World·Royal Fascinator

Queen Elizabeth offers an 'enduring and reassuring voice' in the face of COVID-19 crisis

Even the backdrop to Queen Elizabeth's special broadcast Sunday offering reassurance and urging resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic told a story.

Rare address recalls her first broadcast with her sister Margaret in 1940

In a rare address broadcast Sunday, Queen Elizabeth called on Britons to rise to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic and to exercise self-discipline in 'an increasingly challenging time.' (Buckingham Palace via AP)

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Even the backdrop to Queen Elizabeth's special broadcast Sunday offering reassurance and urging resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic told a story.

Unlike her regular Christmas broadcasts, when family photos are on prominent display, no such personal reminders were anywhere to be seen in the message recorded at Windsor Castle, where she is in virtual isolation along with her husband, Prince Philip.

"The unadorned background emphasized the distance from her extended family, mirroring the experiences of the wider public during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris.

"The personal elements of the broadcast, including the importance of prayer and meditation, emphasized solitude, in keeping with the conditions of times."

These are rare times, and the Queen's broadcast, running about 4½ minutes, was a rare moment for her. Until now, she had only made similar televised messages a handful of times, including after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, and after the death of her own mother, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 2002.

But even those addresses were different.

Watch Queen Elizabeth's message: 

Queen Elizabeth urges strength, discipline in COVID-19 address

3 years ago
Duration 4:24
In a rare message to the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth addressed the COVID-19 pandemic. "I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge," she said.

"There was a strong emphasis on her role within her own family as a grandmother or as a daughter, in addition to her role as sovereign," said Harris.

"In the COVID-19 broadcast, the Queen emphasized her role as sovereign, providing unity and continuity through the institution of the monarchy, the longevity of her reign and her personal experiences of living through the Second World War."

That experience included the first broadcast she made, along with her sister, Margaret, in 1940. 

"We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety," the Queen said. "Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do." 

'We can get over this'

In recalling that broadcast from 80 years ago, suggested John Fraser, author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada's Affair with Royalty, the Queen was signalling that this, too, shall pass.

"The past can also tell us we can get over this," Fraser said.

In Elizabeth's broadcast Sunday, which he considered "quietly, very moving," Fraser saw a monarch speaking very much in the manner that she always has.

Queen Elizabeth speaks to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson from Windsor Castle on March 25, 2020, for her weekly audience. (Buckingham Palace via The Associated Press)

"You saw that rigid sense of duty," he said. "She doesn't let up for anything."

And maybe, just maybe, there was a little bit of indirect chiding toward those who haven't taken government urgings to stay home to at heart, Fraser suggested, given how the Queen spoke of hoping people will be able to take pride in the years to come in how they responded to the challenges around them today.

While there were no overt religious overtones to the message Sunday, both Harris and Fraser saw a desire on the Queen's part to be inclusive and encompassing of all.

'Faith was clear'

"The Queen's religious faith was clear in her broadcast, encouraging people to take the time at home to pause, reflect and take the time for prayer or meditation," said Harris. 

"The language of the speech was inclusive and the Queen spoke to those of all faiths and none, but the remarks were clearly informed by her own deeply held beliefs."

In ending her address as she did, invoking the famed Second World War song We'll Meet Again, by Vera Lynn, the Queen turned to optimism and hope.

The Queen's message Sunday referenced the wartime song We'll Meet Again from Vera Lynn, who is pictured in this file photo. (Matthew Fearn/The Associated Press)

It was the "high point" of a speech, Fraser said, that came from a voice that has been unwavering throughout her reign.

"It's her voice — to me, it's an enduring and reassuring voice in its continuity."

Harris said through the reference to the song, and to the Queen's own wartime broadcast, she was drawing parallels between the current crisis and the Second World War, even while noting the current pandemic differs from other international crises.

"There are commonalities in terms of the necessity of people coming together, accepting changes to their daily lives and each doing their part to overcome a threat to everyone's safety and security," Harris said.

Coronavirus and the royals

Prince Charles delivers a video message from his home in Scotland after testing positive for coronavirus. (Clarence House/The Associated Press)

The effects of the coronavirus on the Royal Family have ranged from the very personal -- Prince Charles is out of self-isolation after testing positive for the infection — to the very public, with the postponement or cancellation of scheduled visits and annual events.

