Heavy is the Head: Queen Elizabeth
By Cassidy Marshall
For many, Elizabeth II’s name is synonymous with colonialism.
In the wake of Her Majesty’s passing at the age of 96 on September 8th, 2022, long-harbored abhorrence towards the Queen flared. While many were quick to share their devastation over her death, even more were quicker to share their frustration with her life. A heavily beloved and long-criticized figure in world politics, Elizabeth II’s life and reign as Queen of England existed in the same way that the larger entity that is the British Monarchy does: forever embroiled in the dichotomy between fame and infamy.
Supporters of Elizabeth II and the British Monarchy want those to mourn the person and leave the empire out of it. Others are finding that effort challenging given how much permanent harm Elizabeth IIs imperial rule has done to governments, societal systems, communities, families, and people around the globe. The benefits enjoyed by those held hostage under British colonialism have never been anything more than far and few at best. With emotions being brought to the surface considering her passing, survivors are demanding that their pain be heard, and their celebrations be given the space they deserve.
WHERE ELIZABETH II’S REIGN BEGAN
Elizabeth II took the throne during an era where the UK was shedding the colonialist ways of its past (Griffith, 2022). However, try as they may, remnants of the instability left in the Britain’s wake clung to Elizabeth II’s heels throughout the entirety of her reign; if anything, she faced increasingly harsh criticism the longer her reign continued.
Granddaughter of King George V, Elizabeth II was born third in line of succession to the throne and was not expected to become head monarch in her lifetime as any potential children sired by her uncle (heir apparent) would precede Elizabeth II in succession (Bond, 2006). When her grandfather died, her uncle took the throne; as luck would have it, he abdicated within the same year due to controversy surrounding his marriage proposal to a divorcée (Lacey, 2002). This meant that Elizabeth II’s father took the throne, and she became heir presumptive, because she had no brothers that would take legal precedent over her (Marr, 2011).
At age 13, she met her cousin and future husband: 18-year-old Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark (Brandreth, 2004). Not only was she a child and he a legal adult, but the two were both second and third cousins (I.e., cousins on both sides). As one might imagine, their engagement did not exist free of controversy. Though the age difference and blood relation between the two was not significantly damning at the time, Philip’s lack of financial standing, foreign citizenship, and ties to Nazi German noblemen were called into question by both the public and within the confines of the British Monarchy (Edwards, 2000). Nevertheless, the two were married. Married they remained until Philip’s death in 2021.
At its height after World War I, the British Empire covered around a quarter of the world (Khilnani, 2022). When she first took the throne in 1952, five years after her marriage to Philip, Elizabeth II’s territories included 32 sovereign states (Elizabeth II). By the time Elizabeth II died, that number had been cut by more than half, reduced to 15 sovereign states (Elizabeth II). Many point to this as an example of her progressiveness, as an indicator of the overall monarchy’s willingness to adopt and grant democratic liberties. Furthermore, some allude to other European powers of the 20th century (such as Germany) that were far more violent in comparison. This leaves historians to point out that the systematic violence employed by Britain throughout the 20th century was on par with that of its rivals; they were, however, far more effective in shrouding the carnage they left behind (Khilnani, 2022).
WHERE ELIZABETH II’S REIGN WENT
It is no secret that Elizabeth II’s seventy-year reign was wrought with controversy; in turn, it is also true that it was marked by the acceleration of decolonialization. As mentioned previously, many see this as evidence that Elizabeth II had motivations that differed from those of her ancestors and the greater British Monarchy. Often, those making this argument fail to mention the continued benefits enjoyed by the British Monarchy (and Elizabeth II) for their history of violence, levied heavily against African, Asian, and Caribbean nations (Rios, 2022). They also fail to mention how the violent colonialism that has become characteristic of the British empire was perceptualized by Elizabeth II during her reign, precisely because the British Monarchy could not exist without forcing itself upon unwilling, unfortified subjects.
In short, the violence did not end with Elizabeth II, despite what proponents of the Queen would like us to believe. Mere months after Elizabeth II’s succession of the throne, British Colonial Authorities suppressed a rebellion by Kenyan oppositional forces, sparking the eight-year Mau Mau rebellion which saw the violence in the likes of detention camps, torture, sexual assault, castration, and worse (Jasanoff, 2022). Tens of thousands of Kenyans were killed.
Only a few years before, the British Army had aided in the killing of an estimated 350,000-500,000 German citizens over the course of World War II (Overy, 2013). As is well known, the Allied forces were acting in response to Germany’s placement of Jewish, foreign-born, and other discriminated citizens into concentration camps where they were tortured, sexually assaulted, experimented upon, starved, killed, along with many other horrid acts. Mau rebellion.
