The British national anthem, God Save The Queen, includes the lyrics “Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us”.
Her Majesty may very well still be “happy and glorious” but never before in Queen Elizabeth’s 69-year reign has there ever been such a pronounced, urgent question mark over those last five words, because the question today is, just how much longer will the unflagging monarch “reign over us”?
For the past eight days, Buckingham Palace has been contending with Her Majesty’s biggest health crisis in decades (if ever) with the 95-year-old first pulling out of a planned, brief trip to Northern Ireland, before being secretly hospitalised for unspecified testing, before skipping her usual attendance at Sunday church (she’s positively religious about going) and then yesterday, announcing she would not be attending next week’s gathering of global world leaders for COP26 in person. (She will be delivering her scheduled remarks via video instead.)
This all comes after the Queen was seen using a walking stick in public for the first time in 17 years and after it was revealed she had agreed to give up her nightly gin martini for the sake of her wellbeing.
In short: Things are not looking great.
Then, as if the Queen-loving public didn’t have enough to fret about, Buckingham Palace released a series of images via social media yesterday showing Her Majesty at Windsor Castle welcoming the new ambassadors from South Korea and Switzerland via video call. The aim was clear: Look! She’s back at work! In pearls! Everything’s FINE! Another piece of shortbread, anyone?
However, one of the images only served to highlight her fragile state even more because there, on her forearm, is what looks like a large bruise.
A post shared by The Royal Family (@theroyalfamily)
It is true, older people tend to have thinner skin and bruise easily. There also is the possibility it could be a bruise from having a cannula during her recent hospital stay.
But seeing such a visible reminder of the Queen’s advancing years has done nothing to quell the rising tide of growing public concern over her health. (Why the dickens didn’t they put her in a longer sleeve outfit?)
In the greater scheme of things, the bruise is a relatively minor worry, but coming after her first overnight hospital stay in eight years and with total mystery still surrounding what might specifically be ailing the sovereign, this new image has done nothing to dampen anxiety about just how severe this current crisis might be.
While Prince Charles, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are all still set to descend on COP26 in Glasgow in the coming days to present a united royal front on the subject of climate change, the Queen’s next scheduled public outing will be on November 14 for Remembrance Day.
Her Majesty has only ever missed the wreath laying at the Cenotaph on six occasions during her reign – when she was overseas on official tours and when she was pregnant with her sons Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. In 2017, she transitioned from taking part in the ceremony to watching from the balcony of the nearby Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That same year, she was seen wiping away a tear.
If in just over two weeks, the Queen fails to take her place alongside Camilla, Kate and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex on the balcony to watch the service, alarm bells will start to ring very, very loudly.
Through her nearly seven-decade reign, Her Majesty has displayed unstinting support for the armed services and veterans. Nothing short of a serious health condition would prevent her from showing her gratitude and thanks for those who paid the ultimate price.
If she were to not attend on that Sunday, it would be the first very clear sign that things are much worse than the palace has been letting on.
While the world remains totally in the dark about what may or may not be the cause of her current health woes, the palace is sure to be trying to prevent the Queen missing Remembrance Day at all costs, as it would be guaranteed to set off very real panic about the state of her health.
Another cause to spark concern
The other sign that things are actually dire would be if Prince Harry returned to the UK. The renegade royal has only twice stepped foot on UK soil since he and wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex ditched London in a huff 22 months ago.
First the Prince returned for his grandfather Prince Philip’s funeral in April before making a very brief dash back to Blighty in late June for the unveiling of the long-awaited statue he and brother William had previously commissioned of Diana, Princess of Wales for the Kensington Palace garden.
On both occasions, the 37-year-old made only the briefest of trips, hightailing it back to California within a matter of days.
However, Harry has also repeatedly spoken with great affection about his grandmother, revealing this year she sent the Sussexes a waffle-maker for Christmas and that she enjoys video calls with her great-grandson Archie. (She is also reported to have met her namesake great-granddaughter Lilibet via video call too.)
The Duke of Sussex might be many things, but he is unabashedly a devoted grandchild.
At present, there are no reported plans for Harry to return to his homeland, so if, in the coming weeks or months, he boards a Britain-bound flight, that would be another trip-wire and would signal the family’s very real fears for Her Majesty.
Hopefully, this current storm will pass and the brief chapter can be simply filed under the Medical Household (which is part of the Royal Household) acting with an overabundance of caution, as well they should.
Palace unprepared for lingering illness
However, we are far from being out of the woods yet.
Even if Her Majesty does emerge on the other side of this with her signature jewels in place and ready to get back to the business of ruling, this episode has exposed how unprepared the palace is for a future where her health is in public decline.
Sure, the planning for her death and funeral is now decades old but that extensive preparation does not take into account if her passing is preceded by several years of Her Majesty experiencing sickness or her health deteriorating.
What is imperative for courtiers – and which has so far proved entirely elusive – is to be able to strike a balance between offering her the privacy and dignity any human deserves in such a moment and the responsibility that comes with being a head of state. Part of that remit includes projecting stability and continuity, something that today seems a shakier prospect.
(Also, the royal family simply cannot afford, for a moment, to be seen as being anything less than truthful with the public, especially after the palace was caught out covering up her hospital stay.)
There is also the issue here that should the Queen suffer a long-term illness in the future, that would very likely overshadow whatever else the rest of the royal family was diligently getting up to.
This scenario would also mean years of the press and public involved in the most macabre spectator sport imaginable, watching from afar as the ravages of age take their toll on Her Majesty.
The year the Queen Mother turned 101 and despite needing two walking sticks to get around, she went to Chelsea Flower Show, insisted on going to Ascot, attended the opening of the Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey before attending the Remembrance Sunday ceremony two days later, and the same month, carried out what would be her final public engagement, recommissioning the aircraft carrier Ark Royal at a ceremony in Portsmouth.
Several months after that, she passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Here’s hoping that the Queen would follow in her mother’s indomitable footsteps.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
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