As soon as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England began her walk along the red bricks leading from the College’s President’s House to the Sir Christopher Wren Building, the buzz among the crowd of more than 7,000 students, alumni and friends of the College subsided and gave way to murmers of delight and surprise.
“She’s just so awesome,” said one freshman who was watching the queen’s progression on one of the six large monitors placed strategically near the Wren Building. “I love the way she smiles,” added an upperclassman. “She embodies dignity,” added a third.
Whether members of the audience were standing near enough to see the queen up close or whether they were as far back as the Sunken Garden, those who gathered to welcome her after a 50-year absence from the campus seemed to agree that just a glimpse of the royal figure made for a magical moment that is certain to be remembered for a lifetime.
Queen Elizabeth II stopped at the campus for approximately 45 minutes on May 4 while she was in Virginia to help commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Accompanied by numerous dignitaries, including Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, Chancellor Sandra Day O’Connor and members of the Virginia General Assembly, her majesty was welcomed to the College by President Gene Nichol during brief remarks. Nichol began by acknowledging the sustained applause that broke out as soon as they came onto the portico of the Wren.
“Your Majesty, I think it fair to say that your ancient College is delighted and proud to welcome you back,” Nichol said.
The president continued, “We welcome you, Your Majesty, to the College born and chartered in Great Britain but nurtured in the colony and then this commonwealth, whose progress and endeavor—and even its name—bear the mark of your predecessors and our common heritage.”
For many in the audience, the highlight of the ceremony occurred after Jess Vance, president of the College’s Class of 2007, explained to the queen the tradition of seniors at the College to ring the Wren bell after they have attended their final class.
“Your Majesty, the College of William and Mary and its Class of 2007 are full of individuals with promise, prestige, grace and dignity, and we would be delighted to welcome you into our community,” Vance said. “I ask you to join us in becoming an honorary member of the Class of 2007, complete with a bell ringing all your own.”
Although the queen did not offer public remarks while at William and Mary, she proceeded to ring the bell, signifying her acceptance of Vance’s offer and forever linking her more fully with those who are graduating this year.
Weeks of anticipation preceded the actual arrival of the queen. Staff members at the College had been busy coordinating logistics, creating banners and participating in security briefings. Between final classes and examinations, students stood in line for hours at the University Center to get tickets. Special performers, including members of the Queen’s Guard, the Gentlemen of the College, the Accidentals and the William and Mary Choir, rehearsed for days as they prepared to make their contributions to the event special. Alumni made their own plans to travel to Williamsburg to be part of the historic event.
Annie Lewis, a sophomore, sat on the lawn of the Sunken Garden under an umbrella for more than an hour while she waited to get a glimpse of the queen. “Seeing the queen is about as good as you can get,” she said. “It is about the life of style. I got to dress up, put on a summer dress. My friends were going to get gloves and pretend for a while that they are a part of that life.”
Freshman Lauren Engle, who had been on the phone all week with her mother talking about the event, explained her presence: “It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “How many people can say they’ve seen the queen in person?”
Michael Shafer (’94) chose to see the queen at his alma mater instead of attending one of the public events near his home in Richmond. “Coming back to William and Mary and seeing her at the Wren Building was something you couldn’t beat,” he said. “You can’t beat the College experience here, the the College’s history and tradition. For the queen to be on campus just speaks volumes about the respect that people around the country and around the world have for this place.”
Nancy Eller (’74) echoed those sentiments. “I’m here because I think William and Mary has created a tradition in all of its alumns. This visit is a tradition that goes far beyond our years.”
In the end, even those who seemed most skeptical about the place of royalty in Virginia seemed enamored. Sophomore Valerie Hopkins, who as vice president of the student assembly viewed the queen from inside the Wren Building, admitted, “I don’t want to be one of those cult-of-royalty psycho fans, but I am excited.” John Charles, professor of kinesiology and a former resident of England, also had a position in the Wren Building as the queen passed through. “I do have respect for the monarchy, and I think that she has been a very good queen,” he said, but he seemed a bit perplexed by the enthusiasm over the visit he experienced on campus. “Perhaps it’s the same phenomenon we saw when Prince Charles came to visit,” he speculated. “I won’t say he wasn’t extraordinarily popular in England, but he was having a down time. When he came here, however, he was just embraced. He may have been overwhelmed.”
William Fisher, director of global studies at the College and associate professor of anthropology, was amused by the fuss. “She personifies a timeless office that we can appreciate all the better by not being subordinate to the power of that office,” he said. “We associate ourselves with something global and enduring and are acknowledged in return in a way that validates us but doesn’t require anything of us beyond our gracious presence.”
The extensive coverage of the event enabled people throughout the world to experience much of what occurred at William and Mary.
Ivan Baas-Thomas, who identified himself as “a Brit in San Francisco,” wrote, “The lovely remarks by President Gene R. Nichol clearly conveyed William and Mary’s deep sense of appreciation during the royal visit. In the hopes that the ties between Virginia and the United Kingdom will continue to strengthen and deepen, may I express my gratitude to the College for being such an important living symbol of the special U.K.-U.S. relationship.”