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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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.
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“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.
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.”
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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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“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.
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The family wants the ceremony to be focused on the duke, the longest-serving royal consort in British history, and to his years of service to the nation.
The queen, who is head of the Church of England, may choose to make her final goodbye in an even more private and spiritual setting, in her private chapel where his coffin has been at rest since his death. There are no TV cameras there.
“I think before the funeral she will have gone to the private chapel for a moment with coffin alone,” Arbiter says. “That will be her intimate moment of goodbye, a quiet moment of reflection and faith.”
Then she will put on her neutral face, and a mask, and lead her family through another royal ceremony to be remembered down the ages.
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