LONDON – The queen’s joints are creaky and her husband has recently battled serious illness, but the royal couple won’t let aches and pains keep them away from a grand overseas commemoration: the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Elizabeth II and Prince Philip have for the most part stopped travelling abroad – a reluctant concession to their advanced years – but next week they intend to be in Normandy for ceremonies to honour those who sacrificed their lives to liberate Europe from the Nazi grip.
The perils of World War II directly shaped the lives of Elizabeth, 88, and Philip, 92. The anniversary is so heartfelt that the royal couple is preparing to cross the English Channel once more, this time on a Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel that Elizabeth helped inaugurate 20 years ago.
Historian Antony Beevor, a renowned chronicler of World War II, said Elizabeth and Philip want to show their solidarity with the dwindling number of living veterans, including those still strong enough to attend the events next week. They will bring younger royals as well, including Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and Prince William, second in line.
“I think it will mean a huge amount to the veterans,” Beevor said. “To have the queen there makes all the difference. The veterans’ loyalty is very deep and their admiration is very deep. The queen and Philip are both well aware that this is the last time a reasonable number of veterans will be able to attend. So it’s very important to both of them.”
The queen was a teenager during the war. As a princess she contributed by joining the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she served as a driver and mechanic. Philip was on active duty in the Royal Navy.
Beevor said many believe that this may be the final overseas trip for the queen, whose impressive stamina and mobility have lately been affected by joint pain.
The monarch, head of state since the sudden death in 1952 of her father George VI, has recently ceded more of her duties to Charles in what has been characterized as a “soft succession” or partial transition. Charles has stepped in for his mother at an increasing numbers of investitures and also represented her at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting gathering in Sri Lanka.
Charles also filled in for the queen at the last minute at an event in May when royal planners became concerned about the number of steps she would have to ascend.
Despite these changes, Elizabeth is expected to carry on in the office she has held since 1952. She continues her private weekly meetings with the prime minister – Winston Churchill was the first – and plans to read the Queen’s Speech announcing her government’s program at the formal opening of Parliament next week.
The queen has not said publicly that she is cutting back her role – and in fact she has appeared as ebullient as ever when in the public eye. But Philip, who has heart disease and other ailments, indicated when he reached 90 that it was time for him to reduce his public commitments.
He was out of public view for an extended period last year when recovering from exploratory abdominal surgery for an undisclosed illness, but has recently been seen out and about – a bit craggier, perhaps, but still chipper.
The queen is also relying increasingly on the younger generation of royals, led by Prince William and his wife Kate, who will both have a prominent role in the events taking place next week in Normandy.
The queen does plan, however, to attend a remembrance service and to meet personally with veterans in addition to taking part in the main ceremony at Sword Beach, one of the landing spots where allied forces faced fire from entrenched German troops and tanks.
French officials have described Elizabeth as the “super guest of honour” – a nod both to her longevity and to Britain’s vital role in the D-Day invasion that liberated France.
After the solemn events in Normandy, the queen and Philip will be given a state banquet Friday night at the Elysee Palace hosted by French President Francois Hollande.
The next morning the queen’s schedule is mercifully light, and she and Philip plan to fly home to England just in time for her to attend the Derby at Epsom Downs Racecourse – an event that, like the D-Day commemoration, is something she would not voluntarily miss.
“That’s dear to her heart, her favourite day on the racing calendar,” said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine. “No one would begrudge her a little bit of pleasure.”
© The Canadian Press, 2014