Reflections on the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II

Five experts from the University consider the regent’s seven-decade reign, weighing everything from the changing role of media in crafting her image to the future of the United Kingdom.

Framed photo of Queen Elizabeth sits amid bouquets of flowers
A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II sits amidst floral tributes and notes outside the gates of Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's longest-reigning monarch died on Sept. 8 after 70 years on the throne. She was 96. (Image: AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

King Charles III, who ascended the throne after the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II last week, vowed in his first speech to the nation to carry on her legacy.

“Queen Elizabeth’s was a life well lived; a promise with destiny kept, and she is mourned most deeply in her passing. That promise of lifelong service I renew to you all today,” he said.

Penn Today asked five faculty experts to share their perspectives on that legacy and where the monarchy goes from here.

Jed Esty is the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Esty is the author of the just-published book, “The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits,” a sequel to his 2004 book, “A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England.”

It’s tempting to read epochal shifts into the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, but it is not the End of an Era. Deeply entrenched forces are still tugging the United Kingdom backward. The Royal Family stands for a traditional concept of British greatness that is aging and straining, but has not yet exited history.  The reign of King Charles III may not mark any new or vital historical change. After all, Charles is a very gray heir. He was born—like so many recent U.S. leaders (Biden, Trump, Bush)—in the 1940s. His worldview is the same one those Baby Boomers inherited, in which Anglo-American power and partnership were assured.

That power and partnership are no longer so assured in 2022. Sharp anxieties about national decline have recently dominated the news cycle on both sides of the North Atlantic. It has been a hot, messy summer in the U.K., capped by a stunning 48-hour period that ushered a new King and a new Prime Minister to center stage. The monarchy stands for tradition itself. So too does the ascent of Liz Truss, who aims to extend the life of Thatcherite values that promise voters renewed prosperity through deregulated markets. They also promise a renewed sense of national identity through Brexit-style autonomy. This weak brew is decocted from the old vines of imperial nostalgia and free market fundamentalism. But it still entices voters, still wins elections. Just when the U.K. seems ready to shrug off its dreams of greatness, the traditionalists and Brexiteers retighten their grip.

For Americans living in and after the Cold War, Elizabeth II provided a safe harbor for a nostalgic worldview, too. She was the first British monarch born in the 20th century. Her time on the throne ran from Presidents Eisenhower to Biden, virtually the whole of the “American Century.” But that century is winding down now. It is time to invent a new national purpose for both the U.S. and the U.K., to let go of the fading dreams of the English-speaking superpowers. King Charles III has a mighty challenge ahead, but he could—like Joe Biden—use his position to bring about a generational change. He could, now, help to rally the United Kingdom around a more modern sense of national identity, one that bids farewell to the moral certainties of crown and empire.

Katerina Girginova is co-founder of The Annenberg Virtual Reality ColLABorative, a critical and creative space for research on virtuality and its roles in society.

Girginova is also currently a postdoctoral fellow researching global events and audiences at the Annenberg School for Communication’s Center for Advanced Study in Global Communication and Center on Digital Culture in Society.

For many people around the world, Queen Elizabeth II represented great poise and tradition. As the longest reigning British monarch, the Queen also became a seminal figure guarding over our important social events. One would expect to see her at holidays, memorials, royal births, and weddings and as such, the Queen took on a special significance in the collective formation of memories for generations of people around the world. Her presence at once signified an important event and reified the societal values around grand concepts like birth, death, and time.

While the hard business of politics had officially long transitioned into the hands of those in Parliament, the Queen took on the largely symbolic role of leading softer politics and public relations in the U.K. and abroad. This role was made possible with the tremendous help of the media and, specifically, the BBC. Indeed, the latter was seminal in creating the modern global image of the Royal Family, but it is also important to also acknowledge the tightly knit symbiotic relationship between the two.

It is widely recognized that the televising of the Queen’s Coronation in 1952 turned the BBC into a household name by giving the public unprecedented access to the spectacle of the Royal Family from the comfort of one’s home. In short, the Queen’s image was instrumental in ushering in the very infrastructure behind the many media events to which we have become accustomed today. With her passing, Queen Elizabeth II gives us her one final media event. This event interrupts many daily routines and becomes a collective experience, a meditation on our past, present, and future that will undoubtedly carry as many meanings as it has members.

To further underscore the magnitude of her life, the event of the Queen’s death and the days of rituals that will follow will result from careful planning that began decades in advance. The details of what is to come, laid out under the code name “Operation London Bridge,” depict a transitional period marked by rituals of mourning as meticulous and poised as the Queen’s life itself.

Brendan O’Leary, Lauder Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences.

O’Leary is a global expert on divided places and has been profoundly engaged with the Irish question for four decades. His new book “Making Sense of a United Ireland,” published this month.

