The very purpose of today’s royal family

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Let’s admit it. The media had a great time with the death of Queen Elizabeth II. We were able to witness all the pomp and circumstance, the long lines of hundreds of men, women and children patiently waiting to pay their last respects, Britain in deep mourning. Some commentators have praised Her Majesty’s love for her people, her charm, her devotion to the UK. Others pointed to the lack of democracy in the monarchy and its colonial history.

As I am from Holland, also a monarchy, the news from England reminded me of my childhood and the role our queen played there. I found myself thinking of an old framed picture of Queen Wilhelmina above the fireplace in our living room. Unlike her recent British counterpart, she didn’t look very regal. More like a rugged Dutch housewife – clad in storm gear and chunky rubber boots while monitoring the construction of the Afsluit Dijk, the 32 kilometer dam and causeway across the Zuider Zee (shallow creek of the North Sea) between 1927 and 1932.

A few days after Hitler’s Nazi troops invaded my country in May 1940, we learned that Wilhelmina and her government had secretly left for England. I remember the looks on the faces of the adults around me. They seemed to feel lost, abandoned, angry. But then a BBC broadcast in London had us all huddled around our banned radios and we heard our Queen explain that by refusing to become prisoners of the enemy and leaving the country, the government could continue to actively fight for our liberation and the defeat of the German army.

And he did – as we learned from what became the secret daily BBC “Radio Orange” evening broadcasts in Dutch. It lifted our spirits when we heard reports that the mother of our country had raised the eyebrows of the British aristocracy by riding her old-fashioned Dutch bicycle in London traffic and shopping in Woolworth because “it was cheaper”. The adults understood why – as a mother herself – the Queen decided to send her only child, Juliana, to Canada to escape the constant bombardment of the city. I was too young to realize that she also wanted to protect the future of the House of Orange in case she herself didn’t survive the war.

But Wilhelmina survived. Born in 1880, daughter of King Willem (Guillaume) III and his second wife, Emma de Waldeck-Pyrmont, she became queen on the death of her father in 1890 under her mother’s regency. It was inaugurated on September 6, 1898. (Unlike England, members of the Dutch royal family are not “crowned” by having a crown placed on their heads in a cathedral, but are “inaugurated” in Parliament. )

The history books describe her as a strong leader who during World War II supported her government in exile, even to the point of replacing the prime minister when she disagreed with his policies. Churchill said of Wilhelmina that “she was the only man in the Dutch government”. Members of my rapidly shrinking generation regard her as a beacon of hope for five years of pure hell. As the war dragged on, the daily news from the front and the Queen’s periodic personal interviews on Radio Orange told us we were not forgotten. Although his words could not warm our frozen bodies or fill our empty stomachs, they helped our determination to survive.

Dutch monarchs, unlike their English counterparts, do not have to serve until the end of their lives. Failing health led Queen Wilhelmina to abdicate in 1948; she died in 1962. Juliana reigned from 1948 until 1980 when her eldest daughter, Beatrix, became queen. In 2013, she ceded the throne to her eldest son Willem Alexander, giving the country its first king in four generations. Perhaps in recognition of the changing times, the new king declined to use the historic golden carriage for his investiture. It is now part of the historical treasures of the Museum of Amsterdam.

So, in the final analysis, are kings and queens just cherished figureheads who should be replaced by more democratic regimes? Perhaps one like our American system, with its ugly and expensive biennial fights to elect representatives and senators who are supposed to guide us towards the election of a president for four years who, in the end, is chosen by a minimum than 270 electoral votes out of 538?

While writing this, I came across a copy of the Belfast Telegraph from 2011, reporting Queen Elizabeth’s first visit by a British royal in 100 years to the Republic of Ireland. She laid a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin in memory of Republicans who died for Irish independence fighting British soldiers. At a banquet given in her honour, the Queen spoke of the “knot of history” that had been loosened in Ireland thanks to the peace process. On Anglo-Irish history, she stressed the importance of “being able to bend to the past but not be bound by it”.

As we in this country struggle with our feelings about Columbus and Native Americans, or Jefferson and slavery, wouldn’t it be nice if someone above the fray reminded us that “to bend to the past” can express praise and admiration as well as regret and shame? And wouldn’t it be great if we all decided not to be bound by it?

Elisabeth Breslav is a regular essay writer for Oronoque Villager magazine in Stratford. His memoir “Blackout, Bombs and Sugar Beets” is represented by agents in Europe, Canada and the United States

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