My news feed has been full of the usual stuff: war and rumors of war, looming doom on the economic and climate fronts, and assorted political perturbations.
But ever since September 8, there’s been at least one item involving Elizabeth II of England each day. Like this sampling from Monday’s news:
- “Thousands line Edinburgh’s streets to see Queen’s coffin“
BBC News (September 12, 2022)
- “Embarrassing free advertising on Queen’s hearse angers mourners: ‘Sad’“
Andrew Court, New York Post (September 12, 2022)
- “Which countries will King Charles III reign over?“
Al Jazeera (September 12, 2022)
- “Not everyone mourns the queen. For many, she can’t be separated from colonial rule“
Juliana Kim, NPR (September 12, 2022)
That’s understandable, since Queen Elizabeth II of England been a constant — at least for the English-speaking world — for 70 years, 217 days. That’s longer than any monarch other than King Louis XIV of France.1
“Obituary: Queen Elizabeth II“
BBC News (September 8, 2022)
“The long reign of Queen Elizabeth II was marked by her strong sense of duty and her determination to dedicate her life to her throne and to her people.
“She became for many the one constant point in a rapidly changing world as British influence declined, society changed beyond recognition and the role of the monarchy itself came into question….”
It’s been an eventful seven decades.
There had already been many changes when Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor became Queen Elizabeth II on February 6, 1952.
I’ll be looking at the British Empire, how assorted Englishmen saw themselves and their country, and — briefly, for me — Elizabeth II’s seven-decade reign.
Feel free to skip ahead, using these links.
- Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: The Late Great British Empire
- The Importance of Being English: George V and Public Relations
- War and the End of Empire
- Remembering Elizabeth II of England
Take the British Empire, for example.
Depending on which temporal landmarks I pick (I talked about periodization last week) the British Empire began in 1296. That’s when English forces took the Stone of Scone from Scotland’s Scone Abbey.
If England’s imperial status depended on custody of the Stone of Scone, then the British Empire ended in 1996, when the British Government repatriated the Stone of Destiny.
I imagine it’ll be temporarily released from Edinburgh Castle for use in England’s St. Edward’s Chair, making Charles III’s coronation official.
Officially, it’s an act of the English Parliament, although English records show that Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell draft the document; and at the time Parliament wasn’t likely to cross Henry.
At any rate, the Act made Henry VIII of England a sort of mini-pope for that England, Wales, and any other territory Henry VIII held.
“…this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people, divided in terms, and by names of spiritualty and temporalty, be bounden and ought to bear, next to God….”
(extract from Statute in Restraint of Appeals (1532) via Wikipedia)
Bookending England’s imperial era with Henry VIII’s Act, the British Empire began in 1532 and ended when the whole Act went off the book in 1969. Or 1963 or 1967, when bits and pieces of it were revoked.
To their credit, neither Henry VIII or George III were officially “emperors,” although Parliament offered the title to the latter.
On the other hand, England’s had three empresses: Matilda (1114-1125), Victoria (1876-1901) and then Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1936-1952) who is Queen Elizabeth II’s mother.
Queen Victoria’s additional title, “Empress of India” was, I gather, her way of dealing with European diplomacy, precedence and protocols.2
Normans, French-speaking Vikings, had been there since the 12th century. As with most things involving humans, it’s complicated.
Or I could say the Empire began in the 1570s, when Martin Frobisher called a bay on Baffin Island Frobisher Bay and said it was English territory. Or 1584, when Queen Elizabeth I gave Sir Walter Raleigh the go-ahead to start a colony on North America’s east coast.
If I say the Commonwealth of Nations is a continuation of the British Empire, then the sun still shines on British Empire 24/7. Metaphorically, at least.
I suspect that the 1947 partition of India may become a common, maybe even consensus, end point for the British Empire.
Or maybe most historians will use the 1997 Hong Kong handover as the British Empire’s final act. That’s when England’s government followed through on the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory and 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
England originally leased Hong Kong from the Qing dynasty during the First Opium War. Despite that tainted, my opinion, start — Hong Kong grew into a thriving city.
Now that it’s been freed from the imperialistic yoke of capitalistic oppressors, Hong Kong is doing wonderfully well. Or not. Depends on who’s talking.
On the one hand, under the wise leadership of China’s government, Hong Kong authorities are protecting the people from sedition and other threats to national security.
On the other hand, at least five folks are in a Hong Kong hoosegow for publishing seditious children’s books: the Sheep Village series. I am not making this up.3
Including some that are conventionally uncomplimentary, faithfully following shibboleths and taboos established during my ‘good old days.’ Which I do not miss.
