queen waving

Queen Elizabeth II was the UK’s longest-reigning monarch. Who will succeed her? A historian explains.

Jonathan Spangler, who teaches European history at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, spoke to The World’s host, Marco Werman, about what to expect from the impending transition.

The World

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and a symbol of stability in a turbulent era that saw the decline of the British empire and embarrassing dysfunction in her own family, died Thursday after 70 years on the throne. She was 96.

Buckingham Palace said she died at Balmoral Castle, her summer residence in Scotland, where members of the royal family had rushed to her side after her health took a turn for the worse.

link to the almost-vanished generation that fought World War II, she was the only monarch most Britons have ever known. 

Her 73-year-old son Prince Charles automatically became king and will be known as King Charles III, his office said. Charles’ second wife, Camilla, will be known as the queen consort.

The BBC played the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” over a portrait of her in full regalia as her death was announced, and the flag over Buckingham Palace was lowered to half-staff as the second Elizabethan age came to a close.

The impact of her loss will be huge and unpredictable, both for the nation and for the monarchy, an institution she helped stabilize and modernize across decades of enormous social change and family scandals, but whose relevance in the 21st century has often been called into question.

The changing of the guard also comes at a fraught moment for Britain, which has a new prime minister and is grappling with an energy crisis, double-digit inflation, the war in Ukraine and the fallout from Brexit.

Jonathan Spangler, who teaches European history at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, spoke to The World’s host, Marco Werman, about what to expect from the impending transition.

Marco Werman: Before we talk about succession, this is to say the least, a historic day in the UK and around the globe. The news is very fresh. Your reaction to this moment that we all knew would happen eventually and now here it is. 
Jonathan Spangler: Yeah, I think you put it exactly right. It’s been something that I have known would happen very soon. But still, when it then actually did happen just earlier today, it was a bit shocking. And I think that people all over the UK are going to really need several days to process and all around the world because I think one of the key things to remember about the reign of Elizabeth the II is the importance of the Commonwealth throughout. And so Canadians, Australians, etc., are really going to be thinking a lot about what the monarchy means to them today.
Right. Well, the rule by Queen Elizabeth II has been multigenerational. So many people in Britain and around the world have not actually witnessed a transition from one monarch to another. What is involved in that? 
That’s right. It is the longest reign in British history and very nearly the longest in any monarchy’s history. So, anybody who has been born since 1952 has only known one sovereign. The rules were laid down about the succession quite early on. So, it’s been primogeniture since the Middle Ages, and it’s been fairly settled about the rite of succession since the 18th century. So, it will go immediately to the prince of Wales, who is now the king. So, it means that the succession is instantaneous. That’s the magic of monarchy, that’s the ceremonial. But then, the actual coronation will probably take time to prepare and present.
And the transition itself. Do you see it as a seismic one or will it be as straightforward as what Britain has seen in decades and centuries past?
I think that this is a crossroads, a potential turning point, more so for countries like Australia who have already been kind of thinking about becoming republics over the years. Within the UK itself, there are a significant amount of people who would like to transform the country into a republic, but they’ve never really been that huge of a group and they’re not that vocal, so it’s really hard to know. People love tradition in the UK, and this is at the heart of tradition. 
So, after the death of a monarch, how quickly does a new head actually ascend to the throne?
The tradition has always been for royal heralds to say the king has died, long live the king, implying that it is instant transformation. This goes way, way back into the deep, deep Middle Ages, where the whole idea was that monarchy was continual and never died. And so, the spiritual element that makes a human being a monarch would literally move from one to the other in the blink of an eye. So, whether we in the modern world kind of believe all that is up to individual belief. 
What’s your sense of what Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy is going to be? I mean, that transition from empire to Commonwealth, is that at the top of the list or is there something we’re not thinking about? 
I think in the longer term, that will be the thing bringing Britain through a very dark period, which was the late 1940s, early 1950s of postwar austerity. And a lot of people really, really see the monarchy as something that held the country together and kept it quite stable. There, of course, are dissenting views who thought an institution like monarchy that’s hereditary kept Britain back from entering the modern age.
Queen Elizabeth II rarely expressed views on politically sensitive questions. Is a new monarch likely to keep up that tradition?
That’s often a question that people ask about Charles and the idea of how would he be as monarch? Because unlike his mother, he has expressed lots of opinions. And sometimes, they’re strange or deeply unpopular. But I do believe that he knows the role. He’s trained for it for over 60 years. And I think that there is a very careful line to be tread right now, particularly in the West Indies. And it will remain to see how well that’s done.
How has opinion of the royal family changed in the UK in recent years?
It’s been a long, interesting twisting tour almost. When the queen ascended the throne and then was crowned, I think there was just no question about loyalty. It was something you simply did. And I know a lot of older people who are now in their 70s or 80s can’t really fathom anything different than that. But in the 1960s and 1970s, that really started to change. And a lot of people questioned the role of the monarchy, its intense privacy. And so, they tried to be a bit more public — sometimes got it very wrong. Then, of course, there was the rocky 1980s and 1990s with divorces and the death of Princess Diana. But I think since the turn of the millennium, there really has been a resurgence of interest in the royal family. And the jubilee this past year really kind of showed, I think, that people really were still quite interested.
So, I mean, supporters of monarchy and dissenters in the UK, but Queen Elizabeth II, herself as an individual. What role does the queen occupy in British culture? 
That would be the one thing that people can say for certain is that whether you like the idea of monarchy or not, I think everyone appreciates the work and the devotion and the dedication and just being a good all-around role model that the queen has been since the 1950s. So, it’s really this amazing continuity. After this death, we will then have to see whether people still feel this same kind of loyalty and maybe divisions will arise. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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