Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, has died at the age of 96 at her Scottish residence, Balmoral Castle, surrounded by her family, Buckingham Palace announced on Thursday. Her son Charles, 73, is now king.
“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,” said the palace in a statement. A period of official mourning has been announced.
The health of the longest-serving and most popular monarch in the UK had been in decline since the death of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, in April 2021. The queen was able to witness the Platinum Jubilee celebrations held around the country to celebrate her 70th year on the throne and earlier this week had welcomed the outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his successor Liz Truss to Balmoral to charge the latter with forming a new government in her name.
Truss was the 15th prime minister to be received by a monarch who has been a fundamental part of British history throughout the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st. Despite the scandals and setbacks the House of Windsor has weathered during that period, the queen’s popularity remained unscathed until the curtain was drawn on what historians are now defining as the second Elizabethan Age.
It required decades of temperance, restraint, apprenticeship, blunders corrected and an anachronistic but necessary sense of duty for Elizabeth II to become an indispensable part of the fabric of British society that none of her subjects were ready to do without. She was the reason that an artist as loutish and provocative as Tracey Emin, whose most famous work is an unmade bed with soiled sheets, declared herself a “secret Monarchist.” She was also the reason Vivienne Westwood, the British fashion designer associated with the punk and new wave esthetic, declared (as millions of other women the world over have) that she is a “big fan” of the queen.
Elizabeth II was a universal symbol of what a European royal house represents and the most obvious demonstration that the survival of the monarchy as an institution depends always on the personality of who is wearing the crown. Her reign was a perfect combination of traditionalism, invisibility, liturgy, modernity in small doses and a delicate constitutional neutrality that earned her the respect of the 15 prime ministers, Labour and Conservative leaders alike, who governed in her name.
Clement Attlee, a social democrat who built Britain’s welfare state as Labour leader and served to quell a desire within his party to flirt with Republican sentiments, wrote that “all monarchs, if they are prepared to listen, over the years acquire a considerable inventory of knowledge about men and matters of the human state. And if they also have good judgment, they are capable of offering good advice.” A reign of 70 years lent Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, daughter of George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who was born in London on April 21, 1926, sufficient experience to command the respect of egos as formidable as those of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson.
Time worked to Queen Elizabeth’s advantage, because as the decades of her reign rolled by the British monarchy had been steadily losing its discretionary powers and becoming a more regulated and limited institution. She inherited an empire and at the age of 25 became the cornerstone of its constitutional architecture, a visible representation of a yearning for stability and unity in a
fragmented country, with her powers greatly reduced but with an influence over the future of the British people that even political figure would be hard pressed to attain. In 1956, when Anthony Eden resigned, and in 1963 when Harold Macmillan stepped down, she held the power to designate a successor. When the Conservatives installed their own method of internal leadership elections, the monarchy was stripped of this prerogative. According to historians, this was fortunate for the sovereign. “The monarchy benefitted from all of these restrictions on the queen’s power, because any exercising of discretion necessarily tends to be controversial,” said Vernon Bogdanor, one of Britain’s leading constitutional experts, at a conference held in 2016 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday.
On February 6, 1952, George VI died in his bed at the age of 56. The man whose stutter and fits of rage marked him out as an unlikely king. The child who wept on his mother’s shoulder when fate imposed an unexpected responsibility upon him. The monarch who had garnered the respect of his people by suffering alongside them during the Blitz had arranged for his daughter, Elizabeth, to have the necessary constitutional preparation to be the queen that he could never have. The young princess not only learned from private tutors such as the provost of Eton College, Henry Marten, who taught the uses and customs of parliament, she also memorized the bible to which her grandfather, George V, and her father had clung, to better understand the diffuse but transcendental role of the British crown: The English Constitution, written by legendary editor of The Economist, Walter Bagehot, who stated that the (unwritten) English Constitution consisted of two branches: solemnity and efficiency. The government, parliament and the state administration corresponded to the latter. The monarchy, “which symbolizes the state through pomp and ceremony,” the former.
Elizabeth II ascended the throne far from Britain: she learned of her father’s death while in Kenya as part of a lengthy tour of the Commonwealth countries with her husband, Prince Phillip. The previous night, they had slept in a hotel in a giant fig tree in the Aberdare National Park. British naturalist Jim Corbett, who was also a guest, famously said: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”
The news changed Elizabeth’s life, but unlike her father she was prepared for her destiny. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” the Princess Elizabeth had said via radio from Cape Town on April 21, 1947, at the age of 21. That imperial family has been dissolving over the years into more of a cultural and sentimental community of nations than an international organization with its own voice, but above it all the presence of Queen Elizabeth as its figurehead has been the reason countries such as Canada and Australia, with naturally Republican leanings, have maintained the monarch as their head of state.
The weight of the Windsors
The House of Windsor has had more than its fair share of drama over the years. And it was only natural that family drama would become a matter of national interest, such as the abdication of Edward VIII through his love for divorced American Wallis Simpson. Or Princess Margaret’s
impossible romance with war hero Captain Peter Townsend. In both instances, Elizabeth II was able to impose order with the strict hereditary rules of the monarchical institution. The shockwaves caused by Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ separation led Buckingham Palace into then uncharted territory: family drama was now global and the monarch was forced to negotiate a concept until then completely unfamiliar to her - popular culture. On November 24, 1992, the queen delivered her now famous speech, defining that year as her “annus horribilis.” Viewed in hindsight, the setbacks of those months almost arouse a feeling of tenderness, compared to what was to come.
