Queen Elizabeth II: 1926-2022

The passing of the Second Elizabethan Age

THE end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (1952-2022) calls for some comparison with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

The 2 Elizabethan periods are studies in contrast. The first age corresponded with the arrival of Renaissance England as a major European power that would go on to found the largest empire on earth, while the second age saw the contraction, decline and ultimate fall of imperial Britain.

However, the 2 monarchs presided over the national destiny with an instinctive grasp of the necessity and possibilities of change, a trait that unites them over and above the differences between the times over which they presided.

Elizabeth I altered the intellectual contours of Tudor England forever. Her personal interest in the arts contributed to an unprecedented literary Renaissance in England, particularly in drama, that occurred in a climate of thought suffused with a renewed emphasis on the study of the Greek and Roman classics. Even as the rediscovery of the ancients gave the English mind a firm foundation in the passage of European time, the great voyages of Hawkins, Raleigh and Drake expanded the geographical horizons of Britain to the New World.

On the domestic religious front, she represented a necessary quest for balance and moderation in times of flux. The Elizabethan Settlement, introduced between 1558 and 1563, continued the English Reformation which had been inaugurated during the reign of her flamboyant father, Henry VIII, but the settlement sought to reconcile Roman Catholicism and radical Protestantism and turned the Anglican church into a lasting reality.

The social harmony that the British take for granted today speaks of a larger national tradition of moderation which abhors extremes of political action - there has never been a serious prospect of the country going either communist or fascist - as much as of religious affiliation. The secular nature of British polity, in spite of the Queen's formal position as Head of the Church of England, is a constant that has drawn refugees fleeing religious prosecution in their home countries to Britain down the turbulent centuries.

These are some elements of the legacy of the First Elizabethan Age that the Second Elizabethan Age inherited - and built on. In the case of Elizabeth II, her ability to stay above everyday political fray in a constitutional monarchy made her Britain's quintessentially national institution.

Her first and last love lay in upholding the monarchy as an impartial arbiter concerned only with the preservation of Britain's national interests. Of course, national interests change, but they remain interests nevertheless. It is to those that she was committed, no matter how much the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats might disagree over the means to that end. She must have held her own views on the direction that Britain was taking and made them clear in private, but she maintained the uttermost discretion when pronouncing on national and other affairs in the public domain.

In international affairs, her ability to manage Britain's relative decline after World War II reveals a stoic acceptance of change but also a radical desire to make the most of it. Imperial retreat in the Suez Crisis of 1956 marked a decisive turning point. She accepted that the sun would set on the British Empire, but that did not mean that the sun would not rise again on the empire remade - as Commonwealth.

The British Commonwealth took on such a life of its own that an academic once remarked that there was no reason why it should cease to exist even if Britain left it. Of course, there is no reason for Britain to secede.

History is not always pleasant. The approaching end of the British Empire was marked by atrocities such as the Batang Kali Massacre during counter-insurgency operations in Malaya, or the repression of the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya.

Overall though, Pax Britannica gave way peacefully to Pax Americana. King Charles III is inheriting a sturdy Anglo-American partnership that manifests itself in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the recent formation of the Aukus security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The end of the second Elizabethan Age is cause for sadness. Passing from the British and Commonwealth realm is a sublime symbol of the legitimacy of order and the dignity of decorum.

It is up to King Charles to carry on a rare regal legacy.

The writer is a Singapore journalist. asad@sph.com.sg

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