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Our history

The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political associations of states. Its roots go back to the British Empire, when countries around the world were ruled by Britain.

The early Commonwealth

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

The 1926 Imperial Conference was attended by the leaders of Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa.

At the 1926 conference Britain and the Dominions agreed that they were all equal members of a community within the British Empire. They all owed allegiance to the British king or queen, but the United Kingdom did not rule over them. This community was called the British Commonwealth of Nations or just the Commonwealth.

Birth of the modern Commonwealth

The Dominions and other territories of the British Empire gradually became fully independent of the United Kingdom.

India became independent in 1947. India wanted to become a republic which didn't owe allegiance to the British king or queen, but it also wanted to stay a member of the Commonwealth.

At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London in 1949, the London Declaration said that republics and other countries could be part of the Commonwealth. The modern Commonwealth of Nations was born.

King George VI was the first Head of the Commonwealth, and Queen Elizabeth II became Head when he died. But the British king or queen is not automatically Head of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth member countries choose who becomes Head of the Commonwealth.

The modern Commonwealth

Since 1949 independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined the Commonwealth. Membership today is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation.

The last 2 countries to join the Commonwealth - Rwanda and Mozambique - have no historical ties to the British Empire.

The Commonwealth Secretariat was created in 1965 as a central intergovermental organisation to manage the Commonwealth's work.

Commonwealth library and archive

The Commonwealth library and archives are available for historical research and study at Marlborough House in London.

Stories from the Commonwealth archive

The Victoria Falls Declaration

1 January 1994

The Victoria Falls Declaration of Principles for the Promotion of the Human Rights of Women

Commonwealth Charter, signed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth. HM Queen Elizabeth II sitting at a white desk surrounded by people

1 January 2013

The Charter expresses the commitment of member states to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth. The Charter also acknowledges the role of civil society in supporting the goals and values of the Commonwealth.

Chair-in-Office position created by Commonwealth Heads of Government

1 January 1999

Created at the 1999 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in South Africa, the Chairperson-in-Office plays a representational role in intergovernmental organisations, during periods between Heads of Government meetings. In 2002, the role was extended to include Good Offices of the Secretary-General and contribute to strategic advocacy of Commonwealth positions in high-level international forums.

Commonwealth Heads of Government establish the Eminent Persons Group

1 January 2009

The Eminent Persons Group was established by Commonwealth Heads of Government at their summit in November 2009. The group’s goals are to sharpen the impact, strengthen the networks, and raise the profile of the Commonwealth.

Criteria for Commonwealth membership revised

27 November 2007

Heads of Government reviewed the recommendations of the Committee on Commonwealth Membership from 1997 and agreed on the following core criteria for Membership:

(a) an applicant country should, as a general rule, have had a historic constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member, save in exceptional circumstances; 
(b) in exceptional circumstances, applications should be considered on a case-by-case basis; 
(c) an applicant country should accept and comply with Commonwealth fundamental values, principles, and priorities as set out in the 1971 Declaration of Commonwealth Principles and contained in other 
subsequent Declarations; 
(d) an applicant country must demonstrate commitment to: democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures; the rule of law and independence of the 
judiciary; good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts; and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity; 
(e) an applicant country should accept Commonwealth norms and conventions, such as the use of the English language as the medium of inter-Commonwealth relations, and acknowledge Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the Commonwealth; and 
(f) new members should be encouraged to join the Commonwealth Foundation, and to promote vigorous civil society and business organisations within their countries, and to foster participatory democracy 
through regular civil society consultations. 

'Civil Paths to Peace' launched Blue sky with the sun and a few clouds with Civil Paths to Peace written in white

9 November 2007

Civil Paths to Peace’ is the result of a mandate from Commonwealth leaders to look into the causes of conflict, violence and extremism in Commonwealth countries.

It focuses on the problem of group-based violence and its impact on communities, advocating solutions based on individuals’ multiple identities.

‘Civil Paths to Peace’ argues that the solution to conflicts within the Commonwealth should be rooted in the association’s agreed principles of human rights, democracy, gender equality, the rule of law and a transparent and accountable political culture.

The report recommends new forms of political participation, an emphasis on non-sectarian non-parochial education that expands rather than reduces the reach of understanding, and greater support to young people, who represent over half of the Commonwealth’s 2 billion citizens.

“Group violence through systematic instigation is not only – perhaps not even primarily – a military challenge. It is fostered in our divisive world through capturing people's minds and loyalties, and through exploiting the allegiance of those who are wholly or partly persuaded” -- Amartya Sen

Read the full report: Civil Paths to Peace - Report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding

New criteria for Commonwealth membership

1 November 1997

At their Edinburgh meeting Heads of Government received and endorsed a report from the Intergovernmental Group on Criteria for Commonwealth Membership. They agreed that in order to become a member of the Commonwealth, an applicant country should, as a rule, have had a constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member; that it should comply with Commonwealth values, principles and priorities as set out in the Harare Declaration; and that it should accept Commonwealth norms and conventions.

Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) fund established Group of young people from the Commonwealth Youth Parliament

1 January 1973

CYP works to engage and empower young people (ages 15-29) to enhance their contribution to development.

First Colonial Conference

1 January 1887

First Colonial Conference for consultation between Britain and its colonies.

Empire described as a 'Commonwealth of Nations'

1 January 1884

Lord Rosebury (later British Prime Minister) calls the Empire a 'Commonwealth of Nations' whilst visiting Australia.