After 70 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96
LONDON, England (AP) — Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning queen and a symbol of stability in a period marked by the loss of the British empire and disorder in her own family, died Thursday at the age of 70. She was 96 years old. She died at Balmoral Castle, her vacation retreat in Scotland, where members of the royal family had hurried to her side after her health deteriorated. She was the only monarch most Britons had ever known, and she was a link to the almost-vanished generation that fought in World War II. Her 73-year-old son, Prince Charles, was declared king automatically and will be known as King Charles III. Historically, British monarchs have chosen new names upon ascending to the throne. Camilla, Charles’ second wife, will be recognized as the Queen Consort.
After ten days of official mourning, a funeral was to be held. As her death was announced, the BBC played “God Save the Queen” over a portrait of Elizabeth in full regalia, and the flag over Buckingham Palace was lowered to half-staff, signaling the end of the second Elizabethan era. The consequences of her death will be enormous and unpredictable, both for the nation and for the monarchy, an institution she helped stabilize and modernize over decades of enormous social change and family scandals, but whose relevance in the twenty-first century has frequently been called into question. During the scandals, the public’s affection for the queen has helped to sustain support for the monarchy. Charles is nowhere near as well-liked. “I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms, and the Commonwealth, as well as by countless people around the world,” Charles said in a statement. The change of guard comes at a difficult time for Britain, which is dealing with an energy crisis, double-digit inflation, the war in Ukraine, and the consequences from Brexit. Prime Minister Liz Truss, who was chosen by the queen only 48 hours before, described the country as “devastated” and referred to Elizabeth as “the rock on which modern Britain was founded.”
When authorities handed a note certifying the queen’s death to the wrought-iron gates of the queen’s London palace, British subjects outside Buckingham Palace sobbed. Hundreds of mourners gathered in the rain, and dozens of colorful bouquets were placed at the gates. “This is a pretty big moment for me as a young person,” Romy McCarthy, 20, said. “It signifies the end of an era, especially for women. As someone to look up to, we had a powerful woman.” World leaders expressed their sympathies and paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. In Canada, where the British monarch is the country’s head of state, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lauded her “knowledge, compassion, and love.” In India, long the “jewel in the crown” of the British empire, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “She exemplified dignity and decency in public life. “I’m saddened by her death.”
President Joe Biden of the United States described her as a “stateswoman of unparalleled dignity and tenacity who enhanced the core partnership between the United Kingdom and the United States.” Since February 6, 1952, Elizabeth has reigned over a Britain that has rebuilt from a catastrophic and financially draining war, lost its empire, entered and then left the European Union, and endured the arduous transition into the twenty-first century. She lasted 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Truss, becoming an institution and an emblem, a calming presence even for people who despised or despised the monarchy. In her last years, she became less prominent as age and weakness limited her public appearances. But, when Britain celebrated her Platinum Jubilee with days of celebrations and pageants in June, Elizabeth remained firmly in charge of the monarchy and at the heart of national life.
That same month, she became the second-longest reigning queen in history, trailing only 17th-century French King Louis XIV, who ascended to the throne at the age of four. On Tuesday, she presided over a ceremony at Balmoral Castle to accept Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister and select Truss as his replacement. When Elizabeth was 21, nearly five years before becoming queen, she promised the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth that “my whole life, whether long or short, should be devoted to your service.”
