The Queen of the World

The paradox of Elizabeth II’s reign was that in presiding over a shrinking empire, she became a modern global monarch.

Picture of Queen Elizabeth II at 26 years old in 1952
Bettmann / Getty

Queen Elizabeth II’s longevity alone places her in the pantheon of royal greats. At the time of her death, at Balmoral Castle today, she had served 70 years as Queen—the longest of any sovereign in the English monarchy’s 1,000-year history. But it is not simply her longevity that marks her for greatness, but her ability to stay relevant as the world changed around her.

She was the product of ancestral inheritance but was more popular than any of her prime ministers and remained head of state in countries around the world because of public support. She was in a sense a democratic Queen, a progressive conservative, an aristocratic multiculturalist.

Queen Elizabeth was a constitutional monarch, not a political leader with real powers, and one who was required to serve an ever-changing set of realms, peoples, institutions, and ideas that were no longer as obviously compatible as they had been when she ascended to the throne. The Queen’s great achievement was to honor the commitment she made to an imperial nation and its empire as a princess even as it became a multiethnic state and a Commonwealth.

When the Queen devoted her whole life to the service of Britain’s “great imperial family,” she meant it and honored it. And she did so in a way that brought more harmony than discord. Even as her nation’s influence shrank, the world embraced her.

Picture of Queen Elizabeth II during a Commonwealth visit to the Caribbean, March 1966. (Photo by Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II during a Commonwealth visit to the Caribbean, March 1966 (Express / Hulton Archive / Getty)
1. The Global Introduction

In October 1940, a teenage Princess Elizabeth gave the first of what would be a lifetime of public speeches designed to move, embolden, and steady the nerves of an imperiled empire. At the time, the British empire was standing alone against Nazi Germany: France had been crushed, the Soviet Union had made a deal with Hitler, and the United States remained aloof from World War II. Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, had traveled with their parents to record a message for the BBC that would be broadcast to “the children of the empire,” as well as children in the U.S.

The recording offers a glimpse of a time and place that is gone, as well as the first look at this representative of a new age, the age of Elizabeth. Hers would be an age not of world war and European empires, but of imperial retreat and American expansion; of the Cold War and the apparent end of history; of nationalism and globalization; of the space race and the internet.

For the 14-year-old princess, none of this was visible that day in 1940. The world that existed then faced the prospect of a Nazi-dominated Europe. Ostensibly, her message was to the children evacuated to the British countryside and to the Greater Britain that then existed beyond the seas, to evade German aerial bombardment of cities. In her clipped but childish tones, the young Elizabeth marvels at the lives being led in these far-flung corners of the world. “All the new sights you must be seeing, and the adventures you must be having,” she says, as if reading an exciting bedtime story. But then she turns to the central thrust of the message: a plea. “I am sure that you, too, are often thinking of the Old Country. I know you won’t forget us.”

Here was the vulnerability at the core of Princess Elizabeth’s address. The Old Country was in trouble and needed help. Princess Elizabeth had been enlisted to ask for it, to do her duty—a task she would perform for decades to come.

During her reign, she weathered an array of crises, from her clashes with Margaret Thatcher to her mishandling of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In doing so, she became the focus of something akin to a secular religion, the royalist historian David Starkey has noted, a form of “British Shintoism,” according to others such as Philip Murphy, a professor of British and Commonwealth history at the University of London.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born on April 21, 1926, as a princess to not simply a king but an emperor. She became Queen to a multitude of realms. A child of empire, European supremacy, and the old order—even the old faith, Anglican Christianity—she came to see it as her solemn duty to represent all the peoples and religions of the Commonwealth.

This duty created friction during her reign, but it made her different from any other European monarch and, paradoxically, kept her modern. A great irony of Queen Elizabeth II is that the most penetrating criticism of her reign came not from the republican left but from the nationalist right, parts of which saw past her image of continuity and tradition to the deep change that her rule actually represented.

2. The Vow

On Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday, she delivered a radio broadcast that would define her life. Addressing all “the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire,” and specifically “the youth of the British family of nations,” she asked for their permission to speak as their representative. Delivered from Cape Town, South Africa, this was not a message to England, or Britain, or even the United Kingdom, but to the already fading empire.

The message was designed to inspire, but also to begin a transition. The princess declared that just as England had saved Europe from Napoleonic domination in the 19th century, the British empire had saved the world from Hitler in the 20th. The task now before the empire was just as pressing, she said: It needed to save itself.