Also in 1992, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson divorced. Thirty years later, she was forced to pay some of the €14 million that the Duke of York had to pay to draw a line under accusations of sexually abusing a minor. The same year book and media leaks laid bare the infidelities of Charles and Diana. Five years later, Diana’s death threatened the very fabric of the whole world constructed around Elizabeth II. Mauritius elected to leave the Commonwealth in 1992 and become a republic. Later came the referendum on Scottish independence and Brexit, which threw Britain into a crisis of identity from which it has yet to emerge.
Elizabeth II was there for all these events. Discreet, when it came to family misfortunes. Neutral in the face of the fragmentation of her kingdom. “I hope voters think carefully about their future,” she limited herself to saying before the Scottish referendum. It speaks volumes that even had Scotland voted for independence, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said from the outset that the monarch would remain the queen of a newly independent country. But Elizabeth’s real baptism of fire with her subjects was not born of economic crises, war, terrorism or the social unrest of the 1970s. Her most delicate moment came with the death of Diana in 1997, when the desire to keep family mourning private – and her evident lack of attachment to the “people’s princess” – clashed with a popular feeling of grief that verged on hysteria and fingers pointing to Buckingham Palace in search of someone to blame for the loss of a person who could herself have been their queen.
When she returned to London from Balmoral, images of Elizabeth II walking along the blanket of flowers that had been placed in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace by thousands of mourners were broadcast worldwide and marked the reconciliation of the monarch and her subjects, who had never intended to disown her but needed the smallest of gestures to be able to forgive her. At that moment, as recalled by Robert Lacey in his book Monarch: Life and Reign of Elizabeth II, an 11-year-old girl approached the queen and offered her five red roses. “Would you like me to put then with the others?” the monarch asked. “No, majesty, they’re for you,” the girl replied. A palace employee told Lacey: “People started to timidly applaud. And I remember thinking: ‘OK, everything is still in order.’”
Throughout her reign, Elizabeth II managed to transmit to the British people, through her mere presence and her strict compliance with the role that was hers to carry out, that everything was still in order. Although sometimes it wasn’t, because she was on occasion unable to correctly manage the excesses of members of her family. She bore the shame of Prince Andrew’s long and sordid friendship with Jeffrey Epstein until she could bear it no more. Her favorite son, according to the British press, Andrew was merely stripped of his royal titles and removed from public duties when his continued involvement in royal affairs represented a genuine danger to the institution. She made a similar move with Prince Harry, banning him from using his HRH title (although he retains it) and
stating he would no longer represent the queen when he launched a campaign of accusations of abuse and racism toward his wife, Meghan Markle. On both occasions, she remained silent. During her 70-year reign she never granted a single interview, leaving those her husband the Duke of Edinburgh. Charles and Andrew have given interviews, as have William and Harry.
Elizabeth II was an open book and an enigma. She was keen on nature, hunting and horses and simple in her routines. She ended every day with a brief annotation in her diary. She was also one of the main actors in the great theater of the world, playing the role expected of her by millions of spectators. She received 12 American presidents in London and hundreds of dignitaries, and held meetings with four different popes. The head of the Church of England, who prayed every night and was a true believer, Elizabeth witnessed the modernization of doctrine to accept divorce and to consecrate women and homosexuals.
Elizabeth II and her prime ministers
The first time that the monarch invested a prime minister younger than her was in 1997, when Tony Blair won the general election. When she was crowned in 1952, Liz Truss had not yet been born. Neither had Boris Johnson, David Cameron or Blair. A young Elizabeth admired Winston Churchill and listened to his advice, but later it was the monarch who would impart her wisdom to many politicians. Anthony Eden shared his plans for the catastrophic attempt to wrest control of the Suez Canal in 1956 and Margaret Thatcher kept her up to date with the latest developments in the Falklands War.
The queen’s role at all times was to express her doubts and concerns in the form of questions, and it is widely held that Blair was asked during one of his audiences before the invasion of Iraq whether it would not be a good idea to give the initiative a little more time and seek the backing of the UN, which never materialized, before proceeding.
The coronavirus pandemic and the death of Prince Philip
The marriage between Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh was the constant image of a devoted and inseparable couple. Philip was the only person able to tell the queen any home truths, and the only person capable of bringing out her biggest smiles in public. “He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know,” she said of her husband in 1997 when they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.
When Britons saw Elizabeth II dressed in black, with a protective mask, accompanying Philip’s coffin into Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021, many thought they were witnessing the end of an era. The queen had been confined to Windsor for over a year with her husband as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe. Her public duties had been drastically reduced and the more prominent roles handed to Charles and William, first and second in line to the throne, led many to believe they were witnessing a generational shift. But the pandemic passed and the queen gradually resumed her public duties ahead of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations this year. Implicit in the promise that she had made as a 21-year-old, to serve her people until the end of her days, was the idea that a British monarch only abandons the throne in death. Toward the end of her reign rumors were rife that she was planning to step aside and clear the way for the ascension of Charles, although these were never confirmed.
Perhaps the most affectionate description - and probably the closest to the general perception of Elizabeth II among Britons – was written by the historian Ben Pimlott, author of the most honest and balanced biography of the queen ever produced. “She was always the little girl in the huge palace, with her nose pressed against the window. She liked to think, and perhaps she was right, that many of her subjects saw in her someone very much like themselves: prosaic, unpretentious, the kind of person who, in the words of one of her admirers, goes around the house to turn out the lights the children left on.”