It was a vow she honored for over seven decades
Despite Britain’s complicated and often contentious relationships with its former colonies, Elizabeth was widely respected and remained the head of state of over a dozen countries, from Canada to Tuvalu. She presided over the Commonwealth of 54 nations, which was founded on Britain and its former colonies. Elizabeth was the matriarch of a royal family whose troubles were a source of global fascination, heightened by fictionalized accounts such as the TV series “The Crown,” which died in 2021 at the age of 99. She leaves behind four children, eight grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren. She probably met more people than anyone else in history through countless public events. Her image was among the most widely reproduced in the world, appearing on stamps, coins, and banknotes. Her inner life and opinions, however, remained mostly a mystery. The public saw very little of her personality. She was a horse owner who seemed happiest during the Royal Ascot racing week. Her Welsh corgi dogs provided her with endless entertainment.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, the Duke and Duchess of York’s first child, was born on April 21, 1926 in London. Her father’s elder brother, Prince Edward, was predestined for the throne, to be followed by any children he had. But, when Elizabeth was 10, Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, and her father became King George VI. Princess Margaret recalled asking her sister if this meant Elizabeth would become queen one day. “I suppose so,” Elizabeth said, according to Margaret. “She never mentioned it again.” Elizabeth was barely out of her teens when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. While the monarch and queen stayed at Buckingham Palace and toured the bombed-out neighborhoods of London during the Blitz, Elizabeth and Margaret spent the most of the war at Windsor Castle, west of the city. Even still, 300 bombs were dropped in a nearby park, and the princesses spent many nights in an underground shelter.
When she was 14, she made her first public broadcast, giving a wartime message to children relocated to the countryside or overseas. “We youngsters at home are full of happiness and courage,” she declared, her voice a mix of stoicism and hope that would reverberate throughout her reign. “We are attempting to do all we can to support out great soldiers, sailors and airmen. And we are attempting to bear our fair share of the dangers and sorrows of war. We all know that in the end, everything will be fine.” After months of campaigning for her parents’ permission to help the war effort, the heir to the throne joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor in 1945. She eagerly learned how to drive and service heavy vehicles.
On the night the war ended in Europe, May 8, 1945, she and Margaret were swept along on a tide of happiness and relief, as she told the BBC decades later, describing it as “one of the most memorable nights of my life.” In November 1947, she married Royal Navy officer Philip Mountbatten, a prince of Greece and Denmark whom she met in 1939 when she was 13 and he was 18. Because postwar Britain was going through austerity and rationing, street decorations were limited, and no public holiday was declared. The bride, on the other hand, was given 100 extra ration coupons for her trousseau. For a time, the pair resided in Malta, where Philip was stationed, and Elizabeth led a somewhat typical life as a navy wife. Prince Charles, the first of their four children, was born in 1948. Princess Anne was born in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960, and Prince Edward in 1964. After years of terrible health, George VI died in 1952 at the age of 56. During a visit to Kenya, Elizabeth was informed that she was now queen.
Martin Charteris, her private secretary, recalled finding the new monarch at her desk, “sitting erect, no tears, color up a little, fully accepting her destiny.” “In a way, I didn’t have an apprenticeship,” Elizabeth said in a BBC documentary in 1992, providing a rare glimpse into her emotions. “My father died far too young, so it was all a very sudden kind of taking on and doing the best job you could.”Her coronation occurred more than a year later, in a great event at Westminster Abbey that was watched by millions via the then-new technology of television. Winston Churchill’s initial reaction to the king’s death was to complain that the new queen was “only a child,” but he was quickly won over and became an ardent admirer. The queen is head of state in Britain’s constitutional monarchy, but she has little direct power; in her official actions, she does what the government orders. She was, however, not without power. The queen, officially the head of the Church of England, once reportedly commented that there was nothing she could do legally to block the appointment of a bishop, “but I can always say that I should like more information. That is a signal that the Prime Minister will not overlook.”
While Elizabeth was alive, the extent of the monarch’s political influence sparked some speculation but not much criticism. Charles’ opinions, which have ranged from architecture to the environment, may prove more divisive. She was required to meet with the prime minister on a weekly basis, and they found her to be well-informed, inquisitive, and up to date. The only possible exception was Margaret Thatcher, with whom she was said to have a cool, if not frosty, relationship, though neither woman ever commented. The queen’s views in those private meetings became fodder for dramatists like Peter Morgan, author of the play “The Audience” and the hit TV series “The Crown.” Those semi-fictionalized accounts emerged during a period of declining deference and rising celebrity, when the royal family’s tribulations became public knowledge.