“If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart,” Elizabeth said, “we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing.” In doing so, the princess, with a politician’s sleight of hand, had endowed a relatively new construct, the British Commonwealth, with the myth of ancient roots. “I declare before you all,” she continued, “that my whole life whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

In 1947, such a commitment could still be made without embarrassment. Formally, India, the jewel in the British imperial crown, was not yet independent, though the legal process was under way and would become reality within months. The last vestiges of royal connection to Ireland had similarly not yet been cut. Soon, however, this apparently “ancient” family would undergo a revolution.

In the early hours of February 6, 1952, King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, died in his sleep. She was in Kenya when she learned that she had become Queen. Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast the news, describing the Crown as “the magic link, which unites our loosely bound but strongly interwoven commonwealth of nations.” And yet, just five years after Elizabeth’s Cape Town address, the world had already changed to such an extent that to speak of a great imperial family, as Elizabeth had done, was no longer appropriate. By 1952, for example, India was not only independent, but a republic. This new Commonwealth comprised free and equal countries that voluntarily accepted Elizabeth as their symbolic head—a role with no real power for an organization with no real status.

She was Queen, then, but of what?

Her father had been crowned George VI of “Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas,” as well as “Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India.” By the time the young Elizabeth was crowned, the title “Emperor of India” was obsolete. Yet even this did not go far enough. She was proclaimed Queen Elizabeth II, “Queen of this Realm and of all Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.”

Although few paid much attention to the changes at the time, the new terminology caught the eye of one of the most influential and controversial British politicians of the postwar era, Enoch Powell. He had spotted that the new declaration contained within it imperial retreat and was dismayed. But this was not the real source of his fury—it was that Britain had been subsumed into a multinational structure that it no longer led. In Britain, Elizabeth would be “Queen of the United Kingdom,” but elsewhere she would have different titles, granted by different countries: Queen of Australia in Australia, Queen of Canada in Canada, and so forth.

What Powell had seen was that this marked a sea change not only for the Queen, but for Britain itself. What had been a single empire with a single sovereign was no longer—nor was it even a British Commonwealth. In its place was simply a Commonwealth with different peoples, each equal to the others, including that of the Old Country, whether or not they took the Queen as their monarch.

In 1947, Princess Elizabeth had declared that she would give her whole life to the service of Britain’s great imperial family. When she became Queen, it was no longer clear what that really meant.

Picture of Queen Elizabeth II meeting with local children and residents of Malacca state during a Commonwealth visit by members of the British royal family to Malaysia in March 1972
Queen Elizabeth II meets with local children and residents of Malacca state during a Commonwealth visit by members of the British royal family to Malaysia in March 1972. (Rolls Press / Popperfoto / Getty)
3. The Revolution

The change to the Queen’s title was, in fact, just another logical step down a road already taken. In 1948, Parliament had passed legislation revolutionizing the nature of British nationality itself, creating several separate citizenships within the empire. What had been a Greater Britain around the world, singular and indivisible, loyal to the King and empire, was no more. It had shrunk, leaving space for Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand nationalisms to flourish as separate identities, just as a Scotsman today can also be British.

The Queen’s title, therefore, was a sign of the coming age, a beacon in the fog of the 1950s lighting the way to the postimperial world that exists today.

For the ordinary Brit at home, glued to the television to watch the Queen’s coronation, much of this passed unnoticed. As Vernon Bogdanor writes in The Monarchy and the Constitution, the feelings of attachment to Britain in its former dominions, such as New Zealand and Canada, were taken for granted. In 1953, Australia’s prime minister, R. G. Menzies, spoke of the Queen passing on “a crown that will always be the sign and proof that, wherever we may be in the world, we are one people.” Menzies had in 1948 even said that “the boundaries of Britain do not lie on the Kentish Coast, they are to be found at Cape York and Invercargill.”

Indeed, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, there seemed little reason to doubt the strength of this great global nation. The day before, the New Zealander Edmund Hillary had conquered Mount Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, planting the Union Jack on its peak. Welcoming the news, New Zealand’s prime minister declared how proud he was that an Englishman had been the first to climb the world’s highest mountain. During the Queen’s first royal tour of the Commonwealth, in 1953–54, she visited 13 countries, including Bermuda, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Australia, and New Zealand, covering more than 40,000 miles in six months. In Australia, 6–7 million people turned out to see her, amounting to about 75 percent of the country’s population.

