See one queen and raise a stir

Thousands in Md., Va. prepare for a brush with British royalty

May 03, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

She is one of the most recognized figureheads in the world, a monarch both enigmatic and familiar, ushering a relic of the past into the new century.

Today, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who has survived her family's countless public scandals and ordeals with the British paparazzi, her reputation intact, will begin her fourth state visit to the United States.

The 81-year-old British monarch will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the English colony at Jamestown, Va., just as her soldier grandson, Prince Henry, prepares to be deployed to Iraq.

The six-day tour will whisk the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, from Richmond to Jamestown to the Kentucky Derby, and then to Washington, when she'll visit Maryland's NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

The potential brush with royalty has thousands preparing and giddy to glimpse a tradition at once both foreign and familiar.

Expect pomp and circumstance and all the trappings that come with the royal family.

And though some Virginia lawmakers have expressed hope that the queen will provide substance -- such as an apology for England's role in slavery when she addresses the Legislature -- experts say that's highly unlikely for a woman known for reserve and for staying out of political affairs.

The royal couple's visit begins in Richmond, where state officials are anticipating thousands of people from far and near to descend on Capitol Square today for a glimpse, perhaps a hand wave, as the queen walks 300 feet from the Governor's Mansion to the Capitol. That will take place after the queen feasts on a menu that includes miniature thimble balls of Virginia crab and spinach mousse, tiny pastries of barbecued rabbit and ginger scones with clotted creme lemon curd.

In Williamsburg, the man who will drive the carriage carrying the queen a whole half-mile today is busy making sure the horses and the circa-1960 coach with a folding hood are in tip-top shape, not to mention his wig and 18th-century livery attire.

And in the living room of his Hampton, Va., home, a 90-year-old man practices taking a bow and saying "Your Majesty," as one of more than 100 residents invited to stand along the rope line during the queen's "walkabout" in Richmond.

"It is a great honor," said Henry Tyson. "I plan to get there early. If she talks to me, I will say, `Ma'am, thank you so much. It's great, so great, to meet you, Your Majesty.'"

A press of press

Even in an era when the British monarchy has been criticized as archaic, the queen, it seems, is a figure above reproach, a woman whose mere presence creates a spectacle.

About 700 reporters and photographers from across the world, including a significant British contingent, are credentialed to cover the visit.

Close to 30,000 people applied for a lottery for VIP passes to the Richmond event. Only 54 won.

And classes at the College of William & Mary, where the queen will be named an honorary member of the Class of 2007 tomorrow afternoon, are canceled, as students brush up on royal etiquette. (Curtsying, out. Speak only when spoken to.) "I am showing the queen how to ring the Wren bell," said Jess Vance, president of the Class of 2007, explaining the senior tradition of ringing a bell after their last class.

"So Her Majesty will hopefully ring the bell, or the bell will be rung for her," Vance said. "My guess would be that she won't do it herself. It's a big bell. It's kind of heavy."

The queen's first state visit included Jamestown in 1957 for the settlement's 350th anniversary celebration, just four years into her reign.

Other state visits took place in 1976 for the U.S. Bicentennial and in 1991. The royal couple also visited the West Coast in 1983, and the queen made private visits to Kentucky Thoroughbred farms in the 1980s.

Though officials don't expect a repeat of the 1 million residents who turned out to see the queen in 1957, they're still expecting thousands, judging by the volume of calls for information.

"Americans have long been obsessed with the British monarchy," said Stuart Semmel, a University of Delaware professor who specializes in British history. "There's something exotic about royalty for Americans. There's something that is the stuff of fairy tales. I see it as part of the broader celebrity culture."

Elisabeth Cawthon, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, said Americans are also drawn to the commonality of Anglo-American heritage and the pageantry of the throne -- so long as it's not theirs. "We enjoy the degree to which they can put on spectacles," said Cawthon, an expert in British constitutional history. "Politically we're opposed to it, but socially it's appealing."

The connection to the queen is particularly acute for the older generation, said Cawthon.

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