On this day in history, Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth learned of her father’s death. By choosing the regnal name “Elizabeth”, she became Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen, Defender of the Faith. Her title might have began “Her Majesty Elizabeth the Third”, however, had Queen Victoria taken the regnal name “Elizabeth” – more than one politician and newspaper suggested Victoria do so. When the time came, the nineteenth century queen claimed the name “Victoria” over her baptismal name, “Alexandrina Victoria”, leaving “Elizabeth II” to a future monarch’s use. After all, being a second Elizabeth in the nineteenth carried much responsibility – by the end of that era, the Tudor queen’s life story filled the pages of histories, novels, and plays. She was heralded as the Queen who ushered Britain into the Age of Empire, and as a woman “placed above all men”.
Indeed, the legend of Elizabeth Tudor and her era seeped into the twentieth century. Perhaps there was no stronger correlation between the sixteenth century and the twentieth century than when the German blitzkrieg began – for many, this was the modern era’s Spanish Armada. Imagery and public memory such as this insured that any princess who took on the title of Queen Elizabeth would ultimately be compared to the sixteenth century queen. It was therefore unsurprising that Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne was greeted as a second “Elizabethan age”, a time to move above and beyond the devastating effects of World War II.
For the current queen, however, the name “Elizabeth” was not taken in honor of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth II was named after her own mother. There was also (and still is, in some cases) controversy over whether “II” should be tacked onto the current queen’s name – Elizabeth Tudor, for example, was never the queen of Scotland. The ordinals of “Elizabeth II”, however, are applied on the basis that the United Kingdom is a successor state to the realm of England.
Today, Elizabeth II still cannot escape comparisons to the first Elizabeth. Numerous articles on the Diamond Jubilee mention Elizabeth I – for example, this excellent article from The Telegraph is titled “The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee: Gloriana for our times.” As the writer notes, Elizabeth II has long battled with being tied to the Virgin Queen, with varied results. Just yesterday, St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Port Hope marked the Diamond Jubilee with a rendition of both “God Save the Queen” and the sixteenth century motet “O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth” by the Catholic composer William Byrd, a student of Thomas Tallis. Below is a rendition of the song by the Tallis Scholars, and directed by Peter Phillips at the Tewkesbury Abbey.
To quote the Bard: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”