Only now is it possible to see the slow unwinding of this Greater British identity during the age of Elizabeth. An early glimpse came during her first visit to India and Pakistan as Queen, in 1961. Despite being head of the Commonwealth, of which India was a member, the Queen was invited only in her capacity as Queen of the United Kingdom. To do otherwise might have implied “the existence in some degree of authority residing in Her Majesty over the Republic of India,” Philip Murphy points out in Monarchy and the End of Empire. When the Commonwealth bumped up against the hard reality of Britain’s place in the postimperial world, there was no question that the Commonwealth had to stand aside.

It was scarcely appreciated then, but the Queen’s coronation—that great triumph of Britishness at the peak of its powers—was what signified the retreat. A moment of deep continuity for the Old Country was actually a moment of quiet revolution, turning Britain inward and setting a course that it would travel for the rest of her reign, culminating in a threat to the very future of Britain by the time of her death, with support for secession growing in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Britons did not know it at the time of her ascent, but they were once again an island people. Only their Queen was global.

4. The Reign

In retrospect, it was absurd to think that the Queen could be both British and global, sharing herself equally among her various realms. How can one person be Queen of the United Kingdom one moment and Queen of Australia the next, as well as head of a Commonwealth? In time, the practical reality revealed itself—the Queen was primarily Queen of the United Kingdom.

From 1952 to her death, she would meet 13 of the 14 U.S. presidents elected in that time (Lyndon B. Johnson being the exception). She did so as Britain’s head of state—in effect, Queen of the Old Country hiding in imperial clothes, representing a state that, in U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s infamous put-down, had lost an empire but not yet found a role.

Through the 1960s and early ’70s, following Britain’s humiliation at Suez, the country sought to tilt away from the empire toward its special relationship with the United States and membership in the new European Community. Globally, this shift in priorities meant sacrificing imperial power for imagined influence over the new empire that had replaced Britain: the United States. In Europe, it meant sacrificing trade with the Commonwealth for markets on its doorstep. For many in Britain, this was a hard choice, given support for the old imperial connections, particularly to the Greater British dominions (or, more cynically, to the white Commonwealth) of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Yet successive British governments knew which direction they wanted to go in. In Africa, for example, Britain, unlike France, encouraged its former colonies not only to become independent, but to become republics. The loss of the empire was seen as a price worth paying for greater influence, and the Queen supported recognition of African nationalism. In 1960, when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan remarked in a speech from South Africa that the “wind of change is blowing through this continent,” signaling the inevitability of decolonization, Elizabeth “took the unusual step of indicating her personal approval of Macmillan’s words,” Murphy records. Shortly after the speech, Macmillan received a telegram with a message from London that “the Queen was very interested and much impressed by the Prime Minister’s speech.” Four years later, the process of decolonization in East, West, and Central Africa was largely complete.

However, tensions between her role as global Queen and national Queen were inevitable—and duly came. Because the Queen was atop neither an empire nor an international body with a constitution like, say, the European Union, her title as head of the Commonwealth was unclear, unwritten, and, crucially, unlinked to her position as head of state in Britain or anywhere else. What happened if her two roles clashed?

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip wave to the crowd whilst on their Commonwealth visit to Australia, 1954. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip wave to the crowd while on their Commonwealth visit to Australia, 1954. (Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty)

In 1952, when the British dominions were part of an imagined Greater Britain or—outside the Indian subcontinent—the subjects of a still-vast empire, there was little scope for such a clash. By the 1960s, as the empire continued to be swept away, there was a very real prospect of friction.

The danger, as Powell had pointed out, was that in creating the fiction of the Commonwealth, the Queen risked losing the support of her people at home by appearing to have split loyalties. As the 1960s turned into the ’70s and ’80s, this prophecy seemed to be coming true. In an article in 1964, Powell spoke of the resentment of British people seeing their sovereign “playing an alien part as one of the characters in the Commonwealth charade.” The imperial monarchy, to which the Queen had devoted her life, appeared to be threatening the national monarchy.

Tensions really began to be felt when the Conservative Party in Britain elected as its leader a Powellite in the form of Margaret Thatcher, who seemed to have little time for the Commonwealth and even less sympathy for the policies of some of its more radical members. According to Murphy’s Monarchy and the End of Empire, Thatcher and her closest advisers joked that the acronym CHOGM—for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting—stood for “Compulsory Hand-Outs for Greedy Mendicants.”

In the Queen’s 1983 Christmas message, four years after Thatcher came to power, she appeared to champion the policies of India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, over those of her own government, adding that despite the progress that had been made on the subcontinent, “the greatest problem in the world today remains the gap between rich and poor countries, and we shall not begin to close this gap until we hear less about nationalism and more about interdependence.”

