World·Royal Fascinator

Why the Queen's isolation is rich in symbolism

Queen Elizabeth is isolating at Windsor Castle for the practical reason that has kept most everyone at home — to try to keep the coronavirus at bay. But the 94-year-old monarch's stay at the historic royal residence west of London is also symbolic for her and the monarchy in the 21st century.

Monarch is staying with husband and limited staff at Windsor Castle during pandemic lockdown

Queen Elizabeth delivers a televised address to Britain and the Commonwealth on the 75th anniversary of VE-Day from Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, on May 8, 2020. (Buckingham Palace via The Associated Press)

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Queen Elizabeth is isolating at Windsor Castle for the practical reason that has kept most everyone at home — to try to keep the coronavirus at bay.

But the 94-year-old monarch's stay at the historic royal residence west of London is also symbolic for her and the monarchy in the 21st century.

Elizabeth has been at Windsor — considered one of her favourite residences — since before Easter. Her husband, Prince Philip, is with her, along with a limited number of staff members, all of whom reportedly are staying there — and not with their families — for the duration of the lockdown.

It's not the first time Elizabeth has found herself at Windsor at a difficult time.

"It's the place where the Queen is often based in times of crisis and it symbolizes the enduring monarchy, and of course the surname of the dynasty as well," said Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal author and historian.

Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, stayed there during the Second World War, while their parents would go into Buckingham Palace in London.

Queen Elizabeth is self-isolating with her husband, Prince Philip, at Windsor Castle, west of London. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

Over the years, the Queen has routinely moved among various residences — Windsor is often a weekend retreat from Buckingham Palace, Sandringham in Norfolk is her Christmas and early winter domicile and then there's her annual summer stay at Balmoral in Scotland.

So far, there's been no public talk that Balmoral is on the books for this summer, and no sense the Queen will be anywhere but Windsor for several weeks, if not months. If she did leave, that could raise eyebrows.

Going online

"At this time, everyone is being encouraged to remain at home, so there would be critical scrutiny if the Queen were going back and forth between various residences," said Harris. 

Royal work has also changed since the pandemic struck, with the public side of it moving online or over the phone, which in effect also reduces the need to get around. 

"There isn't the same necessity to move from residence to residence if royal engagements are going to be taking place remotely or virtually," said Harris.

Last week, the Queen took part — via audio — in a video call several members of the Royal Family made in honour of International Nurses Day. According to The Telegraph, it was the first time she allowed direct audio from a one-on-one conversation to be aired.

In this grab taken from undated video provided by Kensington Palace on May 12, 2020, Prince Charles, centre and from left, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall; Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge; on the right, Princess Anne; Sophie, Countess of Wessex; and Princess Alexandra take part in a video call with nurses around the world for International Nurses Day. (Kensington Palace via AP)

For a monarch who has said she needs to be seen to be believed, it is all quite a change.

"The nature of this crisis [is] quite a strange one," said U.K.-based royal historian Sarah Gristwood. "By the very nature of the beast it makes it impossible for the Royal Family to do what they would normally do in a time of crisis. Normally, what the Royal Family do best [is] they get out there, they press the flesh."

All this has presented the Royal Family with a challenge, said Gristwood, one she said they have overcome.

There has been "quite a lot of addressing the nation," Gristwood said. The Queen has made two televised addresses and one on the radio. 

And then there are the multiple video link-ups numerous members of the family have been making to front-line workers, charitable organizations and so on.

'Unifying voice'

"The time when the Royal Family is most useful to the public," said Gristwood, "is when there is the least faith in the other political establishment. 

"And at the moment in the U.K., there is not a huge amount of faith in the political establishment, because of the response to coronavirus and the divisiveness of the whole Brexit issue. And that's exactly when the Queen as a kind of unifying voice can have most to say."

Something else may be going on, too.

A view of Prince Charles is projected on a screen as he delivers a video message from his residence in Scotland during opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel centre in London on April 3, 2020. (Stefan Rousseau/The Associated Press)

One thing Gristwood said she's noticed in the present crisis is that most public moves by the Queen have "effectively been matched by a commensurate move from Prince Charles … to also less formally speak to the nation."

That's not something that's been seen in the past, Gristwood said.

"I think this is a case of a conscious, deliberate attempt to shore up the Queen as still the throne, still the mother of the nation, but to position Prince Charles very clearly as the King in waiting."

Other monarchs in a time of crisis

While the Queen may be isolated in one place for the foreseeable future, that hasn't always been the way other monarchs have lived during times of pandemic or another crisis.

"Henry the Eighth seems to have been very concerned about infection," said Harris, who noted the 16th-century monarch would leave whatever residence he was in if there was any sign of plague in the vicinity.

That worry came even closer to home for him.

Henry VIII, shown around 1540 in an engraving, worried about infection. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"When Henry the Eighth got his longed-for son, the baby Prince Edward, it was ordered that the walls of his nursery had to be washed down on a regular basis to prevent any kind of infection coming in," said Gristwood.

Go back two more centuries, and the Black Death bubonic plague that killed about 50 million people in Europe had a profound personal impact on the reigning English monarch.

