For 70 years, from 1952 until today, a new era of British History has been defined by one towering female figure, Queen Elizabeth II. For seven decades, the steadfastness of the Head of the British State has been only matched by the innumerable changes that occurred in British society and the transformation of British culture and identity. In this series of articles, the writer will examine some of the most important changes that took place in Britain in the context of the seventy year-long reign of the Queen.
The Second Elizabethan Age 101 will be divided into the following chapters of content:
1. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: A New Era
2. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: Suez Crisis, the Swan Song of an Empire
3. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: ‘’Beyond the Fringe’’ and the Transformation of Society
4. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: The ‘’Sick Man of Europe’’ and the Rise of Thatcherism
5. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: Britain and Europe, a Difficult Relationship
6. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: Britain and the Future, a Dawn that Never Comes
The Second Elizabethan Age 101: A New Era
If you take a stroll down the Mall in London, with St. James’s Park on the south and Trafalgar Square on the east, you will end in at the front gate of Buckingham Palace, the residence of Queen Elizabeth II. But besides the awe caused by this monument of architecture, you will be standing in front of the symbol of an institution that stretches back to the 11th century and to kings like William the Conqueror and Henry VIII. History and Monarchy are in many ways entangled in the fabric of Britain and it is the main purpose of this series to examine major political and social events under the scepter of Queen Elizabeth.
People all over Britain were listening to the radio in sorrow and disbelief when it was announced that King George VI had passed away unexpectedly. The late king’s reign witnessed some of the greatest shocks that Britain had ever seen and the culmination of a New World Order rising from the ashes of the one decimated by the Second World War. His 26-year old daughter was to become the new Queen. It was Winston Churchill who best summed up the feelings of his fellow countrymen. In a radio broadcast on February 7th, 1952, he referred to the Constitutional Monarchy as the magic link connecting the peoples of the British Commonwealth and in his usual style he proclaimed the new era of the Second Elizabethan Age (Churchill, 2013).
This new era would see the transformation of British society and identity in ways that in 1952 would be unimaginable (Marr, 2020). At that time, Britain was standing on its feet after the horrors and darkness of the last World War. Although the country was on the winning side, it saw its Empire start to fall apart through a phase of controlled-collapse and subsequently Britain developed a financial dependency on loans from across the Atlantic.
Even though the devastation and grief that was wreaked on British soil would take tons of paper to be described, the lasting legacy that was created by the war is a different one. Through battles, rationing, harsh realities created by the constant bomb raids and the threat of an invasion, a sense of equality was created amongst British citizens giving rise to a wave of egalitarianism. In a traditional society like the British one with a grand and pompous aristocracy, the new reality made many feel equal in the face of devastation and in the post-war reality. It was realized that the inherent injustice of pre-war society must be a thing of the past (Morgan, 2021).
People in Britain were now better educated than their forefathers and dreamt of different things for the future of their country from their counterparts after the end of the First World War. Their favorite and almost revered wartime hero, Winston Churchill, was cast aside and Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, was catapulted to 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister with an immense majority of parliament seats. Churchill had cried out that he would not be the King’s First Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, and so the heavy duty of the careful disintegration of the Empire would fall to the shoulders of Clement Attlee (James, 1995). The world was now a different place and the passion for liberty from the colonial subjects of Britain could not be disregarded.
After the long and tragic process of Indian independence, British lawmakers where now faced with the important problem of British nationality in the context of the imperial colonial empire which was transforming into a Commonwealth. They came up with an imaginative, innovative and compromising solution (Paul, 1995). The British Nationality Act of 1948 recognized the full and equal rights of every citizen born across the lands of the former British Empire, which meant that everyone born in India, Pakistan, Jamaica or any other former colony could live and work in the United Kingdom and enjoy the same rights as if he or she was born in London. This piece of legislature not only managed to enrich society in Britain for decades to come with people from almost every part of the Empire, but simultaneously retained the common imperial identity. That was after all its main goal (Paul, 1995). It is worth noting that the Act has been consequently revised by future governments after 1948 and that many people who came from colonies where treated injustly.
Besides colonial policy, the government also had to deal with the long-lasting problem of the almost inexistent health system and it would be impossible to deny a place in this article for the birth of the welfare state and its lasting legacy in British culture. The National Health Service was the cornerstone of government’s achievements and one of the main reasons Clement Attlee is still remembered today. Its embryonic equivalent that existed before the NHS was all but effective in order to protect the wellbeing of British citizens (Lawton & Pooley, 1992). With the creation of a health system that provided services to every citizen without any cost, Britain now became one of the first countries of the Western world to achieve such a goal and the NHS was considered an enormous improvement from the previous state of affairs and, at the same time, the spearhead of a now elevated welfare state (Gladstone & Gladstone, 1999).
In between crises and changes in government and everyday life, on June 2, 1953, people all over Britain woke up to a day that would go down in History. The sun in London was, to no one’s surprise, hiding behind the clouds, but a new ‘’sun’’ was now rising, signifying the beginning of a new age. It was Coronation Day and once again in the history of Britain, a woman was ascending to the throne. The ceremony, which lasted for hours and was televised for the first time in history, encompassed traditions and rites which stretched back to the 11th century (Turner, 2022). The full force of the sanctity of monarchy and the transformation of a young woman to a Queen was televised to almost 20 million people. At the same time, meat in Britain was still under rationing. Homosexuality was still considered a crime. Sex was a taboo. An old order that was fighting to maintain its grip over a country trying to make peace with itself. 70 years later, nothing would be the same. The sun was still hiding between the clouds. A young woman was anointed with holy oil and a radiant crown was placed on her head. The Second Elizabethan Age was at hand.
Churchill, W. (2013). Never give in!: Winston Churchill's speeches. London, UK: Bloomsbury.
Gladstone, D., & Gladstone, W. (1999). The twentieth-century welfare state. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
James, L. (1995). The rise and fall of the British Empire. London, UK: Abacus.
Lawton, R., & Pooley, C. G. (1992). Britain 1740-1950: An historical geography. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge.
Marr, A. (2020). Elizabethans: How modern Britain happened. London, UK: William Collins.
Morgan, K. O. (2021). The Oxford history of Britain (21st ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.
Paul, K. (1995). “British Subjects” and “British Stock”: Labour’s Postwar Imperialism. Journal of British Studies, 34(2), 233–276. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Turner, B. (2022). Thorns in the crown: The story of the Coronation and what it meant for Britain. Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press.
Figure 1: Beaton, C. (1953). Queen Elizabeth II in coronation robes [Photograph]. Retrieved from: http://www.thejewelleryeditor.com/jewellery/article/queen-elizabeth-ii-by-cecil-beaton-a-diamond-jubilee-celebration/
Figure 2: Unknown (1940). London after a German raid [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://flashbak.com/the-battle-of-britain-in-rare-color-photos-37613/
Figure 3: Reddit (2020). Clement Attlee [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.reddit.com/r/Colorization/comments/eojzyc/clement_attlee_labour_leader_and_postwar_prime/
Figure 4: Wikipedia (2022). St. Edward’s Crown [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Edward%27s_Crown