It’s fairly unusual for Queen Elizabeth to wear turquoise jewelry, so when she sat for a national address Sunday evening—only her fourth during her 68-year reign—her diamond and turquoise brooch was yet more evidence that she is living through an usual time. The gem’s blue tone stood out against her emerald green crepe dress, its diamond-encrusted filigrees gently catching the light in the queen’s Windsor Castle sitting room.
The brooch itself is one she’s only seldom worn since inheriting it in 1953; she didn’t wear it at all in public until 2014, when she wore it on a visit to Derbyshire. It came into her possession along with much more jewelry that her paternal grandmother, Queen Mary, passed on to her when she died at the age of 85. The Queen Mary jewels are nearly only spotted on special occasions. Mary gave the queen the tiara she wore for her wedding, and the diamond jubilee necklace she’s worn to processions through the years. The tiara that Meghan Markle wore when she married Prince Harry also came from Mary’s collection. Though she’s provided the emblems for the family’s happiest moments, Mary’s reign also coincided with some of the most difficult events in world history—including a pandemic flu that may be the closest historical comparison to what we are now living through.
Mary, the queen consort to King George V, whose reign stretched from 1910 to 1936, was an avid collector of jewels, art, and decorative objects, a habit she picked up from her parents, the British princess Mary Adelaide and the German Duke of Teck. When Mary married George in 1893, her parents gave her some of their jewels, including a turquoise and diamond tiara and parure that had been commissioned by her mother in the 1850s. The brooch the queen wore on Sunday is one of a pair given to Mary as a wedding present by her father- and mother-in-law, the Prince and Princess of Wales, who would later become King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Mary was photographed wearing it later in life, and when she died in 1953, the Teck tiara and parure were given to her son Prince Henry, the queen’s second cousin, and his wife, the Duchess of Gloucester. The duchess wore the tiara to formal events before her death in 2004 at the age of 102, and it was later seen on her daughter-in-law, Birgitte. The brooches, however, remained with the queen.
When dressing and selecting jewelry for a moment like this, the queen and her dresser, Angela Kelly, often think aboutthe history of the pieces she wears and the symbolism of the colors they select. Turquoise has long been considered a color of healing and peace. But this piece’s connection to Queen Mary might hint at an even deeper message from the Queen about the current pandemic. In 1892, Mary had been engaged to marry George’s older brother, the Duke of Clarence, when he fell ill with the flu and died at Sandringham. Mary and George later wed at the suggestion of Queen Victoria, but soon grew to be genuinely close.
Mary and George V were also monarchs during World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic, which hit England in the spring, months before the outbreak gripped the United States. World War I had an enormous toll on the psyche of the British public, to the point that the losses from the flu itself barely register in the histories of the period. But 228,000 Britons died of the disease during 1918, and even King George himself survived an infection. As the end of the war approached, the prime minister at the time, David Lloyd George, fell ill in the fall.
Later remembered for her industriousness and charity, Mary’s response to the war was hands-on, and ultimately a model for Queen Elizabeth’s approach to moments of crisis. She spent the war organizing relief efforts, like a clothing drive and an employment program for women. When writing of this period, her biographer James Pope-Hennessy praised “the practical way in which she reversed the conventional role then still ascribed to royalty—that they should ask, not answer, questions.” Mary believed that a nation in crisis required its figureheads to participate in relief instead of necessarily sticking to the rules of decorum.
Ultimately, Mary might have been a major influence on the way the queen understood her duty to the country. Mary died shortly before Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in June 1953, and stipulated in her will that she must not have a public funeral to disrupt the proceedings of the coronation. During the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth wore the earrings and necklace that Mary also wore 42 years earlier during her own coronation.
In her speech Sunday, the Queen didn’t cast the coronavirus as an invisible enemy to be defeated in battle, but focused instead on the fortitude of health workers and the resilience of the country. But she did reference the radio speechshe gave to children as a princess at the age of 14, when World War II led many families to send their children to the countryside.
It’s a reminder that isolation and separation might seem less significant than a war wound, but they are real. Although self-isolation limits the queen’s direct outreach, she will, like Queen Mary before her, do what she can to support the country through it.