Queen Elizabeth II, U.K.’s Longest Serving Monarch, Dies

Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled the UK and her kingdoms and territories for seven decades, has died aged 96.

Crowned at Westminster Abbey in June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was the country’s longest-serving monarch, surpassing her great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who served 63 years and 216 days on the throne, in 2015 .

Incredibly popular for the duration of her long reign, she steadfastly guided the country through upheaval both personal (her children’s painfully 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 name Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss.

His eldest son, Prince Charles, succeeds him as monarch, while Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, will take his father’s place as heir apparent to the throne.

heir, unexpected

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, his father was the second son of the sitting king, George V, and his older brother was to inherit the throne.

But in late 1936, just 10 months after his coronation, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. With her father, known as “Bertie”, crowned King George VI, 10-year-old Lilibet became heir apparent to the throne (not heir apparent, as her parents might still have had a son).

Educated by private tutors in a manner befitting a future queen, she studied British history and law and learned to speak French fluently. She became a Guide (the UK equivalent of a Girl Scout) and nurtured a lifelong passion for horses, including riding and herding, and dogs, particularly Welsh Corgis.

During World War II, teenage Elizabeth fell in love with her third cousin, Prince Philip of Greece, an unlikely choice despite his royal pedigree and distinguished career in the Royal Navy. In 1947 they were married at Buckingham Palace and the King named Philip Duke of Edinburgh.

The couple’s first son, Charles, was born in 1948; a daughter, Anne, arrived in 1950. Before King George VI, suffering from lung cancer, recalled his daughter to London in 1951 to take on some of her royal responsibilities, the young family lived for a time on the Mediterranean island of Malta. , where Philip served on a Royal Navy destroyer.

Queen Elizabeth II chats with her father, King George VI, past the royal red boxes in her study at Windsor Castle, circa 1940s.

Queen Elizabeth II chats with her father, King George VI, past the royal red boxes in her study at Windsor Castle, circa 1940s.

News of the death of a father

In the early days of February 1952, Elizabeth and Philip spend the night at Sagana Lodge, a romantic cabin built between the branches of a large fig tree at the foot of Mount Kenya, Africa.

According to her biographer Sally Bedell Smith, Elizabeth wore khaki pants and filmed rhinos and monkeys with a portable camera; one evening at sunset, she and Philip spot a herd of about 30 elephants.

The romantic getaway was a belated wedding gift from the government of Kenya, then a British colony, and the starting point for the young couple’s planned six-month state visit to the Commonwealth countries of Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon. They would replace the king, whose failing health forced him to reconsider his commitment.

But things didn’t go as planned: 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, three decades before she expected to assume the throne.

Coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

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Elizabeth’s early years as Queen

In her more than seven decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth has never given an official on-camera interview, but in 2018 she stepped closer, speaking to the BBC’s Alistair Bruce for a documentary on his coronation 65 years earlier at Westminster Abbey. The conversation offered a rare unscripted glimpse of the monarch, who recalled the gold carriage ride from Buckingham Palace to Westminster was ‘awful’ and the diamond and jewel encrusted Imperial State Crown she wore was so heavy, she feared it would break her neck.

“It’s kind of a historical re-enactment of chivalry and an old-fashioned way, really,” the queen said of the coronation. “It’s kind of, I guess, the start of a life really as a ruler.”

Elizabeth faced a few challenges early in her reign, including the scandal of her younger sister Margaret’s relationship with older, divorced Peter Townsend. (Rather than give up her right to the throne, Margaret abandoned the relationship with Townsend in 1955; her subsequent marriage to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones dissolved in mutual infidelity and divorce.)

The young queen also withstood the Suez crisis, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden; rumors about problems in his own marriage; and criticism in the British press of the outdated image of the monarchy (and his own). In 1957, the Queen agreed to televise her annual Christmas program for the first time, and some 30 million people tuned in, marking a new stage in the Queen’s relationship with her subjects.

Royal Family, 1969

Queen Elizabeth II has lunch with Prince Philip and their children Princess Anne and Prince Charles at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, circa 1969. A camera, seen left, is set up to film the BBC documentary ‘Royal Family’ .

Walking the line between accessible and ordinary

Elizabeth had two other sons, Andrew and Edward, in the early 1960s. Later that decade, the Royal Family allowed a BBC film crew to follow them for a year, providing a glimpse on the wall of their everyday life. The resulting documentary, Royal familybecame a huge ratings hit when it aired on television in 1969, showing scenes of the Queen driving her car and buying ice cream for her youngest sons, the family having dinner together and Prince Philip grilling sausages at the royal estate of Balmoral, Scotland.

The idea behind the film was to humanize the Queen and her family, but critics (and the Queen herself, apparently) thought it went too far and cast them as too ordinary. Buckingham Palace withdrew the film from public view at the end of this year, although a 90-second clip was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011 as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

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 viewers worldwide. But in the early 1990s, the marriage broke down in very public ways: Prince Charles reportedly never gave up on his relationship with former flame, Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Princess Diana (who was incredibly popular in Britain and worldwide) later. went public with their marital woes, his own bulimia, and the couple’s mutual infidelities.

Following Diana’s tragic death in 1997, Queen Elizabeth drew widespread criticism for her decision to stay 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 wave to the crowd of mourners, make a televised speech and let the national flag fly at half mast above Buckingham Palace.

Queen Elizabeth II waves during a walk around Windsor on her 90th birthday on April 21, 2016.

Queen Elizabeth II waves during a walk around Windsor on her 90th birthday on April 21, 2016.

Revival of popularity in the 21st century

In 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 has followed much of the same schedule she’s had for decades, spending her mornings tending to her daily red box full of government documents, conducting investitures and holding audiences at his official residence, Buckingham Palace. At Balmoral, she spent time outdoors, horseback riding or walking in the countryside with her dogs. She made some concessions at her advanced age, giving up long-distance travel and transferring 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 television series The crown, Prince William’s growing family, and of course, Prince Harry’s marriage to biracial American actress Meghan Markle. Polls continually suggest a majority of Britons support the monarchy, with many citing personal affection for Queen Elizabeth herself and respect for her decades of service to the country.

Although the end of his reign may reignite the debate over the existence of the monarchy, the public has also shown growing support for Prince Charles, and even Camilla, whom he married in 2005. Others have argued that he should pass the baton to the next generation: As of March 2019, when Charles, 70, celebrated the 50th anniversary of his official investiture as Prince of Wales, a poll showed 46% of those polled said that they would approve of Charles’ decision to step down from the succession in favor of Prince William.

In any case, the British crown appears stronger than ever, thanks in large part to the woman who has worn it with grace and dignity longer than any other ruler in history.

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