The Mau Mau rebellion is little known to many of us, but long remembered by its survivors, their families, and the country of Kenya itself. In 2012, a case known as Mutua and Others v. Foreign and Commonwealth Office represented the British Monarchy’s first acknowledgment that victims of colonialism have the right to compensation from the British Government for its actions abroad (Wessely, 2017). £20 million was paid to Kenyan survivors and their families (Rios, 2022). A feat that few people, whether they rule as a Head of State or not, get the chance to accomplish in their lifetime is Elizabeth II's ability to start paying restitution to victims of violence she had directly committed nearly 60 years earlier. Elizabeth II had lived and reigned long enough to be able to do this. What is more, even members of her own family were not safe. The year known as Elizabeth II’s annus horribilis, 1992, saw the widely publicized separation of the beloved Diana, Princess of Wales, from Elizabeth II’s less-than-favorable son Charles III. Their divorce was finalized in 1996, and by 1997, Diana was killed in what has become one of the most notable deaths in history (Lyall, 2017).
Nearly two decades following Diana’s death, Meghan Markle began dating Elizabeth II’s grandson and Diana’s son, Prince Harry, in 2016 (Rayner, 2016). The two later married and had a child, but Meghan was met with hostile press coverage and racism within the royal family, prompting Meghan and Harry to “step back” from royal duties and become financially independent of the British Monarchy shortly thereafter (Adam & Booth, 2020).
Many believe that Prince Harry feared that his wife would meet the same fate as that of his mother, as Diana was killed in a car accident while fleeting from belligerent paparazzi (Lyall, 2017).
While Elizabeth II’s personal controversies have long overshadowed that of the violent actions made by the British Monarchy in terms of press coverage, the 21st century has reshaped the way that citizens around the world view the British Monarchy’s influence, as well as Elizabeth II’s. According to NBC News, calls for the monarchy to address its violent colonial past have been increasingly growing in recent years (Griffith, 2022). As the world revolted against institutionalized violence, particularly police brutality, in the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the British Empire came under fire for its dark and, disappointingly, celebrated history of colonial heritage (Meghji, 2020). The same year, the Government of Barbados announced its intent to separate from the British Monarchy and become a republic by the end of November 2021, an action that removed Elizabeth II as Head of State and ceased Barbados’ status as a Commonwealth realm (Yasharoff, 2020). Considering Elizabeth II’s death and the British Monarchy’s loss of their poster child of popularity, the long-standing empire may no longer have a leg to stand on.
WHERE ELIZABETH II’S REIGN ENDED
Whether Elizabeth II can be held accountable for the entirety of what the British Monarchy represents or not, there is certainly a case to be made for the harm caused by her rule of the British Monarchy, as well as the continued existence the British Monarchy itself.
Her death was only to be expected. At ninety-six years of age and with seventy years of power under her belt, her reign was the longest of any British Monarch in history, as well as the longest verified reign of any female sovereign (Elizabeth II). Her 2022 Platinum Jubilee, marking seventy years since Elizabeth II’s coronation, was the first to be celebrated by any British monarch in history (The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, 2022). It was bound to end eventually.
The question now becomes, when will the British Monarchy come to an end? Preparations for a change in Head of State began long before Elizabeth II’s death—so clearly, not anytime soon. And problems have already arisen with her son/successor, Charles III.
Upon her death in September, Charles III succeeded the throne and became King of the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth Realms (Charles III). The woman he cheated on Diana, Princess of Wales, with, Camilla, became Queen. While adultery used to be punishable by death in Britain, it is now a means for one to become Queen of the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth Realms. If Elizabeth II intended to leave any positive legacy behind for the next Queen to uphold, it was squandered long ago in 1986 when Charles III and Camilla began dating while Charles III and Diana were still married (Brown, 2007).
Outside of his personal transgressions and prior to his mother’s death, however, Charles III was already dropping the ball when it came to royal duties. At the State Opening of Parliament this past May, Charles III spoke as counselor of state in place of Elizabeth II for the first time (Davies, 2022). A month later, it was reported that Charles III had caused a stir by privately bashing the U.K.’s Rwanda asylum plan of his planned appearance on behalf of Elizabeth II at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda; Charles was warned against making further political comments on any matter, as he could potentially invoke a constitutional crisis if he continued to talk in such a manner in the future when he became King (Wheeler, et. Al., 2022).
Long live the Queen, short live the legacy of the Crown.