The longest-ever reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the only monarch most of her subjects have ever known, is over. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor died Thursday at Balmoral Castle, her estate in Scotland. She was 96.
The palace issued a black-bordered statement about 6.30 p.m. local time: "The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow."
Buckingham Palace issued another black-bordered statement from "His Majesty the King," shortly after her death.
"The death of my beloved Mother, Her Majesty The Queen, is a moment of the greatest sadness for me and all members of my family," the statement said. "We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished Sovereign and a much-loved Mother. I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world.
"During this period of mourning and change, my family and I will be comforted and sustained by our knowledge of the respect and deep affection in which The Queen was so widely held."
As the 41st monarch since William the Conqueror in 1066, Elizabeth was the symbol of stability as Britain and its 1,000-year-old monarchy sailed through roiling storms of the modern age, including a deadly pandemic.
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Elizabeth enjoyed robust health most of her life, but lingering “mobility issues” affected her in recent months. She increasingly handed over duties to Charles, from the recreational to the constitutional. Last week, she couldn't attend the annual Highland Games, the Braemar Gathering, which she never missed throughout her reign.
On Tuesday she presided over the transition of one prime minister to a new one, a constitutional duty as head of state which took place at Balmoral for the first time in her reign.
But on Wednesday, the palace announced she would not be able to attend via Zoom the meeting of the Privy Council, the standing committee of senior governmental advisers, after doctors' orders to rest.
She also missed significant appearances in June during the four days of celebration of her Platinum Jubilee of 70 years on the throne.
In February, two weeks after marking the 70 anniversary of her ascension to the throne in 1952, the palace announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. During an audience in mid-February, the queen mentioned to her visitors that she had difficulty "moving," leading to "ongoing mobility" issues, as Buckingham Palace put it, that prevented some appearances, including the State Opening of Parliament on May 10.
She had missed this important head-of-state role only twice before during her reign, both for pregnancies, but for the first time she officially delegated Charles to stand in for her, accompanied by his elder son, Prince William.
She was preceded in death by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, her husband of 73 years, who died April 9, 2021, at Windsor Castle at age 99, just short of his 100th birthday. He was Britain's oldest and longest-serving royal spouse in 10 centuries.
His funeral yielded poignant pictures of the queen, alone and masked, in St. George's Chapel at Windsor for a sublime service attended by only 30 members of his family amid COVID-19 restrictions. At the end of March, she appeared in public for her first major in-person gathering since her COVID-19 diagnosis, leading her family, dozens of foreign royals and hundreds of Britain's great and good in a service of thanksgiving for the life of her late husband at Westminster Abbey.
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The death of a monarch is followed by a flurry of rituals, including an address to the nation by the new king and by the prime minister, followed by long-established funeral plans carried out with military precision.
For now, however, Britain prepared to mourn.
The plans include a funeral worthy of the devout and dutiful woman who pledged herself at age 21 in service to her nation and never wavered as the living symbol of the British people.
Queen Elizabeth II's historic reign
She reigned, never ruled, as Britain's head of state and constitutional figurehead for decades. She acceded to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, when her father, King George VI, died at age 56. She was just 25.
Having celebrated her Diamond Jubilee of 60 years on the throne in 2012, she was the U.K.'s oldest monarch ever, and the longest-serving, surpassing her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who reigned 63 years and died in 1901.
More than half the people alive in Britain today have known no other monarch on their throne, their coins, their bank notes and their stamps. A modest, even shy girl, she became the most famous woman in the world, the most photographed and depicted human being in history, who met and shook hands with an estimated 4 million people or more during her reign.
She inherited a sun-never-sets empire just starting to disintegrate, then presided over its final collapse into a Commonwealth of nations that looked to her as its leader, and to which she was deeply committed to the end. She was Britain's stiff upper lip during the 20th-century post-World War II recovery, the last gasps of the empire, the Cold War and the war on terrorism.
In her colorful hats and her sturdy sensible shoes, her ever-present handbag on her arm, she was a constant through kaleidoscope changes as the 20th century roared into the 21st: the growth of television, Beatlemania, Britain's demographic transformation to a multi-ethnic society, and the rise of a celebrity culture that ensnared nearly every member of her family.
She adapted to changing times by changing – and yet not changing on the important things, such as maintaining a dignified silence – while embracing the internet age with a palace website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and even a royal channel on YouTube.
She was stoic and carried on through the antics and scandals of members of her family. Most recently, she had to weather the public downfall of her son Prince Andrew for his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, which later led in an embarrassing civil lawsuit accusing him of sexual abuse. And her grandson Prince Harry's decision to move to America with his wife, Meghan, and leave royal life behind resulted in months of recriminations further inflamed by accusations of racism (hotly denied) in the royal family.
