The Silent Sovereign

Helen Lewis on the end of Britain’s second Elizabethan era

Queen Elizabeth II waving, wearing a pink coat and hat, holding flowers
Queen Elizabeth II waving as she leaves the ceremonial opening of the sixth Senedd, the Welsh Parliament, in 2021 (Jacob King / Pool / AFP / Getty)

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Queen Elizabeth II, who died today at age 96, was a “north star” for her subjects through seven decades of transformation. Our London-based staff writer Helen Lewis corresponded with me this afternoon about the late monarch’s singular legacy.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

The Silent Sovereign

Seventy years, seven months, and two days into her reign as Queen of the United Kingdom and its 14 Commonwealth states, Queen Elizabeth II died today at Balmoral Castle. Helen Lewis writes that, as the oldest and longest-serving British monarch in history, Elizabeth was an institution in her own right—a cornerstone of the wartime foundation of modern British identity, and a rare point of continuity through an era of nearly unimaginable change. Helen told me over email about what today’s loss means for Britons, and what comes next.

Kelli María Korducki: You write that even as the world changed around the Queen, she remained in place as a kind of north star for Britons. What did that mean, especially in the final years of her reign?

Helen Lewis: At 96, Queen Elizabeth was older than all but 150,000 Britons—she felt like someone who had been around forever. She was also a link back to the Second World War, which is the founding mythology of modern Britain, when we stood up against Hitler and had our “finest hour.” When COVID happened, she did a national address that referenced a famous song from the war, promising that we would “meet again.”

Kelli: The late British journalist Dermot Morrah pointed out in 1958—a mere six years into Elizabeth II’s reign—that the British monarchy stands out as one of the few institutions in history to have relinquished power, by choice. You write that, in Morrah’s view, “moving to a realm beyond politics has only made it”—the monarchy—“more special.” How so?

Helen: Politics in the U.K., particularly since having the Scottish and Brexit referenda, has felt bitterly (and evenly) divided. But it was notable that the Scottish National Party, who wanted independence, still wanted the Queen as their head of state. She was an institution, which gave people a sense of continuity and stability.

Kelli: As you note, Elizabeth’s reign coincided with a shrinking of the British empire and the emergence of a postcolonial age. How did that shift change the role and perception of the monarchy?

Helen: It’s very striking to look at the booklet issued for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and see how many of the countries mentioned there either don’t exist or have been renamed. The world in which her reign began simply doesn’t exist anymore.

There have been some extremely awkward moments this past year, like when William and Kate went to the Caribbean and had to face high republican sentiment—and when Prince Charles had to sit through an independence ceremony for Barbados next to Rihanna. As a family, they have had to confront the decline of deference and the fact that many people in other countries see them as symbols of imperialism, colonialism, and oppression.

Kelli: Throughout her reign, the Queen maintained a high level of public respect and admiration, even as republican sentiment—and specifically anti-monarchism—grew in Britain and across the commonwealth. What was so special about Elizabeth that distinguished her, in the eyes of many, from the institution she represented?

Helen: She was silent. She very rarely gave interviews and never expressed a political opinion. (Although a couple of times, politicians suggested what she thought: that she backed Brexit or opposed Scottish independence.) That allowed everyone to “own” her equally.

On the other hand, King Charles, if that’s what he ends up being called, has strong and well-known opinions: He hated brutalist architecture, championed organic food, and lobbied politicians in a series of secret letters that came to be known as the “black spider memos,” named after his terrible handwriting.

Kelli: What happens now?

Helen: There is a period of official mourning. (I’m writing this from a cinema, which just sent everyone home.) The TV schedules have been wiped for the foreseeable future. The tabloid newspapers will be on high alert for any left-wing comedian that says anything which vaguely approaches disrespect. A state funeral will happen relatively soon, and then eventually a coronation. That may take a while; Elizabeth took the throne in 1952 but wasn’t crowned until 1953.


Today’s News
  1. The federal grand jury investigating the lead-up to the January 6 insurrection and push to overturn the election results has issued a subpoena seeking more information about Donald Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America.
  2. In an attempt to quell record inflation, the European Central Bank has raised interest rates by three-quarters of a point, the biggest hike since 1999.
  3. Steve Bannon surrendered to the Manhattan district attorney’s office today and pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering, conspiracy, and fraud.


Evening Read
Illustration of a galaxy shaped like a human eye
(Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty)

We Living Things Are an Accident of Space and Time

By Alan Lightman

Like many people on planet Earth, I have been spellbound by the first pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope: the lacelike windings of galaxies, the apricot filaments of nebulae, the remnants of exploded stars. A less picturesque, but still revolutionary, part of Webb’s mission is the search for signs of life elsewhere in the universe. The telescope goes about this momentous quest by analyzing the starlight passing through the atmospheres of distant planets. Each kind of molecule leaves its own telltale imprints on traversing light, and some molecules, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and methane, may indicate life forms on the planet below. Indeed, Webb has already found evidence of carbon dioxide on at least one planet beyond our solar system.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Ralph Angel Bordelon, Darla, and their son Blue, in a brown and green field with a blue gray sky in the background
Ralph Angel Bordelon, Darla, and their son Blue, from "Queen Sugar." (OWN Communications)

Read. Recitatif by Toni Morrison, with an introduction by Zadie Smith. Or check out the introductions to other classic works that represent their own exciting literary form.

Listen. In the latest episode of Radio Atlantic, Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg and staff writer Anne Applebaum discuss meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Watch. Queen Sugar. The OWN drama, which returned this week for its seventh and final season, has “reimagined what television about the American family can look like,” one critic writes.

Play our daily crossword.


Hello! I’m a writer and editor who recently joined The Atlantic’s newsletter team. Despite the somber occasion, I am pleased to be making my first contribution to the Daily.

Reading Helen’s essay, I was struck by an observation from the late Dermot Morrah, who wrote in 1958 that it’s difficult to comprehend the “monarchy as a way of life” for those who don’t live within one. As an erstwhile midwesterner turned commonwealth émigré, I would agree with that assessment. I lived in Canada for more than 11 formative years (a story for another day). For a nontrivial portion of my life, Elizabeth II’s likeness was emblazoned on the currency I exchanged for boxed mac ’n’ cheese (Canadians call it Kraft Dinner), her photograph silently presiding over my bureaucratic transactions. I presumed that I would one day swear an oath of citizenship to the Queen of Canada (yes, really), and tweet drolly about it afterward.

But eventually, as her de facto subject, I came to appreciate the Queen—the way a person sometimes does—by dint of sheer exposure. And then there’s this delightful 2015 Vanity Fair feature about Her Majesty’s corgis. Today seems as good a time as any to give it a read.

— Kelli

Kate Lindsay contributed to this newsletter.