Queen Elizabeth II has died, it was announced today.
She had reigned since 1952, succeeding her father, George VI, and was the second longest-serving monarch in world history after Louis XIV of France, who reigned for 72 years. She will be succeeded by her eldest son, Charles, who will take the regnal name King Charles III. Her popularity among the British public endured even in a less deferential era and she was admired by republicans for her public service.
Her speeches and interventions during the Covid-19 pandemic were among her most praised. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again,” she said.
Elizabeth Windsor was born in 1926 in a private house in Bruton Street, Mayfair, and grew up alongside her younger sister, Margaret, with little expectation of wearing the crown, as her father was George V’s second son.
But the abdication crisis of 1936 – when Edward VIII renounced the throne to marry a divorcée, Wallis Simpson – made her heir presumptive. (If Elizabeth’s parents had later had a son, she would have moved down the order of succession. However, following a rule change in 2013, sons no longer precede daughters in the line of royal inheritance.)
During the Second World War, she trained as a mechanic and driver, and on VE Day, she and Margaret mingled anonymously with the crowds celebrating in London.
She married Philip Mountbatten in 1947, and he was created Duke of Edinburgh just before their wedding. In 1957 she made him a prince in his own right. The Queen and the Duke, who predeceased her on 9 April 2021, had four children: Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward. By her death, she had eight grandchildren – William, Harry, Eugenie, Beatrice, Zara, Peter, Louise and James. She also had 12 great-grandchildren, including George, Charlotte, Louis, Archie and Lilibet.
The Queen’s coronation in 1953 was the first event to be broadcast on TV around the world, and her reign spanned seven decades of incredible change. Perhaps her most difficult year was the “annus horribilis” of 1992, in which the marriages of three of her children ended and Windsor Castle was severely damaged in a fire. Following the speech in which she made the phrase her own, she agreed to pay income and capital gains tax.
Her reign was later troubled by her response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when her perceived remoteness unsettled the public, and by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s withdrawal as working royals last year. She was also forced to endure the indignity of her second son Prince Andrew being forced to permanently resign from public duties in May 2020 owing to his friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
In 2015 Elizabeth became the longest-reigning British monarch, exceeding the record held by Queen Victoria. During her time on the throne, Elizabeth was the head of state for a total of 32 nations; at the time of her death, she was sovereign of 15.
Writing in the New Statesman in 2011, the historian Dominic Sandbrook noted that Elizabeth was a consummate politician:
“Her reign has been mercifully short of constitutional crises: during what might have been difficult moments – the succession from Harold Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, the hung parliament of February 1974 and the coalition negotiations of 2010 – Buckingham Palace has been careful to take a back seat, allowing the prime minister of the day to make the running. As for her relations with her chief ministers, her first PMs, Churchill and Anthony Eden, were almost part of the furniture, while Macmillan and Douglas-Home came from familiar upper-class Tory backgrounds.
Funnily enough, it was her next prime minister, Harold Wilson, who reportedly became her favourite. This was not because she was seized with enthusiasm for the white heat of the technological revolution, poring excitedly over copies of his ill-fated National Plan; rather, she liked his middlebrow ordinariness, his fondness for the Boy Scout movement and Agatha Christie thrillers, his manifest enjoyment of the pageantry of monarchy. It says much about their relationship that when he told her of his plans to resign towards the end of 1975, she was busy washing up the dishes in a lodge at Balmoral after having made tea.
Four years later, the Queen faced an entirely unprecedented political challenge, in the form of another woman. By the time Margaret Thatcher had won the Falklands war, she had come to see herself as Britannia, a warrior queen wrapped in the Union flag. At the time, press reports suggested that the Queen and her prime minister had a “bad relationship”, with the monarch apparently outraged by the US invasion of Grenada, disturbed by the government’s attitude towards sanctions in South Africa and troubled by the rising levels of unemployment and public disorder.
Much of this was hearsay. “The Queen,” Ben Pimlott wrote, simply “did not have bad relationships with people”. But the rumours were good for the palace. They played on the image of the monarch as a well-meaning paternalist (or maternalist, perhaps), a benevolent centrist who hated conflict. Whatever her private views on taxation or deficit reduction, she is, in her public image at least, the last survivor of the One-Nation tradition.”
More recently, at the time of the Platinum Jubilee, Andrew Marr wrote:
“There has been a multitude of problems in the wider family but the Queen herself has reigned through crisis after crisis, bad times and good times, without saying or doing anything to cause embarrassment or political controversy. She has been calm, patient, dutiful. As the new century cartwheels forward, these relatively passive virtues seem ever more virtuous.
Neither they nor she are admired equally, either across the UK or across the generations. For older Britons, she is the country they have grown up in. She is a rare living link, and the most important one, to the Britain of the Second World War and the Attlee welfare state, as well as the last remnants of empire.
When she goes, many older Britons will experience trauma. Whenever it comes her death can hardly be a shock – she is 96. But for millions it will feel like the cutting of a living cord, a break in history. The United Kingdom faces so many challenges, including to its survival as a political unit, that when the second Elizabethan era ends the very ground will seem to move.”
As a constitutional monarch, Elizabeth rarely gave interviews and tried to avoid expressing political opinions. However, there were rumours of her dissatisfaction with Tony Blair’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a suggestion that she “backed Brexit“. David Cameron also reported that she “purred” over the phone to him in 2014 when she heard that Scotland had voted against independence.
The Queen was later drawn into political controversy in September 2019 when Boris Johnson was found by the Supreme Court to have misled her over the prorogation of parliament. Only two days before her death the Queen met Liz Truss, the 15th prime minister of her reign, at Balmoral and formally asked her to form a government.
Her successor, Charles, has been much more outspoken. He has long championed organic farming, protested against the “carbuncles” of modern architecture and written regularly to lobby ministers on favoured causes. It seems unlikely he will follow the model of monarchy – unwavering and silent – championed by his mother.