Reflections on the Second Elizabethan Age

With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the Accession of King Charles III, much has, and will be, written and discussed about the profound, far-reaching, and wide-ranging changes, both societal and geopolitical, which marked the seven decades of the longest reign in British history.

Elizabeth’s reign witnessed the second chapter in the great epoch of decolonization, which saw the transition of the British Empire into the Commonwealth of Nations. In terms of population however, most of the empire achieved independence during the reign of her father, King George VI.

The “Jewel in the Crown”—The Indian Empire—which Lord Curzon called “the greatest subordinate government in the world,” gained self-governing dominion status in 1947. It has now devolved into four separate republics—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar (the former Burma). Together, they comprise nearly a quarter of the population of the globe.

Ceylon, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, the Trans-Jordan, Mandate Palestine, and, of course, Ireland were already sovereign states at the time of Elizabeth’s accession in 1952, while Newfoundland had become the tenth province of the Canadian confederation.

What remained of the British Empire when Elizabeth II became Queen, was, nonetheless, substantial, diverse and extensive—the crown colonies and protectorates of Africa, the Near East, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean, along with a few islands in the Pacific.

Elizabeth was the last British monarch to reign over a portion of the Indian Empire. From 1952 to 1956, she was the Sovereign of the Dominion of Pakistan. That country became the world’s first Islamic Republic in 1956.

Elizabeth was also the last Queen of the Union of South Africa, one of the five original dominions of the British Empire. A Nationalist Party government enacted a new constitution establishing the Republic of South Africa in 1961, only to find itself denied continued membership in a Commonwealth now dominated by former British colonies.

British decolonization in the Age of Elizabeth fell somewhere halfway between the seamless efficiency of President Charles De Gaulle’s peremptory creation of the French Community, and the protracted agony of Prime Minister Antonio Salazar’s improvident attempt to preserve the Portuguese Overseas in Africa and India.

Only Aden, Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya Colony saw major bloodshed, although the “Emergency” in Malaya had more to do with the Cold War than the Third World. With the exception of Aden, which became the Marxist dictatorship of South Yemen, all were seen off successfully.

Rhodesia experienced a bloody guerilla conflict, but only after its 1965 UDI—Unilateral Declaration of Independence. It returned to crown colony status in 1979, and became independent as Zimbabwe in 1980.

In all, nearly thirty countries, more or less peacefully, gained their independence under Elizabeth, by 1971. Few became functioning democracies. Most remained in the Commonwealth of Nations, transitioning, after a year or two, from a dominion to a republic. Jamaica, sixty years after independence, along with Papua New Guinea and a few micro-states, still retain the monarchy.

The last significant overseas territory to be given up was the Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1997. Its fate was tragic, though like French Algeria, probably unavoidable.

Queen Elizabeth became the second British monarch, after her father, to hold the title Head of The Commonwealth. During negotiations for Irish independence in 1921, President Eamon De Valera proposed the concept of “external association,” whereby Ireland could become a republic within the British Commonwealth, recognizing the king not as head of state, but as head of the Commonwealth.

What was denied to Ireland in 1921, was granted to India in 1949. In January of 1950, the Republic of India was proclaimed, and George VI, the last Emperor of India, who later became the King of India upon independence in 1947, assumed the Commonwealth title which his daughter, and now, his grandson, will continue to hold.

Elizabeth’s reign was defined not only by the abandonment of empire, but by the radical transformation of Great Britain itself.

Demographically, Britain, a homogeneously European country in the 1950’s, is now, at least partially as a result of decolonization, a multi-racial society. Culturally, it is now secular and post-Christian, replete with all the moral deformities concomitant with that decadence.

The crime of abortion was legalized in two stages in the United Kingdom. The Abortion Act of 1967, which went into effect in 1968, was introduced under the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Its supporters included the Conservative Member of Parliament for Finchley, Margaret Thatcher.

It applied only to Great Britain however. The Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act of 2019, which went into effect in 2020, was imposed upon Ulster by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Teresa May, against the wishes of the people of that province, and its Legislative Assembly.

Among those voting for the act was the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, Lizz Truss, who received the seals of office as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury from Queen Elizabeth, just two days before the monarch’s death.

In his seminal 19th century work, The English ConstitutionWalter Bagehot famously wrote that in relations between the Crown and the Prime Minister, “The Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.”

Queen Elizabeth would, certainly, have been consulted by her prime ministers about the abortion legislation of 1967 and 2019. The Queen, for the duration of her reign, had a weekly meeting with the prime minister. Whether she encouraged or warned, we do not know.

