A year of loss and sorrow for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II has been capped by the scaled-back plans for Christmas at Windsor Castle, where she now spends almost all her time.
The sombre mood will likely be reflected in The Queen’s Christmas Day message, which is expected to be a particularly personal one this year, as the monarch prepares to spend her first festive period since the death of the Duke of Edinburgh in April aged 99.
Coronavirus restrictions at the time meant the Queen was memorably and poignantly forced to sit alone in St George’s Chapel for his funeral service.
A photograph released by Buckingham Palace ahead of her televised address shows the Queen sat behind a desk in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, accompanied by a single, framed picture of the Queen and her late husband Prince Philip taken in 2007 at Broadlands country house, Hampshire, to mark their Diamond Wedding Anniversary.
It shows the Queen wearing an embossed wool shift dress in Christmas red, by British designer Angela Kelly, as well as a sapphire chrysanthemum brooch which the then-Princess Elizabeth wore for a photocall on her honeymoon, also to Broadlands, in 1947, and for the couple’s Diamond Wedding celebrations.
The Queen is expected to be joined at Windsor Castle on Christmas Day by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, having shelved her customary trip to Sandringham as a “precautionary” measure amid rising coronavirus cases. She also cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch.
The Queen used her 2020 Christmas broadcast to deliver a heartfelt message of hope to the country, praising the “indomitable spirit” of those who had risen “magnificently” to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic is also likely to feature prominently this year.
Her speech, which will be broadcast at 3pm GMT on Christmas Day, marks the end of a year peppered with both joy and immense sadness.
Death of her 'liegeman'
On the bright side, the Queen welcomed four new great-grandchildren to the family – August to Princess Eugenie, Lucas to Zara Tindall, Lilibet to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and Sienna to Princess Beatrice.
But the death in April of her husband, Prince Philip, which came after almost 74 years of marriage has been the defining event of her year. While the queen relaunched public engagements later in the year, her own health became an issue. Doctors ordered the 95-year old to cut back those duties in October.
As head of their own family, Prince Philip was always beside Queen Elizabeth, or, as he once jokingly complained, “two steps behind” his wife, marking the order of precedence. He was never officially Prince Consort; at the coronation, he swore to be her “liegeman of life and limb”. He died in April this year and because of Covid measures, Queen Elizabeth was obliged to sit isolated at his funeral in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Queen Elizabeth may have pledged to serve her subjects be her life “long or short”, but Prince Philip served her throughout their seven-decade marriage.
Harry and Meghan cause a TV storm
Troubles have disrupted other parts of the family. There was scandal, following Harry and Meghan’s bombshell interview with US chat show titan Oprah Winfrey in which they accused an unnamed royal of racism, as well as other allegations about the institution.
When the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle — a divorced, biracial American actress — took place, it seemed to epitomise the modernising monarchy that had evolved throughout Queen Elizabeth's reign.
The queen reportedly gave her quick approval to the match, though the British media as well as other members of the royal family grew increasingly tense after their marriage. In 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced they were stepping back from their role as senior royals and moved to southern California with their son, Archie, born in 2019, and where their daughter was born in 2021.
With accusations leaking from both sides, a permafrost seems to have settled on the schism with little sign of rapprochement any time soon.
Legal action against the Duke of York
The monarch's second son has retired to semi-seclusion in the grounds of Windsor Castle, dogged by allegations of sexual coercion. Prince Andrew has been forced to argue that a New York law giving victims of child sex abuse more time to sue is unconstitutional and cannot be used to allow the claims by a reported former recruit of Jeffrey Epstein to take the prince to trial.
Virginia Giuffre sued Prince Andrew in August, claiming he sexually abused her on several occasions when she was 17, including at Epstein’s New York home and in the London home of Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite who is on trial for the sex trafficking of children. Epstein killed himself while in jail.
The queen's life of service
On the 25th anniversary of her accession to the throne, Queen Elizabeth repeated a pledge she first made to devote her life to service in the 1940s. “Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it,” she said in 1977. There have since been other milestones in her long reign.
In 2002, she celebrated 50 years on the throne. This was followed by her Diamond and Sapphire Jubilee celebrations in 2012 and 2017. She is the country’s longest-serving monarch and is set to mark her platinum anniversary in 2022.
When she became queen in 1952, she also became the head of the Commonwealth — a group of sovereign territories and protectorates that consider the queen as the head of state. As of 2021, there are 15 states that fall under the Commonwealth realm, including Jamaica, Grenada, Australia, the Bahamas and Canada.
During the year, one of her realms slipped away as Barbados formally established itself as a republic on the 55th anniversary of its independence in late November.
Heartbreak in the royal family has been a feature across the decades. Married in 1984 to huge acclaim, the Prince of Wales’s and Princess Diana’s marriage deteriorated and in 1992 they announced their decision to separate.
Also in 1992, Prince Andrew, her second son, and his wife, Sarah Ferguson, also separated, while Princess Anne divorced her husband, Mark Phillips.
Later that same year, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, destroying more than 100 rooms. In a speech delivered to mark the 40th anniversary of her succession, Queen Elizabeth remarked that 1992 “has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’”.
The celebration of her 50th year on the throne was marred by a personal double loss, when her beloved younger sister, Princess Margaret, and their mother, the Queen Mother, died within weeks of each other in 2002.
Sombre 2021 has echoes of the Annus Horribilis
The intervening years had seen something of a consolidation for the family compared with the tumultuous 1990s and the Annus Horribilis. The start of Queen Elizabeth’s second half-century on the throne was characterised by warm relations between the nation and its royal family, and in 2005 most of the British public supported Prince Charles’s wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles.
The happy marriage of her eldest grandson Prince William to Kate Middleton took place in April 2011 and the births of their three children — the queen’s first great-grandchildren — followed promptly, first Prince George, then Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. As third in the line of succession after his grandfather and his father, Prince George is widely expected to become king one day. His birth marked the first time since Queen Victoria’s reign that three generations of direct heirs to the British throne are alive at the same time.
The year 2021 also marked a decade since the May 2011 trip by the Queen and Prince Philip to the Republic of Ireland at the invitation of President Mary McAleese. Although she had frequently visited Northern Ireland over the course of her reign, this was her first to the Republic of Ireland, and the first by a British monarch in 100 years. The visit, during which she expressed her “sincere thoughts and deep sympathy” for the victims of the troubled Anglo-Irish past, was widely celebrated as the beginning of a new era of friendship.
During the pandemic, Queen Elizabeth once again took on the role of national guide in a time of trouble. It was her quiet dignity and sincerity that captured the nation’s mood and its attention when she gave a coronavirus broadcast on the BBC in April 2020.
Sympathising with her subjects about the physical and emotional cost of the pandemic, it echoed her first broadcast, made in 1940 with her younger sister Princess Margaret, to the children of Britain who had been sent to the countryside for their safety about the pain of separation caused by war.
As one of the dwindling number of people who heard the familiar song We’ll Meet Again, sung first time by Vera Lynn in 1939, the words with which she ended her speech added poignancy. The certainty and delicate emphasis as she said, “we will meet again” gave hope and heart to many.
As she looks out from the quietude of Windsor Castle on Christmas Day, Queen Elizabeth will know she is again sharing the burden endured by the nation as the pandemic takes its course, leaving none untouched.