comment on the ratings of the Royal Family in its issue of August 4 2000. The article also gives some insight into the personal challenges Her Majesty the Queen had been facing.
“The House of Windsor has proved to be a divisive quantity in Ireland. The fulsome devotion to the crown of unionists in Northern Ireland has always been overlaid with their politics. They knew it represented the badge of their identity. The fact that it did meant that recognition of, let alone devotion to, the Crown had to be off–limits for nationalists.
“In the Republic, the necessity regularly to flex the muscles of recent independence from the dominant neighbour meant that apparent interest in the affairs of British royalty had to be at first almost totally suppressed. Later it was controlled with a certain self–conscious stiffness. Invitations to coronations and funerals were declined.
“The Queen in one Dublin daily was – and still is – coldly warned off any cosiness by being referred to with self–conscious punctiliousness only as Queen Elizabeth or ‘the queen.’ The tortured course of Anglo–Irish history is a valid excuse for all this. But it is also true that the young Republic will not have grown to maturity until it can rise above its old sensitivities about the symbols of Britishness. For good or ill, what they represent is bred in the historic bones of the Irish.
“The recent history of the Windsors has been chequered. The old image of the perfect family, fostered with skill by courtiers in the days before television intruded, has collapsed before its beady eye. In an age when the comfort of the many emphasises the deprivation of others in want, the public display of royal wealth is a socially sensitive quantity.
“Yet the Royal Family still has a function to fulfil, binding the nation. Today’s 100th birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, exemplifies that function perfectly. She is a remarkable woman, born to great wealth in her own right, strong–willed, a subtle manipulator who, in other circumstances, might well have been a political figure of substance in the nation.”
The numbers who tuned into the Queen Mother’s speech, the Gazette said, indicated that ‘the Crown still has a viable part to play,’ but added: “The Queen Mother, it is true, is a special case. Would that her daughter could speak as smoothly off the cuff.’
The article goes on: “The Queen, to the extent that she is an inhibited public performer, is her father’s daughter. But she also reflects his conscientiousness and her mother’s resolution.
“In this she is very aware that the Republic is the only nation of note worldwide to which she has not paid an official visit. The moment cannot now be long delayed when that omission is repaired. When her ministers advise her that she should go – Dublin will not be found wanting in issuing an invitation…”
A Gazette editorial carried on June 7 2002 in relation to the Golden Jubilee was rather more upbeat.
“The Queen’s Golden Jubilee was marked last weekend by special services and prayers – and an extended bank holiday – throughout the United Kingdom, but it is indeed a whole year of special events and a royal tour that would not be for the faint hearted.
“There is no doubt that the faithful service that Her Majesty has given to the people of the United Kingdom is being celebrated in a way that demonstrates the great affection in which she is held and is a clear indicator that the monarchy – despite some detractors – is still very much alive.
“Queen Elizabeth II, the 40th monarch since William the Conqueror obtained the crown of England, has been on the Throne for a period which has been exceeded in British history only by Victoria (the longest reigning, 63–year monarch), George III, Henry III and Edward III.
“During her reign, the Queen has given regular Tuesday evening audiences to 10 Prime Ministers, from Churchill to Blair, the latter being the first Prime Minister actually to have been born during her reign. By contrast, there have only been five Archbishops of Canterbury – Fisher, Ramsey, Coggan, Runcie and the current post holder, Archbishop Carey, who this year will give way to a successor.
“The role of the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England was the subject of a recent survey by the Church Times. In the end, fewer than half of the 5,000 respondents wanted the monarch to retain this position, but it would appear that any process of disestablishing the Church of England would be extremely complicated and cumbersome from a legal and constitutional point of view…
‘A VERY MODERN CHRISTIAN’
“From the Church’s point of view, there is no doubt that Queen Elizabeth has upheld the faith and Christian values in a way that has been very aware of the context of Church life. She is a thinking, committed and tolerant believer. In terms of ecumenical relations, the Queen made history when, in 1982, she received Pope John Paul II at Buckingham Palace and she is clearly open to developing relations with people of other faiths without compromising the integrity of her own Christian tradition. She is, thus, a very modern Christian.
