In the course of her more than seven decades of rule, Queen Elizabeth II became a bright but enigmatic light of continuity in the United Kingdom. She passed away on September 8 at Balmoral Castle, her estate in the Scottish Highlands. She was 96.
Elizabeth was a steady and reassuring presence in Britain and on the international scene during her reign, which began in February 1952 following the death of her father, King George VI, and saw her guide her nation through a period of significant changes in geopolitical power and national identity.
Through the years, postage stamps and banknote designs have evolved, but they have all featured the same if aged, king. God Save the King has replaced “God Save the Queen” as the national anthem of the United Kingdom, yet the majority of Britons only remember the previous, song-dedicated version.
Her son and successor Charles captured the power of her steadfastness in a rare television documentary that was aired in 2012 to mark her 60th year as queen. He speculated that perhaps people unconsciously experience a boost or sense of security from something that is constantly there.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth took her final significant constitutional step when she accepted Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation and ordered Liz Truss, his replacement, to form a new administration.
Elizabeth’s reign was the longest in a monarchy that dates back to at least the 10th century with King Athelstan. In 2015, she broke a record once thought unassailable, surpassing the 63-year rule of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Elizabeth, with her outwardly stern demeanor, an iron constitution, and enduring handbag, remained fully engaged in her queenly duties for most of her life, and true to a promise she made on her 21st birthday. Victoria, on the other hand, withdrew from her regal duties after the early death of her husband, Prince Albert.
She made the following proclamation to all British Empire listeners when she was a little princess on holiday with her parents in South Africa, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
The length of that service, measured against that of other leading figures, proved astonishing — coinciding with that of 15 British prime ministers, 14 U.S. presidents, and seven popes. As supreme governor of the Church of England, Elizabeth appointed six archbishops of Canterbury.
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be committed to your service, and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” the young princess declared to British Empire listeners around the world while on tour with her parents in South Africa.
When compared to other prominent individuals, the length of that service was astounding, equating to the terms of 15 British prime ministers, 14 American presidents, and seven popes. Six Canterbury archbishops were chosen by Elizabeth, who acted as the Church of England’s ultimate authority.
She also had to navigate altering public opinions about the royal family as the newly free media lay bare its issues. The public outcry over the queen’s hesitant response to the death of her former daughter-in-law Princess Diana in a car accident in 1997 marked the low point for her.
It was one of a handful of such errors, and the problem was over: When Queen Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, she was the focus of a four-day love fest that included a floating parade on the River Thames that was comparable to a medieval pageant. Ninety percent of the people rated her favorably.
“We are honoring six decades of living proof that public service is possible, and that it is a place where happiness can be found,” then-Archbishop Rowan Williams remarked during a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
By the time of her Platinum Jubilee in 2022, which would have marked her 70 years in power, the nation’s celebration had taken on a new meaning as everyone realized that the monarch’s reign was coming to an end and was unique in terms of its length, pomp, and position in a modernized British society.
In her 2022 book, “The Palace Papers,” writer and royal observer Tina Brown stated that while we “enjoy the mightiness of Elizabeth II’s dedication to a life of service, we should also realize that an archaic version of monarchy must now disappear into history.”
Nothing better encapsulated this period than the picture of the queen during her husband’s funeral in 2021, which took place within constraints brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. In the oaken pews of Windsor’s St. George’s Chapel, she appeared alone, if not isolated, wearing all black and hiding her face with a mask.
The following months were characterized by a covid infection, an unusual hospitalization, and a growing weakness. She was unable to carry out dependable and frequent public duties.
She kept up a strict schedule of appearances and events well into her 90s. In the year of her Diamond Jubilee, there were more than 400 of them. These responsibilities, some of which seemed unimportant, like giving symbolic alms, and others that required pomp and circumstance, like opening Parliament or throwing a state banquet, defined her public existence.
Such recurrent occurrences can appear routine to outsiders, but Charles claimed that because of their recurrent nature, they “serve to anchor things” in a dynamic environment and, additionally, weave the king into the tapestry of British life.
Elizabeth’s life was defined by her function as queen, but the monarchy was equally defined by her unwavering commitment to the position. She preserved her personal life and stayed clear of both private scandal and public controversy, unlike her sister and a number of her offspring, including Charles. When her third direct heir and great-grandson, Prince George, was born in 2013, there were calls for her to step down, but the idea seemed foreign to someone who held more to duty than to power.
At the time, Elizabeth’s religion alone would prevent it, according to former royal spokesperson Dickie Arbiter: “She sees herself as having promised to serve for life not merely to the people, but to God.”
Her capacity to be so outwardly obedient for so long without betraying her inner self was the conundrum of her reign, and it may have been her greatest accomplishment. She is the most private public figure in the world, according to veteran British journalist Bill Deedes, who wrote about her on her 80th birthday.
