Emma Hart on the death of Queen Elizabeth II

The Penn historian and early modern Britain expert shares her thoughts about the British monarch who reigned for 70 years.

Queen Elizabeth standing on a red carpet holding a cane surrounded by two guards.
Queen Elizabeth II outside Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 28, 2022. (Image: Jane Barlow/AP Photos)

The world turned its attention to the United Kingdom on Thursday when Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in the history of Great Britain, died at the age of 96, after 70 years on the throne. Her oldest son became King Charles III upon her death.

The Queen was pictured meeting on Tuesday with the 15th prime minister during her reign, Liz Truss; her first was Winston Churchill. The Queen’s husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, died in 2021 at the age of 99.

Emma Hart researches early modern Britain and early North America as the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and as a history professor in the School of Arts & Sciences. She grew up near Leicester, a city in England’s Midlands. Hart attended Oxford University for her undergraduate degree and has lived in the United Kingdom most of her life, spending the past 20 years in Edinburgh, Scotland. She joined Penn’s faculty from the University of St. Andrews, moving to Philadelphia last year.

Penn Today spoke with Hart about the significance of Queen Elizabeth’s unprecedented reign and the transition to a new British monarchy.

Buckingham Palace in background, people standing outside the gates, some holding umbrellas.
People gather outside Buckingham Palace in London on Sept. 8, 2022. (Image: AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

How would you characterize Queen Elizabeth II’s place in the history of the British monarchy?

I think it is quite likely that we will describe these 70 years as a second Elizabethan Age. Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign from 1837 to 1901 means that historians usually refer to Victorian Britain when they discuss the 19th century. Like Victoria’s reign, Queen Elizabeth’s has been so long that it will become its own era in British history. For example, it was during the Elizabethan Era that Britain became a more socially equal and diverse society, became a post-imperial nation, and had to find its way as another country in a globalized world. I can see Elizabeth’s reign bracketing important processes in national history.

What impact will Queen Elizabeth’s death have for the British people?

Most people have never known another monarch. She was so tireless in her dedication to her role as a public figure, and her passing is going to leave a big hole in a lot of people’s lives.

The Queen’s image is woven into many aspects of everyday life in Britain. Her head is on our money, our banknotes and our coins, our stamps, our passports, our mailboxes. A seal of royal patronage with the Queen’s coat of arms is on all sorts of food products that meet a quality standard and are used in royal households. We sing ‘God Save Our Gracious Queen.’ Now King Charles III’s image will take her place and we will be singing ‘God save the King’ after 70 years.

She’s also obviously a monarch who has lived her entire existence with press watching very closely, and was the first to have a television profile. The British monarchy has always been subject to press coverage since the 18th century, however Elizabeth has been beamed into British homes from her coronation onwards. Every year, the Queen delivered her Christmas message to the nation on Dec. 25. These messages, written by the Queen herself, were broadcast on the BBC and have been an integral part of many family’s festivities. In troubled times, such as during the pandemic, they were often a source of reassurance and tradition for many. We don’t know if Charles will continue this tradition, but if he does he will have big shoes to fill.

Like most British people, I have actually met her, and I’ve seen her walk past me. I think there are very few British people who haven’t met or seen the Queen because her role meant that she traveled the length and breadth of the nation numerous times.

Historical image of Queen Elizabeth standing with leaders of the Commonwealth in 1960.
Queen Elizabeth II and the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth Nations at Windsor Castle in 1960.

How has she managed the dramatic social changes in Britain over the past seven decades?

The global Britain that you see today is something that didn’t exist when she came to the throne in 1952. The country was in the grip of post-World War II austerity; there was still rationing because there weren’t enough basics like flour, and sugar, and butter. It was a much poorer society, generally. It was still a homogenous white society and a rigid class system restricted social mobility. The transformation of Britain into a wealthy country like the rest of Europe happened in Queen Elizabeth’s reign. She proved herself capable of responding to these seismic shifts in British society. She still managed to be a monarch for the times, whatever those times were. That’s no mean feat. She was very good at adapting to social circumstances. And she assiduously cultivated her political neutrality. The monarch is not supposed to be anything but a figurehead, and she did a very good job of not publicly expressing political views.

What is Queen Elizabeth’s greatest legacy?

I think her service to the country. You could always depend on Queen Elizabeth to be a voice of calm and reason and steadiness, even in tumultuous times. You know that phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ that decorates endless bags, mugs, and tchotchkes, as the epitome of Britishness. She embodied that, the keep calm and carry on, being a steadfast and dependable center of national life. I think this is what people will really miss. She was always there.

What was Queen Elizabeth’s role in relations with the United States?

Just as in domestic life she was, again, this sort of steadfast figure in always welcoming U.S. presidents to Britain, whatever the political turmoil, or the state of the relationship between the two nations. She met 13 sitting U.S. presidents. Again, it was her ability to remain politically neutral, to be a figurehead, and to be a congenial host despite any larger political tensions that underpinned her importance in the maintenance of harmony and the so-called ‘special relationship.’

Charles and Queen Elizabeth seated in chairs on a red carpet outside a royal entrance in Scotland.
The then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, and Queen Elizabeth II attending the Queen’s Body Guard for Scotland Reddendo Parade in the gardens of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, UK on June 30, 2022. (Image: Jane Barlow/AP Photos)

What are your thoughts about the transition to a reign of King Charles III?

He must have thought about this moment hundreds of times throughout in his life and surely has a very careful plan for what he is going to do. Since the monarchy is very well-established, it would be hard for him to place it in peril but I do think it’s going to be tricky. He hasn’t always attracted the best press because of his divorce from Princess Diana and the reasons for that. He’s been a monarch in waiting since he was 3 years old, the longest in history, and he’s 73 now. He’s had to cultivate his own interests, and he’s done that very successfully. He’s tried his best, within the parameters of an apolitical monarchy to give himself a purpose, such as becoming an advocate for climate and the environment, and he has sometimes been criticized for that. There might be a period of adjustment, but I think he will do fine.

What is the story of King Charles I and II?

The first two King Charleses were not the most exemplary monarchs. King Charles I was on the throne when civil war broke out in 1642, and it was his behavior as a monarch that caused the uprising, and eventually his execution in 1649. After Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of the Commonwealth) died, the first son of Charles I was invited back from exile and restored to the throne. Charles II was a much better politician, but he had a very questionable private life, a lady’s man, shall we say. I am not sure that many contemporary Britons will have these reputations in mind, however. Queen Elizabeth has been so long-lived that she is monarchy for most people.

I have to ask, how did you meet the Queen?

The theater at my school was refurbished and named the Queen Elizabeth II Theater. The Queen and Prince Phillip came to open it in 1984. I was just 11 at the time and I was in a play that we performed in front of the Queen and the Prince. I was the flute-playing jester that led the cast onto the stage. I remember being terribly, terribly nervous because I had to play my flute and walk and lead everyone at the same time. Afterwards there was a lineup of the cast and the Queen and Prince walked down the line. They said approving words to all of us pupils—she was very good at small talk. The other time I saw her was at Leicester train station. The local elementary schools bussed children there to wave flags and line the station platform and entrance to welcome her. I remember standing there with my little Union Jack as she walked right past me.

Queen Elizabeth II, smiling.
Buckingham Palace announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the UK’s longest-reigning monarch, on Sept. 8. (Image: Jane Barlow/AP Photos)