…Defender of the Faith.
Elizabeth even has her own church, a sort of reformed Roman Catholicism.
She’s Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the breakaway faction founded by one of her predecessors, Henry VIII, so he could divorce and marry again. Three years later, when his new bride couldn’t produce an heir, he had her charged with treason and beheaded.
Despite this profane start, today’s Church of England includes some 1.7 million members around the world. Elizabeth appoints its bishops including the spiritual boss, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unlike the Pope, neither she nor the Archbishop claim infallibility in matters of faith and morals.
In fact, the church and the Queen have become almost invisible. Back when she was crowned, the then Archbishop of Canterbury claimed she was “God-called” to serve her people.
The fictitious Sir Humphrey Appleby (Yes, Prime Minister) once remarked wryly:
“The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra.”
The Church of England has long been disparaged as less a church than “the Conservative Party at prayer.”
Elizabeth herself leaves no doubt about her strong faith:
For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.
In Britain, the title means she defends her Church of England. But since none of her 15 other realms has a state religion, it’s conveniently interpreted — by those nations like Canada that still use the title in reference to her — as meaning she defends freedom of religion and faith in some Supreme Power.
Prince Charles has suggested a compromise. When he’s king, he says, he’d like to be known as “defender of faith.” Hardly a ringing declaration of undying support for the good old C of E!
Great Britain’s coat of arms, not incidentally, includes the rather arrogant motto “Dieu et mon droit” (God and my right).
Here endeth the lesson on the breakdown and explanation of Elizabeth’s Canadian titles.
I started this series by writing that Elizabeth is, by most accounts, actually two people.
One — a decent, honourable, dedicated woman close to the end of her life and reign who takes her responsibilities very seriously, works very hard and believes passionately in her God, her job and her duty.
The other — an imperious, autocratic, cold and isolated Prisoner of the Palace who lives a world away and apart from her Canadian realm, is a relic of Britain’s not-always-glorious imperial and colonial past and the ultimate personification of its still crippling class system.
From there, I explored her Canadian titles. What the words mean. How she honours their intent.
Now, splendid titles are traditionally bestowed by royalty on each other and on those they would reward, coerce and recruit.
Taking full advantage of all possible accompanying pomp, ceremony and garish uniforms, their main purpose is to brand, justify and validate the status, power and privilege of the ruling class in the eyes of lesser mortals.
And, of course, they’re always written in appropriately purple prose — particularly if the title is inherited rather than earned.
Still, when it comes to titles, it’s obvious that to Elizabeth, titles are a lot more than just empty words.
At an age when anyone less dedicated would have retired to her castles, her corgis, her horses and her grandchildren, one of those grandchildren, Prince William, insists that she still takes the titles’ meaning and responsibilities very seriously:
“She’ll want to hand over knowing she’s done everything she possibly could to help and that she’s got no regrets and no unfinished business… and that she’s not let anyone down — she minds an awful lot about that.”
William’s words echo her own, so very long ago on her 21st birthday:
“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.”
From within her golden cage of enormous privilege and great wealth, Elizabeth has honoured that vow with considerable dignity. She’s kept the faith in a way her final title, Defender Of The Faith, doubtless never intended.
In troubled times — and there have been many — she’s ably represented and embodied power, tradition, order and stability in her many realms.
You can criticize her personally, say she’s a willing Prisoner of the Palace, autocratic, imperious, cold, isolated from other people, quite possibly not the world’s greatest mother.
And you can point out that the Canadian monarchy she represents is a most peculiar institution, relying on nothing more meaningful than an accident of birth.
And there’s some truth in all these charges.
But you can’t deny that, like her long ago predecessor, Elizabeth l, she has “the heart and stomach of a king.”
In her way and in her fashion, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, has always, always, done her duty.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on May 28, 2012: Queen Elizabeth, Defender of the Faith
This series was adapted from Knight’s proposal for a multi-part TV series on the Queen now in pre-production, seeking sponsors. It will examine her role in each of the 16 nations over which she reigns.