Carla Carlisle: Wallis Simpson’s great gift to Britain? Swapping vain, impulsive Edward for the patience, steadiness and kindliness of George and Elizabeth

Carla Carlisle may be a free-born American, but she doffs her cap to the late Queen, the new King, and how Britain's centuries-old balancing act can trump the whims of political mood in a republic.

For years, I defended my affection for the Royal family with a quote from the dark comedy Harold and Maude. The spunky octogenarian Maude explains her late-in-life mellowing to her troubled young friend Harold: ‘I don’t believe in monarchy’ she says, ‘but I miss the Kings and Queens.’

The more we tell a story, the deeper it gets embedded in our memory. A few years ago I watched the film again and discovered that’s not what Maude said. Curious about her fiery youth, Harold asks ‘What were you fighting for?’ Maude replies: ‘Oh, big issues: Liberty, Rights, Justice. Kings died. Kingdoms fell. I don’t regret the kingdoms, but I miss the Kings.’

I’ve stuck with my version, keeping the Queens. Although I’m a free-born American, who started every school day of my childhood pledging allegiance to the flag ‘and the republic for which it stands’, I have lived long enough in the land of kings and queens to believe in their symbolic and historic value. I’m still for Liberty and Justice, but I accept that ‘rule by genealogy’ doesn’t fit easily with those beliefs. I also know that it isn’t a perfect world. Rule by a republic where the whims of political mood prevail doesn’t always turn out so well. What I’ve come to admire is the centuries-old balancing act in this kingdom: ancient genealogy providing an intricate tapestry of history and continuity, a tangible and useful reminder that political lives are more temporal than royal reigns.

Queen Elizabeth II and US President Donald Trump sit together as they pose for the official family photograph during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, in Portsmouth, June 5, 2019. (Photo by Jack Hill/AFP via Getty Images)

All the same, it’s a leap of faith to believe in the Divine right of Kings or Queens. Succession is a constitutional roulette wheel and try as I might, I can’t believe it is ‘in the hands of God’, more ‘in the hands of the gods’. Shakespeare shows us that, throughout this nation’s long history there have been monarchs who were adulterous, cruel and stupid, and monarchs who were cultured, worthy, pious. Some were tall and handsome. Some were not.

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Character matters, but so do looks. It did not begin with our photographic age — think of those Holbein portraits of the Tudors — but the camera brought the kings and queens closer to the people. Long before she opened her mouth, her subjects were enchanted by their Queen’s looks. After meeting the young Queen Elizabeth in 1959, the writer Rebecca West described her: ‘Lovely beyond belief, with tiny little feet and ankles, a skin beyond compare, clean fine-grained skin, a beautiful hair-line, a perfect neck, neither too long nor too short, a lovely light quick voice.’ Lucky is the royal neck not too long, nor too short, all the better for holding up the wise head that wears the crown.

There’s another kind of luck. When my train from Suffolk to London passes through Ipswich I often think of the American woman from Baltimore. On October 27, 1936, an undefended divorce petition was heard at Ipswich Assizes and a decree nisi was awarded with costs against a Mr Ernest Simpson. This was the first stage of Edward VIII’s abdication and the beginning of a long run of luck for the House of Windsor and the country.

Wallis Warfield Simpson, recognisable for her extreme thinness and her stern head, has never been recognised for her great gift to this country. By capturing the heart of Edward VIII she removed the vain and impulsive King from the throne. As Duke and Duchess of Windsor, they lived out their acquisitive, trivial lives between New York and France, while George VI came to the throne, bringing the tenacity and patience, steadiness and kindliness the country needed to survive and win a long war. Thanks to Wallis, that King’s first-born daughter inherited her father’s qualities and his throne. I’d call that lucky beyond words.

The sons of King George V who became two future kings, pictured in 1933: on the left is Prince Edward (the future King Edward VIII, 1894-1974), and on the right is Prince Albert (the future King George VI, 1895-1952). Credit: Print Collector/Getty Images

Those who walked miles to bid farewell to their Queen had a common message: they felt lucky to have lived during her long reign. Elizabeth II was the master of the ‘intelligent silence’ — she never complained, never answered back to her critics — and when she spoke to the nation she was astute, poetic, even profound. In my early days in England, I was amazed at the wild choreography of chipolatas and bread sauce, Christmas crackers and glutinous pudding, all to be completed by the Queen’s Christmas message. Over the years, her messages were increasingly moving, a patch of dignity and hope, often against a backdrop of troubles and despair.

If my theme is how lucky this country has been in this Elizabethan age, I have to say how lucky this diminutive and beautiful Queen was. She had parents who were good at family life and adored their two daughters. She fell in love with a man who was handsome, intelligent and strong enough to stand tall even at two steps behind. She had four children who loved her and whom she loved.

Elizabeth II was also physically strong. Almost to the end of her life she was striding across hills with dogs. My favourite photograph, taken in 1974 at Aberdeen airport, shows her in an elegant blue suit, holding a tangle of dog leads — three corgis at her feet — and handbag. My favourite painting is by Pietro Annigoni, painted in 1953. Sombre and beautiful, she is wearing the Robes of the Garter. But the image that will stay with me was taken two days before she died. She’s just seen off her 14th Prime Minister and is smiling at her 15th. She’s still at work.

Kings and queens share many things with their subjects, chief among them is the democracy of death. Crowned or uncrowned, the quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail. Occasionally — it’s uncommon — unique circumstances of death will be granted to someone with a unique personality. Elizabeth II came on to the throne as a young woman of 25 and occupied that throne for 70 years, an anniversary we celebrated with ecstatic happiness mere weeks ago. Dressed in glorious green, she waved to her people from the Palace balcony. Did she know what we didn’t know? That it was a wave of farewell? In a rare and happy confluence of fortune, the Queen departed her realm on earth with grace and dignity intact.

The seamless move from one monarch to another continues. Charles III may struggle to match the achievements of his namesake Charles II, who was responsible for Christopher Wren becoming an architect, John Bunyan publishing Pilgrim’s Progress, and a bankrupt state transformed into the richest in Europe. I’m not worried. As Prince of Wales, Charles III demonstrated prescience, courage and quality of mind. May the great good luck hold. Long live the Kings and Queens.

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