I was in the middle of a course dinner at Rewley house, Oxford when a colleague whispered to me from across the dining table that Queen Elizabeth II had just passed away.
Before the queen’s death became public, the sheer amount of good cheer that had floated around the dining hall had resembled the gleeful scenes painted in the good symposium by the ancient Greek poet, Xenophanes.
With my third glass of white wine half-full and my senses dancing from slight intoxication, I feigned attention as my History Professor talked about a time he tutored one of the younger scions of the Bhutto dynasty.
Around the tail end of the table, a colleague, who was within earshot narrated how he had just applied to the queen last month for her signature on his marriage anniversary card. He hoped she’d remain healthy for the next few months if only to just sign his card, he joked to choruses of laughter around the table.
However, as news of the queen’s passing filtered across the dining hall, what can best be described as a strange, surreal and an unprecedented moment of silence descended upon the room. For some time, everyone around me immediately had their eyes glued to their phone screens, some in slight disbelief at how quickly events were unfolding around Buckingham palace. Soon after, someone proposed a toast to the Queen’s fruitful reign and glasses were raised sky-high followed by loud chants of ‘Long live the Queen!” I also raised my wine glass in support not out of a particular deep reverence for Elizabeth II but in recognition of the significance of that moment and what it meant for the people around me. I could see that for them, this was the end of an era.
Minutes later, as everyone filed out of the dining hall in twos and threes to get some air in the Victorian courtyard, a few yards away, I traded my wine glass for a slimmer, more effective glass of whisky and headed for a familiar group of colleagues in the middle of the quadrangle. The evening air was chilly at this time and church bells chimed faintly from a distance in the Queen’s honor.
The prevailing feeling amongst the group I stood with despite that there were more republicans than monarchists around resembles that which is felt when one loses a distant grandmother. It wasn’t this deep well of sadness but a quiet, reverential melancholy.
In that moment, I realized that the ability of Elizabeth II to nurture this motherly feeling in her subjects for over seventy years is perhaps her greatest strength. It is not just because she has been around for so long.
It is rather about the aura of stability she had provided for her country over the years as the British empire developed into a modern, more fitting commonwealth of nations. Her cautious leadership in ensuring the crown does not interfere in Britain’s domestic politics is also perhaps the biggest reason why the British Monarchy has survived for this long despite so many scandals.
At a time when echoes of the Spanish civil war are being heard as western republics tear themselves apart through culture wars, Britain’s unique constitutional monarchy presided over by Elizabeth has helped the country maintain a somewhat mature level-headedness.
I don’t consider myself an ardent monarchist, and a meddling monarch who doesn’t know his or her place in modern government can be irritating but the role of Elizabeth II and the British monarchy in spreading this slightly overlooked feeling of unity with roots anchored in history has ensured that Britain, while also undergoing its domestic battles in culture and politics as the rest of western Europe can still largely share similar emotions as a nation such as the ones I witnessed in the dining hall and the courtyard.
Modern Britain at the moment embodies an enviable mix of the ancient and modern, the almost perfect blend of how time-honored political institutions should exist in a modern world.
For example, in the sixteenth century, the Privy council under Elizabeth I which consisted of about nineteen councilors formed the administrative arm of her government led by William Cecil, the Queen’s most trusted secretary.
As at the time of Elizabeth II’s death, this privy council, albeit existing largely as a ceremonial institution has evolved into about six hundred and seventy counselors which now consist of mainly British parliamentarians, senior judges, archbishops, and some Commonwealth leaders.
This sort of institutional evolution, which is not unique to Britain alone but also prominent among some Historic societies with ancient governing councils like the Oyomesi in Oyo or the ilamuren in Ijebu has given a refreshing picture of how hereditary privileges can exist successfully, although in ceremonial roles alongside republican meritocracy.
It shows, perhaps, then that the creative destruction associated with republicanism championed by countries like the United States is not necessarily the only suitable model to which societies should aspire to.
Later on in the night, as I stumbled along the cobbled sidewalks of Pusey Street, my thoughts drifted to my own King, the Owa Aroloye of Idanre who is Ninety-six . I wondered how long he would continue to remain King and if I’d feel the same distant sadness my colleagues felt upon hearing their Queen had passed.
After a bit of mulling, I decided there was no point in speculating about my King’s mortality. As long as he is still alive, I’ll drink to his health and honor, then pray for his peaceful reign to last for many moons. In wine-induced happiness, I took out my liquor flask from my pocket, took a shot, raised it up then yelled, ‘God save the King!’ loudly to the dismay of some passersby behind me.
Surprisingly, A group of boys standing by a corner store at the end of street cheered loudly in approval of what I did. They might have thought I was hailing King Charles III, the newly enthroned king of England.
OLANREWAJU AJIDAGBA WRITES FROM REWLEY HOUSE, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM