By Sarah Pruitt
Queen Elizabeth II, who served as ruler of the United Kingdom and its realms and territories for seven decades, has died at the age of 96.
Crowned at Westminster Abbey in June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was the nation’s longest-serving monarch, surpassing her great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who served for 63 years and 216 days on the throne, in 2015.
Incredibly popular for the duration of her long reign, she guided the country steadfastly through upheaval both personal (her children’s distressingly public marital struggles) and political (most recently, the Brexit vote), working with 14 different prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson. Her last official act as Queen was to appoint Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss.
Her eldest son, Prince Charles, succeeds her under the name of King Charles III, while Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, will take his father’s place as heir apparent to the throne.
When Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born to Prince Albert, Duke of York, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, on April 21, 1926, it seemed highly unlikely that Lilibet (as she was known to her family) would ever become queen. After all, her father was the second son of the sitting king, George V, and his older brother stood to inherit the throne.
But in late 1936, just 10 months after his coronation, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. With her father, known as “Bertie,” crowned as King George VI, 10-year-old Lilibet became the heir presumptive to the throne (not the heir apparent, as her parents could still have produced a son).
Educated by private tutors in a manner befitting a future queen, she studied British history and law and learned to speak fluent French. She became a Girl Guide (the British equivalent of a Girl Scout) and nurtured a lifelong passion for horses, including riding and breeding, and dogs, especially Welsh corgis.
During World War II, the teenaged Elizabeth fell in love with her third cousin, Prince Philip of Greece, an unlikely choice despite his royal pedigree and stellar Royal Navy career. In 1947, they married at Buckingham Palace, and the king made Philip Duke of Edinburgh.
The couple’s first son, Charles, was born in 1948; a daughter, Anne, came along in 1950. Before King George VI, suffering from lung cancer, called his daughter back to London in 1951 to take on some of his royal responsibilities, the young family lived for a time on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where Philip served on a Royal Navy destroyer.
News of a Father’s Death
In the first days of February 1952, Elizabeth and Philip spent the night at Sagana Lodge, a romantic cabin built among the branches of a large fig tree at the foot of Mount Kenya, in Africa.
According to her biographer Sally Bedell Smith, Elizabeth wore khaki trousers and filmed rhinos and monkeys with a handheld movie camera; one evening at sunset, she and Philip spotted a herd of some thirty elephants.
The romantic getaway was a belated wedding present from the government of Kenya, then a British colony, and the jumping-off point for the young couple’s planned six-month state visit to the Commonwealth nations of Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon. They would be filling in for the king, whose failing health forced him to renege on his commitment.
But things would not go to plan: The next day, a phone call from England brought the shocking news that Elizabeth’s 56-year-old father had died in his sleep from a blood clot in his heart. Now, Elizabeth would return to England as queen, a full three decades before she had expected to assume the throne.
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Elizabeth’s First Years as Queen
Throughout her more than seven decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth never gave a formal interview on camera, but in 2018 she came close, speaking to the BBC’s Alistair Bruce for a documentary about her coronation 65 years earlier at Westminster Abbey. The conversation offered a rare unscripted glimpse of the monarch, who recalled that the drive in the gold horse-drawn carriage from Buckingham Palace to Westminster was “horrible” and that the diamond and jewel-encrusted Imperial State Crown she wore was so heavy, she feared it would break her neck.
“It is sort of a pageant of chivalry and old-fashioned way of doing things, really,” the queen said of the coronation. “It’s the sort of, I suppose, the beginning of one’s life really as a sovereign.”
Elizabeth faced a few challenges early in her reign, including the scandal over her younger sister Margaret’s relationship with the older, divorced Peter Townsend. (Rather than renounce her right to the throne, Margaret gave up the relationship with Townsend in 1955; her later marriage to the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones dissolved into mutual infidelity and divorce.)
The young queen also weathered the Suez Crisis, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden; rumors about troubles in her own marriage; and criticism in the British press over the monarchy’s (and her own) outdated image. In 1957, the queen agreed to televise her annual Christmas broadcast for the first time, and some 30 million people tuned in, marking a new phase in the sovereign’s relationship with her subjects.
Toeing the Line Between Accessible and Ordinary
Elizabeth had two more sons, Andrew and Edward, in the early 1960s. Later that decade, the royal family allowed a BBC film crew to shadow them for a year, providing a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of their everyday lives. The resulting documentary, Royal Family, became a huge ratings hit when it aired on TV in 1969, showing scenes of the queen driving her car and buying ice cream for her younger sons, the family dining together and Prince Philip grilling sausages at the royal country estate in Balmoral, Scotland.
The idea behind the film had been to humanize the queen and her family, but critics (and the Queen herself, reportedly) thought it went too far, and showed them as too ordinary. Buckingham Palace withdrew the film from public view late that year, although a 90-second clip would be released to the National Portrait Gallery in 2011 as part of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration.
Public fascination with the royal family reached new heights when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, an event watched by an estimated 750 million TV viewers around the world. But in the early 1990s, the marriage failed in a highly public way: Prince Charles had reportedly never given up his relationship with a former flame, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Princess Diana (who was incredibly popular in Britain and around the world) later went public about their marriage woes, her own bulimia and the couple’s mutual infidelities.
After Diana’s tragic death in 1997, Queen Elizabeth earned widespread criticism for her decision to remain at Balmoral with her family rather than return to London. Finally, under pressure from Prime Minister Tony Blair and others, the queen agreed to return to greet the crowds of mourners, make a televised speech and allow the national flag to fly at half-mast above Buckingham Palace.
21st Century Renaissance of Popularity
By 2012, when Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee (60 years on the throne), a new generation of royals had come of age. Her eldest grandson, Prince William, had married Catherine Middleton the previous year; their first son, George, arrived in 2013.
Even into her 90s, Queen Elizabeth followed largely the same schedule as she had for decades, spending her mornings attending to her daily red box full of government papers, carrying out investitures and holding audiences at her official residence, Buckingham Palace. At Balmoral, she spent time outdoors, riding or walking the countryside with her dogs. She made some concessions to her advancing age, abandoning long-distance travel and passing on some of her official duties to Prince Charles.
In recent years, the royal family has been more popular than ever, thanks to the success of the TV series The Crown, Prince William’s growing family, and of course, Prince Harry’s marriage to the biracial American actress Meghan Markle. Polls continually suggest that a majority of Britons support the monarchy, many of them citing personal affection for Queen Elizabeth herself, and respect toward her decades of service to the country.
Though the end of her reign may reignite the debate over the monarchy’s existence, the public has also shown increasing support for Prince Charles, and even for Camilla, whom he married in 2005. Others argued he should pass the baton to the next generation: As of March 2019, when 70-year-old Charles celebrated the 50th anniversary of his formal investiture as Prince of Wales, a poll showed that 46 percent of those surveyed said they would approve of Charles’s decision to remove himself from succession in favor of Prince William.
In any case, the British crown appears as strong as ever, thanks in no small part to the woman who wore it with grace and dignity for longer than any other ruler in history.