The U.K. monarchy has been almost entirely symbolic for some time now. This “head of state” has almost no discretion—except when there is a “hung parliament,” i.e., when no party commands a majority in the House of Commons. In those circumstances, the monarch has discretion over whom to call to form a government. Otherwise, the role is utterly constrained by the advice of the government, including each Government of the Commonwealth that retains this feudal legacy: 14 states in total, from Canada to Australia via the Caribbean, though the number may continue to fall. 

George V, Elizabeth Windsor’s grandfather, was the last monarch to engage in a significant political initiative, when he summonsed the Buckingham Palace Conference of 1914. It failed to resolve the “Ulster question,” just before the outbreak of World War I.

Elizabeth II of England (Elizabeth I of Scotland) presided with dignity over the decolonization of the British Empire. Her son, Charles III, has a harder task: keeping together the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

The first Charles was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell and his roundheads. His son, Charles II, left a succession crisis that led to the Dutch invasion and coup d’état of 1688, which the English re-describe as the Glorious Revolution. The reign of Charles III is not likely to be so exciting. He is an intelligent man, unfairly satirized as someone who converses with plants. He will likely find his current London government ‘trying.’ 

In the decade ahead, Charles III may be obliged to oversee the reunification of Ireland and the independence of Scotland, both subject to referendums. Most Scots who want independence are republicans, but the Scottish National Party so far has favored keeping the same monarch in a sovereign Scotland. 

In that eventuality, Charles III, as King of Scotland, may postpone the fulfillment of prophecy of the late King Farouk of Egypt who advised that soon the world would only have five kings—the four found in a pack of playing cards and the King of England. Meanwhile Ulster Unionists of the Orange Order, named after William of Orange—William III of England, Scotland and Ireland, the Dutch invader—are looking forward to the next King Billy: Charles’s son and heir would be William V. But whether they will be in the United Kingdom during the next King Billy’s coronation is a matter of fading probability. 

Aswin Punathambekar, professor of communication and director of the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Punathambekar studies the impact of globalization and technological change on the media, formations of audiences and publics, and cultural identity and politics.

There are few institutions that can stage global media events as well as the British monarchy. And there is no doubt that the death of Queen Elizabeth II is playing out as a carefully orchestrated media event across print, television, and digital media platforms. Media events are ritual occasions that interrupt routines—our own daily routines and those of mainstream media institutions. They are planned affairs, and even a cursory glance at stories of the Queen’s death makes it clear that media institutions—and global players like the BBC in particular—had prepared for this event years in advance. “Operation London Bridge” is as much a set of media protocols as it is about royal mourning and ceremonial processions.

The range and depth of storytelling also makes it clear that audiences in the U.K. and across the world are expected to regard this as a historical moment, one we should all be concerned with, and that will surely become part of collective memory. Moreover, when the BBC and other media institutions produce hours of programming, they are also offering a framework for making sense of the Queen’s place in British history. And as in other such events involving the British monarchy, from weddings and coronations to scandals and funerals, the media do bring incredibly diverse and fragmented publics together into a shared national space.

That said, in a decidedly global and digital media world, a range of counternarratives also emerge, becoming part of the meaning-making process. Social media platforms including Twitter and TikTok are crucial spaces where a range of voices from across the world insist that we also remember Queen Elizabeth’s role in legacies of empire, slavery, and colonial violence. In a moment marked by xenophobia and anti-immigrant politics in the U.K., citizens all over the world—Irish, Indian, Kenyan, Caribbean, and other parts of the so-called “commonwealth”—are chiming in to remind us of the histories being silenced and the dangers of indulging in imperial nostalgia.

David Wallace is the Judith Rodin Professor of English & Comparative Literature in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Wallace’s research focuses on Europe and European literatures and poetry, especially Chaucer.

On hearing of the death of Queen Elizabeth II I thought first of my mother, now in an English nursing home and aged 95. She and the Queen, at opposite ends of the social spectrum, led parallel lives. They met twice: once when my mother was working in a school (one of thousands of such queenly visits) and once decades earlier in the Pump Room at Bath. On this earlier occasion, during World War II, the Queen presented my mother with an armband (which she still has) as a member of the Women's Land Army—taking on the full range of farm work while the men were away fighting. The Queen herself trained as a motor mechanic with the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. Both women thus belong to what Americans call “the greatest generation.”

The U.K. has been both celebrating the life of Elizabeth II and anticipating her departure for some time. During the summer, the “Platinum Jubilee” recognizing 70 years on the throne, was marked mostly by her absence; I remember sitting on the balcony at Tate Modern, opposite St. Paul’s cathedral, hearing the bells peal out across the water during a service of thanksgiving that the Queen herself could not attend. And then later this summer we had the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham—a joyous few weeks, but also likely the last such gathering on this scale.

Earlier this year, Prince William and Kate toured Belize, the Bahamas, and Jamaica, and experienced a polite but lukewarm welcome. Jamaica will likely soon follow other islands, most recently Barbados, into republicanism, and other nations (Australia, Canada, New Zealand) will rethink their constitutional status. The passing of Elizabeth II thus ends a very long post-war epoch, beginning a new age of Carolingian uncertainty.