We do know that she gave, as a matter of form, her Royal Assent to both acts, something which King Badouin of the Belgians, in similar circumstances, refused to do.

The attitude of the monarchy towards divorce also changed with the evolving mores of British society and the elastic morals of its Established Church.

In 1955, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, broke off her engagement to Group Captain Peter Townsend—a divorced man with two children—because of public, parliamentary and ecclesiastical opposition. In a radio broadcast, Margaret said that she was “…mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble…”

By the first decade of the 21st century, Margaret and three of the Queen’s children were divorced from their spouses. One, Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, had remarried—in a Church of Scotland ceremony—while her first husband, Mark Phillips, was still alive.

In 1995, Queen Elizabeth wrote to her son, Prince Charles, and his estranged wife, Princess Diana, actually urging them to divorce.

The Queen was the Supreme Governor of the (Anglican) Church of England. North of the border, she was a member of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland.

At her coronation in 1953, Queen Elizabeth swore an oath to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.” In 1970, she became the first Sovereign to inaugurate and address the church’s General Synod in person, which she continued to do for the rest of her reign.

Under the British (unwritten) Constitution, the Sovereign appoints the archbishops, bishops and deans of the Church of England, upon the advice of the prime minister. In 2015, Queen Elizabeth appointed the first female prelate of the C of E, making Libby Lane, the Suffragan Bishop of Stockport, in the Diocese of Chester.

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Perhaps, in the broad confluence of European history, the most significant development in Elizabeth’s reign is the one most overlooked by the talking heads of the media. That is the fundamental alteration in the relationship between the British monarchy and the Catholic Church.

From the Protestant Revolution, 500 years ago, to the 20th century, relations between the Crown and the Holy See were adversarial. Three Tudor monarchs, the first Stuart king, and the alien usurper, William of Orange, were active persecutors of the Faith. The second Stuart, Charles I, countenanced acts of persecution. His son, Charles II, deplored them, but did not resist them.

Two Hanoverian kings, George III and George IV, complained that Catholic Emancipation would violate their coronation oath. Another, William IV, resorted to profanities when referring to the leader of the Irish Catholic party in the House of Commons, Daniel O’Connell.

Queen Victoria preferred the flattering Tory, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, to the honest Liberal, William Gladstone, who disestablished the Church of Ireland, and sought Home Rule for the people of that country.

The first sign of detente came with a private visit—against the wishes of the Cabinet—by Victoria’s son, Edward VII, to Pope Leo XIII in 1903. With the coming of the Great War, a low level British diplomatic legation was accredited to the Vatican.

In 1918, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, met with Benedict XV. His father, George V, visited Pius XI in 1923. This process would reach its culmination during the reign of Elizabeth II. Upon the decision of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, full diplomatic relations, at the ambassadorial level, were restored between the United Kingdom and the Holy See in 1982.

With Queen Elizabeth, state and private visits between the monarch and successive pontiffs became more than an awkward diplomatic formality. Queen Elizabeth, in her long life, met with no less than five Successors of Saint Peter.

Before her accession, Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, visited the Apostolic Palace in Rome for an audience with Pope Pius XII in November of 1951. As the second premiership of Winston Churchill had just begun in October of that year, it was probably arranged by the Labour government of Clement Atlee.

The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, were received by Pope John XXIII in 1959. It was Margaret’s second visit to the Vatican. She had been welcomed by Pius XII in 1949.

In 1961, Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by her husband, made her first private visit, as a reigning monarch, to the Apostolic See. In 1980, Elizabeth made history when she became the first British Sovereign to make an official state visit to the Vatican.

Appropriately, given the protocols for a Papal Audience, the Queen was attired in black, like a Spanish dueña, from head to toe. Many in Ireland would recall this in 1997, when that country’s Socialist President, Mary Robinson, would greet Pope John Paul II in a green dress, with her head uncovered.

In May of 1982, Pope Saint John Paul II would become the first reigning Supreme Pontiff to visit England and Scotland. Though it was a so-called Pastoral Visit, he was received by the Queen. It was said that Elizabeth was touched by the prayers offered by the Pope for her son, Prince Andrew, then a Royal Navy helicopter pilot in the Falklands War.

The Queen visited Saint John Paul, once more in Rome, during the Jubilee Year of 2000. In 2010, the Queen received Pope Benedict XVI in London in the first official State Visit of a Pontiff to the United Kingdom. In 2014, Elizabeth traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Francis, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the UK and the Vatican.