When it was necessary, she shed her usual reserve. She presided over the heart-rending 1997 funeral of her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, the "people's princess." She did it – despite her desire to protect Charles and Diana's two sons – to save the standing of the monarchy from a grief-maddened populace enraged by what seemed to be royal coldness and detachment in the wake of Diana's death in a car crash in Paris.
If the queen seemed occasionally out of step with the accelerating changes, she redeemed herself and the monarchy by adjusting, and she gained new popularity and admiration in her later years. Always deeply respected, she was beloved by the time she reached 80, helped partly by the release of the film "The Queen." Dame Helen Mirren's transcendent performance as Her Majesty won her the Academy Award for best actress in 2007, and her tribute in her acceptance speech is as apt a eulogy as any.
"For 50 years and more, Elizabeth Windsor has maintained her dignity, her sense of duty – and her hairstyle," Mirren said in her acceptance speech. "She has had her feet planted firmly on the ground, her hat on her head and her handbag on her arm. She has weathered many, many storms. And I salute her courage and her consistency."
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Biographers point to the queen's devotion to duty as her most important personal and professional characteristic, raising questions about whether the monarchy can survive long without her. Even foes of the monarchy, known as republicans in Britain, acknowledged they admired her. They see the monarchy as a hereditary institution wrapped in wealth and privilege that has no place in a modern democratic society; they credit her with not only saving it but making it more popular than ever.
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"She will be remembered for keeping the British monarchy going through the 20th and into the 21st century – and for leaving it in better shape," says Robert Lacey, the British historian and biographer who has written four books on the queen. "She was imbued with a great sense of duty and responsibility. In the long run, that would be a strength and her charm."
Elizabeth's sense of duty was established early in her life during the monarchy's worst modern crisis: the abdication of the throne by her uncle, King Edward VIII, in 1936. The abdication shocked Britain, especially after the government and palace had kept the crisis out of the headlines until almost the day it happened. From the perspective of commoners and dukes alike, the former king was seen as shirking his duty and turning his back on his country.
The profound effect on 10-year-old Elizabeth, Lacey says, is that from then on duty was her watchword. Unlike Edward, the queen swore to never abandon the role she was thrust into by chance of birth and thus throw the monarchy and nation into crisis.
Queen Elizabeth II's early life
She was unlikely to be queen when born the first child of Prince Albert (Bertie) and the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duke and Duchess of York, on April 21, 1926, at her parents' townhouse in London. Her father's eldest brother, known in the family as David, was the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne after his father, and her grandfather, George V. Although single when he became Edward VIII in January 1936, he was still young enough to marry and have children.
Elizabeth spent her early years in quiet family life, largely at family estates in the country, where she developed a lifelong affinity for horses and dogs, especially Welsh corgis. That bucolic life was shattered after Edward quit the throne in December 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American.
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The abdication thrust Elizabeth's father to the throne as George VI (he took the name to honor his father), which made Elizabeth heiress presumptive and the likely next monarch. So she became a queen in training under the tutelage of her father and her austere paternal grandmother, Queen Mary.
She made her first public speech at age 14 in 1940 on BBC Radio, speaking to children, like her, who were being evacuated to safety from the London Blitz in World War II. Two years later, she got her first military appointment, colonel-in-chief of the Grenadier Guards.
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Over the years, her official duties increased, giving her a taste of what was expected of her in charitable work and as figurehead of the British government and military. She became head of children's hospitals. She toured Scotland with her parents. She even became a licensed military driver in 1945 toward the end of the war.
Although she and her younger sister, Princess Margaret Rose, spent much of the war years in the safety of Windsor Castle, they and their parents helped rally the British in the brutal effort to win the war against the Nazis. When Britain succeeded, the country was nearly bankrupt but also deeply bonded to the royal family for their roles.
On her 21st birthday, during a visit to South Africa, then still part of the empire, Princess Elizabeth addressed the British people by radio, vowing that her life, "whether it be long or short," would be dedicated to serving the nation and the imperial family, now known as the Commonwealth. In 1977, celebrating her Silver Jubilee of 25 years on the throne, she told the nation that though her vow was made "in my salad days, when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it."
Family life was at times tumultuous
In 1947, Elizabeth married her distant cousin, Philip (she was the first British monarch to celebrate a diamond wedding anniversary), the exiled Greek prince raised mostly in Britain who was an officer in the Royal Navy and with whom she had been in love since she was 13 and he was 18.
In contrast to the 1981 fairy-tale extravaganza wedding of Charles to the former Lady Diana Spencer, Elizabeth's wedding was simple. With the country still recovering from the war, she collected ration coupons for her dress like other young brides of the time, which further endeared her to the public.
