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The Queen
Image: Noma Bar

The Queen’s capital: what Elizabeth II’s death means to London

The late monarch was a born-and-bred Londoner, but what will her legacy be in the capital?

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell
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There are – at the time of writing – zero pubs in London called ‘The Queen Elizabeth II’. That might say something about the gradual evolution-slash-demise of the pub in London culture in the last 70 years. These days, only a proper charlie would invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in a precarious hospitality business then do something lame like calling it after the reigning monarch. It will be interesting to see if any now rename themselves in the late sovereign’s honour.

September 8 2022 marked the end of the second Elizabethan age in the capital. Queen Elizabeth II lived for almost a century and ruled for 70 of those years. She came to the throne just after the most destructive war in human history – one which profoundly changed London for ever – and died as another war rages in Europe threatening to drag more countries into it and bringing a new wave of refugees to the capital. The country and the city are in a kind of shock. It’s very different from the shock that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997; it’s not an unforeseen tragedy. It’s more like the removal of something that’s always been there, like the sudden disappearance of St Paul’s cathedral or the Pret ham & cheese croissant. But the Queen was fundamental to the identity of London – way beyond the plethora of royalist tat available on our streets – and her death and the accession of King Charles III will prove momentous in the city’s history.

ER v VR

From the outset, Queen Elizabeth II was in competition with another queen in the capital: Victoria. London is largely Victorian and was even more so when the Queen ascended to the throne in 1952. The city’s look and feel and taste and smell are Victorian (grey, brown, a bit stale and like it could do with dry-cleaning). Its footprint, streets, transport, parks, cemeteries and the half of a terraced house in Zone 4 you pay £1,500 a month to rent are all Victorian. Its world-famous defining icons: Tower Bridge, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, St Pancras station, the tube, Trafalgar Square and the Albert Hall are all Victorian. Even the boozer in ‘EastEnders’ is called The Queen Victoria: what could be more London?

The Queen opening the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain in 1987
The Queen opening the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain in 1987 | Photograph: Tate

Competing with Queen Victoria means competing with an idea of monarchy that still persists: stiff, black-and-white, unsmiling, ‘not amused’, ripe for parody. The Victorians made the monarchy into an institution, adding layers of gothic decoration and ritual, an elaborate suit of armour that both protected the monarch and made them seem remote and alien. Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth II was in the double bind of being expected to keep the monarchy ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’ while personally embodying a fictitious history in a city full of it: the past endlessly marketed back to the present (see: ‘The Crown’). To some extent – perhaps more than we cynical Londoners always gave her credit for – she tried to change that.

Evolution not revolution

‘She championed evacuees and working-class people. She got what we were. She touched all walks of life and the royal family was there for us.’

Diane Gould is part of another proud tradition in the capital. As Pearly Queen of St Pancras, she is the fifth generation of a family of costermongers, the market traders who created their own monarchy on the streets of nineteenth-century London. Gould’s veneration of the Queen stems in part from WWII: the royal family remained in the capital during the bombing of the Blitz. They toured the ruins of the East End. The future Queen joined the services and trained as a mechanic. On VE Day in May 1945 – the end of the war in Europe – she partied with ordinary Londoners. ‘The princess wanted to be among the people celebrating,’ says Vikki Hawkins, a former curator of the WWII galleries at the Imperial War Museum. ‘So she snuck off into the crowd wearing her ATS uniform so that she wouldn’t be recognised. There were even reports that she took part in a conga line through the Ritz Hotel.’

It’s hard to think of the Queen as a Londoner, but she was born here in 1926 (in a house on Mayfair’s Bruton Street that ironically was later demolished by property developers), was married here, lived here on and off throughout her life and her state funeral is taking place here. And if she is remembered for anything, it will be for her attempts – albeit in a suitably respectful, not climbing-out-of-a-window-to-get-fucked-up-with-boys kind of way – to try and keep some of that V-Day London spirit during her time on the throne.

Her famous walkabouts gave the royals a human face on a human scale. ‘My mum and dad loved her,’ says Gould. ‘Before the internet, she connected. She was out and about.’ It’s hard to believe that some of the impetus for that did not come from her familiarity with a city of millions, rather than a childhood sequestered in some remote castle. London was implicit in Queen Elizabeth II as much as she was in it.

