Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-serving monarch who assumed the throne in 1952 and reigned through periods of major transition, turmoil and social change, died today at the age of 96.  

Historian Alastair Bellany from the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick talked to Rutgers Today about her legacy and how she changed the monarchy.

What is Queen Elizabeth’s Legacy?

Britain has changed profoundly in the 70 years since Elizabeth II’s accession, and she had the difficult, perhaps impossible, task of preserving an institution that in principle lived long past its historical sell-by-date. 

That she died almost universally beloved and respected, even by anti-monarchists, is one measure of her personal achievement. The monarchy has survived, but it has had to change, and it has lost some of the automatic deference it once inspired. At various points, Elizabeth allowed attempts to modernize the monarchy while still preserving the trappings of the past.

How did the monarchy change and evolve under her rule?  

Queen Elizabeth staged grand, ancient-looking, royal pageants but also allowed them to be broadcast on the new mass medium of TV. She maintained a high degree of mystery and ceremonial distance, but she agreed (in the late 1960s) to allow cameras into the palaces to record a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the royal family.

The modern mass media made Elizabeth and her family global celebrities; the same mass media would feed on the ruins of her children’s marriages. In the early and mid-1990s, the Queen risked being overshadowed by Diana, “the People’s Princess”, and the Queen’s uncharacteristic missteps in the aftermath of Diana’s death were a sign of her (and her advisers’) inability to gauge the public mood and to empathize with the very “un-British” levels of emotionalism that surrounded the event. In 1997, Diana’s death exposed what looked like a dangerous disconnect between monarch and people. Since then, the monarchy has continued to reinvent and readjust while all the time relying on the Queen as a beloved symbol of continuity.  But the task of creating a thoroughly modern monarchy remained a challenge, as the friction between the Royal Family and Harry and Meghan makes clear.  The new king has work to do.

What power did the Queen have and will her successor continue to have the same power?

The monarch’s constitutional powers are in practice rather limited – although they still have significant symbolic importance. It is interesting that among the Queen’s final public duties was to accept the resignation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and to ask Liz Truss to assume the job in his stead. We should also ask, however, about the Queen’s symbolic power more generally and whether and how Charles will be able to perpetuate (or even reinvent) the monarchy’s symbolic role in modern British life.

What is the process for the transfer of power for the monarchy?

As the official notice of the Queen’s death makes clear, Charles became king at the moment his mother died. Over the next weeks, we’ll get to witness the long-scripted series of rituals that will mark the end of one reign and the beginning of the next. A formal proclamation of the new king in his capital is imminent, and this will be followed by a period of mourning in advance of the Queen’s state funeral; and then eventually by Charles’ coronation.

One distinctive feature of the modern British monarchy is its appetite for ceremonial, its use of ancient and ancient-looking rituals and pageants as a primary means of communicating what monarchy means, and what it means to be British. One gauge of what the future might hold will be how successful these ritual performances are in signaling not only continuity and tradition but also a vision for the new king’s reign. When Elizabeth was crowned in 1953, many contemporaries openly asked what the coronation ritual – in essence, the same ritual that was developed and refined in medieval Europe in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries – meant in the modern world of the 1950s. I hope we get a chance to ask similar questions about the coronation of Charles III.

Will the change in the monarchy affect the relationship between the UK and other countries and how?

There are already growing signs of discontent within the post-imperial Commonwealth of nations that retained the Queen as head of state [which includes countries from Canada to Australia and places in between]. How many more of these nations, in the absence of the personal affection and admiration for Elizabeth II will now choose to separate themselves from the crown and become republics?

We might also see a political reckoning within Britain itself. The modern monarchy is very much a national symbol, albeit one that has not always (or even often) accurately reflected the more complicated realities of the nation.

At a time of deep social and economic crisis in Britain, we might also wonder whether a renewed focus on monarchy – a symbol of fixed hierarchy, inherited status and deep privilege – will serve to distract or deflect from material problems, or will monarchy itself begin to feel like a jarring anachronism?