And there were plenty of problems within the family, dubbed “The Firm.” Princess Margaret’s infatuation with a divorced man sparked national outrage during Elizabeth’s first years on the throne. In what the queen referred to as the “terrible year” of 1992, her daughter Princess Anne divorced, Prince Charles and Princess Diana split, and her son Prince Andrew and his wife, Sarah, divorced. That was also the year that Windsor Castle, her chosen residence over Buckingham Palace, was severely devastated by fire. The public divorce of Charles and Diana – “There were three of us in that marriage,” Diana claimed of her husband’s connection with Camilla Parker Bowles – was followed by Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris in 1997. For once, the queen appeared to be out of step with her subjects. Many saw Elizabeth’s failure to make a public show of grief as unfeeling in the midst of unprecedented public mourning. She finally addressed the nation on television after several days.
Her popularity suffered only a minor setback. With a severe stare and a dazzling smile, she had become a type of national grandmother. Despite being one of the world’s richest individuals, Elizabeth was known for her thrift and common sense. She turned out lights in vacant rooms and strangled pheasants without hesitation. A newspaper reporter who posed as a palace footman captured images of the royal Tupperware on the breakfast table and a rubber duck in the bath, reinforcing that down-to-earth image. Her joy was not dampened when, in 1981, a young man aimed a pistol at her and fired six blanks as she rode by on a horse, nor when, in 1982, she discovered a disturbed intruder sitting on her bed in Buckingham Palace.
The magazine Private Eye satirized the queen’s image as an exemplar of ordinary British decency by calling her Brenda, apparently because it sounded working-class. Mrs. Windsor was dubbed by anti-monarchists. However, the republican cause gained little traction while the queen was still alive. In 2002, on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee, she stated that the country could “look back with measured pride on the history of the last 50 years.” “By any standard, it’s been a pretty remarkable 50 years,” she said in a speech. “There have been ups and downs, but anyone who remembers what life was like after those six long years of war understands the enormous changes that have occurred since then.” She was a reassuring presence at home, but she was also an emblem of Britain abroad — a type of soft power that was consistently respected, regardless of the country’s political leaders’ vagaries on the world stage. It seemed only natural for her to attend the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics alongside another icon, James Bond. She appeared to parachute into the Olympic Stadium, thanks to some movie magic. In 2015, she surpassed her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s reign of 63 years, seven months, and two days to become Britain’s longest-serving monarch. She continued to work into her tenth decade, though Prince Charles and his elder son, Prince William, increasingly took over the majority of royal duties, such as visits, ribbon-cuttings, and investitures.
Because of coronavirus restrictions, she was forced to sit alone at Philip’s funeral in the chapel at Windsor Castle in 2021. And the family problems persisted. Her son, Prince Andrew, became embroiled in the scandal surrounding sex offender businessman Jeffrey Epstein, an American businessman who had once been a friend. Andrew denied having sex with one of the women who claimed Epstein trafficked them. Prince Harry, the queen’s grandson, left Britain and his royal duties after marrying biracial American TV actress Meghan Markle in 2018. In an interview, he claimed that some members of the family, but not the queen, had been unwelcoming to his wife. She was in good health well into her 90s, though she did use a cane in an appearance after Philip died. She told guests at a reception months ago, “as you can see, I can’t move.” The palace, which was tight-lipped about the details, said the queen was having “episodic mobility issues.”
She met with diplomats and politicians virtually from Windsor Castle, but public appearances became increasingly rare. Meanwhile, she was preparing for the upcoming transition. In February, the queen announced that she wanted Camilla to be known as “Queen Consort” when “in the fullness of time” her son became king. It put an end to speculation about the role of the woman who was blamed for the breakdown of Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana in the 1990s. In May, she asked Charles to stand in for her and read the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, one of the monarch’s most important constitutional duties. Seven decades after WWII, Elizabeth was once again at the center of the national mood, this time due to the uncertainty and loss of COVID 19 – a disease she had herself in February. With the country on lockdown and Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized with the virus in April 2020, she delivered a rare video address urging people to stick together.
She invoked the spirit of World War II, a pivotal period in her and the nation’s history, by echoing Vera Lynn’s wartime anthem “We’ll Meet Again.” “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We’ll see our friends again. We’ll see our families again. “We’ll meet again,” she promised.