Queen Elizabeth marks Sapphire Jubilee with sadness

The Queen does not celebrate any milestones related to her accension, bu the Sapphire Jubilee marks 65 years since her accession.

Queen Elizabeth II’s official portrait by photographer David Bailey. She is wearing a suite of sapphire jewellery given to her by King George VI as a wedding gift in 1947. David Bailey / Handout via Reuters
Powered by automated translation

On Monday Britain celebrates Queen Elizabeth II's Sapphire Jubilee – but the monarch herself remembers the day only as the 65th anniversary of her father's early death.

On Monday the citizens of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Hillsborough will hear 21-gun salutes from their respective castles, while for Londoners it will be 41 guns from Green Park and 62 from the Tower.

As subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, they have become used to these salutes as their beloved sovereign continues to break records. This latest one is her Sapphire Jubilee – marking 65 years since her accession.

On February 5 1952, Elizabeth Windsor climbed a mgugu tree as a princess and the following morning came down as a queen. She and Prince Philip were in Kenya en route to Australia, staying at the famous Treetops Hotel. The following day, she was watching the sun rise from a platform in the trees as an eagle soared above them. It was thought that, at that moment, her beloved father, George VI, died in his sleep at Sandringham.

And so the 90-year-old monarch considers she has nothing to celebrate on February 6. She will spend it quietly in the house where her father died at age 56. She once said she has reigned so long only because “my father died much too young”.

Her longevity and constitution, reminiscent of her remarkable mother, continues to amaze.

Elizabeth is now the longest reigning monarch, after the 2010 death of Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, who ruled for 62 years 102 days; and last year of Thailand’s King Bhumibol who reigned for an astonishing 70 years 126 days.

History attributes the longest reign in living memory, of 82 years 254 days, to Swaziland’s King Sobhuza II (1899–1982). There is even one case – of Shapur II of Persia, whose 70-year reign (309–379) began in utero – the crown was placed on his mother’s belly.

On her 21st birthday, four years before she succeeded, the princess pledged: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” At 65 years and counting, it is universally agreed that Elizabeth has been true to her word.

While she sounded so certain and determined, Elizabeth’s destiny had only dawned in December, 1936 when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, hoisting his younger brother, her father, on to the throne.

When a footman brought the news to the young princesses that their papa was king, Princess Margaret asked, “Does that mean that you will have to be the next queen?” “Yes, someday,” Elizabeth replied. “Poor you,” countered Margaret. Biographers claim that every night thereafter Elizabeth prayed for a brother.

That prayer was not answered but in 1947 another was when she married Philip Mountbatten, the young man she had fallen in love with at 13.

When asked what his job was, Prince Philip has always answered “to support the queen” and, for all his gaffes and restlessness, he too has been true to his word. Incredibly, this year will mark their 70th wedding anniversary.

Despite the hopes, it was never to be a New Elizabethan Age. The fabric of Britain was still rent by the Second World War and as it recovered, Europe emerged and the empire crumbled. Brexit will not revive it but what arose from the remnants of the empire was the Commonwealth and its survival, against extraordinary odds, is one of the queen’s greatest achievements.

Lord Chancellor Hailsham once observed that while the US system of government was “an elective monarchy with a king who rules but does not reign”; the British system was “a republic with a hereditary life president who reigns but does not rule”.

Another comparison is that of a non-executive chairman. The presence of a chairman guarantees balance. She may advise, recall past failures – and successes, represent the company at functions and listen to its problems.

If the queen is the chairman, her chief executive is the prime minister. She has seen 13 of them – her first, Winston Churchill, born in 1874; her most recent, Theresa May, was not even born when Elizabeth became monarch.

Her role is essentially a passive one, as she does not criticise, lecture or dictate, but she can and does question.

It is said – again this is speculation – that when, in 1956, Anthony Eden told the queen about Westminister’s intention to intervene over the Suez, she apparently said, “Are you sure?”. For her majesty, this is the equivalent of “Are you mad?”

The queen’s abiding devotion to the Commonwealth is well known but her majesty has a special and enduring bond with the ruling families of the Gulf.

Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan went to London for her Coronation in 1953 – although there is no evidence that the two Rulers met. However, in 1961, on his first visit to London, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum struck up a friendship with the queen.

Then, in February 1979, the queen and Prince Philip made their first state visit to the UAE when her majesty and the founding father, Sheik Zayed, formed an instant rapport.

As Zaki Nusseibeh, the President’s official translator, observed, “There were never any awkward moments, which are always the concern of a translator. They always found it easy to talk to each other, and not only about politics but family, horses and agriculture”.

The queen stayed on the royal yacht Britannia, which was docked in Port Rashid. She opened the Dubai Municipality building and the Dubai World Trade Centre, the tallest building in the Middle East. She turned on the tap at a Dubai desalination plant and unveiled a plaque officially opening Jebel Ali Port. The nation was not quite seven. As one of the queen’s biographers, Robert Hardman, wrote, it was “a poignant reminder of how far she goes back in the memory of this young country”.

A decade later, in July 1989, Sheikh Zayed was invited by the queen to Windsor, the first state visit from the UAE. In June 2003, Sheikh Khalifa, as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, made an official visit to the United Kingdom where His Highness was received by the queen at Buckingham Palace.

In November 2010, they honoured their old friend at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and reaffirmed the 1971 Treaty of Friendship. The queen also honoured Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Zayed’s son and successor, by now President, with the prestigious Knight Grand Cross of the Honourable Order of the Bath (GCB). She in turn was honoured with the Order of Zayed.

In April 2013, it was Sheikh Khalifa’s turn to make a state visit and His Highness was received at Windsor Castle amid all the pomp and ceremony that the British can muster; yet at the state banquet, with the Queen on one side and the Duke of York on the other, it was, too, a lunch with friends. This was the Queen’s 104th state visit since her accession. This year she may host her 110th state visit, welcoming the 45th president of the United States.

The coolness, sagacity and restraint of Elizabeth II have been matched by her constancy and diligence – day in and day out, for 65 years – a model constitutional monarch. It is impossible to imagine that this could be matched in this, or any other, century.

artslife@thenational.ae