Other Queens

Washington Times  9.9.97
Balint Vazsonyi

Goodness knows, it is terrible to die so needlessly. It is sad to die so young and healthy. It is frustrating to contemplate that a sober driver, or a person using ordinary common sense, would have retained control of the automobile.

Understandable, also, is some of the public sentiment that translates frustration into gestures of collective grief. Understandable is the quandary of television networks, especially of CNN, suddenly faced with the need to fill massive quantities of non-stop air time, scouring the land for interviews over a holiday weekend.

More puzzling was the apparent need to contrast affection and appreciation for the suddenly departed princess with venom unleashed against the British royal family. It did not used to be the way, either in Britain or in America, that lavishing praise on one had to include the casting of aspersions on others. Members of the public in America, or fairly young television journalists and interviewees of CNN, may be forgiven for holding forth without knowing much about history. But when a Briton who is billed repeatedly as a "royal biographer" dispenses personal animus as fact, some reminders might be in order.

Mr. Donald Spoto has a book ready about the late Princess of Wales, entitled "Queen of Hearts." On Labor Day, he delivered impassioned speeches on CNN about the humanity, courage and compassion of Diana. "Somebody had to care for the people" he exclaimed, "that's what royalty should be about - not power, privilege, wealth, and class system." He went on for some time to pin all of the above upon the House of Windsor.

Power, as a "royal biographer" certainly knows, has long been taken from British monarchs. But the images conjured up in reaction to the venomous words were of a time, more than 50 years ago, when people's qualities were put to real tests. It was the time of the "Blitz," when bombs and rockets from Nazi Germany were raining nightly on the civilian population of Britain. It was the time when Britain stood alone facing Hitler's ambitions - a time when France had already bowed out of the fight, Russia was basking in the security of her alliance with Hitler, and America had yet to be shocked into the war by Japan.

The images conjured up show a man, a woman, and their two daughters, all wearing simple street garb, the obligatory gas mask hanging by their side. They were climbing over and through heaps of rubble where once houses stood, and where unexploded bombs could go off any time. They were comforting the people of London, spreading faith, courage, affection, and togetherness. They were King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and their two daughters, one of whom is the present Queen Elizabeth II.

The elder Elizabeth, known as the Queen Mother, joined the royals as consort to the then Duke of York. She built a secluded family life of great happiness, having no ambition for public acclaim. Her husband, who struggled with a speech impediment, was just the opposite of his glamorous brother. But when the abdication of Edward VIII thrust shy "Bertie" upon the throne as King George VI, Elizabeth not only provided exceptional support to her husband, but set about to fashion a new, informal, indeed unique relationship with the people of Britain - a relationship she retains at the age of 97. As usual, the Queen Mother celebrated her recent birthday among the people of her country.

Such was the model for the present Queen Elizabeth who has lived a life of duty from childhood onward. The pageantry that surrounds her merely serves to preserve great and old traditions, not personal vanity. She lives with the constant threat that, in her case, comes out of the barrel of a gun. Even after Lord Mountbatten, her favorite "Uncle Louis,", was blown to smithereens by the Irish Republican Army, the Queen's many public appearances proceeded unaltered.

Other Elizabeths also come to mind. The Bavarian princess of extraordinary beauty who, at the age of 17, became empress to Austria's Francis Joseph I, shocked all of 19th century Vienna by walking out of the palace every day, unescorted, to shop at nearby markets. "Forgiven" by high society when she tended the wounded of the Seven Week's War, her life ended when an anarchist stabbed her to death as she was walking along Lake Geneva. Before that, she helped Hungary to obtain from her husband a significant measure of self-government, following centuries of rule from Vienna.

And, speaking of Hungary, and still speaking of Elizabeths: In 1221, the daughter of Hungary's King Andreas II became mistress of the famous Wartburg in Germany where, later, Martin Luther was to begin his epoch-making translation of the New Testament. This particular Elizabeth, as the wall paintings in the Wartburg still attest, became a legend already during her teens for carrying food daily to the poor, until - at the age of 20 - she decided to forsake all trappings of power and wealth. She built a hospice and spent her remaining years there, tending the sick and feeding the poor of the entire region.

She was only 24 years old when she died.