Historian: Queen Elizabeth’s Death Injects Uncertainty Into the Commonwealth

Queen Elizabeth walking on a street surrounded by people

The passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who met with former UVA President Frank L. Hereford Jr. during a 1976 visit to Grounds, comes at a time of turmoil and uncertainty for British leadership. (Photo courtesy UVA Libraries)

September 9, 2022

On Thursday, Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch in British history, died at 96. She became queen in 1952 at the age of 25. Now the crown passes to her son Charles.

Her death comes at a tumultuous time for Britain. A new prime minister, Liz Truss, was just instated after her predecessor, the scandal-plagued Boris Johnson, resigned.

To put these events into perspective, UVA Today talked with Erik Linstrum, a historian of modern Britain.  His first book, “Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire,” won the George Louis Beer Prize of the American Historical Association for the best book of the year in European international history. His second book, “Age of Emergency: Living with Violence at the End of the British Empire,” about British responses to the colonial wars of the 1950s, will be published in the spring.

Q. Why is the queen so important to the British people?

A. In many ways, she was the last living link to an era of British greatness. Elizabeth came to embody continuity, or at least an imagined and glittering version of it, even as Britain’s global status declined precipitously over the course of her decades-long reign. When Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952, there was still a British Empire, Britain was still a major industrial economy, and London was arguably still the financial center of the world. Obviously, that has all changed.

Elizabeth was also the last major national figure linking British culture to the era of the Second World War. Her father, George VI, was monarch during the war while Elizabeth volunteered as a military driver and made her first radio address in 1940. The Royal Family famously stayed in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle for most of the war, despite the threat of bombing, and toured parts of London damaged in the Blitz. Because the memory of the Second World War has been so important to British identity -  as a romanticized moment of national unity and heroic sacrifice - there is a significant element of nostalgia in emotional identification with the queen.

Some said that when Winston Churchill died in 1965, his funeral represented the passing of British greatness and British imperialism in particular. Churchill, of course, was Elizabeth’s first prime minister, and I think her passing now represents a more definite and final break with those bygone glories. Arguably, the great achievement of her reign was to “paper over the cracks” of decline, as a character in the Netflix series “The Crown” memorably put it.

Erik Linstrum Headshot
Historian Erik Linstrum said Queen Elizabeth II was the last living link to an era of British greatness. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communication)

Q. For what will she be remembered?

A. I think her death is likely to be remembered as a symbolic endpoint for the post-World War II and post-Cold War eras. Brexit, of course, is another such endpoint. But it will be difficult to fully judge her legacy until we have a better sense of what happens next.

We are just now seeing the accession of a new king, the oldest monarch ever to ascend to the throne, who is likely to be less popular than his mother and may have difficulty in consolidating all of her accomplishments. We do know for an actuarial certainty that his reign will be significantly shorter than hers. We do not yet know how the public will react to a king, that is to say a male monarch, for the first time in 70 years, or how much of Elizabeth’s success in popularizing monarchy for a democratic age was connected with the fact that she was a woman.

Much has been made of Elizabeth’s role as a kind of post-imperial monarch, but that is a deeply ambiguous story. While dozens of British colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean gained their independence while Elizabeth was queen, governments in her name waged brutal military campaigns to keep some of those colonies under British rule. What is more, she awarded titles and honors to military commanders who oversaw the use of detention camps, torture and other savage methods of repression. While Elizabeth took recent steps to normalize relations with the Republic of Ireland, she never issued a meaningful apology for British actions there or anywhere else.    

Q. Was Elizabeth herself personally popular with the people?

A. Yes, overwhelmingly so. The republican movement to abolish the monarchy remained a fringe movement in British politics during her reign. Of course, all monarchs, especially those who reign a long time, experience ebbs and flows in their popularity. The low point for Elizabeth was after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the perception that the royal family’s response was callous and unfeeling.

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Q. What kind of protocols will we see in the next few days?

A. The last time a British monarch died was 1952. We have never seen this kind of event in our lifetime and never in our current media environment. There is an elaborate plan, code-named London Bridge, written and rewritten over decades, that choreographs a precise sequence of events surrounding the death of the queen. The style of private notifications and public announcements; the ringing of church bells and the setting out of condolence books; the transportation of the queen’s body; the lying in state; and of course the funeral itself have all been anticipated in detail. When BBC television journalists changed into black suits and ties on Thursday, hours before the death was announced, the plan was already being set into motion.

The point of all of this, of course, is to ensure a smooth succession for Charles and maintain an unbroken line of authority for the Windsors. When his mother died, Charles became king in that instant; his status depends on his bloodline, rather than any proclamation or coronation ceremony. But those things will follow anyway as part of the institutional effort to legitimize his authority. What a BBC commentator shortly after the queen’s death called the “invisible, almost imperceptible” passing of the crown from one person to another really is a mystical event in this sense: it only works if people choose to believe it. 

Q. What will this mean for the new Prime Minister Liz Truss?

A. In crude political terms, it’s possible that Truss will enjoy a temporary “bounce” by virtue of acting as mourner-in-chief. She and her party are not especially popular at the moment and anything that softens her image could be helpful to them.

But far more decisive for Truss’s political fortunes will be the state of the economy as she attempts to respond to the inflation and energy crises. Once seen as a bedrock of political stability, the United Kingdom has now seen four prime ministers in six years, and the 18% inflation rate projected for next year is likely to deepen the sense of unrest which began with Brexit.  The new monarch and the new prime minister alike are inheriting a precarious situation.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications