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Remembering the life of England's longest serving monarch Queen Elizabeth II

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today we are remembering the life of England's longest-serving monarch. Here she is back in 1953 on her coronation day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: I have been aware all the time that my peoples, spread far and wide throughout every continent and ocean in the world, were united to support me in the task to which I have now been dedicated with such solemnity.

MARTIN: Joining us now to talk about her 70-year reign is British historian Dan Jones. He's the author of "The Templars." Dan, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

DAN JONES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What was it like for you to hear that clip of a young Elizabeth?

JONES: It's interesting to hear the clip of young Elizabeth. It's interesting to hear the clip of monarchs speaking full stop because, of course, throughout the long span of monarchy, which I've studied a lot over the course of my career, you don't tend to hear monarchs' voices. It's Victoria and onwards. So it was always, always interesting to hear the queen's pronouncements, which were carefully thought out and subtle and seemingly uncontroversial, even when she was saying quite controversial things.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk more about her legacy. I mean, a lot of what people give her credit for when they say that she was a successful queen - it is that she had longevity. She just endured it, right? She just kept at it amidst, you know, changes in British society and the public pressure and the scrutiny. I mean, how would you characterize her time on the throne? What did she do well?

JONES: She did well at staying on the throne. She did well at living a long life, which was, I mean, not to be sniffed at. There are - when we talk about great monarchs throughout British history, you think back to characters like Elizabeth I who did the same thing, who arrived on the throne at a time of enormous tumult and change - that being then religious change in the reformation. And she lived through several generations maintaining a settlement.

Now, Elizabeth II has done something similar. She's lived through a period of enormous, tumultuous change and come to express her duty through being a constant face, a constant presence, a constant representative of something much longer than the span of anybody's life. And I think she did very well at that. She did very well at - and I mean this in the kindest sense possible - seeming spectacular yet quite dull. There was - the job is to avoid controversy and to maintain a sort of semi-mythical presence, which is an odd job to give any human being, I think, psychologically, politically, culturally. And she dealt with it in a remarkable fashion.

MARTIN: There are those who are giving her a lot of credit, in particular, for her statement during COVID. She was able to give this national address that really made people feel less alone during these difficult, difficult lockdown periods. Are there some other key moments that you would cite from her reign that stick out to you as being particularly effective, using her platform effectively?

JONES: Well, within my lifetime, I suppose, the moment that the monarchy was tested, in the greatest sense since it had been in the abdication crisis, was at the death of Princess Diana. And although there was some criticism leveled at the queen and the royal family in general at that time, I think the fact that she pulled the royal family together and moved on was an interesting one. I mean, she's also had an extraordinarily difficult last, say, five years of her life with members of the family, with her son, Prince Andrew, with her grandson, Prince Harry, who've tested public faith and support for the royal family, who've tested the unity and the malleability, the adaptability of the royal family. And she's dealt with that in ways that have, right to the end, kept the show on the road, if you see what I mean.

And that's the job. That's the job. It's an age in which the royal family is a blatant and obvious anachronism. And so the job of maintaining a sense that it isn't about to collapse and far from that, is something that has a future, has been a difficult one - one that, as I said, she maintained right to the end.

MARTIN: So what does that mean, then, for her eldest son, now King Charles? I mean, first of all, as you say, she was successful because in large part people didn't know a lot about her, that she was such a private person. And that was all by, I mean, perhaps nature, but also by design. He is so much more of a known quantity to the British public for good and for ill. What challenges will that mean for him?

JONES: It's existential. The queen has been the queen for so long that - and what happens always with a long reign of a monarch is that the separation between crown and the individual wearing it starts to disappear in people's minds. The queen was the crown for almost everybody alive in Britain today. This is, for most of them, the first time they will have seen another individual wearing that crown. Now, is the - was the faith and support of the monarchy really faith and support for the monarchy, or was it faith and support for the queen? My instinct is that it was faith and support for the queen.

And so Charles now has an incredibly difficult job. He's a middle-aged going on elderly white man, and that is not sort of the easiest thing to be in a rapidly changing society. He's got to somehow either convince people that the crown itself, the institution of monarchy, is a force for positive goodness and something that's worth the money and worth maintaining, or he has to somehow convince people that he himself is his mother's equal as a monarch. And I think both of those are unbelievably difficult tasks which could prove existential to the monarchy.

MARTIN: British historian and author Dan Jones, we so appreciate your perspective and context on this day, the day we are marking Queen Elizabeth II's reign, 70 years on the throne, and her funeral proceedings. Thank you so much for being with us.

JONES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.