"Edward the Third had a dozen children and he lost two infant sons and a daughter who was on her way to Spain to marry the future king of Castile," said Harris.

'There's a great deal of personal grief and also grappling [with] the significance of this. Edward the Third talks about death that seizes young and old alike, whatever their station may be … so we get the sense of Edward the Third sharing in the experiences of his people."

The royal disruptors

Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, arrive for the European premiere of the film The Lion King in London on July 14, 2019. (Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

Our CBC colleague Kim Brunhuber reported from Los Angeles last week about the options Prince Harry and Meghan have now that they are in California. Here are some thoughts from his piece:

During the coronavirus lockdown, Prince Harry and Meghan have kept a fairly low profile, occasionally delivering food to local residents in need. 

But Hollywood insiders say Meghan, who grew up in California, is just waiting for her chance to shine again in Tinseltown.

"When you have someone who's starry-eyed with respect to Hollywood and the immense opportunities that exist — the people, the relationships that they have — it makes a lot of sense that they would come to L.A.," said Eric Schiffer, who advises a roster of Hollywood stars as chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, based in Irvine, Calif. 

'Being shopped'

"My sources tell me that they are absolutely being shopped for projects and they absolutely have price tags associated to those projects."

Meghan's first project, narrating a Disney documentary called Elephant, was released days after the couple officially stepped back from the Royal Family and the proceeds will benefit Elephants Without Borders. 

But the next chapter, announced last week, promises to be more controversial: a book about the couple that could only have been written with their say-so. Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family, by journalists Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand, goes on sale Aug. 11, publisher Harper Collins said.

Prince Harry and Meghan meet U.S. singer-songwriter Beyoncé and her husband, U.S. rapper Jay-Z, as they attend the European premiere of the The Lion King. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP via Getty Images)

Howard Bragman, CEO of the Los Angeles PR firm LaBrea Media, said it's a savvy way to relaunch themselves on their own terms.

"The No. 1 thing you want to do in PR is define yourself, particularly before someone else defines you."

Meghan as a superhero?

Rumours have swirled about Meghan's desire to play a superhero in a Marvel movie. Schiffer says, why not?

"I think you could see her in a superhero movie," Schiffer said. "There will be many colours of characters that I envision her stepping into over the next 24 months." 

However, Nick Bullen, editor in chief of True Royalty, a TV channel dedicated to all things royal, believes the couple won't take on any projects or endorsements that would be considered in bad taste. 

He said the Royal Family learned lessons from when Sarah Ferguson, former wife of Prince Andrew, left the family and started doing ads for companies like Weight Watchers and Avon. 

WATCH | Experts on royalty and PR offer options for Harry and Meghan in their new life:

What's next for Harry and Meghan in Los Angeles?

3 years ago
Duration 2:35
Experts on royals, PR and branding weigh in from California on the couple's Hollywood move.

But Jeetendr Sehdev, the L.A.-based author of The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells and How to Do It Right, insists anything's possible for a couple marketing themselves as royal disruptors.

"They're not projecting this sort of traditional, contrived, highly controlled image that we're used to seeing from other Royal Family members, which makes them even more interesting.... I think those sorts of disruptive values resonate very much with younger audiences." 

Whatever moves are being charted for the couple are likely on hold. Because of the coronavirus, film and television production has largely shut down. And according to Bragman, a risk-averse Hollywood may bank on proven veterans rather than two untested commodities, regardless of their pedigree.

"The newbies — and Harry and Megan are certainly the newbies — are not going to get first dibs on the good jobs," Bragman said. "So they're going to have to move to the back of the line for a while. And that could be a year or even longer."

Royals in Canada

Queen Elizabeth inspects the honour guard during a memorial for four RCMP officers gunned down in rural Alberta during a visit to Regina on May 19, 2005. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

So many of Queen Elizabeth's visits to Canada have been focused on significant anniversaries, and her trip with Prince Philip in 2005 was no exception.

They were in Canada from May 17 to 25, spending their time in Saskatchewan and Alberta as part of celebrations to mark the centennial of those provinces' entry into Confederation.

The visit took them to Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray and a private mountain retreat in Jasper. As so many royal visits do, it also made time in its itinerary to recognize a recent difficulty, as they paid their respects to the four Mounties who were slain in rural Alberta two months before.

Royally quotable

"Today it may seem hard that we cannot mark this special anniversary as we would wish. Instead, we remember from our homes and our doorsteps. But our streets are not empty; they are filled with the love and the care that we have for each other."

— In a televised broadcast from Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth marks the 75th anniversary of VE-Day — the surrender on May 8, 1945, of Nazi Germany to Allied forces in Europe — and alludes to how daily life has changed during the pandemic.

Royal reads

  1. Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor's first birthday on May 6 was marked with a video taken by his dad, Prince Harry, showing the rambunctious youngster with a book while sitting on the lap of his mom, Meghan. The video was posted on a charity's Instagram page. [The Telegraph]

  2. An online exhibition will offer a chance to see pictures from the first British royal tour documented through photography. That 1862 visit to the Middle East by the future Edward VII wasn't just intended to help him get ready for his future role as king. The trip was also meant to shuffle him out of the way for a while after he had a fling with a showgirl. [The Guardian]

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

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