“People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was standing in all the pageantry and majesty of a 1000-year-old cathedral, addressing 2000 of the great, the good and the merely powerful leaders alive on the earth at this moment.
The tiny woman in the coffin before him had, with her own impeccable and inimitable grace, served tea and presided over banquets with and for them over seven decades.
The words were, for a moment, a stern, almost Shakespearian rebuke in a world order that has been largely shorn of the concept of the deep and sustaining faith and generosity that had sustained the Queen’s life of steadfast “loving service”; now, he said, absent from many leaders.
Outside, a million of her subjects stood in profound and emotional silence, bearing witness to the cortege and the sequence of services the Queen herself had ordained for the occasion of her death. She had walked among countless millions of them, too, over her long reign –a sparkling presence, meeting their eyes with gentle amusement, touching hands, accepting flowers.
Bookending our lives with gilded memories, she wove herself into the fabric of generations, in my case, most often arriving with a sweeping bow-wave curve of white water on blue amid the impeccable brass and brightwork aboard a naval motor launch.
My first meeting with her was recorded on a grainy black-and-white photo that an aunt later gave me. It had been taken by my mother on a box brownie camera when the young princess had visited other naval wives stationed in the mighty Grand Harbour in Malta where I was born.
My mother, like the Queen, was a young navy wife who had enlisted for war service at age 17 and the mesmerising princess was the bright spot in the drab years of austerity that were still ravaging Britain economically and socially.
I was much too young to remember, but when I finally re-visited Valletta a lifetime later, I half-recognised the feeling of sunlight on water, the peculiar, improbable Mediterranean waves recorded on antiquities and the bluff camaraderie of the CPO mess room in the impregnable British headquarters of St Angelo.
Typically for their generation, my parents never talked about it but the gracious gesture lived on in the iconic Coronation portrait of the exquisitely beautiful young Queen (with orb and sceptre and that impossible crown) on the wall of the huge kitchen of our Devonport villa.
My father had been on the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten at one stage during the war and whatever the English class system we had fled, we children somehow knew that true aristocracy recognised that central tenet of Christianity (and the Anglican Church of which Queen Elizabeth ll was head): that all are equal in the eyes of God – and that privilege doesn’t change that.
The Royal Family was frequently with us in New Zealand, often with the mighty Britannia in the background.
When I next saw the Queen it was on Devonport Wharf, five years and 25,000 miles away – her figure, tiny and elegant in yellow among the impeccable whites of naval uniforms, again bending over gracefully to talk and take flowers from the children in the front row.
A few years ago, I returned to England and, with a dear cousin whose late husband had worked often with the Palace, was whisked on a whirlwind of visits that included the ancient stone of Windsor, Buckingham Palace’s great state rooms, the golden coaches and carriage houses, the stables and indoor arena where Victoria’s children learned to ride. We also spent a day among the gentle gardeners and retainers at Highgrove.
One memorable Ascot afternoon we motored to the now familiar Long Walk with Windsor Castle on the hill at one end and walked on the grass, almost the only people on the mile of wide verges.
And the Queen leaned to wave to the two of us as the black car taking her to Ascot swept by. Life had not dimmed her.
It was not far from where Queen’s pony Emma, head bowed, was standing to watch her last passing on Monday.
“The grief of this day – felt not only by the late Queen’s family but all round the nation, Commonwealth and the world – arises from her abundant life and loving service, now gone from us,” the Archbishop said in closing.
“She was joyful, present to so many, touching a multitude of lives.” • Liz Waters