The wedding in Westminster Abbey helped lift some of the gloom that fell over London after the war, and soon there were two children to celebrate: Charles, the heir, and Princess Anne, now the Princess Royal. Her early years as a wife and mother were her happiest; then her father died in his sleep while she was on holiday in Kenya. She flew home a queen, somber but composed.
She was crowned a year later, on June 2, 1953, by this time royally trained for her job, ready for the responsibilities, accepting of the fact that her life and her family's life would never be the same again.
As a queen, Elizabeth has been an unqualified success. As a mother, not always. She suffered grief and ridicule as head of a modern, often dysfunctional royal family trapped in public expectations of Victorian-era values.
Charles was born in 1948, followed by Anne in 1950. Andrew and Edward came much later, in 1960 and 1964.
The queen always wanted a large family but put it off because duty came first, biographer Lacey says. Hers was never a warm and fuzzy persona, he says, and her cool aloofness may have carried over into family life.
Charles told his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby, in 1994 that the queen was an absentee mother. She was off being queen and he was left with nannies, he said. Andrew and Edward, however, insisted they weren't starved for motherly attention. "They made it clear they thought their mother had been absolutely marvelous," Lacey says.
Still, her children were the chief source of distress in the most painful year of her life, 1992, what she called her "annus horribilis," when the marriages of three of her children collapsed, accompanied by reams of scandalous tabloid headlines.
Then, on Nov. 20, 1992, the queen's beloved Windsor Castle burned for 15 hours; 100 rooms were damaged or destroyed. "It was symbolic of what was happening to the house of Windsor," Lacey says.
Taxes paid to restore the castle because it was state property but Elizabeth opened parts of Buckingham Palace to the public the following year, and tourist receipts helped offset the costs.
Then, things got worse. The death of the then-divorced Diana in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, threatened the queen's standing and that of the monarchy more than any time of her reign.
While the queen's weeping subjects piled flowers waist-high outside Buckingham Palace and Diana's home at Kensington Palace in London, the royal family kept their grief under wraps as they holed up on their annual summer holiday at Balmoral, their estate in Scotland.
The queen's instinctive need to grieve privately was seen as out of sentimental step with a nation that wanted an unprecedented public display of sorrow and respect. At that moment, the queen's renowned sense of public sentiment eluded her. Her stiff upper lip, and the monarchy, seemed frozen in a distant time.
On the advice of then-new but savvy Prime Minister Tony Blair and others, the queen was persuaded to return to London to speak to the nation in a rare televised address. At the funeral the next day, when Diana's casket passed her standing outside the palace, she bowed her head.
With that simple gesture, the queen began turning public opinion.
Esteem for the queen grew as years passed and a lifetime of official engagements stacked one on top of another. By the time of her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, according to Buckingham Palace, she had conferred more than 404,500 awards and honors; hosted 1.5 million people at garden parties and another 50,000 people a year at banquets, lunches, dinners and receptions; met 11 U.S. presidents (13 as of 2021); hosted 102 state visits in London; traveled on 325 overseas visits, including 96 state visits, to 150 countries; sent more than 540,000 telegrams to couples in the U.K. and Commonwealth celebrating a diamond wedding anniversary; served as patron to more than 620 charities or organizations; sat for 129 official portraits; and launched 23 ships. She also owned 30 corgis since 1944, and her horses won nearly every major race in Britain.
Despite her calculated royal distance from the public – she never gave an interview, and people who met her were encouraged not to divulge what she said, which was usually innocuous anyway – the queen had become a familiar mother figure to her family of subjects.
"I think it's because we are comfortable with her," says Ingrid Seward, a veteran royals observer, biographer and editor of Majesty magazine, as the queen's popularity soared in her later years. "We can sympathize with all that she has gone through. We know that the queen is always looking out for us. We really respect her."
During her later years, foes of the monarchy acknowledged they would never be able to abolish the throne as long as the queen was alive. Public admiration for her was just too great, conceded Graham Smith of Republic, Britain's loudest advocacy group for scrapping the monarchy.
That's because the queen went about her job and avoided controversy, Smith says. Although every prime minister starting with Winston Churchill briefed her nearly every Tuesday during her reign, Elizabeth stayed above politics, never giving a hint of her political leanings or signaling publicly which prime minister she liked best.
Serious debate about getting rid of the royals will come only under a monarch less astute, less admired and more gaffe-prone than Elizabeth on the throne, Smith says. "Her most enduring quality was her ability to hold onto power."
Lacey considers that a fitting tribute to a woman who devoted her life to performing a role she didn't choose.
"In the end," Lacey says, "she triumphed."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Queen Elizabeth II dead at 96, Prince Charles takes throne as king