Skip to main content

In this June. 2, 1953 file photo, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh wave to supporters from the balcony at Buckingham Palace, following her coronation at Westminster Abbey, London.Leslie Priest/The Associated Press

An innovative Queen. The phrase itself sounds like a paradox, if not a bad joke.

What is a monarch, anyway, but a keeper of traditions, a bulwark against radical change, a holder-down of the fort? Aren’t the tiaras the same, generation after generation – and isn’t that sort of the point? Don’t we look to the Crown, if we do at all, for a sense of continuity, a link with the past?

The Queen’s style of innovation was not so far removed from that of a fictional counterpart, created by that master of paradox, Lewis Carroll. As a wise friend recently pointed out, The Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass tells an out-of-breath Alice, who has been sprinting without moving forward an inch, “ … Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

With Elizabeth – call her The Grey Queen – we were well and truly through the looking glass. She did all the running she could do. She kept, remarkably, in just about the same place.

There is no denying the Queen was resistant to many forms of change. She wore the same style of sensible shoes for more than 50 years, handmade by the same London firm. The State Diadem tiara, one of her favourites, is more than 200 years old. Some innovations she never embraced: the tabloid press, costume dramas about her family, marrying Americans.

But other aspects of the regal persona that may seem frozen in amber have in fact subtly adapted to changing circumstances. The Queen’s famous cut-glass accent softened over the years, becoming a bit more common, in keeping with a gradual democratization of upper-class speech patterns observed by experts. The posh young woman who wished her subjects a “heppy” Christmas in the 1950s eventually sounded ever-so-slightly more like one of those subjects herself.

Poundbury, the experimental town designed by King Charles, offers a window into his thinking

Compared with Charles I and II, the new model is a royal improvement with a much smaller role

The way that famous voice has been transmitted to the masses contains a story of innovation, too. The Queen’s coronation in 1953 was the first to be fully televised and did more than any other single event to push television into the British mainstream. “Everybody from that moment on wanted to have television,” the BBC’s former director-general Ian Jacob later said.

In anticipation of the coronation, the BBC installed new transmitters to beam the momentous occasion into the drawing rooms of northeast England and Northern Ireland. Around 500,000 TV sets were sold in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, according to the Observer newspaper. For the first time that year, manufacturing of the new technology outstripped sales of radios.

The Queen played a role in the controversial decision to let cameras into Westminster Abbey that day. It was far from a sure thing. Conservative figures with Elizabeth’s ear, including the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, were reportedly opposed to televising the sacred moment. A Coronation Commission, chaired by her husband Prince Philip, ruled in 1952 that cameras would only be allowed “west of the organ screen,” the historian Joe Moran has written, to allow shots of the procession.

When the Queen was finally convinced, she allowed for the creation of a broadcast that was innovative in exactly the sort of way she favoured, using a modern medium to showcase the medieval splendour of the British Crown. She not only let daylight in on the magic of monarchy, to use the formulation of Victorian constitutional thinker Walter Bagehot, she let in stage lights.

The result helped demystify and humanize Court traditions. (You can still see the bishops in their rows, looking very human, on YouTube: one coughs into his fist, another seems to scratch himself.) But in other ways the pomp of it all was a dazzling reaffirmation of the Queen’s gift for spectacle in an age of spectacle. The broadcast made her seem more accessible and also more magically separate.

Britain ate it up. More than 20 million people in the U.K. watched the coronation live, nearly twice as many as listened to it – the first time, the BBC says, that its television service outdrew the radio. The ceremony also became one of the first mass global televisual events. The Royal Air Force flew recordings of the broadcast to Canada in a mad dash across the ocean as soon as footage became available. The program was seen by some 2 million Canadians and 85 million Americans.

It was an occasion, according to the BBC, “that demonstrated the global appeal of British pageantry as never before.” That appeal would become a major cultural industry in the second half of the 20th century, as exportable and lucrative as The Beatles. You can draw a more or less straight line from cameras in Westminster Abbey to the runaway success of Downton Abbey and The Crown.

A few generations later, there she was on social media, tweeting for the first time in 2014 (signed “Elizabeth R”) and posting on Instagram a few years later, not exactly a digital native but gamely pulling the monarchy into cyberspace.

The Queen’s technological innovations mirrored her more substantive contributions to the British political tradition of running very fast to stay in the same place. As the British Empire rapidly dissolved in the first decade of her reign, it was replaced by an expanded Commonwealth, “a voluntary association of independent sovereign states,” with an ambiguous constitutional status.

Elizabeth may not have been an empress, but she was still officially Head of the Commonwealth, a position that gave her a role beyond the Queenship of the United Kingdom and her other realms. This provided her with “more freedom to act in her own capacity,” the political and historical geographer Ruth Craggs has written. In a sense, it gave her leeway to invent what being Head of Commonwealth entailed.

The Queen sometimes used this power in bold or unexpected ways. In an episode depicted – and embellished – by Netflix’s The Crown, she danced the foxtrot with Ghanian president Kwame Nkrumah in 1961 as part of a diplomatic campaign to keep the leader from drifting into the arms of the Soviets.

Despite her family’s sometimes well-earned reputation for bigotry, the Queen’s interventions in Commonwealth affairs were often riskily progressive. Her 2004 Christmas message, meanwhile, called for religious tolerance and an embrace of British multiculturalism in the wake of 9/11 and amidst the Iraq War. “Some people feel that their own beliefs are being threatened. Some are unhappy about unfamiliar cultures,” she said. “They all need to be reassured that there is so much to be gained by reaching out to others; that diversity is indeed a strength and not a threat.”

These are not the words of someone standing athwart history, yelling stop, to borrow an American definition of conservatism. Rather, they were words spoken by someone who tried, for 70 years, to navigate the tricky currents of history while remaining upright, devising new footholds in the rocky riverbed, maybe in a pair of her rubber Wellington boots.