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What is Commonwealth Day and what is the history behind it?

King Charles III is the head of the Commonwealth   (Victoria Jones/PA)
King Charles III is the head of the Commonwealth (Victoria Jones/PA)

Commonwealth Day, an annual celebration by people across the Commonwealth, falls on March 11 this year.

Observed by people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas, the Pacific and Europe, the day celebrates the shared values of Commonwealth states.

Recognized as a public holiday in some Commonwealth countries, it’s become a key annual tradition celebrated across some parts of world.

Last year, King Charles and the royal family attended a service to mark Commonwealth Day for the first time as a monarch.

This year, however, things may be a little different. The King’s recent cancer diagnosis, as well as Kate Middleton’s hospitalisation last month, means that there have been some changes to recent appearances and duties performed by the royal family.

Here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming event.

What is the Commonwealth?

The Commonwealth of Nations, generally known as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 54 member states, almost all of which are former colonies of the British Empire.

Formed in 1949, it now includes about 2.6 billion people and makes up a quarter of the world’s land mass.

Flag bearers will feature at the 2019 Commonwealth Day service (Richard Pohle/The Times/PA)
Flag bearers will feature at the 2019 Commonwealth Day service (Richard Pohle/The Times/PA)

Member countries have no legal obligations to one another but are connected through their use of the English language and historical ties as former colonies. Their stated shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter and promoted by the Commonwealth Games, which take place every four years.

Queen Elizabeth was the longest reigning head of the Commonwealth, with King Charles automatically taking the position after her passing.

Why was the Commonwealth formed?

The Commonwealth has its roots in the British Empire.

Over time, different countries within the British Empire gained varying levels of freedom from Britain. Semi-independent countries were called dominions. Leaders of the dominions attended conferences with Britain from 1887.

The Queen hands the baton for the Commonwealth Games relay to Brendan Foster in 1982 (PA Archive)
The Queen hands the baton for the Commonwealth Games relay to Brendan Foster in 1982 (PA Archive)

In 1926, the Imperial Conference was held, with leaders of Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa attending. At the conference, Britain and these dominions agreed that they were all equal members of a community within the British Empire. This community was called the British Commonwealth of Nations.

As more and more countries gained independence from the British Empire, at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in London in 1949, it was decided that republics and other countries could be part of the Commonwealth. Thus, the London Declaration created the modern Commonwealth of Nations.

Since 1949, independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined.

What is the history behind Commonwealth Day?

Originally known as Empire Day, Commonwealth Day was established in 1902 to honour Queen Victoria the year after she died.

However, the idea of a day that would “remind children that they formed part of the British Empire” was conceived in Canada in 1897.

Empire Day actually wasn’t officially recognised until 1916, having been celebrated unofficially in Canada for 14 years. It took another 10 years for its popularity to really grow – in 1925, an Empire Day Thanksgiving celebration at Wembley Stadium drew around 90,000 in attendance.

In 1958, Harold Macmillan, then the prime minister, rebranded Empire Day as Commonwealth Day.

What will happen on Commonwealth Day this year?

This year’s Commonwealth Day theme is “One Resilient Common Future”.

Reflecting on this year’s event, Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland KC said: “This year's theme underscores the collective strength that enables us to confront and overcome present challenges, emerging with resilience. This paves the way for a future where wealth isn't just widespread but genuinely equitable."

"We have countries which are amongst both the smallest and largest in the world. What binds us together is our shared values, and those include a commitment to ensuring stronger and stable governance, a more sustainable environment, robust economies, and societies that empower Commonwealth citizens."

2020 Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey (Phil Harris/Reuters)
2020 Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey (Phil Harris/Reuters)

During the day, world leaders, foreign ministers, and a number of representatives from local organisations will come together for discussions about empowering people across all Commonwealth states.

Some states may read the Commonwealth Proclamation, while others host celebratory events to mark the important day.

While the main events will be held on March 11, a number of other celebrations, including faith and civic gatherings and flag-raising events, will take place throughout the month.

In the UK, there will be a multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey, and a reception to welcome Commonwealth representatives.