World·Royal Fascinator

The Queen turns 95: In mourning but unwavering in her role

As much as Queen Elizabeth, who marks her 95th birthday today, will be feeling the loss of her husband Prince Philip, there is also a sense that her deep devotion to her role remains unwavering.

Queen Elizabeth marks birthday privately 4 days after funeral of husband who was her 'strength and stay'

While Queen Elizabeth remains in a period of mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Philip, she marks her 95th birthday today. (Victoria Jones/Getty Images)

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It had always seemed as if Queen Elizabeth was likely to mark her 95th birthday today in a quiet way.

And now she continues in a mourning period after the funeral Saturday for Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years who died on April 9 as the longest-serving consort to the longest-serving monarch in British history.

"I have, on the occasion of my 95th birthday today, received many messages of good wishes, which I very much appreciate," she said in a message posted on the Royal Family's Twitter account.

"While as a family we are in a period of great sadness, it has been a comfort to us all to see and to hear the tributes paid to my husband, from those within the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and around the world," the Queen said in the message.

"My family and I would like to thank you for all the support and kindness shown to us in recent days. We have been deeply touched, and continue to be reminded that Philip had such an extraordinary impact on countless people throughout his life."

As much as the Queen will feel the loss of the man whom she considered her "strength and stay," there is also a sense that her deep devotion to her role remains unwavering.

Queen Elizabeth looks on as she sits alone during the funeral of Prince Philip. (Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press)

"When her period of mourning the terrible loss of her husband ends, she will resume her public duties gradually," said royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith, author of Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch.

"Sometimes she will be on her own, as she has often been in recent years, and at other times she'll be accompanied by one or more from her solid core of family members — Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Edward, the Countess of Wessex, Princess Anne, Prince William, and the Duchess of Cambridge — all of whom will raise their own game with their public engagements."

Royal historian Sarah Gristwood also expects we'll see more of Charles and William, along with Kate; and Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie.

"The speech the Queen made on the occasion of her 21st birthday — her vow that 'my whole life' would be devoted to service — was undoubtedly a sincere one, and one she will honour to the end of her days," Gristwood said via email. "But no one ever said she had to serve completely alone."

In ways, Gristwood suggested, the last fortnight or so, since the Duke of Edinburgh died, has only made more visible what had been going on for some time.

"Prince Philip retired from public life a few years ago — and, more to the point, 'to some degree' retired from his position as head of the 'family'," she said via email.

Philip was likely to have still been "an important voice behind the scenes," Gristwood said. But recent events — particularly the interview Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, gave to U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey — put the family under pressure.

"Charles's visit to his father in hospital suggests there may have been in some measure a handing over of the reins," she said.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles pose for a portrait in the garden of Frogmore House, near Windsor Castle, on March 23. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images/The Associated Press)

Charles and William "had already been the guiding voices in the slimming down of the Royal Family," Gristwood said. The father and son, both next in line for the throne, respectively, seem to have taken the lead over the "vexed questions" of Harry and Meghan's departure from the upper echelons of the family, as well as for issues involving Prince Andrew, who also stepped back from official duties in the fallout of his disastrous BBC interview over his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Still, the Queen has also been doing her duty on her own. And in doing so during the pandemic, she has offered those who watch her from afar a new perspective.

"The Queen has embraced virtual royal engagements," Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said in an interview, noting the platform offers a closeup view of more informal conversations. 

"It's shown a different side of the Queen."

Take, for example, Elizabeth's chat with scientists to mark British Science Week. She seemed particularly curious about photos coming back from the Perseverance mission on Mars, and offered a quick quip when asked what it was like to meet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into space.

"Russian," she responded, to much laughter, before recalling that he was "fascinating, and I suppose being the first one, it was particularly fascinating."

It's long been said the Queen has a quick, dry wit, but it's not something many outside palace walls have heard.

Biographer Smith said the Queen has remained completely engaged in her work despite the family problems.

"In telephone calls with officials, she has continued to show a good grasp of details and understanding of  all the current issues. Her questions are knowledgeable and precise. " 

Smith said there's no doubt Elizabeth will continue to grieve and feel the loss of Philip, who was with her throughout this last year of lockdown, with most of their time spent at Windsor Castle.

"They probably saw each other more in the last year of Philip's life than they ever had — a silver lining during the pandemic," she said.

But any paring back of public appearances won't signal any lessening of the Queen's commitment to her role, Smith said. 

Queen Elizabeth visits the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Air Forces Memorial to mark the centenary of the Royal Australian Air Force in Runnymede, England, on March 31, 2021. (Steve Reigate/The Associated Press)

"She has made clear that she will never abdicate, but she has said that if she were to become physically or mentally disabled, the terms of the Regency Act would come into play."

