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The second Elizabethan age: A brief history

Everything you need to know about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II in five minutes or less, including her most difficult year.

Queen Elizabeth II smiles during a visit to officially open the new building at Thames Hospice on July 15, 2022 in Maidenhead, England.
Kirsty O'Connor-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
This story was published on our Quartz Weekly Obsession newsletter, An interactive email on the fascinating histories of everyday ideas.
  • Sofia Lotto Persio
By Sofia Lotto Persio

Newsletter writer and editor

Published

A stable presence in an ever-changing world

It’s hard to think of seven decades in history marked by more profound and sweeping changes than those overseen by the British monarch Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. She died on Sept. 8, 2022, aged 96.

When Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952, she became the sovereign of an empire comprising 70 overseas territories—at the time of her death, she was the head of state in 15 countries. Elizabeth II oversaw a period of great wealth creation and redistribution in her country and abroad, as well as sweeping technological and scientific developments that drastically reduced mortality rates across the world, increasing life expectancy.

The defining characteristics of the second Elizabethan age will ultimately be decided by history, but we’ve taken the liberty of highlighting some of the most memorable events that marked her record-breaking reign.


By the digits

70: Years spent on the throne, the longest-serving monarch in British history

15: British prime ministers who served under her reign, 12 men and three women

150 million: People living in countries that recognize the British monarch as head of state

At least 30: Corgis owned by the Queen over her lifetime, all descendants of her first-ever corgi, Susan

31: Percentage of Brits who reported having seen or met the Queen in person

285: Official overseas royal tours undertaken during her reign, the most well-traveled British monarch ever—and she didn’t even have a passport!


From Empire to Commonwealth

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II poses for photographs with heads of government and representatives of Commonwealth nations in London on June 6, 2012.
Image copyright: Lefteris Pitarakis/Pool/AFP

In a 1947 public address upon turning 21, then Princess Elizabeth II promised to dedicate her life to the service of “the great imperial family.” At the time, the British empire counted more than 70 colonies abroad, but that soon changed. Every decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign saw more parts of the world breaking free from British rule.

But as the British empire shrank, the Commonwealth grew its ranks. Initially formed in 1926 by countries that had obtained semi-autonomy from the empire, the Commonwealth assumed its present form, which recognizes all its members as free and equal on the basis of shared values, in 1949. Commonwealth members hold a biannual meeting of their government heads and a quadrennial meeting of their athletes’ feet (basically, there’s a big sports tournament).

Throughout her reign, the Queen understood the Commonwealth’s usefulness as an instrument to retain economic, diplomatic, and cultural ties to former colonies—and even expand to new countries, like Mozambique—and fought for its unity. In 1961, she famously insisted on traveling to Ghana despite safety concerns—she saw the visit to the African country, which had won independence in 1957 and had since been ruled by Soviet-friendly president Kwame Nkrumah, as crucial in reinvigorating Commonwealth ties. In 1986, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to sanctioning South Africa over the apartheid regime threatened to break up the Commonwealth; the Queen, despite her own reported frustration with Thatcher’s position, flexed her diplomatic muscles to find a resolution to the impasse.

The Queen inherited her role as head of the Commonwealth from her father George VI, but there is no obligation for the position to be held by the British monarch. Yet her son Prince Charles faced no competition for the role when, in 2018, member countries agreed to appoint him as her successor. While more countries may follow Barbados in becoming republics, for as long as they remain in the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is ruled by a British monarch, the Crown will retain some form of global influence.


Quotable

“While no one’s grandmother thanks them for talking about their age, my own grandmother has been alive for nearly a century. In that time, mankind has benefited from unimaginable technological developments and scientific breakthroughs.”

—The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, speaking at the 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebrations.


Pop quiz

Which of the following actresses has never played Queen Elizabeth II?

Queen Elizabeth II proceeds through the Royal Gallery after she addressed the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on May 18, 2016 in London, England.
Image copyright: Toby Melville/WPA Pool

A. Claire Foy

B. Helen Mirren

C. Stella Gonet

D. Judi Dench


Brief history

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sits on a throne during her coronation in Westminster Abbey in London.
Image copyright: CENTRAL PRESS PHOTO LTD/AFP

1953: Elizabeth II’s coronation is the first to be broadcast live, watched by 27 million people in the UK.

1969: The BBC aired the Royal Family documentary, filmed inside Buckingham Palace. The footage proved divisive over whether the Queen’s private life should remain beyond the scope of media coverage, and it has not been shown for decades.

