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Corona and the crown: monarchy, religion, and disease from Victoria to Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family have featured prominently in the British state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In her 2020 Christmas broadcast, which ended with the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir singing “Joy to the World,” the Queen evoked the “light of Christmas” in dark times and assured her people of her “thoughts and prayers.” She celebrated the heroism of “our frontline services,” connecting modern nurses to Florence Nightingale, but also to the Good Samaritan, who had cared for a wounded stranger in the gospel parable. The Queen’s 2021 Commonwealth Day address returned to the theme. Over footage of religious services, she spoke of the “spiritual sustenance” her listeners ordinarily derived from meeting together and praised the “selfless dedication to duty” of frontline workers around the Commonwealth. Her children and grandchildren have associated themselves with the medical and spiritual response to the pandemic. On the National Day of Reflection to mark the anniversary of its outbreak, Prince William lit a candle at the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, which was doing double duty as a vaccination centre. Commentators have found the Queen’s public statements, such as her promise that “we will meet again” or her invocation of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the Abbey, reminiscent of wartime patriotism. Yet the expectation that the monarch should articulate a spiritual response to the threat of disease had deeper roots. It took its modern form with Queen Victoria, whose reign decisively transformed the relationship between religion, the sovereign, sickness, and health.

Victoria’s truculence was instrumental in modernizing the monarchy’s religious response to disease. When she came to the throne in 1837, a large and vocal body of evangelical Protestants interpreted outbreaks of epidemic disease or setbacks in battle as harbingers of God’s anger with the British. Their leaders pressed the monarch to order state days of national prayer and humiliation to appease divine wrath. Victoria disliked such requests. As a young woman she had listened to liberal clergymen who taught her that God did not arbitrarily meddle with his creation. In Prince Albert, she had married a German rationalist who believed that true piety involved the scientific investigation of the laws which governed the health and prosperity of individuals and societies. In the summer of 1854 for instance, Victoria was adamant that she would not order the Church of England to hold special prayers to end the cholera epidemic which was then raging in London. Such prayers were, she said, “not a sign of gratitude or confidence in the Almighty.” That attitude lasted until the very end of her life and reign in 1901. Although the influenza epidemic of 1892 killed her own grandson, the Duke of Clarence, Victoria nonetheless resisted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for special prayers to end it.

“Queen Victoria, Princess Helena and Princess Beatrice Knitting Quilts for the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley.” By Alexander Melville (via Wikimedia Commons).

Instead of relying on God to intervene, Victoria identified religiosity with the battle against disease through the improvement of housing, sanitation, and medical care. She strengthened her family’s longstanding association with hospitals and patronised Florence Nightingale, who had established nursing as a spiritual vocation. Her much publicised visits to hospitals continued even during the prolonged seclusion which followed the death of her husband in December 1861. The banners which greeted Victoria as she went to Whitechapel to open a wing of the Royal London Hospital in 1876 show how the quest for health could symbolically unite a periodically unpopular monarch with her subjects. They read: “Welcome Victoria, the friend of the afflicted,” “I was sick & ye visited me (Matthew 25:36)” and “Welcome England’s pride, Queen Victoria.” The alliance between the court and the hospital played an important role in establishing Victoria as a friend to all the religions in her expanding empire, rather than just the governor of the Church of England or the defender of Protestantism. The Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations with which Victoria’s reign culminated not only celebrated her religious profile in such terms but found expression in the ecumenical promotion of nursing and other philanthropic causes. British Jews for instance were enthusiastic contributors to such schemes. In 1897, the Jewish Chronicle was delighted by the award of a Jubilee baronetcy to the imperial epidemiologist Waldemar Haffkine in recognition of his activities in India, marvelling that a “descendant of William the Conqueror” had recognised “a Russian Jew” for saving “the lives of helpless Hindoos and Mohammedans.”

Yet if the royal family benefited from the promotion of public health, then they reaped even greater dividends from their own mortality. As she aged, Victoria defined her reign as the successful endurance of common suffering rather than the exercise of extraordinary power. Hers was a “thorny crown” and a “heavy cross,” she wrote to a friend in 1886, reflecting on blows such as her early widowhood, her heir Albert Edward’s brush with fatal illness in 1871, and the deaths of her adult children Alice and Leopold. These crises in the life of the monarchy occasioned a flood of sermons and addresses from around the British world, as publics both Christian and non-Christian eagerly manifested sympathy with Victoria’s resigned grief. In a letter to the press on her grandson Clarence’s death, Victoria wrote that in facing the “inscrutable decrees of Providence,” she felt strengthened not just by God but by the “sympathy of millions.” Historians recognise that the monarchy survived Britain’s movement towards mass democracy not only by reluctantly surrendering its political prerogatives but also by showing that it could represent the nation. The vulnerability of Victoria’s family to disease was a visceral demonstration of its representativeness, confirming to a predominantly religious public that the Queen was united with them in sorrow, sacrifice, and resignation. Though kindled in a religious age, these emotional expectations on monarchs and leaders have lasted into a more secular time, as both the Queen’s broadcasts and the media’s recent mobilization to condole with her on the death of her husband Prince Philip have shown.

Feature image: “Queen Victoria’s First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers.” By Jerry Barrett (via Wikimedia Commons).

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