Queen Elizabeth II dies at age 96
Britain’s longest-reigning monarch kept watch as the modern era dawned
Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled the British Commonwealth through seven decades of the modern era—longer than any other British monarch—has died. She was 96.
The future queen was born on April 21, 1926, to Prince Albert, duke of York, and his wife, Elizabeth. At the time of her birth, her uncle, Prince Edward, was heir to the throne, and any children he had would have been in line for the crown before the young princess. But in 1936, Edward abdicated the throne to marry a divorced American woman. Elizabeth’s father was crowned King George VI, making her the presumptive heir.
In 1939, the 13-year-old princess began exchanging letters with Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, a distant relative, and they fell in love. Philip served in the British Royal Navy in World War II and became engaged to Elizabeth after the war ended. The two married at Westminster Abbey in 1947, when Elizabeth was 21. The couple had two children, Charles and Anne, before Elizabeth acceded to the throne.
Elizabeth started taking her father’s place at official royal appearances as his health failed in 1951. The king died in early 1952, and Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth II later that year.
The early decades of the queen’s reign saw the continued transformation of the former British Empire into a commonwealth of sovereign states. The United Kingdom had almost completely decolonized Africa by 1969 and gave constitutional sovereignty to Canada in 1982.
Sixteen prime ministers, starting with Winston Churchill, served during the queen’s reign. She welcomed new Prime Minister Liz Truss just days before her death. Her most memorable relationship was with Margaret Thatcher, who held the post between 1979 and 1990. The press scrutinized the leaders for proof of the rumored thorniness between them and assumed the worst when at a country barbecue the queen said, “Will somebody tell that woman to sit down?” The event was one over which the queen traditionally presided, and Thatcher had insisted on lending a hand.
Thatcher and the queen met weekly to discuss the state of the realm, and many observers agreed their conversations were more formal than familiar. But Elizabeth showed her appreciation for Thatcher when she attended her funeral in 2013; she had not attended the funeral of any other prime minister since Churchill’s.
During the 1990s, public interest in the monarchy focused on the escapades of Elizabeth’s adult children. She called 1992 her annus horribilis—her son Andrew separated from his wife, Sarah Ferguson, and her daughter Anne divorced her husband, Mark Phillips. Andrew has since been accused of sexual abuse by a woman who was also an alleged victim of the late Jeffrey Epstein. In 2019 he stopped representing the royal family in public.
In December 1992, Prince Charles and his wife, Diana, also separated. Public reports of infidelity in both of her son’s marriages dominated British tabloids that year and for years after.
Diana became a mascot for critics of the monarchy who thought the royals had used her and cast her aside. She was popularly called “The People’s Princess,” and her death in a car accident while fleeing paparazzi in 1997 cemented her legacy as beloved and unfortunate.
Elizabeth, Charles, and his sons stayed secluded at the queen’s Scottish estate of Balmoral for five days after the accident. Finally, public outrage over the queen’s perceived callousness prompted her to give a televised address expressing her sympathy.
Despite a dip in her popularity at that time, public support for Elizabeth remained solid through most of her reign. Approval of the monarchy peaked the year of her 2012 Diamond Jubilee, celebrating 60 years on the throne. The year before that, the wedding of her grandson Prince William, the son of Prince Charles, to Catherine Middleton sparked renewed adoration for royalty that has continued with the births of her great-grandchildren, George, Charlotte, and Louis.
Elizabeth rarely gave interviews or made unscripted public appearances. She was known for her composure and consistency in both behavior and dress—she usually appeared in public in matching, colorful hats and overcoats. British commenter Matthew Dennison summed up national sentiment toward the queen in a column commemorating her record-setting reign: “Whatever has or hasn’t happened in our national life over the past 63 years and seven months, we have all shared a single blessing of ‘steadiness, staying power, and self-sacrifice.’”
Among the queen’s consistent practices, she regularly went to Sunday worship in the Church of England, often driving herself in her later years. The queen made plain in public statements that her religious life stemmed from personal faith, not just her duty as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She often spoke in her annual Christmas addresses of her adoration for Jesus. In 2012, the year of her Diamond Jubilee, she encouraged the nation to embrace the true meaning of the birth of Christ:
“This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son ‘to serve, not to be served.’ He restored love and service to the center of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer this Christmas Day that His example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others.
“The carol, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter,’ ends by asking a question of all of us who know the Christmas story, of how God gave Himself to us in humble service: ‘What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part.’ The carol gives the answer, ‘Yet what I can I give Him—give my heart.’”
The queen is survived by her four adult children, Charles, Anne, Andrew, and Edward; eight grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren. Her husband, Prince Philip, died in 2021.
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