This was not a message from the Thatcherite script and its Cold War mentality. Powell said that the intervention suggested the Queen had “the interests and affairs of other countries in other continents as much, or more, at heart than those of her own people.”

Another clash between the global and national Queen came in 1986, when a number of countries were threatening to boycott the Commonwealth Games in protest of Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa. Britain had been isolated on the issue, with the Queen notably avoiding taking Britain’s side. Sonny Ramphal, the Guyanese Commonwealth secretary-general, later recalled that “if the Queen hadn’t been there we might have gone on the rocks.”

Later that year, a series of articles began to appear in the British press revealing a rift between the Queen and her prime minister over the Commonwealth. A profile of Prince Charles in The Economist suggested that his views were considerably to the left of Thatcher’s. An article in the newspaper Today then suggested that the Queen was worried the division over sanctions could break up the Commonwealth, and had even urged Thatcher to change her views. Similar pieces appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph. Finally, The Sunday Times led its front page with the headline “Queen Dismayed by ‘Uncaring’ Thatcher,” calling her “The African Queen.”

Such revelations, which came close to constitutional-crisis territory, centered on the Queen’s split loyalties to Commonwealth and nation. Powell had warned that this split would make her look more concerned for the Commonwealth than for Britain. The Queen had become a champion of global multiculturalism at home and abroad. Almost by accident, she had become modern.

5. The Legacy

In some senses, Queen Elizabeth II leaves an ambiguous legacy. She stands above almost all of Britain’s British monarchs, but was one who oversaw a drastic shrinkage in the monarchy’s power, prestige, and influence. Such a legacy, however, does not do the Queen justice.

At the funeral of the former Israeli leader Shimon Peres in 2016, then–U.S. President Barack Obama likened him to some of the “other giants of the 20th century.” Obama, whose father was a Kenyan government official born in what was then part of the British empire, chose to name two figures: Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen’s role in the Commonwealth might have been a device to hide the reality of the British empire’s decline, but she did not believe so. The irony is that in doing her duty to this imperial shadow in the same way she did her duty to Britain, she was better able to symbolize a modern, multicultural Britain and the world of the 21st century than logic might suggest was possible for an aristocratic European princess. Indeed, she is more popular in many African Commonwealth countries today than the former white dominions, which may soon choose to become republics and long ago stopped seeing themselves as British.

Yet her death has given rise to a sense of unease. Her eldest son, Charles, seems an unlikely figure for the British Shintoism that built up around his mother. Whatever his merits, such has been the nature of his life, lived in the glare of the modern world—of Diana and Camilla, The Crown and the tabloids—that it looks impossible to re-create the kind of worship that attached itself to the Queen.

Generations have known nothing but the Queen. She became almost above reproach, an icon on a wall, a symbol. Charles, by contrast, is human and flawed and distinctly reproachable. With the Queen goes the monarchy’s protective shield. Can the next generation escape the tarnish of racism leveled by Harry and Meghan, or the scandals of Prince Andrew?

Beyond Britain, will Australia and New Zealand and Canada accept Charles as their King, as they did Elizabeth in 1952? And what of the Queen’s other great love, the Commonwealth? It has already agreed to let Charles inherit his mother’s leadership. But how long can such an institution really survive? In an era of Black Lives Matter and imperial guilt, can an African child once again be pictured kneeling before some distant European monarch, as happened for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, in 2012?

None of these questions is answerable for now. Much rests on Charles himself. Can he show the lifelong restraint of his mother, the dignity and duty, the reserve and careful calculation? Will events blow him off course?

When King George VI died, Winston Churchill paid tribute to him in the House of Commons, before turning to his new Queen. “So far I have spoken of the past, but with the new reign we must all feel our contact with the future,” the prime minister said. “She comes to the throne at a time when a tormented mankind stands uncertainly poised between world catastrophe and a golden age.” For Churchill, such a golden age was possible only with “a true and lasting peace.” He then concluded: “Let us hope and pray that the accession to our ancient throne of Queen Elizabeth II may be the signal for such a brightening salvation of the human scene.”

Looking back on her reign, it is clear that the age of Elizabeth really was golden: an age of extraordinary prosperity, European peace, human rights, and the collapse of Soviet tyranny. Queen Elizabeth II—the Queen—was one of the great symbols of that age, though not a creator of it, a servant rather than a master. But if her legacy is anything, it is that symbols and service matter, even as what they symbolize and serve bend and bow to meet the new reality.