Queen Elizabeth made an historic visit to 10 Downing Street yesterday, where she attended a cabinet meeting. Ministers gave her a gift set of 60 place mats to mark her Diamond Jubilee of 60 years on the throne.
But the government gave her a much larger, if symbolic, gift immediately afterwards, when she visited the Foreign Office, which announced that a section of British Antarctic Territory has been named Queen Elizabeth Land in her honor.
Given that monarchs are supposed to be removed from politics, it is a very rare occurrence for a king or a queen to sit in on a cabinet meeting. It is said to be the first peace time instance since 1781 during the reign of George III. The Queen’s father, King George VI, met with a war cabinet during World War II.
The Queen sat in the chair usually occupied by Prime Minister David Cameron, who took a place next to the Queen, while Foreign Secretary William Hague sat at her other side.
The first order of business the Queen heard about was an update on the royal succession laws, recently changed so that a first-born child of either sex will inherit the throne.
The Queen apparently made a joke about the speech she delivers – but does not write – to Parliament each year. The speech is actually written by the cabinet, and the Queen took the opportunity “very gently and humorously,” said the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, to encourage members to keep it “on the shorter rather than longer side.”
“There was a much larger than usual press pack opposite No 10,” reported BBC News, “although, unlike normal cabinet arrivals and departures, no questions were shouted at the Queen as she arrived and left.”
BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt noted that some critics were distressed by the Queen’s visit.
“For constitutional purists,” Hunt wrote, “this was a mildly troubling encounter which muddied the waters between a hereditary monarch and an elected accountable cabinet.”
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told BBC Radio 4 that he believed the Queen’s attendance was completely appropriate.
“We are her cabinet, we operate for her,” Pickles said. “She was sat in the seat where the Prime Minister traditionally sits and, given it’s her cabinet, she can come any time she wants.”
After the cabinet meeting, Secretary Hague traveled with the Queen to the Foreign Office, where the naming of Queen Elizabeth Land in British Antarctic Territory was formally announced.
The newly designated area, some 169,000 square miles, is twice the size of the United Kingdom.
“Queen Elizabeth Land is a strange, beautiful and dangerous world of towering mountains and infinite ice,” says BBC News’ science editor David Shukman. “Geographically closest to South America, this slice of Antarctica is where the British presence has been strongest for the past fifty years with a long record of brave expeditions and Union flags planted in vicious gales.”
And it turns out that there’s another mass of Antarctica that’s already been named after the Queen. Princess Elizabeth Land, named before she became Queen, is in Eastern Antarctica.