Images of Elizabeth II Graced Stonehenge This Week—and Pagans Aren’t Happy

Projections on the Neolithic stones have proven controversial before

Stonehenge with images of Elizabeth II projected on it
Images from eight decades of the queen’s life were projected onto the megaliths this week. Heritage England

As the United Kingdom prepares to celebrate Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee this weekend, exhibitions and art installations are going up around the country to honor the 70th year of the 96-year-old monarch’s reign.

In one such homage, the queen’s image was projected onto eight of the massive stones at Stonehenge. But though the move was intended to pay homage to the historic figure at one of the U.K.’s most recognizable sites this week, not everyone welcomed the display.

Organized by English Heritage, a government body that cares for historical sites in England, the display was meant to be a “spellbinding homage” that “brought two British icons together,” according to tweets from the organization. Eight portraits of the queen, one from each decade of her reign, were projected on eight separate stones at the heritage site.

While some individuals on Twitter agreed the installation was “an amazing sight to see,” others described it as “tacky” or took issue with the use of what they see as a sacred site.

“HM the Queen is Head of the Church of England, and #Stonehenge is an ancient, pre-Christian monument,” tweetedIrish healthcare CEO Alison Begas. “Am I the only one confused?”

As monarch, Elizabeth is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a titular, but deeply symbolic, role. British sovereigns also swear to uphold the Church of Scotland, though they do not hold an official title in that church.

Though the true purpose of the monument is not known, Stonehenge and its megaliths have been the subject of mystery and discussion for centuries. Constructed in multiple stages between 3000 and 1500 B.C.E., the henge aligns with celestial bodies. One theory holds it means it would have been used as some kind of solar calendar; recent excavations of human bodies suggest it could have been used as a burial ground.

Though modern research has shown Stonehenge was constructed a few thousand years before the emergence of the Celtic Druids once thought to have built the henge for their rituals, modern-day pagans claim it as a pilgrimage site and hold religious ceremonies there.

Stonehenge now draws up to 1.6 million visitors per year. But pagans say it’s holy ground, not a tourist attraction. In 2011, a brouhaha erupted in response to an op-ed by a British aristocrat calling for the monument to be lit up at night, sparking dueling op-eds and an outcry by both stargazers and pagans. Neo-druid and environmental protester Arthur Uther Pendragon, a longtime opponent of Heritage England, told BBC News at the time that illuminating the site would turn it into a “theme park” and detract from the site’s purpose.

Those concerns haven’t stopped officials from projecting images on the monument to commemorate historic occasions. Footage of World War I soldiers was projected onto the stones in November 2014 as part of a memorial service, per BBC News, and at the end of 2020, the stones bore projections of the faces of eight people who helped care for heritage sites through the pandemic, also per BBC News.

Other Twitter users took to the app to express their general distaste for the monarchy or crack jokes about the “ancient” quality of both the stones and the ruler projected on them. One popular tweet by art parodist HappyToast included a doctored image of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London illuminated with the head of a rotund, leaf-covered man, joking that the Stonehenge stunt had backfired and resulted in the Church of England being forced to display the images of pagan kings on all of its buildings.

It's no coincidence that disgruntled Brits took to social media to express their discontent over the illuminated monument: Based on a recent YouGov poll, roughly one in four Brits support the abolition of the monarchy, a percentage that has grown in recent years. And that number is even higher among younger citizens of the U.K.

Anti-monarchy sentiment could grow even more upon the queen’s demise, Graham Smith, who heads the anti-monarchist group Republic, tells Newsweek’s Katherine Hignett.

“The queen is the monarchy, the monarchy is the queen, and it’s the queen who continues to sustain support for the monarchy,” Smith tells Newsweek. “That’s a huge problem for the royals, because at some point in the next few years she will no longer be there to keep the show going.”

Elizabeth II is the only British monarch a large portion of the population has ever known. She became queen in 1952 at age 25 upon the sudden death of her father, and was coronated in 1953 after a period of mourning. She’s been in power ever since: Elizabeth’s reign has spanned a record-breaking 70 years, decimating the record held by Queen Victoria, whose reign was just shy of 64 years.

During her days as queen, the long-reigning sovereign has seen the monarchy go from a reclusive entity to a full-fledged member of the digital age, presided over the decline of the British Empire, and seen the scope of her reign diminish. When she took the throne, Elizabeth was queen of more than 70 territories; today, the Commonwealth realm of nations that recognize the queen as their monarch numbers just 14. The Commonwealth of Nations, a loose affiliation of countries with former ties to the U.K. that the queen has championed, has grown to include 54 independent nations during her rule.

That unprecedented reign will be celebrated with a four-day holiday across the U.K. and its Commonwealth realms. Street parties will abound, and the royal family today made a long-awaited appearance on the Buckingham Palace balcony, the Washington Post’s Karla Adam, William Booth, Adela Suliman and Ellen Francis report.

Special exhibitions are going up around the country, too, including two at Sotheby’s London, as Smithsonian magazine’s Sarah Kuta reports—a tiara exhibition and an exhibition of British female monarch portraiture. The tributes are all fitting to a figure as monumental as Stonehenge—a monarch as historically significant as the stones that bore her image this week.