The queen never participated in party politics, gave interviews, or had her journals published.
According to writer and historian Andrew Marr, who wrote about this in his book “The Real Elizabeth,” “Her view of her job has been that she is a symbol and that symbols are best off keeping relatively silent. The Queen is still what she does. The Queen’s form of monarchy has buried much of a feeling of self, as we understand it today.
Only a tiny, intriguing distance separates Queen Elizabeth II from the person who lives her life.
As she reduced her public obligations and dealt with a number of personal issues toward the end of her life, that space appeared to be getting narrower. Prince Harry, her grandson, essentially left the royal family in 2020 after marrying American actress Meghan Markle. After 73 years of marriage, Elizabeth lost her nearly lifetime companion Prince Philip in 2021. She also had to deal with the scandal surrounding her second son, Prince Andrew, who was accused of sexual misconduct.
However, for the majority of her reign, the queen was so skilled at conforming to her position that her subjects “really know considerably less about the queen than they imagine,” according to biographer Robert Lacey in an interview with The Washington Post in 2015. But it seems to me that people’s perceptions of her are more significant than that.
However, if it weren’t for a divorcee from Baltimore, a woman known to her friends by the moniker Lilibet from when she was a young girl would have gone unnoticed by the world.
Pushed into the spotlight
On April 21, 1926, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, a royal princess, was born in the home of her maternal grandparents in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. Elizabeth, her mother, also hailed from Scottish aristocracy.
Her father, Albert, Duke of York, was the second son of King George V. Margaret Rose, Princess Elizabeth’s younger sister, was born four years later.
The family finally relocated to the mansion that gave their dynasty its name on the Windsor estate, upriver from London. Elizabeth appeared destined for a quiet life of relative obscurity as a minor royal when she was young.
When the Duke of York’s father passed away in early 1936, their older brother Edward was set to become king. The American socialite Wallis Simpson, who was then in love with Edward (known to his family as David), was viewed by the British establishment, especially the Church of England, as being completely unqualified to become his queen due to her forthcoming divorce (her second).
King George VI was crowned after Edward abdicated, a surprising move that H.L. Mencken dubbed “the biggest story since the Crucifixion.”
Elizabeth now had a king for a father and the possibility of becoming queen at the age of 10.
She received instruction in British history, and the lives of the monarchs and their contentious ties with Parliament became more of a guide for managing public life than an academic lesson. When she eventually reviewed her troops, she would need to be able to ride sidesaddle and drive a carriage.
She obviously disregarded advice to sail to Canada for safety during World War II, which ended when she was 19 years old, and instead stayed in England and enlisted in the military.
By that time, she had met Royal Philip, who was the son of an exiled Greek prince and was also a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. As a young officer in the British navy, Philip was building a name for himself under the support of his uncle Louis Mountbatten.
Winston Churchill referred to their wedding on November 20, 1947, which took place during postwar reconstruction, as “a burst of color on the arduous road we have to tread.” The idyllic union of a beautiful princess and a handsome blond naval officer, which is now barely remembered, served as a prelude to the royal marriages of Prince Charles and the former Diana Spencer in 1981 and Prince William and the former Kate Middleton in 2011.
Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward, Elizabeth’s four living children, were born in 1948, 1950, 1960, and 1964, respectively. She and Philip had hoped that George VI would rule for a long time and that they would be able to lead a relatively regular life as a navy family, but he passed away from cancer at age 56 in the winter of 1952. Even if she might have desired a completely different existence away from the spotlight, Elizabeth accepted her role and fate.
A new queen becomes more assured.
When she discovered that the monarch had passed away, the then-Princess Elizabeth and her husband were in Kenya and on their way to Australia to replace her ailing father on an official visit. When she returned home as the 25-year-old queen, Churchill and other dignitaries met her at the airport in a solemn phalanx.
Her coronation the next year gave a nation reeling from postwar hardship, stark political and social divisions, the collapse of its colonial empire, and waning global power a much-needed infusion of glamour and optimism about a new Elizabethan Age.
On June 2, 1953, the day that word reached London that mountaineer Edmund Hillary of New Zealand had raised a Union Jack atop Mount Everest as part of a British-led expedition, she was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
The English monarch has had to balance being the head of state with handing over political authority to Parliament and upholding strict partisan neutrality for more than 400 years. But due to her longevity and diligence, Elizabeth played a crucial advisory role for a number of prime leaders who traveled to Buckingham Palace every Tuesday from Downing Street to visit her.
She provided the political leader of the time with private advice during those meetings based on her unique viewpoint on domestic life and her familiarity with diplomats and international leaders. The sessions were as private as chats in a confessional, but whether the prime ministers heeded her advice may have been a different story.
Her impact was first constrained by her inexperience: Churchill was an old lion in 1952 and still spoke highly of Queen Victoria. But as the years went by, Elizabeth witnessed the rise and fall of prime ministers and was able to provide a long-term perspective enhanced by a keen memory for people and events.
