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Paul Vallely: The Queen lived deep in the nation’s psyche

16 September 2022

The bond between monarch and subjects is more than symbolic, argues Paul Vallely


Members of the public pay their respects as the vigil begins around the coffin of the late Queen in Westminster Hall, on Wednesday

Members of the public pay their respects as the vigil begins around the coffin of the late Queen in Westminster Hall, on Wednesday

PEOPLE who appear stoic and strong at the funeral of a loved one can break down uncontrollably months later at the funeral of a mere acquaintance. It’s something to do with transference. When we cry, for whom are we crying?

When Andrew Marr announced the death of the Queen live on his LBC programme, he began to cry. “Why am I so emotional?” he thought, and later realised that “it was because I was thinking of my own father’s death two years ago.” Many have reflected on how the Queen’s death reminded them of the death of their own mother.

Others called her the “mother of the nation”, in a metaphor that sees the nation as a huge extended family. Here, the Royal Family is a symbolic projection of our own family; with its virtues and flaws, it epitomises what our country stands for. It made people feel that they really knew the Queen, even as they also understood that they did not.

Walter Bagehot, the Victorian who tried to write down our unwritten constitution, spoke of its dignified and efficient parts. The wielding of power by the Government and the making of law by Parliament were the efficient parts. The monarchy embodied the dignified aspect that made government “intelligible” to ordinary citizens.

This goes beyond symbolic representation. Bagehot speaks of a transcendent attraction which “aspires to elevate men by an interest higher, deeper, wider than that of ordinary life”. He even suggests that a “mystic reverence” is intrinsic “to a true monarchy”. Ask the Queen’s subjects — he was talking of Victoria — by what right she rules, and they do not speak of Parliament or law. Instead, they say, she rules by “God’s grace”, as if it were a kind of “mystic enchantment”.

Interestingly, our late Queen spoke several times of the most sacred element in her Coronation — the only one that, aptly, was hidden from the view of the television cameras. At the invocation of the Holy Spirit, with the anointing of her head, hands, and heart with chrism, she said, she was overcome with a great peace. It was a moment that was more than symbolic: it was sacramental.

Perhaps, too, all this has an added potency when the monarch is a queen. The female archetype has a profound place in the collective psyche, which is why the magnetic pull of the Virgin Mary — or our Lady, as all would have called her before the Reformation — for so long troubled those Protestants for whom sacraments had become mere symbols.

Fifty years ago, Brian Masters published his classic study Dreams About H.M. the Queen, which suggested that a third of the population dreamt about the monarch coming to tea and declaring: “You don’t know what a relief it is to talk to somebody normal and ordinary like you.”

These dreams of intimacy, reassurance, and “magical specialness” underscore that the Queen was not merely a focus of national identity, but lived deep in the nation’s psyche. They perhaps also explain why anti-monarchy protesters this week have been roughly handled by members of the public, even when their protests have been only mild.

When we cry, for whom are we crying? I think we may be crying for ourselves.

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