Charles also delivered a video message last week from his home in Scotland, where he and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, have been staying.

"None of us can say when this will end, but end it will," Charles said. "Until it does, let us all try and live with hope and, with faith in ourselves and each other, look forward to better times to come." 

Members of the Royal Family have offered praise and support for health-care workers and others fighting the pandemic.

Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, visited an ambulance centre and met with staff taking calls from the public and have made phone calls to hospital staff. A video they shared on social media offered a rare glimpse of their three children together, as they clapped in support of staff and volunteers for the National Health Service.

While international travel is off the books for virtually everyone right now, for the Royal Family, it meant the postponement of trips to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus and Jordan that had been planned for Charles and Camilla.

And looking ahead, various regular events on the royal calendar have also been cancelled, including annual garden parties at Buckingham Palace later in the spring. 

Trooping the Colour, the official event each June that sees royal pomp and pageatry parading through the streets of London to honour the Queen's birthday, will not be going ahead in its traditional form.

Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, who were set to marry on May 29, have put their wedding plans on hold because of the pandemic. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

And one member of the family has had her marriage plans altered. Princess Beatrice, elder daughter of Prince Andrew, has been set to wed fiancé Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi on May 29, but the reception planned in the gardens of Buckingham Palace has been cancelled, and she is reportedly reviewing her plans for the wedding.

Harris says that during times of national or global crisis, there is public interest in how the Royal Family is weathering the crisis and "if they are experiencing some of the same restrictions and privations as the wider population."

If they are seen to be sharing the same conditions, their popularity increases, said Harris. She noted that U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt observed while visiting during the Second World War that "the Buckingham Palace windows were boarded up, there was a line around the bathtub to show how much water should be used and a rationed amount of food was served on the ornate tableware that was traditional at official dinners."

Off to California

Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, arrive at the Royal Albert Hall in London on March 7, 2020. (Simon Dawson/The Associated Press)

While there has been no word from Prince Harry and Meghan since they officially stepped back as senior members of the Royal Family a few days ago, they are widely reported to be in California.

It is thought the couple decamped from the home where they had been staying with their young son, Archie, on Vancouver Island about two weeks ago.

Being in California would put Meghan, a former actor, back in the state where she was born, and close to her mother, Doria Ragland, who lives in Los Angeles.

Harry and Meghan had been in British Columbia since November, and returned there after a quick trip to London in January just before their seismic announcement that they wanted to step back, and seek financial independence. They also returned to London for a spate of engagements that wrapped up with their attendance at the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey on March 9.

Prince Harry and Meghan sit behind Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, at the annual Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey in London on March 9, 2020. (Phil Harris/The Associated Press)

"My guess is that Canada was an easy first step because Meghan had friends there from her seven years in Toronto, and they were lent a house over the Christmas period," royal biographer Penny Junor, author of Prince Harry: Brother Soldier Son, said via email

"Who knows whether she always had plans to move on to California? As a career move, it's not a bad one. But it seems a pity to me because, as a Commonwealth realm, Canada was a more natural home for Harry and there was some logic to his going there — particularly when he hoped to be a part-time royal."

But that turned out not to be possible under the agreement that cleared the way for them to step back.

Harry and Meghan's use of the SussexRoyal brand ended last week, and no announcement has been made about what form their future work or charitable endeavours might take.

Their last post on their SussexRoyal Instagram account acknowledged the current pandemic and said they look forward to reconnecting with people soon.

"What's most important right now is the health and wellbeing of everyone across the globe and finding solutions for the many issues that have presented themselves as a result of this pandemic," they wrote.

"As we all find the part we are to play in this global shift and changing of habits, we are focusing this new chapter to understand how we can best contribute."

Royally quotable

"We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again."

— Queen Elizabeth, during her broadcast Sunday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Royal reads

  1. The Queen's time in virtual self-isolation at Windsor Castle has been far from straight-foward, acccording to a writer in the Daily Mail.

  2. Prince Harry and Meghan have reportedly gone to L.A., but they may have to work to maintain their A-list status. [The Guardian]

  3. In the wake of the recent announcement of two royal divorces, a U.K. history professor argues that it's vital the Royal Family came around on the matter. [CNN]   

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

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