In the 2012 BBC documentary, Prince Charles observed, “The boot is on the other foot.” The queen is the only one with Sir Winston’s breadth of experience after all these years.
Elizabeth was generally considered to have gotten along better with some prime ministers than others. According to Ben Pimlott, an Elizabeth biographer, Edward Heath “treated her like a piece of required business” in the early 1970s. Even worse, the pro-European Heath publicly opposed the interests of the Commonwealth and once forbade her from attending a summit of world leaders in Singapore.
Elizabeth maintained close ties between Britain and its former colonies as the head of the Commonwealth, which consists of 15 realms and more than 50 countries.
Australians rejected a republican referendum in 1999, a decision that was perceived as demonstrating allegiance to Elizabeth rather than the U.K.
Although Margaret Thatcher denied having any unwarranted conflict, Elizabeth and Margaret were said to have a cold relationship. Pimlott claimed that the grandiose personality of the Iron Lady made them a strange match. Thatcher would tensely lean forward in her chair, which alarmed the queen. The author noted that audiences “ceased to be private occasions, and became brisk, official ones.”
Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson, two of Thatcher’s predecessors, found a type of therapy in the meetings and dragged them out.
Wilson became increasingly excited about his royal engagements as he began to feel under attack from ministers from both the left and the right, according to the journalist and historian Marr.
Elizabeth fiercely guarded her privacy as a wife and mother.
Prince Philip’s wishes occasionally ran counter to those of the ruling political elite. According to biographers, those incidents resulted in some of the queen’s hard times because of Philip’s assertive personality.
Although he was overruled, Philip resisted moving to the opulent, court-dominated Buckingham Palace. Churchill quickly dismissed the name change, humiliating Philip, when his uncle smugly declared after the king’s death that the House of Windsor would become the House of Mountbatten.
He lamented, “I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.” Elizabeth was relieved in 1960 when the government let her descendants continue using the Mountbatten-Windsor surname.
The marriage was strong and joyful despite Philip’s subjugation, which went against type, and the prince occasionally affectionately referred to his bride as “Sausage.” The line “My husband and I” that the queen used to begin her speeches has become a catchphrase. Close observers of the courtiers noted “a guarded, yet apparent, love,” according to Pimlott.
Elizabeth deferred to Philip in the rearing of their children as if to make up for her formal superiority; this move had unintended consequences, particularly with the heir.
Philip made the choice to enroll Charles in Gordonstoun, his alma mater. Gordonstoun is a residential school on the chilly Scottish coast that is famed for its dedication to character development through rigor and privation.
In his middle age, Charles lamented the terrible upbringing he had due to his mother’s absence and his father’s dominance. At least in front of others, his mother kept quiet, enhancing her reputation as a passive mom who dreaded conflict.
The queen spent the last few months of her life coming to grips with her family’s scandals as well as the media’s insatiable appetite for them.
Even though Margaret, the queen’s younger sister, is rumored to have been the queen’s favorite, it is difficult to envision two more dissimilar siblings or the monarchy’s current position if Margaret had been born first. Margaret was renowned even before her marriage ended in divorce as a princess who preferred the high life, detested doing official duties, and insisted on royal treatment. Martha passed away in 2002.
The fairytale marriage of Charles and Diana became the century’s most popular soap opera as a result of Margaret’s scandals, which foreshadowed those of the queen’s children. The Prince and Princess of Wales divorced in 1996 at the queen’s request after a formal split occurred in 1992 amid public recriminations and accusations of adultery.
In 1992, Elizabeth also had to deal with Princess Anne’s divorce, Prince Andrew’s split from Sarah, the publication of embarrassingly recorded phone calls between Charles and Diana, and a terrible fire at the treasured Windsor Castle.
At a formal luncheon, she declared, “It has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”
In his biography of the monarch, Lacey wrote, “Elizabeth II had given public expression to some genuine pain and weakness, though she had to do it in Latin for the first time in 40 years.”
A little under five years later, she was put to the toughest test of her monarchy. An outpouring of grief and hatred directed towards Charles and his family occurred when Diana and her boyfriend died in Paris as their car sped away from the photographers. Elizabeth stayed put at Balmoral Castle because she believed that her first responsibility was to keep her young grandchildren away from the spreading frenzy.
The flagpole atop Buckingham Palace came to symbolize the source of the rage. The people outside demanded that the flag be flown at half-staff. The palace flagpole was intended to fly the royal standard only when the monarch was present, therefore the queen would have been breaking procedure and precedent if she had done so.
Then-prime minister Tony Blair described the situation in his memoir: “In the peculiar synergy between ruler and ruled, the people were pressing that the Queen admits that she ruled by their agreement, and bend to their request.” “The royal family was coming under increasing public ire.”
