As the Queen was laid to rest amid a day of lavish pageantry, there seemed a very widespread view among the hundreds of thousands watching the funeral in London, and the scores of historians commenting upon it, that Monday marked the beginning of a post-Elizabethan era – a time of uncertainty following a well-defined epoch of 70 years.
On one hand, that is more a sentimental reality than a concrete one. History is no longer shaped by kings and queens, as it was in the era of Elizabeth I. Since 1701, British monarchs have reigned at the behest of Parliament. As a constitutional monarch in 15 countries, Elizabeth II had no role or influence in policy, and ruled during an era when the countries dominating world events weren’t monarchies.
So in that sense, there was no second “Elizabethan” era.
But Elizabeth II, almost from the moment of her coronation, became a major world symbol of a specific era, not shaping it so much as setting its time and tempo, its beginning and end.
And that era was defined by the end of the Second World War. It was dominated by a generation whose lives were shaped by events that can broadly be understood as “postwar.” Elizabeth, who assumed the throne in 1952, was the figurehead of the postwar population and, in the English-speaking world, the avatar of postwar history.
That way of thinking was vividly evident during the funeral ceremony at Westminster Abbey Monday morning, where the Archbishop of Canterbury structured his funeral homily around the lyrics of the song We’ll Meet Again by the wartime crooner Vera Lynn. Its hopeful message of a safe return from deadly combat made it a de facto anthem among British soldiers, then a big hit in the 1950s and a part of the postwar generation’s British identity.
The lyric was quoted by Elizabeth during her TV broadcast in April, 2020, at the height of Britain’s intense COVID lockdown – thus becoming something of a bookend of her reign, symbolizing the huge global events that shaped its beginning and end. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his homily, attempted to give it a spiritual meaning.
That seemed a natural fit for a Queen whose reign covered the long decades of postwar recovery, the dissolution of the British Empire and creation of the Commonwealth.
Indeed, a generation of scholars has defined the first decades of her reign as having been the “New Elizabethan age,” at least in terms of British culture and politics; there is an academic subdiscipline devoted to the study of “New Elizabethanism.”
Among those who see Elizabeth’s age as a distinct era, it is popular to describe it as one of British decline – implying that Britain’s golden age had occurred some time before the war, and the new Queen’s role was to manage the emotional impact of a climb down from that greatness.
For example, Laura Clancy of Lancaster University, in an essay on New Elizabethanism, wrote last week: “If Elizabeth I’s reign was a period of colonial expansion, conquest and domination, then the “new Elizabethan age” was marked by decolonization and the loss of empire.”
The years before Elizabeth’s coronation certainly did witness the replacement of the pound with the U.S. dollar as the world’s main currency of exchange and reserve, and the poverty-stricken 1950s saw the winding down of the last vestiges of the British Empire (which had been a huge expense for Britain) and their replacement by the Commonwealth. That was followed by the tumult and economic crises of the 1960s and 70s, and the anger and division of the British 1980s.
If you stopped there, half way through Elizabeth’s reign, you might have a consistent narrative of postwar decline, and a singular definition of the Elizabethan era.
But the Queen’s face remained on the money through the 1990s and 2000s, when Britain became an important European power. By almost any measure, those years were the most successful in British history: the highest standard of living, the best services, the greatest increases in equality and diversity, and enormous cultural and economic influence. There was no decline to be managed.
And then came the referendum of 2016, Britain’s departure from the European Union, the paralysis of much of its economy following that exit, the pandemic, and a difficult period of political mismanagement. Was this the Elizabethan age come full circle, starting and finishing on a minor key? Or was it the dawn of the post-Elizabeth era?
In either case, Elizabeth’s 70 years were shaped by the dawn and the eclipse of many forces and institutions that could be called “postwar.” She is indelibly identified with that concept – but will her son have a similar identity?
Charles III has come to the throne in the midst of this dark moment of British history. Although he is the definitive baby boomer in personal values and self-image, he will not be able to draw on any narrative of either postwar decline or postwar recovery.
His reign could be remembered as a post-Brexit age. There is a very real possibility that Charles will oversee the dissolution of the United Kingdom as a single country – the prospect of a Scottish secession, propelled by a desire among a majority of its people to rejoin the EU, is measurably real. And a combination of demographic change and Brexit anger are driving Northern Ireland toward similar sentiments.
Or it is possible that Britain will escape that fate, under a different sort of political leadership than it has now, with a rapprochement with Europe and perhaps even a third Europe referendum (the first, in 1975, saw Britons overwhelmingly in favour of staying in)? He, like his mother, could be a figurehead of decline and recovery.
But it is equally possible that his reign will not come to symbolize anything – not the way his mother’s did: He will be a face on the money, but not the face of a generation. Today we’re certainly in a post-Elizabethan age, but it’s not clear that it will be an age with a monarch’s name on it.