Queen Elizabeth II never weeps in public – that’s the common perception forged over seven decades of soaring triumphs and terrible tragedies for the United Kingdom’s head of state.
Even if many people believe it, it’s not strictly true, royal historians say.
“There have been more times she’s been in tears than people recognize or choose to remember,” says Sally Bedell Smith, the acclaimed American biographer of the queen and other senior royals.
Bedell Smith ticks off a half-dozen occasions when the queen was seen to be in tears, and not just in 1997 when the beloved royal yacht, the Britannia, was retired. Contrary to how she’s depicted on TV’s “The Crown,” the queen shed real tears when she went to Aberfan, Wales, in 1966 to meet with survivors of a horrifying avalanche of coal waste that killed 144 people, most of them children in their school classrooms, Bedell Smith says.
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Queen Elizabeth II during the Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph on Nov. 8, 2020, in London. (Photo: Chris Jackson, Getty Images)
And at her sister Princess Margaret’s funeral in 2002, people who were there and seated near her told Bedell Smith she was “very tearful,” and “the saddest I’ve ever seen her.”
“She has shed tears but it’s been at appropriate times, such as the Remembrance Sunday commemorations” for Britain’s war dead every November, adds longtime royal commentator Victoria Arbiter, who spent part of her childhood in Kensington Palace as the daughter of a former press secretary to the queen.
But the widespread impression that the queen rarely shows emotion gets to the underlying role of the longest-serving reigning monarch in British history: After 69 years on her throne, she’s had a lot of practice at hiding her feelings when necessary – and often it is necessary.
Now her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has died at age 99 and his funeral is Saturday in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Because of the pandemic and his own wishes, the ceremonial funeral will be smaller and private but televised.
Will this be one of those times when the 94-year-old monarch finds it essential to hold back her undoubted sorrow? And how does she keep her composure so well?
Arbiter predicts the queen will have to call on all her reserves of stoicism; she may appear a solitary, even forlorn figure at the funeral.
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Queen Elizabeth II with her nephew and niece, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto, at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, on Feb. 15, 2002, for the funeral for their mother, the queen's sister, Princess Margaret. (Photo: FIONA HANSON, ASSOCIATED PRESS)
“I don’t think we can underestimate how significant a loss this is to the queen – it’s undeniable this will be the hardest day of her life,” Arbiter says.
Her family will see her but those watching the televised service will not. Buckingham Palace said Thursday she will be masked along with all 30 guests in the congregation, in keeping with pandemic rules. TV cameras are expected to stay away from royal faces during the service, as is customary.
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The queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, said to be her favorite, gave a hint of his mother’s demeanor when he spoke to reporters two days after his father’s death.
“The queen, as you would expect, is an incredibly stoic person,” Andrew, 61, said. “She described (his death) as having left a huge void in her life but we, the family, the ones that are close, are rallying round to make sure that we’re there to support her.”
The definition of a stoic is a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. This is the queen to a T, says Bedell Smith.
“She is a woman of deep feeling but she works very hard to present an impassive face,” says Bedell Smith. “It’s partly due to her role, and partly her temperament and the way she was brought up.”
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Guardsmen present arms as the coffin of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother passes through London's Parliament Square during funeral ceremonies on April 9, 2002. (Photo: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER, Associated Press)
The then-Princess Elizabeth, as she was known until her ascension in 1952, was trained very deliberately not to show her feelings in public, Bedell Smith says.
“If you see her at any number of (performances) or events, for practical reasons she watches but she doesn’t applaud,” Bedell Smith says. “The theory is, if she starts to express reaction of any kind, it will be seen as favoring one group over another. So she’s perfected this neutral look.”
At times, she’s been criticized for having a “stony” face, for appearing to be unfeeling or uncaring, Arbiter says. She is damned if she shows emotion, damned if she doesn’t, so her safest option is to not react.
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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip board The Royal Yacht Britannia on Dec. 11, 1997, at Portsmouth before the vessel was retired after 44 years service. The monarch was reported to have been teary as she toured the rooms one last time. (Photo: JOHN STILLWELL, Associated Press)
“The best way to avoid criticism is to give away nothing, but it takes a will of steel and many years of practice,” Arbiter says.
Compared to her husband, who was more likely to express himself if he was vexed or moved in some way, she has to show neutrality. “The discipline! She is so disciplined in every way,” Bedell Smith says.
As a member of Britain’s World War II generation, when so many endured hardship, loss, grief and devastation, stoicism was a coping mechanism for everybody, not just the queen, says Arbiter.
“There’s a famous phrase the royals say: ‘Don’t wear private grief on a public sleeve,’ ” Arbiter says. “The family recognize that so many Britons have gone through hell in the past year and they will want to maintain that perspective” during the funeral.
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