1970: The Queen breaks with royal tradition during a visit to Sydney and walks down the street—a practice that has since become common during Royal tours.

1992: The Queen uses the term Annus Horribilis to refer to a year that saw her three eldest children separate from their spouses, and a fire that caused millions in damages to Buckingham Palace.

1997: The Royal Family’s initially muted response to Lady Diana’s sudden death puts a strain on its popularity.

1998: Royal Family members lose their voting rights in the House of Lords as PM Tony Blair’s reform removes hereditary seats from the legislative body.

2015: The Queen and her husband Prince Philip’s visit to Malta marks their last international trip.

2019: Prince Andrew, often referred to as the Queen’s favorite child, steps back from royal duties following mounting public outrage at his connections to late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and assault allegations from one of Epstein’s victims.

2022: Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, steps in to deliver the Queen’s speech and open Parliament—but sits next to the crown in a symbolic reminder of who was still in charge.


Fun fact!

Banknotes, coins, and stamps featuring the Queen’s portrait will remain in circulation, but the Bank of England and Royal Mail stopped production upon the announcement of the monarch’s death.


Watch this!

The first-ever Christmas broadcast

Image copyright: The Royal Family/YouTube

In 1957, the BBC broadcast the first televised Queen’s speech on Christmas Day. The monarch remarked on the occasion, expressing her wish that the “new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct,” welcoming viewers to “the peace of my own home.” The televised Christmas broadcast remained a cornerstone of the holiday season for decades to come, even though the Royal Family has kept up with media developments—from sending an email in 1976 to joining social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.


Listen up!

Picture taken on December 18, 1950 at La Valette showing Princess Elizabeth of England, the future Queen Elizabeth II, and Prince Philip dancing the samba.
Image copyright: AFP

Whenever musicians have taken to mentioning the Queen in their songs, it’s often not flattering—and also not personal. In most of the songs in this playlist—Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen,” the Stone Roses’ “Elizabeth My Dear,” the Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead” and Leon Rosselson’s “On Her Silver Jubilee,”—the real target of scorn is the monarchy as an institution. That’s not quite the case with the Beatles’ “Her Majesty,” a 26-second tune in which Paul McCartney muses about, essentially, asking the Queen out.

While Abba’s “Dancing Queen” has nothing to do with Elizabeth II herself, it was added to the playlist as the Queen reportedly told guests at a dinner party in Windsor she rather enjoyed the tune—which was also played by a military band outside Buckingham Palace, a performance highlighted by the Royal Family’s official Twitter account.


Take me down this 🐰 hole!

While names, emblems, and images related to the Queen and the royal family are subject to copyright and trademarks (pdf), there are no shortages of products capitalizing on their association with the monarchy, whether officially endorsed or not.

During the Platinum Jubilee of 2022 that marked the Queen’s 70th year on the British throne, sales of royal memorabilia were estimated to be $350 million, contributing to a GDP boost that may have helped the UK avoid a recession.

Millions of products bearing the effigy of the Queen flooded British streets, including a cutout of her face that no doubt was meant as a fun tribute, but ended up looking terrifying. A 78-year-old woman living in Wembley, London, even opened her home to the press to display her impressive collection of British royal memorabilia, counting more than 12,000 pieces and thought to be one of the largest in the world.

Alas, only a limited number of high-end items—mostly commemorative coins from the Royal Mint and luxury porcelains—will accrue value over time. That charming musical cookie tin that plays “God Save The Queen”? It’s just one for the memories.


Poll 

Have you ever bought Queen Elizabeth II’s memorabilia?

A man wearing a mask depicting Queen Elizabeth II stands along The Mall during the Platinum Party At The Palace concert outside Buckingham Palace on June 4, 2022 in London, United Kingdom. The Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II is being celebrated from June 2 to June 5, 2022, in the UK and Commonwealth to mark the 70th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II on 6 February 1952.
Image copyright: Hollie Adams

Let us know how much you’ve contributed to the British GDP!


Today’s special email was written by Sofia Lotto Persio (royal subject) and edited by Susan Howson (not a corgi).


The answer to the quiz is D. Judi Dench, who played another Elizabeth (Elizabeth I) in the movie Shakespeare in Love. Stella Gonet played Elizabeth II in the film Spencer, Helen Mirren played her in The Queen, and Claire Foy, of course, played her in The Crown.


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