The queen's role as the head of the commonwealth has evolved over the last 60 years. In this article, we explore the ways in which this position was constructed and negotiated through the queen's presence (and absence) at commonwealth conferences. Utilising the example of the Lusaka Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1979—a highly fraught meeting, the queen's attendance at which was hotly contested—we examine narratives present in newspaper and oral history accounts surrounding the queen's role. Placing this event in the context of the broader constitutional and political issues that have surrounded the headship since the creation of this ambiguous office in 1949, we explore the competing interpretations of the meaning of head of the commonwealth and the vexed question of who was responsible for advising the queen in this role. We argue that the example of the Lusaka summit shows that, far from being a crowned non-entity, the queen was an active agent, both shaping a constitutional role for herself that was separate from that as British monarch and becoming enrolled in broader geopolitical scripts.