However, after pleading with her advisors, she relented from her initial resistance. The flag was raised, she arrived back from Balmoral ahead of schedule in time to join the crowd in front of Buckingham Palace, and she finally broke her silence in a televised address. No one who knew Diana will ever forget her, she said while expressing her sorrow. Millions of other people will remember her even though they never met her.
The incident served as a rare reminder that the monarchy is a delicate institution despite its long history and pervasiveness in British culture.
Elizabeth’s fate was changed by Wallis Simpson, who described how she was unprepared for Edward’s unexpected rejection by a society that had elevated him. Nothing had shown her “how vulnerable the King truly was, how little power he could actually command,” she admitted in her letter.
Elizabeth, his niece, committed her life to put the monarchy first while Edward prioritized his personal interests.
According to Pimlott, “in her reserve, there was a vein of grief. Some claimed to perceive a glimmer of passion beneath the surface, but it was impossible to determine for whom or what.” However, she maintained her independence and maintained control.
Images: Queen Elizabeth II, the British queen with the longest reign, throughout her life
A background scene
When biographers looked into Elizabeth’s life, they discovered that she was a good mimic in private and in unguarded settings, believed that being frugal was a virtue, and favored very tame and traditional pastimes like a square dance, jigsaw puzzles, photography, and watching television.
She was heavily involved in the purchase of thoroughbreds and owned stud farms and a horse racing stable. She also hired a racing manager to work with the trainers.
She watched when her horse Estimate won the Gold Cup at Ascot in 2013, six decades after her coronation, and she reacted with unbridled excitement, grinning and clapping her hands with youthful glee.
When her safety was in danger, she showed her tenacity. In June 1981, a young man fired six blank shots in her direction as she rode to Trooping the Colour, the traditional ceremony reviewing the troops. The young man was being tackled by a Scots guard as Elizabeth calmed her terrified horse and proceeded on.
An even chillier threat materialized the next year. A stalker by the name of Michael Fagan entered the queen’s bedroom in July 1982. She tried to call for help, but it didn’t work right away.
According to Lacey, Elizabeth later recounted, “I jumped out of bed, put on my dressing gown and slippers, drew myself up to my full regal height, pointed to the door and screamed, “Get out,” — and he didn’t.”
Elizabeth stood at 5 feet 4 inches. Victoria, at 4-foot-11, was shorter.
She was a creature of habit and appeared to be meticulous by nature. She adhered to a calendar that hasn’t changed significantly throughout time. She alternated between living in Windsor Castle, where she spent most weekends, and Buckingham Palace, where she liked to live. At the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, she relocated permanently to Windsor.
She stayed at Balmoral for most of August and September, where Philip hosted barbecues for his friends. Tony Blair recalled, “The royals cook and serve the visitors.” After checking to see if you’re done, the queen stacks the plates and heads to the sink to wash them.
She ruled her family at Sandringham, her East Anglian estate, for Christmas and the New Year. The Royal Yacht Britannia, maybe her favorite vacation, was retired in 1997 at a ceremony where the queen was observed to shed a rare public tear.
The general public saw glimpses of Elizabeth’s life at Balmoral and Sandringham as a well-dressed English countrywoman in green wellies leading a pack of muddy Welsh corgis.
She had a tiny, close-knit group of family members and friends with whom she could unwind after leading such a public life, but even they would bow to her and she kept a certain distance, according to her biographer Sally Bedell Smith.
Smith claimed in an interview that she only truly understood Elizabeth after probing her Sunday morning rituals.
Elizabeth would visit Margaret Rhodes, her cousin and old friend, who resided in a lovely cottage on the Windsor estate that the monarch had given her, after attending services at the Royal Chapel in Windsor.
In front of framed pictures of her family, Elizabeth would converse with her cousin about the week’s happenings while lounging on a comfy but worn-out sofa and sipping her favorite cocktail of gin and Dubonnet.
Elizabeth recalled an Aboriginal adage to explain her feelings during a speech she gave to Commonwealth leaders in Perth, Australia, in 2011.
“We are all guests in this place and time. Our goals in this place are to observe, learn, develop, and fall in love. after which we go back home.
Keeping Queen Elizabeth II in mind
The most recent: On Thursday, Scotland witnessed the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who had ruled Britain for the longest. She was 96. Follow our live coverage as the UK pays tribute to a leader who has always served as a pillar of society.
Declining health: According to Buckingham Palace on Thursday, the queen was being monitored by doctors at Balmoral Castle when her health started to decline.
At the age of 25, Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne and spent the next 70 years in the public spotlight and public service. She came to represent stability and continuity despite royal scandals, the dissolution of the British Empire, and significant global change.
Operation London Bridge: For some time, Queen Elizabeth II has been preparing for her successor. Here is what will occur in the first ten days following the queen’s abdication.