After a lower-than-expected profile at the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, Queen Elizabeth has been racing around the country on the royal train, taking part in ancient ceremonies in Edinburgh, inspecting the troops, quietly trying to stop the breakup of the United Kingdom—and even horse riding.
It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to think that the palace is trying to tell us something.
The queen may be 96. She may have lost her husband last year. She may have a mind-frazzlingly complex number of recalcitrant and wayward family members to keep tabs on. She may even have had COVID earlier this year.
But she is doing fine, thanks. Oh, and she is not going anywhere anytime soon either.
Of course, as palace insiders are always at pains to point out (with what sometimes seems like a slightly affected tone of ennui), the queen has been saying this very thing herself as loudly as she can in recent months.
On the anniversary of her accession to the throne in February, she said it quite explicitly: “As we mark this anniversary, it gives me pleasure to renew to you the pledge I gave in 1947 that my life will always be devoted to your service.”
It’s not her fault if her subjects don’t listen, but it’s not entirely their fault either, because fine words of intent can never compare to the concrete reality of the spectacle of the living, breathing, royal flesh.
The queen, who is beloved of the phrase, “I have to be seen to be believed,” is herself well aware of this fact.
However, there is no doubt that the queen’s high-profile visit to Scotland this week, which has already featured two public appearances, has caught almost everyone by surprise.
Earlier in the year the palace specifically canceled the queen’s attendance at all the summer’s garden parties (all of which occur in London, except for one Scottish garden party that takes place in Edinburgh). A source told The Daily Beast that it was currently still the plan that she wouldn’t attend tomorrow, Wednesday’s Scottish garden party. However, if she made an appearance at an investiture ceremony on Thursday—for Scottish people receiving honors from the Queen—which has not been ruled out, that would certainly be a significant domestic news event.
What is undeniable is that the events of this week represent a very significant new bit of messaging in the great Windsor mime show—especially when one considers that just two months ago the palace was letting it be known that no one should be disappointed if HM wasn’t physically able to toddle onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace at any point at all during the jubilee celebrations.
The idea of her making a trip to Scotland and engaging in two days of public engagements in a row would have been seen then as deeply fantastical.
However, on Sunday evening, in defiance of all expectations, it is understood that Her Majesty quietly boarded the royal train at Windsor and Riverside train station along with her youngest son, Edward, and his wife, Sophie.
The luxurious train, first commissioned by Queen Victoria and still retaining a distinctly Victorian atmosphere, steamed its way through the night to Edinburgh, and the queen was apparently well enough rested to make her way to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the Scottish capital to participate in the so-called “Ceremony of the Keys” (when she is handed the keys to the city) with Edward and Sophie in tow.
A brief meeting with Scotland’s Republican first Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, followed—no doubt a particularly sensitive matter given that the next day Sturgeon called a new referendum on Scottish independence from the U.K. It's a matter close to the queen’s heart; on the eve of the last Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the queen broke with precedent, telling sightseers assembled outside a Balmoral church, “I hope people will think very carefully about the future.” (The result went her way, in favor of the Union.)
Of course, it is possible to argue that the queen is making a last-gasp farewell tour of Scotland, but the sense from insiders is really that the queen is doing much better than many had feared. One well-placed source told The Daily Beast, for example, that recent reports that the queen had been horse riding again in recent days were indeed accurate. It remains to be seen if she will be present at the Braemar Gathering “highland games” on September 3, a traditionally high-profile royal day out.
The delight with which Her Majesty’s return to visible public life has been received is a double-edged sword; it reminds one that she really does have to be visible and physically present to have legitimacy as monarch.
Those still lobbying for her to abdicate or appoint her son regent could argue that the events of this week make their case for them; no one is seriously imagining a return to regular public duties for the queen, and physically carrying out her basic duties in Scotland this week is a pertinent reminder of how weakened the monarchy is when those basic duties are either unfulfilled, performed by a proxy, or delivered over Zoom.