Buckingham Palace has released a new image of the Queen at a recent engagement, and her changed appearance is nothing short of alarming.
Say what you will about Her Majesty the Queen, but she is hardly a woman prone to shocking the world.
She has never had a lengthy affair with her supposed horseriding instructor (Diana, Princess of Wales); holidayed in the South of France and gone sans bikini top (Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge); been photographed totally starkers (Prince Charles also in France); fallen for a staff member while still married (Princess Anne) or gone to Las Vegas on a bender and ended playing strip billiards with a bevy of blonde strangers (who else but Prince Harry).
However, on Thursday a new photo of the 96-year-old was released and it is nothing short of alarming.
On paper, the image, showing the monarch meeting with NSW Governor Margaret Beazley, is par for the very dull course.
Taken in the Oak Room at Windsor Castle where the Queen now lives full-time, it looks like the approximately 6743 other photos that Buckingham Palace releases: Her Majesty in pearls and a cheerful floral number greeting some dignitary who is offering up a slightly wobbly curtsy or stiff bow.
No, what is really striking here is Her Majesty’s very concerning appearance.
Look at Thursday’s shot of the Queen and then compare it to a photo taken nearly exactly a year ago when then Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited, and the difference is truly startling.
In the intervening 12 months, Her Majesty would appear to have become markedly more stooped, much thinner and overall appears to have shrunk.
For years, the Queen seemed to have achieved the impossible and did not seem to age like some Dorian Grey-esque sovereign. (Wonder how many paintings she might have in the vast castle attic?)
Photos of her vrooming about the place behind the wheel, astride her horses on her various estates and undertaking engagements without any sort of help abounded. Age, in short, did not seem to be playing fair when it came to the 61st English sovereign. (And she’s the 12th of a united England and Scotland.)
As recently as 2020, the palace let a photographer capture her clip-clopping around Windsor on one her favourite fell ponies at age 94.
Maybe it was all the organic salmon she eats, caught on her very own Scottish estate, but whatever the secret, the Queen seemed to have the vim and vigour of a woman decades younger.
It would have been easy to believe that she just might surpass the Queen Mother who made it to 101 years of age and who in the last year of her life, visited an aircraft carrier at Portsmouth and continued to hold house parties.
Even the death of Her Majesty’s “strength and stay” Prince Philip in April last year, while personally devastating, did not seem to take any sort of physical toll.
In May, the Queen opened parliament. In June, she hosted US President Joe Biden and his wife Dr Jill Biden, attended a mini Trooping the Colour and popped along to the G7 summit. (Let’s never forget the wonderful photo we got during that jaunt of her wielding a sword to cut a cake.)
Later the same month she was off to Scotland, meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, confidently trotting through a wood during an official engagement.
Then it was time for Royal Ascot where the Queen looked, as usual, far happier than we normally see her.
July saw the return of the Windsor Horse Show, Her Majesty’s own personal nirvana, which she attended on multiple days, even driving herself there one day, pink lippie in place.
Note that on all of these, while she was hardly setting any land speed records, she walked unaided and confidently, her agility belying her very advanced years.
In August, the Queen decamped to Balmoral for her usual lengthy tartan-clad break, with reports that she had taken her four Tindall and Phillips great-granddaughters on a picnic.
In September, she returned to work and the palace announced that she was set for a jam-packed October.
Off she went, opening the Scottish parliament and then later the same month similarly did the honours opening the Welsh parliament called the Senedd.
When turned up at Westminster Abbey, with Princess Anne she appeared, for the first time since she had knee surgery in 2003, with a walking stick. Still, she racked up 16 official engagements that month.
After finding out that Oldie Magazine wanted to name her Oldie of the Year she “politely but firmly” turned the award down, declaring: “You are only as old as you feel.”
On October 19, she hosted a who’s who of billionaires and tech moguls at a reception for an investments summit at Windsor Castle, spending more than an hour on her feet.
According to the Times, “Before her guests arrived, the Queen and her closest aides had agreed a secret sign to whisk her away from the reception if she felt she was fading, but the coded signal was not needed.”
The following day this energetic streak came to a dramatic and grinding halt.
First it was announced she would not be undertaking a two-day tour of Northern Ireland and would take it a bit easy for two weeks on doctor’s orders, before it was announced that the Queen was pulling out of the Cop26 climate conference. (She was also mysteriously hospitalised that month overnight, an event which the palace ham-handedly tried to keep under wraps.)
Nearly every month since then has seen Her Majesty bowing out of previously non-negotiable events.
In November, it was watching the ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, in December appearing at church alongside her family on Christmas Day, in February she contracted Covid which saw her cancel the annual diplomatic reception, in March she pulled out of the Commonwealth Day service and in April she got Charles to take over official duties on Maundy Thursday.
Come May and for the first time in nearly 60 years, Her Majesty delegated the State Opening of Parliament to Charles with Prince William in sidekick mode before it was announced that Her Majesty would not be attending any of the Buckingham Palace garden parties.
When the sovereign’s Jubilee festivities kicked off, Her Majesty was a no-show at the service of thanksgiving for her reign at St Paul’s.
Only last week we passed another glum milestone, with the Queen not making it once to Royal Ascot – breaking a 70-year attendance streak.
There have also been reports saying Her Majesty has given up her nightly drink, no longer rides and has not been seen in the driver’s seat for the better part of a year.
Similarly, her very mysterious health woes seem to have become dramatically worse.
In October she first appeared with a walking stick, only using it at certain points, but by June this year, her “episodic mobility problems” had become such that the world only saw Her Majesty for a grand total of 27 minutes across the four-days of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
(In 2021, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that $49.5 million would be put aside for the Jubilee which works out as it cost British taxpayers $1.8 million for every minute they saw the Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony.)
How did things get so bad, so fast? How in a year have we seen the Queen gone from riding horses, walking her dogs and driving her Range Rovers to her now reportedly using a wheelchair on occasion? (It was reported earlier this year that Craigowan Lodge, a cottage on the Balmoral estate where she stays twice-a-year, has now been fitted with a wheelchair-friendly lift.)
What Thursday’s photo shows is that Her Majesty would appear to be fading away before our very eyes and yet Buckingham Palace is trying to stick to their increasingly tired ‘nothing to see here’ line.
To be fair, aides are in a tricky spot. They can hardly come out and offer the press a running commentary on whatever might be ailing her or offer up any sort of detailed rundown about whatever malady du jour has caused her latest cancellation.
Moreover, Her Majesty, like any human being, deserves dignity and privacy.
So how do courtiers maintain a degree of public visibility of the Queen, which means regularly releasing images of the sovereign, without panicking people when she appears noticeably frailer? How do they balance the needs of Her Majesty as a person versus the needs of the institution she heads up?
This current paradigm is doing the monarchy no favours. One consequence of both the Prince Andrew and Megxit crises is the palace has, in part, came across as looking squirrely and secretive. For that reason, the Firm simply cannot afford to get the handling of this situation wrong.
This catch-22 is only going to become more of a pressing issue as time marches on and the palace must find a way of at least attempting to balance all of these competing needs.
The silver lining here? The Queen appears to be in excellent spirits as the countdown begins for her annual Scottish summer break. Maybe someone is excited about getting their hands on some more salmon.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.