The Queen’s Hat
Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.
My only claim to royal fame - in the sense of meeting and actually speaking to a member of the royal family - was an encounter some fifteen years ago with the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, the only daughter of Her Majesty the Queen. I don’t remember what I said to her - or she to me - the conversation was brief, trite and banal, on both sides, I imagine.
My wife has done rather better when it comes to royal hobnobbing. She’s met Princess Anne twice; the late Duke of Edinburgh a couple of times too, plus Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex. She even worked, for a short time, in the same building and for the same organisation as Sophie, Countess of Wessex (before she married Eddie-boy, and ceased to be one of the plebs).
The nearest we ever came to meeting the Queen herself was in 2002, the year of her Golden Jubilee. We didn’t actually meet the Queen - but we did get to see her hat.
Didn’t we have a lovely time
the day we went to Bangor?
A beautiful day, we had lunch on the way
and all for under a pound you know.
In April 2002, we’d become parents for the second time, with the arrival of Lucy, a sister for almost two-year-old Katie. Soon after, we received the invitation to attend the Queen’s official Jubilee Service of Thanksgiving at Bangor Cathedral - one of four national acts of worship being held in the four home nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland over the course of the Jubilee.
We weren’t sure, frankly, whether we would be able to attend. Lucy was not yet seven weeks old on the day of the Welsh celebration. Helen was breastfeeding, and at this point had barely been out of the house with Lucy. It would be an all-day affair, with a long and not particularly easy cross-country road trip to Bangor. In the end, the only way we felt that we could manage it, logistically, was for Helen’s mother to come down from her Norfolk home, then for her to accompany us to Bangor, with Katie and Lucy both in tow. We would leave the children with my mother-in-law for the three hours or so we would need to allow for the Jubilee event (we were required to be seated at least an hour before the service started, and needed to allow almost as long to vacate the cathedral afterwards). Three hours apart from our young baby, we felt, was just about doable.
Why were we so determined to travel - despite the clear inconvenience to ourselves - all that way, to see the Queen? It’s not as if I have ever regarded myself as being an ardent royalist; and in the twenty-first century, the monarchy seems to be an increasingly-ridiculous concept. By what right does any one person find themselves born into such enormous wealth, privilege and status? The position of the monarch relies ultimately, it seems, either upon some ‘divine right’ of appointment, or upon the military prowess of some distant ancestor who once had sharper and more abundant swords or spears at his command than his rivals. Yet as the ‘sea of faith’ continues to recede in this country, what sense does divine right make? Wasn’t there a Civil War fought over the very idea, anyway - one which resulted in a former king losing his head? And in a democracy, haven’t we long since put away the notion of the acquisition of power by means of the bow, the blade and the bullet? Or is that perhaps too naive a belief, in the era of the mega-corporations, and the technocratic oligarchs?
Whatever. We still wanted to go, to avail ourselves of a little bit of pomp and pageant. How seductive the allure of royalty remains.
Bangor Cathedral is pretty small compared to most English cathedrals - several times over it could be fitted into Canterbury Cathedral (where the following year I would witness the enthronement of Dr Rowan Williams as 104th Archbishop of Canterbury - oh, how well-connected I was, back in those days!). Even so, it was crowded, and we didn’t have especially good seats. Some judiciously-positioned video screens afforded us with a reasonable view of what was happening near the high altar of the cathedral. But as for the Queen herself…well, please bear in mind that Her Majesty stands just 5 foot 4 inches tall. We craned our heads towards the central aisle of the cathedral - as did everyone else. And all we could see was her yellow hat - bobbing down the aisle.
Ironically, my mother-in-law and two daughters - the elder waving a Union Jack, the younger probably fast asleep - were better positioned to see the Queen as her motorcade passed by them, en route to the cathedral.
The sermon was delivered by Dr Rowan Williams - then Archbishop of Wales. It was an interesting, typically cerebral sermon from the man already being lauded as the finest mind in the Anglican Communion, and a potential future Archbishop of Canterbury. Was this the sermon that helped to secure his nomination? Who knows? All I can say is that the Duke of Edinburgh, judging from what we could see of him on the video screen, looked bored.
Dr Williams pointed out the linguistic connection between ‘kin’ and ‘king’ in Anglo-Saxon. He then went on to say:
The Christian monarch is one who shares Christ’s royal vocation of building and speaking for a kindred. But not just a tribal kindred…our Queen has given the greatest priority to the building and maintaining of kinship among the diverse cultures and races represented in this family of free nations; and the vision expressed in the Commonwealth has remained a strong and coherent moral benchmark, intolerant of oppression (as in the days of apartheid), working for real mutual accountability.
Hmm. Perhaps. Even then, I’m not entirely certain I was convinced. As for twenty years later…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We began the service by singing God Save the Queen - surely one of the most dismal national anthems in the world (we didn’t, of course, sing the jingoistic second verse, that even Prince Charles himself had condemned as ‘politically incorrect’ just a week before, at the Party at the Palace event). We ended by singing our Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (‘Land of My Fathers’) - with rather more gusto, it has to be said.