“Not everyone mourns the queen. For many, she can’t be separated from colonial rule“
Juliana Kim, NPR (September 12, 2022)
“…the scars of colonialism linger. Many note the enslavement, violence and theft that defined imperial rule, and they find it difficult to separate the individual from the institution and its history.
“…Moses Ochonu, a professor of African studies at Vanderbilt University, told NPR the queen’s death brought attention to ‘unfinished colonial business.’…”
“Queen Elizabeth II’s demise rekindles fury over British Empire’s colonial atrocities” Edited By C. Krishnasai, WION (September 11, 2022)
“…Similarly, Cornell University professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi slammed the ‘theatre’ surrounding the Queen’s death.
“‘If the queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad. As a Kenyan, I feel nothing. This theatre is absurd,’ she said….”
That’s nothing new. The British Empire has been controversial for centuries. Bear with me, please, this actually has something to do with Elizabeth II of England.
“…’If then we are a part of the British empire, we must be subject to the supreme power of the state, which is vested in the estates in parliament.’
“Here again we are to be conjured out of our senses by the magic in the words ‘British empire,’—and ‘supreme power of the state.’ But however it may sound, I say we are not a part of the British empire. Because the British government is not an empire. … If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington, knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men….”
(“Adams Papers Digital Edition – Massachusetts Historical Society,” The Letters of Novanglus (23 January–April 1775), VII. To the Inhabitants of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay (6 March 1775) via Digital MHS, Massachusetts Historical Society (emphasis mine))
“[I]f our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British empire would not have been made.”
(Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Remarks to the Cabinet, as recorded in Lord Derby’s diary (8 March 1878), quoted in John Vincent (ed.), “The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, Fifteenth Earl of Derby” (1994), via Wikiquote)
“…I hope we may be able sooner or later to federate, to bring together, all these great dependencies of the British Empire into one supreme and Imperial Parliament, so that they should be all units of one body, … that all should have a share in the welfare and sympathize with the welfare of every part….”
(Joseph Chamberlain, Speech in Rawtenstall (8 July 1886), quoted in The Times (July 9, 1886), via Wikiquote (emphasis mine))
Looking back at what John Adams, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and Joseph Chamberlain said with 20-20 hindsight, I think they all made sense. To an extent.
John Adams and other British subjects decided that, empire or republic, they’d had quite enough of the British government. They eventually cobbled together a constitution we’re still fine-tuning.
The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury’s concerns are, for the most part, academic. The British Empire no longer exists. Although, again, the Commonwealth of Nations (membership optional) — and British Overseas Territories.4 — are arguably a sort of British Empire 2.0.
Joseph Chamberlain’s “Imperial Parliament,” a unified and equitable union of Earth’s people, sounds pretty good. Until I look at what else he said.
I look Anglo, but I’m not. My father’s the son of an Irishman. My mother’s people are those short, black-haired Norwegians you don’t hear about: but not Saami. As far as I know, the Scandinavian part of my ancestry hasn’t been assigned an ethnic label.
I’ve also shared what one of my ancestors said about another, when asked about the family of her daughter’s boyfriend: “He doesn’t have family. He’s Irish.”
So I’m not inclined to cheer someone who extols the virtues of being Anglo-Saxon.
“…I believe that the people of this country have decided this matter in their minds, and have determined that they will take their full share in the disposition of these new lands and in the work of civilisation they have to carry out there. I think they are justified in that determination—justified by the spirit of the past, justified by that spirit which has shown that the spirit of travel and adventure and enterprise distinguishing the Anglo-Saxon race has made us peculiarly fit to carry out the work of colonisation.…”
(Joseph Chamberlain, Speech in the House of Commons (March 20, 1893) via digitised editions of Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament (emphasis mine))
“The Duke of Devonshire… left a permanent mark on British colonial development, by a declaration of policy which brought upon him severe criticism from many quarters. This was in regard to British East Africa—or Kenya, as it was now called. … the Duke laid down the principle of ‘paramountcy’. It was formally declared that on any question which might arise where the interests of the settlers and native inhabitants were in conflict, those of the latter must be regarded as ‘paramount’. In 1923 this doctrine, if not revolutionary, was certainly unexpected. Great pressure was brought upon the Duke to withdraw or amend it. But he remained quite firm and, for good or ill, this decision set the pattern of events which culminated in some of the decisions which Governments had to take many years later. “
(Harold Macmillan, Winds of Change, 1914–1939 (1966) via Wikiquote))
“Lately some picked graduates from Canada are beginning to play their part in looking after those parts of the Empire where the white man goes out, often alone, to teach, to educate and to bring along the more backward races of Empire. There is no more self-sacrificing work, there is no finer work, ….”
(Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, Speech to the Canadian Club in Toronto (6 August 6, 1927), quoted in Our Inheritance (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), via Wikiquote (emphasis mine))
“As we study [the British Empire’s] destiny, we are bound to think of it less as a human achievement than as an instrument of Divine Providence for the promotion of the progress of mankind.“
(Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, speech in Hyde Park (May 24, 1929), quoted in This Torch of Freedom (1935), via Wikiquote)
I’m very glad the days of “Irish Need Not Apply” are behind us.
The frothing rants delivered by radio preachers during my youth put a permanent crimp in my attitude toward Divine Providence allegedly being a monopoly of either ‘regular Americans’ or “the Anglo-Saxon race.”
But I can’t turn the “God agrees with me” and “Anglo-Saxon States of America” attitude around, and assume that all Anglo-Saxons are latter-day Simon Legrees. Not reasonably.
And trying to believe what I was taught during teacher indoctrination — that “all whites are racist” — makes even less sense.
Although I see how the notion may work as a slogan. — Given the assumption that “all whites” are a monolithic unit, composed entirely of heirs to Boston Brahmins and/or Old South plantation owners.5
In 1878, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury thought that the British Empire had been formed by folks who didn’t care about “the rights of other people.”
Then, in 1886, Joseph Chamberlain expressed hope that the British Empire would one day be federated “into one supreme and Imperial Parliament.” And in 1893 he said that “the Anglo-Saxon race” is “peculiarly fit to carry out the work of colonisation.”
In 1927, the 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley compared “the white man” with “the more backward races of Empire.” In 1929, he said that the British Empire was “an instrument of Divine Providence.”
Small wonder the Duke of Devonshire’s 1923 Devonshire White Paper didn’t with one sure stroke banish ethnic and economic injustice from all the realms. That’s the one establishing “the principle of ‘paramountcy’.”6
George V was King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India — the latter title started with Queen Victoria and lasted until 1948 — but this was seven centuries after the Magna Carta.
And I very strongly suspect that even theoretically absolute monarchs pay some attention to public relations, or become former monarchs.
Anyway, George Frederick Ernest Albert became King George V of England in 1910. World War I started in 1914.
Even before that war, a fair fraction of folks in England didn’t like Germany or Germans. Never mind that Anglo-Saxon Englishmen were descendants of the Saxons whose neighbors had stayed closer to home and were now called Germans. Well, some Germans.
Anglo-Saxon, English, German, or Mulligan stew folks like me: we’re all human. And history tells me that, at least on a practical and personal level, many of us have little to no regard for racial or ethnic purity. But then, I’m part-Irish, so — — —
Here’s one of George V’s problem during World War I.
Part of the British public concentrated their dislike of Germans and the war on the German Emperor, Wilhelm II.7
And that was was an embarrassment, at best, for their “German” king.
Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was and is what Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha looks like in English. They’re both the name of a German aristocratic house.
Many Brits hadn’t liked Germany and Germans before World War I started.
During the war, they often focused their dislike on Wilhelm II of Germany.
Wilhelm II of Germany was George V of England’s first cousin. So, for that matter, was Nicholas II of Russia. But that apparently wasn’t the major public perception problem that the German connection was..
There’s no way George V could change his ancestry. Or, more to the point, public perception of his ancestry. Not with British notions about freedom of speech being what they were. But he could re-name his English branch of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family.
Which he did, and it’s been the English-sounding House of Windsor since 1917.
William the Conqueror, the Norman king who invaded England in 1066, had built the original Windsor Castle, so “Windsor” seemed properly British.8
The 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave the British Empire an extra 1,800,000 square miles (4,700,000 square kilometers) of land and 13,000,000 new subjects.
It also punished Germany and Germans for losing the war, and arguably made WW II nearly-inevitable.
But the British Empire was bigger than it ever had been. Or ever would be.
Egypt had been designated as a British protectorate when WW I started. That didn’t last. The country was granted independence in 1922 or 1954: depending on whether being a client state counts as being independent.
The Suez Canal, a 19th century French company’s shortcut between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, belonged to the Egyptian government. But the company operating the canal was owned by Europeans: mostly English and French.
Folks in India were still British subjects, although quite a few weren’t happy about living in occupied territory.
A British Brigadier general’s massacre of folks who were (peacefully) protesting the arrest of two pro-independence activists/agitators/whatever didn’t help ’empire forever’ proponents back in England.9
Times were changing. Caring about “the rights of other people” was catching on. In some circles, at least.
England and the British Empire were on the winning side again. But this time there wasn’t a Versailles Treaty to punish the losers and reward Merry England.