In that case, Prince Charles would assume the full responsibility of the monarch as prince regent and carry out day-to-day duties. 

"The Queen is above all sensible. If she cannot continue serving in a way that meets her standards, her sense of duty would prompt her to do what is best for the country and the institution of the monarchy," said Smith.

"That said, she shows no sign of any incapacity, so we can count her to carry on, knowing that is precisely what the Duke of Edinburgh would want."

The Queen's new puppies

Corgis have been companions to the Queen throughout her life. Here, she arrives at King's Cross railway station in London on Oct. 15, 1969, after holidays at Balmoral in Scotland. (STF/AFP/Getty Images)

Not long before Philip's death, the Queen was out and about on her first public engagement in months — to mark the Royal Australian Air Force's 100th anniversary — and appeared to offer official confirmation that she has some new companions.

Buckingham Palace has been silent on reports that Elizabeth has two new puppies — a corgi and dorgi (a cross between a dachshund and the corgi). But during the RAAF visit, she was promised two RAAF dog jackets for the new pets.

"That's very kind," she said, according to a report in The Standard. "I look forward to it."

Corgis have been "a mark of continuity and comfort throughout the Queen's lifetime," Harris said.

"When people think of the Queen, they think of the corgis."

She received her first one from her father in 1933, and another — named Susan — to mark her 18th birthday. (Susan even went along on her honeymoon.)

Queen Elizabeth leans to pet a group of corgis as she leaves the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on May 24, 2005. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Since late last year, the Sun reported, the Queen had only one remaining dog, a dorgi called Candy. Another dorgi, Vulcan, died in November.

The corgis also featured prominently in one of the more iconic moments of the Queen in pop culture — bouncing along as she walked with Daniel Craig as James Bond in an opening sketch for the 2012 London Olympics.

WATCH: The corgis, the Queen and James Bond:

The new dogs have names that are personally significant to her, Smith said. 

"Fergus, for the uncle she never knew who died at age 26 going over the top in the Battle of Loos in the First World War, and Muick for the lake on the Balmoral estate where she has enjoyed so many picnics and other happy gatherings."

Since Philip's death, there have also been reports of the Queen taking the new puppies, which the Sun reported Tuesday were a gift from Prince Andrew,  along for some outdoor companionship near Windsor Castle.

"In her time of grief, she has taken Fergus and Muick with her to walk in the Frogmore Gardens, another place filled with wonderful memories," said Smith.

Royals in Canada

There have been no in-person royal visits to Canada since the pandemic struck. Over the years, however, visits took Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip across Canada, including a stop to visit an iron ore mine in Schefferville, Que., in 1959. (The Associated Press)

While Queen Elizabeth has been engaged in numerous online chats in recent months, she has yet to connect directly with Canadians during her virtual visits.

That could happen during her Platinum Jubilee celebrations next year to mark 70 years on the throne, Harris said.

The Queen was last in Canada in 2010 on a nine-day visit that took her and Prince Philip to Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto.

While she has made more than 20 official visits, Philip came to Canada more than 60 times.

There is a sense, however, that the nature of royal visits may be evolving, with virtual visits continuing — and likely gaining — in frequency.

"Continued virtual engagements will be a necessity as there are fewer working members of the Royal Family," said Harris, who is giving a guest lecture tonight on royal train tours in Canada for the Toronto Railway Museum to honour the Queen's 95th birthday. 

"This goes back to discussing long royal tours —  that even shorter royal tours are going to be less frequent in the future, so I think virtual royal engagements complementing in-person royal engagements are here to stay even after the pandemic."

Shorter visits have become the norm in recent years, and stand in marked contrast to tours such as the 1951 and 1959 cross-country sojourns Elizabeth and Philip made.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are showered with ticker tape as they drive along Bay Street in Toronto on June 29, 1959. (Mike Milne/The Canadian Press)

But even in 1959, when the royal couple was here for 45 days, there was a sense that that way of royal travel could fall out of favour.

"Even Prince Philip himself at a press reception wondered whether the era of these very long tours was coming to an end at that time" because travelling for that long was so taxing, Harris said

Royally quotable

"Our lives have been enriched through the challenges that he has set us, the encouragement that he has given us, his kindness, humour and humanity." —  The Dean of Windsor, regarding Prince Philip, during his funeral Saturday in St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.

Royal reads

  1. Prince Philip's death was mourned by a tribal community on a Pacific island, where two villages have revered him as a god-like spiritual figure. [BBC]

  2. The last time the characters of Downton Abbey took to the big screen, a royal visit was at the heart of the film. Now the Crawley family and their staff are making a cinematic return —  just in time for next Christmas —  but no word yet on whether another royal visit is in the offing. [Variety]

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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