One may argue that the Sovereign, in all of these initiatives, was merely implementing policies decided by successive British governments. As with decolonization however, there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that the Queen opposed, criticized or obstructed the normalization of relations between Rome and Whitehall.

Moreover, the manifest goodwill demonstrated by the monarch during these encounters with five Popes would lead reasonable persons to conclude that she was supportive of abandoning old enmities.

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Rapprochement with the Papacy would be followed by attempted reconciliation with England’s first colony.

For most of her reign, Irish nationalists and republicans had maintained a decidedly unfavorable view of Queen Elizabeth. She was not only the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces which occupied six counties of Ireland, but, in that capacity, had presented colors and distributed honors to members of the notorious Ulster Defence Regiment.

The UDR was a controversial local militia, controlled by the British Army, and deployed in the Six Counties. Infiltrated by Loyalist extremists and paramilitaries, it was linked to death squads and sectarian attacks against Catholics.

Then came the possibly alcohol fueled outburst of Princess Margaret to Chicago’s Irish American Mayor, Jane Byrne, in the aftermath of the Mountbatten assassination, “The Irish; they’re pigs!” This confirmed, in the eyes of many, that the ancient hatred of the British ruling class towards Ireland and the Irish was unabated.

Following the 1997 Good Friday Agreement, when the Republic foreswore its constitutional claims to the North, there was a thaw in Anglo-Irish relations. With the passage of another decade, unmarked by violence in northeast Ulster, the possibility of a Royal visit to the Republic became an object of discussion.

In 2011, Queen Elizabeth became the first British monarch in 100 years to visit Ireland.

On her first day, May 17th, the Queen traveled to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, where she bowed and laid a wreath to honor the members of the Irish Republican Army who fought against Britain in the Irish War of Independence. The memorial, opened by President De Valera during the semicentennial of the Easter Rising in 1966, commemorates all Irish patriots who fought for the freedom of their country from 1798 to 1921.

Although the monarch expressed no remorse for centuries of British misrule in Ireland, she did come close to that when she told guests at a State Dinner in Dublin Castle “with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all.”

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Queen Elizabeth II was not merely conscientious, but indefatigable in the performance of official duties, laboring cheerfully into her mid-nineties. In the seven decade discharge of the obligations of her high office, she was a model of dignity and restraint.

Despite the peccadilloes of her family, the Queen was, in both her public and private life, entirely untainted by scandal. A mother of four, she was happily married to the same man for 74 years.

A Protestant Christian, she invoked the Name and asked the blessing of Almighty God in her public utterances, engaged in the public worship of God more frequently than most American presidents, and recounted her  devotion to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in her annual Christmas broadcasts to the Commonwealth.

Elizabeth was a British patriot, who served her country in the Second World War. In that famous film of the Royal Family, with Winston Churchill, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day, the nineteen year old Elizabeth can be seen wearing the brown uniform of a member of the Territorial Army.

Most of the posthumous attacks being made upon Elizabeth are eruptions of the ignorance, hatred and mendacity of the Woke Left, who despise any institution which represents what remains of Western, once Christian, Civilization.

She is accused of being an imperialist, yet her reign was defined by decolonization. Ludicrously, some have linked her to apartheid, but it was the anti-British Nationalist Party which both imposed that system upon South Africa, and removed her as its head of state.

The same demagogues who shout about racism in the Royal Family forgot, or never knew, that when the breakaway, white separatist government of Rhodesia would sentence black nationalists to capital punishment, the Queen would issue royal pardons.

No member of the Royal Family was more adamant than Elizabeth in ensuring that her uncle, the Duke of Winsor—a man compromised by his relations with the National Socialist government of Germany—would play no part in the life of the monarchy. In her first discretionary decision as Queen, she excluded the former king from her father’s funeral luncheon.

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Since the death of James III in 1766, the Holy See has permitted Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland to pray for the reigning monarch.

Here is the traditional prayer recited after Mass:

O Lord, save Elizabeth our Queen.
R. And hear us in the day when we call upon Thee.
Let us pray.
We beseech Thee, almighty God, that Thy servant Elizabeth our Queen, who has been called by Thy mercy to rule over this kingdom, may also receive from Thee an increase of all virtues. Fittingly adorned with these, may she be able to avoid the evil of vices, (to overcome her enemies) and by Thy grace, together with her consort and the royal family, attain unto Thee who art the Way, the Truth and the Life. Through Christ Our Lord.
R. Amen.