The 1947 Partition of India was good news for folks who had been working for Indian independence, displaced between 10,000,000 and 20,000,000 folks, and set off a continuing series of problems.
In 1956, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser said that the Suez Canal and the company running it belonged to Egypt now. Someone, maybe English Prime Minister Anthony Eden, maybe others, decided that invading Egypt was a good idea.
It wasn’t. It profoundly wasn’t. The invasion met its military objectives. But Egypt kept the canal, the United Nations sent military units to the Egypt-Israel border, and the canal eventually became navigable again.10
Which may explain why it’s difficult to dig out whose bright idea invading Egypt had been.
Skipping ahead to July 1, 1997, Hong Kong stopped being a colony and dependent territory of the United Kingdom.
Folks in Hong Kong became even more free from colonial oppression in 2020.
That’s when the Hong Kong national security law began protecting the people from secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign organizations. Discussing separating Hong Kong from China is now a crime. And that’s another topic.
“Such is the end of Empire…”
(Prince Charles, entry in private journal, referring to his flying business class to the Hong Kong handover ceremony, while leading politicians flew first class. (1997) via The Age, Australia)
Getting back, finally, to Queen Elizabeth II of England.
She was born in 1926. Her grandfather, George V, was still king. Although she was third in line to inherit the throne, Brits figured their next monarch would be her uncle Edward, or maybe her father.
Edward became Edward VIII, topping off a brief and unconventional reign by saying that he was going to be an American’s husband number three. Then he abdicated.
Along the way, he’d also earned a reputation for being more involved in politics than was expected of a British monarch.
Edward VIII’s abdication made Elizabeth’s father, Albert Frederick Arthur George, King George VI. He picked “George” as his regnal name, emphasizing continuity with old King George V’s reign, and reassuring folks that England and the monarchy were okay.
Tying up loose ends left by Edward VIII’s colorful reign and abdication kept George VI occupied at least until World War II started.
When the bombs stopped falling, he went back to being less disruptive than Edward VIII, while overseeing a dissolving empire. Then, in 1952, he died.11
(It’s now Friday afternoon, September 16, 2022. There’s a great deal to say about Queen Elizabeth II, and not nearly enough time left before my Friday-evening deadline. So I’d better get back to writing this thing.)
I also think they’re right about Queen Elizabeth II’s role in the political mess left when Prime Minister Eden resigned.
Remember Eden? He was PM when someone decided that sending troops to Egypt was a good idea.
Anyway, England’s Conservative Party — capital C capital P, and this isn’t a ‘political’ post in the ‘demonize them, deify us’ sense — hadn’t developed a process for electing a new leader. Which left Elizabeth II holding the bag.
Oversimplifying the situation something fierce, the United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy, where they’ve got a queen or (now) a king who has influence and responsibilities, but nowhere near the ‘my way or the Tower’ power of folks like Henry VIII.
And one of Elizabeth II’s policies was to stay away from British politics. From what I’ve seen of it, and the American version, I don’t blame her. At all.
However, England’s Conservative Party was missing a leadership position and apparently expected a new boss to just drop into place. So Elizabeth II talked with various folks and “invited Harold Macmillan to form a new government,” as BBC News put it.12
I’d be astounded if that wasn’t controversial at the time. I also think stepping in and heading off yet another crisis was a good idea.
I’m going to do an excerpt from that BBC News obituary. I’m running seriously short on time.
“…The Queen also found herself the subject of a personal attack by the writer Lord Altrincham. In a magazine article, he claimed her court was ‘too British’ and ‘upper-class’ and accused her of being unable to make a simple speech without a written text.
“His remarks caused a furore in the press and Lord Altrincham was physically attacked in the street by a member of the League of Empire Loyalists.
“Nevertheless, the incident demonstrated that British society and attitudes to the monarchy were changing fast and old certainties were being questioned….
“…The Queen was once more at the centre of a political row when in 1963, Harold Macmillan stood down as prime minister. With the Conservative Party still to set up a system for choosing a new leader, she followed his advice to appoint the Earl of Home in his place.
“It was a difficult time for the Queen. The hallmark of her reign was constitutional correctness, and a further separation of the monarchy from the government of the day. She took seriously her rights to be informed, to advise and to warn – but did not seek to step beyond them.…”
(“Obituary: Queen Elizabeth II,” BBC News (September 10, 2022) (emphasis mine))
(From Photoglob AG, Zürich, Switzerland or Detroit Publishing Company, Detroit, Michigan/Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland; once owned by Elizabeth II of England.)
I was a few months old when Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor became Queen Elizabeth II of England. So, like many folks, I don’t remember a time when she was not Queen of England.