The BBC’s news report on the royal walkabout that immediately followed the service - Helen and I were still ensconced within the cathedral, at this point - was rather impolite, when I read it later. It contained the following mischievous assertions:
There are a few hundred people lining the street, but the numbers are small compared to those in areas like South West England. There is a little polite applause but not much of the cheering and vigorous flag-waving that has greeted her elsewhere. The reason seems to be indifference on the part of many in this strongly Welsh-speaking, Welsh nationalist part of the world to what is seen as an English monarchy. In this respect north west Wales is like Scotland. Here too there is resentment in some quarters at English incomers, who are accused of pricing locals out of the housing market by buying country cottages and retirement homes. Nervousness at how she will be received has perhaps influenced the decision by the police and the Palace not to extend her walkabout down Bangor’s narrow main street, where the prospect of the Queen trapped between the tall houses has raised security fears.
The late Harry Secombe (a great friend of Prince Charles) famously sang:
We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides,
We’ll keep a welcome in the vales.
This land you knew will still be singing,
When you come home again to Wales.
The BBC’s correspondent that day clearly didn’t think that those sentiments were being extended by the Welsh to the ‘foreign’ English monarchy. Perhaps he was right. The spirits of Arthur Pendragon, Llewellyn the Last and Owain Glyndŵr still endure, centuries later. In the hearts of many, the red dragon has not yet forgiven the white.
Helen and I made our way home, with the girls and Helen’s mum, satisfied with how the day had turned out.
And now, twenty years have passed. Another Jubilee draws nigh. Since 2002, our monarch has surpassed all those others who had sat on the English, Scottish or British thrones longer than she herself had back then: Edward III and Henry III of England, James VI of Scotland, ‘Mad’ George III of the House of Hanover, and finally Queen Victoria.
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us…
But never mind our current Queen, for a moment - is the United Kingdom more happy and glorious now, than it was twenty years ago? Are we, as a people, and as four nations, more united, or less? And in the light of the Windrush Scandal, the BLM movement, and the recent announcement that Her Majesty’s government wishes to ‘process’ illegal immigrants to our shores via Rwanda - one of the poorest countries in Africa - what are we to make of the hopeful comments about the Commonwealth made by Dr Williams twenty years ago in Bangor Cathedral? Do they ring more or less true now, than they did then?
This Platinum Jubilee feels rather different from the anniversaries that preceded it. In 1977, at the Silver Jubilee, we rejoiced in Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon, a great sporting triumph (even though it’s common knowledge the Queen doesn’t particularly care for tennis). In 2002, we celebrated the Golden Jubilee at a time of economic prosperity, and of optimism for the new millennium that, though dented by the events of 9/11, was not as yet shattered. By 2012, the time of the Diamond Jubilee, the financial crisis had rocked our confidence, and austerity was beginning to bite; yet the Summer Olympics hosted in London that year (accompanied by the audacious sight of Her Maj supposedly ‘parachuting’ into the opening ceremony in tandem with Daniel Craig’s James Bond) lifted our spirits.
But now, the main sentiment that is in the air (if we are brutally honest) is mournful uncertainty. The Queen is 96, and we sense that this will be the last of her Jubilees. Her faithful consort throughout most of her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh, has passed away. Scandal about the behaviour of some of its members - never that far away from the Royal Family - has once again clouded the atmosphere. Add to that all our current political woes: in the aftermath of BREXIT and COVID; in the face of the lamentable inadequacies of the current Prime Minister, her fourteenth (God forbid that he’ll be her last); and with the grave concerns on the international scene - war in Ukraine, and America more divided than ever. It feels as if the Second Elizabethan Age is drawing to a close. At its beginning, the British Queen was still (just about, even without India) sovereign of the largest empire the world has ever seen. But now, one wonders how much longer the fourteen overseas nations that currently accept a foreign-born unelected figure as their head of state will continue to wish to do so. And one even wonders how much longer the fifteenth of her realms - the United Kingdom itself - will remain in existence.
Platinum is one of the least reactive metals, and is highly resistant to corrosion. But can this be said of the British Monarchy, for very much longer?
The pussycat, in the nursery rhyme, once travelled to London, to visit the Queen - and ended up frightening a mouse. Now, it seems, Britain - that once seemed to be the lion of nations - has been much reduced in stature. Are we more mouse than lion, these days? However much we might wish it to be otherwise, we are the ones that might as well scurry, and hide, behind a skirting board or beneath a chair; such are the timidity and paucity of our current times, a sad contrast to what once we were.
Unlike the pussycat, Helen and I travelled to Bangor, not London. But at least there we had the opportunity to see the Queen’s hat - bobbing down the aisle of a cathedral - once upon a time.