Home / Comment / In brief

Queen Elizabeth II: faith and virtue

Queen Elizabeth II: faith and virtue

With the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Nick Spencer reflects on her 70 year reign and its grounding in faith and virtue. 09/09/2022

Queen Elizabeth II was born in the radio age, crowned in the television age, and died in the age when CGI could bring a marmalade eating bear to tea. Her life was lived in a world made by media, which means that not only was hers the longest reign in British history, but possibly the most recorded life in human history, 85 of her 96 years lived under intense media interest.  

Even acknowledging that much of that media attention was during a more deferential age, an age that lasted longer for her than for most public figures, the idea of being under the spotlight for so long and rarely, if ever, messing up is frankly incredible.  

If we are to ask why, the answer seems disconcertingly simple. Queen Elizabeth II worked very hard. She had a resolute sense of duty and responsibility. She was committed to public service. She was generous, self–deprecating, good–humoured, and seemingly willing to withhold her personal opinions (almost) all the time. She was, in a word, virtuous. 

One of the more notable social changes during her long reign was the decay in public trust in institutions. We shouldn’t overplay this. Mass Observation studies from the 1930s and 40s report a British public every bit as cynical about their political leaders as their great–grandchildren would be 80 years later.  

But that cynicism was mixed with respect and admiration, so that ultimately all the great institutions of state – parliament, church, courts, military, monarchy – were valued and trusted. A growing culture of individualism, coupled with the slow exposure of the manifold fallibilities of such institutions, slowly eroded that trust so that, by the end of her reign, ‘institution’ itself has become a dirty word. 

But no nation, no common project, can survive, let alone thrive, without institutions and so, in an effort to shore up that trust, we placed ever greater emphasis on transparency, on openness, on accountability. Freedom of Information. Watchdogs. Regulators. The way of assuring probity in public life and trust in institutions was to expose them to constant mutual scrutiny. It was Bentham’s Panopticon before CCTV and social media embedded it permanently in our lives. The more we knew about what was going on inside our leaders or institutions, the more we would have reason to trust them. 

It hasn’t really worked, which further underlines the paradox of Queen Elizabeth II’s popularity. The best–known woman in the world was also hardly known at all. Over many years, we assembled a partial picture, but she hardly ever gave an interview, rarely voiced a personal opinion (with one important exception…) and of course never, ever mouthed off.  

Similarly, the Palace. Unlike pretty much every other major institution of state, the Palace remains largely opaque. Its communiques, as we have seen this week, are not overburdened with detail. Moreover, the Palace doesn’t really leak, or at least not like Westminster leaks. (Theresa May remarked on how one of the joys of her weekly meetings with the Queen was that she could be sure, unlike pretty much every other meeting she had, that what she said in private would stay private). It all seems a recipe for public mistrust and cynicism. 

And yet, despite this, the Queen herself, and in her shadow the monarchy, remained popular. Scratch that. Not popular. Adored. 

The reason, I suggest, was her commitment to virtue. In effect, she modelled a very different kind of leadership from that popular in our day, silence and duty rather than publicity and transparency.  

And here I pick up the point left hanging above. Of course, the Queen did voice an opinion, at least once a year, in the one broadcast over which she had control. It is telling that, while the Palace refused authorisation to every would–be royal biographer, Her Majesty did authorise and wrote a foreword to The Servant Queen and the King she serves, published by the Bible Society. Her Christian faith was absolutely central to who she was, how she lived, what she hoped for. It was the foundation of her virtue. 

Many people today are reeling at the news of her death. We have never known anything different. She has been the background to all our lives. The Queen’s life and longevity were indeed truly remarkable. More than a quarter of all British Prime Ministers were hers. She personally knew nearly a third of all US presidents. Her first PM was born in 1874, her last in 1975. All very impressive. 

But as impressive, surely, was her commitment to duty, honour and dignity, understanding, patience and kindness, those things that alas have such a fusty smell to them today. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things…. And the God of peace will be with you.” 

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos 

Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

Image by Alessia Pierdomenico from Shutterstock

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 9 September 2022

Christianity, Church of England, Faith, Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Family


See all


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.