On Thursday, September 8, Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 96. During her reign, she appointed 15 prime ministers, saw the dissolution of the British Empire, and lived throughout Britain’s fall from global prominence. She witnessed the rise of the Beatles and remained a stable figure in the face of an increasingly politically turbulent Britain, especially in the wake of Brexit in 2020 and the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Her reign was one of remarkable longevity—with 70 years and 214 days marked by her rule, she currently stands as the second longest reigning monarch in world history. Simply put, the death of Queen Elizabeth II was the end of an era.
Perhaps due to the duration of her reign, her cementation into pop culture as a global icon, or a combination of both, when I heard that the Queen had died, I felt as if the impossible had happened. In retrospect, it was obvious—the Queen was not immortal—and yet it felt as if a god had died. The Queen was simply too big to fall and in the face of her passing, a sense of bewilderment followed me and countless others.
But aside from mourning the Queen’s death, it is also important to recognize her position as a monarch, what that position entails, and how our modern-day perception of the Queen intersects with the past of the British monarchy. When we mourn the Queen, it is important that we mourn the person and not what she came to represent, as we otherwise risk glorifying the face of an empire that subjugated and oppressed people across the globe.
The Queen, both as a person and a monarch, represented two entirely different things. Though the Queen may have ultimately held no political power, a far cry from the British monarchs of the past who held absolute and divinely decreed authority, her title held a significant amount of social power and ceremonial significance. Queen Elizabeth II opened every new session of Parliament despite holding no official power in government, assented to legislation that she had no say over, and approved orders and proclamations through the Privy Council, which is otherwise entirely separate from the monarchy. Despite her lack of political power, her political significance should not be understated. This social significance bled into the Queen's personal identity as well: She had two different birthdays: her actual birthday in April, and an official one celebrated on the second Saturday of June, a trend that first began in 1748 with King George II. The Queen’s social power was perhaps best exemplified in her public presence; her cordial personality, love of corgis, lack of strong opinions, and secretive private life helped to establish both an air of royal mysticism and stolid grace. Through her social and ceremonial power, Queen Elizabeth II formed a public face for Britain as the world’s more recognizable monarch.
Herein lies the problem. When Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21, 1926, Britain still held control over 24 percent of the globe: the British empire held a colony on every continent save Antarctica, and nearly one-in-five people across the world were British subjects. Though she inherited a postwar country that was still recovering from the aftermath of the first world war, the Queen also inherited a British empire near its peak, alongside countless colonies of the British Crown, including India, Hong Kong, Jamaica, and Kenya, to name a few. Many even heralded the Queen’s reign to power as indicative of a second Elizabethan Era, a new golden age for Britain.
These factors of the monarchy, regardless of the Quee’'s opinion, glorify tradition and the British empire whilst erasing the historic struggles of minority groups under the British empire and crimes committed by the British in the name of the Crown. For instance, from 1952 to 1963, British forces brutally suppressed the Mau Mau rebellion through the systematic torture of the Kenyans and the Kikuyu tribe—right after the Queen visited Kenya to represent the Commonwealth. In 1961, the British government attempted to erase countless records of such colonial crimes in order to not “embarrass Her Majesty’s government.” Even her visits to the Commonwealth nations are reminiscent of the 19th Century monarch Queen Victoria’s visits to the colonies, a paternalistic display of Britain’s global dominance and might. Even if the Queen does not hold the beliefs so heavily touted by the British empire, her visits and by extension, the functions of the Crown, conveniently conceal the crimes of the British empire under the guise of devotion to tradition. By upholding and inheriting the position as head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II both symbolized and sustained an imperial monarchy.
Though her position in the monarchy might maintain a colonial legacy, the events which transpired over the Queen’s rule ended up having the opposite effect. Rapid decolonization efforts, the transition of Barbados from a Commonwealth nation to a republic, and calls for reparations have dramatically reduced the influence of the British empire and set the bar for future progress. And that’s not to understate the efforts of Queen Elizabeth II either, who took a firmly anti-apartheid stance against the suggestions of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s.
The bottom line is recognizing the differences between the Queen as a person and a political entity. Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy will remain an event of incredible significance in contemporary history and will likely persist in British history for years to come. Regardless of your stance on Queen Elizabeth II, it’s important to uphold the fundamental respect all humans deserve, and also acknowledge the Queen’s individual efforts, which stand in stark contrast to the atrocities of the Crown. One thing is certain: mourn Elizabeth, not the Empire.