“Along with the many good causes which Queen Elizabeth has supported, her religious commitment displays a character of sincere devotion. Her regular Christmas broadcasts and, indeed, the royal Maundy Thursday services which she has attended over the years, all have testified to this faith in real and striking ways. This sincere devotion in the monarch is alone something for which all the people of the United Kingdom really can give thanks.”
Fast forward to May 2011, when Her Majesty made her first ever State visit to the Republic of Ireland, just days ahead of a visit by America’s President Obama.
“With the Queen’s visit, people across all of this island – with the exception of only a small minority – were surely united in their feelings for one another, perhaps as never before,” commented the Gazette.
“As the Archbishop of Armagh was reported by The Irish Times… for the vast majority of people ‘it was time for this day, and they were glad to see it happen.’”
The article continued: “The joy in the royal visit was itself a most effective voicing of ‘stop’ to those who would return us to days of bitterness and violence…
“With all the weight of history, the Queen, the President and the organizers of the royal visit showed courage, maturity and dignity in the choice of places for the visit, including Croke Park, the Garden of Remembrance and the War Memorial Gardens.
“The Queen’s Irish sojourn – a culmination of all the advances in British–Irish relations of recent years and in the peace process in Northern Ireland – brought much reflection on past events.”
REALLY GOOD TOMORROW
The leader–writer concluded: “All of the people of Ireland do need to consider the past and its legacy in the present, for the sake of a shared, reconciled and really good tomorrow. However, that reflection requires our memory purified, as much as it can be, of all self–justifying, unforgiving and unworthy thought.”
The following year, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration fast approaching, the Gazette took the opportunity to comment on her two–day visit to Northern Ireland.
“In the run–up to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, there had been much speculation as to whether or not Martin McGuinness would meet and greet Her Majesty. Then, when it was announced that he would do so on the second day of the Queen’s two–day visit, there were positive reactions in most quarters.
“However, events in Enniskillen on the first day were also striking, although in a different way. The service in St Macartin’s Cathedral, the Queen’s visit to the neighbouring St Michael’s Roman Catholic Parish Church, and her meeting with survivors of the 1987 Remembrance Day bomb all brought a unique sense of healing to the local and wider community.
“In his sermon in St Macartin’s, the Archbishop of Armagh both acknowledged the Christian example of the Queen over her 60 years on the throne, and spelt out a Christian vision of the way forward in Northern Ireland.”
The article continued: “Not that long ago, ‘choreography’ was a frequently used term to describe the way in which the peace process proceeded. The strategic timing of events was aimed at moving the peace process forward and very largely succeeded in doing so.
“However, the eventual meeting of Martin McGuinness with the Queen last week, rather than being seen as part of a wider choreography, is better appreciated as an event which, in a very definite way, marked the reaching of a most significant stage of relationship building in the peace process. That meeting was not the end of the peace process but, hopefully, will lead on to a yet deeper engagement on the part of all concerned.”
Her Majesty was sadly unable to visit Armagh in October 2021 for the service in St Patrick’s Cathedral to mark the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland.
While accepting that the Queen’s last–minute withdrawal was due to medical advice, columnist Alf McCreary, writing in the November 2021 issue of the Gazette, commented: “The inter–church Service in Armagh last month was a truly healing occasion with great spiritual and practical challenges for all of us, but sadly it will also be remembered for those who did not attend rather than for those who were present.”
He continued: “Queen Elizabeth withdrew at the last moment on medical advice and President Michael D Higgins chose not to attend because he feared that the service would be a celebration of partition.” The service, Mr McCreary said, had been ‘anything but that,’ but he pointed out: “The sudden withdrawal of the Queen, on medical advice, avoided the diplomatic imbalance of the UK Monarch having to go it alone…”
For Her Majesty, every action or inaction was fodder for commentators, right to the end.
With thanks to the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette for copyright reproductions.