That, and her apparent determination to give England the queen they needed, may explain this week’s pedestrian traffic jam in Westminster Hall.
“…People of all ages and from all walks of life have paid their respects to the late queen, joining a well-organised line that stretches along the south
“But by mid-morning, the line was just too big – a testimony to the public’s respect and affection for the queen, who died in Scotland on Sept. 8 at the age of 96 after a 70-year reign.
“‘Entry will be paused for at least 6 hours,’ Britain’s culture department said shortly before 10 a.m. (0900 GMT) ‘Please do not attempt to join the queue until it re-opens.’
“It warned of waiting times of up to 12 hours. Some 750,000 people in total are expected to file past the queen’s coffin….”
(“King Charles visits Wales, miles-long line to see queen lying in state paused,” Michael Holden, Kylie Maclellan; Reuters (September 16, 2022))
I don’t doubt that Elizabeth II could have done more for England, the United Kingdom and the world.
But what she did was remarkable — being what BBC News called “…one constant point in a rapidly changing world….”
When she became queen, World War I was a living memory for many. Her subjects included League of Empire Loyalist members and folks who thought colonial independence was a good idea.
What’s even more remarkable is that although Elizabeth II was a “constant point” in the sense of showing stability, her policies weren’t static.
“…Encouraged by her husband, notoriously impatient with the court’s stuffiness, the Queen began to adapt to the new order.
“The practice of receiving debutantes at court was abolished and the term ‘the Monarchy’ was gradually replaced by ‘the Royal Family’….”
(“Obituary: Queen Elizabeth II,” BBC News (September 8, 2022))
I think it’s easy to forget how much the world has changed since 1952. Take this remark from 1972, for example, which at the time was meant as a compliment:
“…The Queen has been absolutely determined all through … She is impatient of the attitude towards her to treat her as … a film star … She has indeed ‘the heart and stomach of a man’ … She loves her duty and means to be a Queen….”
(“The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People,” Harold Macmillan (1972) via Wikipedia (emphasis mine))
Macmillan’s “…heart and stomach of a man…” is a paraphrase or misquote from Elizabeth II’s speech to English forces gathered in Essex, responding to the Spanish Armada’s threat.
“…I have the heart and stomach of a king….”
(“Speech to the Troops at Tilbury,” Elizabeth I of England (1588) via Wikipedia)
Well, one of the versions of the speech, as recorded in Elizabethan times.
And that’s yet another topic. Topics.
I was also going to talk about authority, citizenship and related ideas. But I’ve done that before, and probably will again:
- “Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” Freedom, Censorship and Speculation“
(September 10, 2022)
- “Pakistan: Blasphemy and Bombs, Death and Dalits; and History“
(July 23, 2022)
- “Alabaster Cities, Fireworks, a Condo Disaster and Tears“
(July 3, 2021)
- “November 3: The End of Civilization as We Know It (Again)“
(November 2, 2020)
- “Authority, Superstition, Progress“
(October 30, 2016)
- How I see history
- Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland
- British Overseas Territories
- Colony of Virginia
- Commonwealth of Nations
- Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory
- The empire on which the sun never sets
- First Opium War
- Handover of Hong Kong
- Hong Kong
- Opium Wars
- Partition of India
- Qing dynasty
- Second Opium War
- Sino-British Joint Declaration
- Tudor conquest of Ireland
- “Hong Kong: Children’s Book Authors Convicted“
Human Rights Watch (Updated September 10, 2022)
- “UN Human Rights Committee issues findings on Hong Kong, Macao, Georgia, Ireland, Luxembourg and Uruguay“
Press release, The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, commonly known as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) (July 27, 2022)
- “2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Hong Kong “
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; U. S. Department of State (April 12, 2022)
- Hong Kong
- Hong Kong
Human Rights Watch
- A Brief History of the Boston Brahmin
New England Historical Society
- Boston Brahmins
Bunker Hill Memorial, The Urban Imagination
- Simon Legree “‘Mature Content Warning!’ This article contains some content involving a mature subject or situation and may not be suitable for younger viewers. If you are 18 years or older or are comfortable with graphic material, you are free to view this page.” (I’m not kidding: that warning is actually on the page.)
Pure Evil Wiki
- Stiftung der Herzog von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha’schen Familie
(deutsche Sprache. English: Foundation of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family)
- Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead
- “The House of Coburg and Queen Victoria: A study of duty and affection“
Terrence Shellard, Student Work, A Thesis Presented to the Department of History and the Faculty of the Graduate College; DigitalCommons@UNO, University of Nebraska at Omaha (June 1971)
- British India, before and after, my viewpoint