Cultural capital

The 2012 London Olympic Opening Ceremony typified the awkward position of the Queen as someone who was expected to participate in BIG THINGS but also stand apart from them as a figurehead.

As our monarch apparently skydived into the arena as part of a section featuring popular British state-sponsored assassin James Bond, we were all meant – as Prince Harry did on TV at the time – to see her as ‘a good sport’: sacrificing her own personal comfort and sense of appropriateness for the sake of the nation having a laugh. But the London Olympics wasn’t really about London. The dancing NHS nurses and Industrial Revolution shepherds were there for the rest of the country, and so was the Queen. But the late monarch was properly involved in London’s cultural life and identity. She was the patron of numerous institutions in the capital, including the Royal Academy, the University of Westminster, the Art Fund, the Royal Photographic Society, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Ballet.

The Queen opens Tate Modern in 2000
The Queen opens Tate Modern in 2000 | Photograph: Tate

As monarch, she inevitably also had to do a lot of London ribbon-cutting. This included the National Theatre in 1976, the Barbican Centre in 1982 and Tate Modern in 2000, and you can see in that lineage the evolution of the idea of the London cultural institution: how it moved from being the UK headquarters of something, located in the capital city (the NT) to the repurposing of a huge landmark from an earlier era – Tate Modern. You could draw a parallel with the evolution of the institution of the monarch across Queen Elizabeth II’s extraordinarily long reign.

The Queen’s London legacy

How the Queen will be remembered and commemorated in London remains to be seen. The rôle she played in the life of our city was at times an ambiguous one, but it seems bizarre to think of the capital without her.

For many Londoners, Queen Elizabeth II was the monarchy, made flesh (or a highly rarefied version of what the rest of us think of as flesh). Her subtle omnipresence in the capital is something that the city’s population have grown up with and known all their lives. The sheer scope of her reign is almost too vast to understand, especially right now, in its immediate aftermath.

The Queen opens ‘Land of the Lions’ at London Zoo, 2016
The Queen opens ‘Land of the Lions’ at London Zoo, 2016 | Photograph: ZSL

When she came to the British throne, people were still hanged in this country and if you copped off with someone of the same sex, you could go to prison (somehow inevitably it was a Victorian law from 1885 that made consensual private gay sex a criminal act). Elizabeth II was on the throne through the Cold War and Glasnost; through the erection and destruction of the Berlin Wall; through wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Middle East, Bosnia and Ukraine. Through Aids and the Covid pandemic. Through Brexit and Black Lives Matter. Through the births of the internet, rock ’n’ roll, club culture and Carnival.

The Victorians would probably have approved of the Jubilee and Elizabeth lines being named in her honour, but the legacy of HM Queen Elizabeth II in London will hopefully not be restricted to simple memorialisation, but one that will see the royal family change and make the lives of ordinary people in this huge complex city better. London doesn’t need a ‘Bake Off’ pre-decimal Middle England royal family. It needs an apolitical monarch who can wield power, influence and money for good (what a recent piece in the LA Times calls the Queen’s ‘superpower blandness’).

A right royal send-off

The shock at the death of Queen Elizabeth II will pass. The Queue will go home. The state funeral will be public recognition for London, the UK and the world of the passing of one of the most famous and recognisable people on the planet. The Queen will pass into popular history.

Tristan Scutt owns Little Nan’s Bar in Deptford, south London, famous for its Charles ’n’ Di decor and cocktails archly served in china teapots. He is an unapologetic London fan of the late Queen. ‘When I set up Little Nan’s in 2013 in a windowless back room,’ he says, ‘I literally used all my nan’s furniture and ornaments, which featured lots of royal memorabilia, so the royal connection was there from the start. It’s what my nan would have wanted, though we did get customers in the early days who refused to drink out of the royal mugs. Seeing how many people are flooding to London to pay their final respects just shows how adored the Queen was. You got to give her the credit she deserves, not being born to be Queen, but becoming Queen, and devoting her whole life.’

So, if Londoners want to raise a novelty mug to Her Majesty’s memory and to the end of the capital’s second Elizabethan age, they know where to do it. Until ‘The Queen Liz’ opens, anyway.

Find many fine pubs in the capital named after all kinds of British monarchs.

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