Queen Elizabeth II — sovereign of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — has died at age 96, the Royal Family has confirmed.
On Sept. 8, the Royal Family released a statement that “the Queen’s doctors are concerned for Her Majesty’s health and have recommended she remain under medical supervision.” She was said to be comfortable and at Balmoral, the Scottish home of the Royal Family.
At 6.30 p.m. UK time on Sept. 8, the Royal Family tweeted a statement confirming the Queen’s passing: “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.” Her eldest son, now King Charles III, released a heartfelt statement: “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.” He added that he and the royal family “mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished sovereign and a much loved mother.”
This day brings to a close the 70-year reign of Britain’s longest ever serving monarch, and the second-longest reigning monarch in world history. In Feb. 2022, the Queen became the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee after 70 years of service.
Though Elizabeth was a monarch first and foremost for over half a century, her life prior to becoming queen was full of surprises.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, on April 21, 1926, to the then Duke and Duchess of York during her grandfather King George V’s reign. She was third in line to the throne at the time of her birth.
But, when her father was unwillingly thrust into the role of king in 1936 after Edward VIII’s abdication, Elizabeth was named Heir Presumptive. She was, however, not declared Heir Apparent due to the possibility of a male heir and succession laws that favoured male heirs regardless of their age.
As a young child, Elizabeth couldn’t pronounce her name, and called herself “Lilibet”, which swiftly became her nickname among her immediate family.
Wartime princess and truck mechanic
The young Elizabeth was keen to play a productive role in the home front effort during World War II. These efforts began with fundraising, but evolved once Elizabeth was old enough to join the women’s military effort.
Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret staged pantomimes at Christmas to raise money for yarn to be made into military garments. In October 1940, the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth made her first public speech and radio broadcast during the BBC’s Children’s Hour, sending a “message of true sympathy” to wartime evacuees.
“Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers. My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all,” said Elizabeth.
In 1942, Elizabeth — then aged 16 — registered with the Labour Exchange and was eager to join a division of the women’s armed forces. In 1945, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service as an honorary second subaltern. She trained as a mechanic and was promoted to honorary junior commander within five months.
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On Victory in Europe Day at the end of the war, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret mingled anonymously with celebratory crowds on the streets of London. “I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief,” Elizabeth later said of the experience in a rare interview.
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Marriage and family life
The 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark on Nov. 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey. The match was not without controversy. Philip was not deemed a suitable match by the king’s advisers, who did not approve of Philip’s lack of financial standing, home, and kingdom.
But, prior to the wedding, Philip renounced his Greek and Danish titles and converted to Anglicanism from Greek Orthodoxy.
Their wedding took place during the post-war recovery years during which austerity measures were still in place. This meant that Elizabeth had to save up ration coupons to buy fabric for her wedding dress.
Prince Philip, who passed away in April 2021, was the Queen’s constant companion throughout her reign, and was regularly by her side on official visits. Together they had four children: Charles, Prince of Wales; Anne, Princess Royal; Prince Andrew, Duke of York; and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. Queen Elizabeth had eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
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Queen in a king’s world
Her father’s death on Feb. 6, 1952, thrust 25-year-old Elizabeth into the role of queen at a young age. As her coronation took place on June 2, 1953 at Westminster Abbey in London, she ascended the throne at a time when the political sphere was entirely male-dominated. At the time of Elizabeth’s ascension, a 77-year-old Winston Churchill was at the helm of the British government and his cabinet was comprised entirely of male politicians.
Elizabeth fought to ensure her voice was heard, and that her age and gender would not be a barrier to being taken seriously by more senior politicians in the early days of her reign.
Elizabeth’s role as sovereign came with strict protocols that — in the early days of her reign — are believed to have caused tension between the Queen and her husband. Philip gave up his naval career to support his wife and he had to walk behind the Queen during all public engagements — two aspects which could be considered a reversal in the traditional marital roles of the 1950s. Contrary to the custom of the era, Elizabeth and Philip’s children took their mother’s name in order to keep the royal house named after Windsor. The Queen’s decision to do so (a decision believed to have galled Prince Philip) was based on advice from the cabinet to ensure stability for the British people.
No stranger to criticism
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Queen Elizabeth II was no stranger to criticism at several points throughout her reign, which have touched on her finances, the breakdown of her children’s marriages, and even the very existence of the monarchy. In 1992, Elizabeth publicly addressed criticism, stating that she did not believe she should be exempt from scrutiny.
“Criticism is good for people and for institutions that are part of public life. No institution, city, monarchy, whatever, should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support. Not to mention those who don’t,” the Queen said.
After enormous public pressure, it was announced in 1992 that the Queen would start to pay income tax and capital gains tax.
In the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, the Queen was criticised for the royal family’s response to the tragedy. The Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince Harry were on holiday at Balmoral — the family’s estate in Scotland — when news of Diana’s death broke. The royal family did not immediately return to Buckingham Palace after Diana’s death, nor did they fly the Union flag at half mast at the palace, attracting widespread public outrage. Many felt the Queen should have returned from Balmoral immediately, but it’s been reported that the Queen’s reason for not doing so stemmed from her desire to protect her grandsons in the immediate aftermath of their mother’s death.
Longest lived monarch
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Queen Elizabeth was Britain’s longest lived monarch, and in 2016, she became the world’s longest reigning living monarch following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.
A photograph was released in February to mark Accession Day 2022: the 70th anniversary of Her Majesty’s reign and the start of her Platinum Jubilee year.
She was a queen who struck a careful balance between a public appearance of tradition and stability and private, discreet acts of rebellion. The Queen is said to have trolled the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia by taking him for a spin in her car. Women were banned from driving until 2018 in the conservative Middle East monarchy. One cannot help but assume that the Queen’s driving tour was pointed. And, in recent years, the Queen quietly oversaw changes to the succession laws, bringing an end to older female heirs being superseded by their younger brothers in succession.
The Queen was no stranger to technology during her reign. She sent her first tweet in 2014 after opening the Information Age exhibition at London’s Science Museum. In 2020, the Queen took part in her first ever Zoom call, with some assistance from Princess Anne.
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What happens next?
Elizabeth’s death heralds the beginning of a new chapter in the royal family’s history, one where her son Charles will have a leading role. Prince Charles will become King, and the Queen has said that it is her “sincere wish” his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, will be known as Queen Consort.