Queen Elizabeth II, whose reign took Britain from the age of steam to the era of the smartphone, and who oversaw the largely peaceful breakup of an empire that once spanned the globe, has died. She was 96.
She died peacefully at her estate in Balmoral, Scotland, on Thursday afternoon, according to a statement from Buckingham Palace.
Ascending the throne in 1952, Elizabeth led the U.K. through a time of political upheaval. She began her reign as head of an empire, albeit one in decline. By the time of her death, the future of the U.K. itself was in doubt, with recurrent calls for independence in Scotland and Britain’s exit from the European Union leading to renewed tension in Northern Ireland.
Elizabeth became the U.K.’s longest-serving monarch in 2015, when she surpassed the record of Queen Victoria, who had ruled from 1837 to 1901. The partner whom Elizabeth described as her “strength and stay,” Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years, died in April 2021, at 99.
Her eldest son, Charles, succeeds her on the throne as King Charles III.
“We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished sovereign and a much-loved mother,” he said in a statement. “I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country.”
Elizabeth reached the end of her reign with her popularity thoroughly rehabilitated after a period of criticism in the 1990s, which culminated in media-fueled outrage at the family’s muted response to Princess Diana’s death in 1997. When she celebrated 60 years on the throne in 2012, the same year London hosted the Olympic Games, hundreds of thousands of people thronged the streets of London for four days of Diamond Jubilee events.
Her Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne, took place in 2022. The celebration of her reign was marked with an appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace by a slimmed-down group comprising direct heirs to the throne and their immediate family.
In another symbolic moment of the continuity of monarchy, her heir, Prince Charles, and his first son, Prince William, both paid public tributes to the queen in front of a crowd of tens of thousands who flooded the area around the palace for a live concert.
One of the biggest challenges during her reign came from the media’s unrelenting focus on the private lives of her children and grandchildren.
Prince Charles’ wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 was seen on television by an estimated 750 million people. Archbishop Robert Runcie, who celebrated the marriage, called it the “stuff of which fairy tales are made” and the couple quickly had two children, Princes William and Harry. But within a few years the marriage was showing signs of strain as Charles and Diana openly snubbed each other on public outings and soon the tabloids were reporting their respective infidelities in minute detail.
The queen reportedly attempted to rescue her son’s marriage and, with it, the prestige of the crown, urging the couple to stay together and put on a brave face. She had little sympathy for their emotional upheavals, according to biographers.
Nor did the queen have much obvious fondness for the attention-seeking and photogenic Diana, who resisted the conventions of the court and upstaged Elizabeth.
“She simply did not want anything to do with that impossible girl,” Martin Charteris, the queen’s former private secretary, told Carolly Erickson for her 2004 biography, “Lilibet: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.”
But Diana’s rapport with the public was storing up problems for Elizabeth. Compared with the charismatic princess, the queen appeared more attached to her pet corgis, her horses and her palaces than to her subjects. On a chilly November night in 1992, Windsor Castle, where she had spent part of her childhood, was set ablaze after a tungsten lamp burned a curtain in the private chapel. Some of the castle’s grandest rooms were gutted.
The uninsured castle required tens of millions of pounds’ worth of repair, which the British taxpayer was in no mood to pay: The queen was already under pressure for being tax-exempt. Shortly after the fire, Buckingham Palace announced that both she and Charles would pay taxes on their private incomes.
The Windsor fire came to symbolize the litany of misfortunes — including the divorces of two of her other adult children — that befell the queen in a year she would later describe as an “annus horribilis.”
Journalist Andrew Morton published a tell-all biography of Princess Diana, with help from the princess herself. Another of the queen’s daughters-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, was photographed tanning in the company of a doting lover and Charles and Diana finally announced the end of their marriage.
When Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, along with her lover, Dodi Fayed, a high-profile Egyptian billionaire’s son, an impression began to take hold of the queen as a heartless figure, cut off from the public’s concerns.
While the entire country went into mourning, the queen remained at her summer residence at Balmoral Castle in Scotland and initially resisted calls for a flag to be flown at half-staff over Buckingham Palace. “Show us you care,” urged the headline in the Daily Express newspaper. “Speak to Us, Ma’am,” pleaded the Mirror. “Not one word has come from the royal lip, not one tear has been shed in public from a royal eye,” the Sun wrote.
The queen — who had been staying with her grandsons after the death of their mother — finally returned to London five days after the princess’s death, and delivered a televised address. She described Diana as “an exceptional and gifted human being” who had “made many, many people happy,” though she stopped short of expressing personal affection for her late daughter-in-law.
Over time, Charles’s mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, emerged from the shadows and was accepted at court. When they married, almost eight years after Diana’s death, the queen was present at a service of blessing in Windsor Castle and hosted a reception for them, although she didn’t attend the civil ceremony. In a sign of Camilla’s full acceptance into royal life, the queen said in 2022 she should be named queen as Charles’ consort.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born on April 21, 1926, in the London district of Mayfair. Initially unable to pronounce her given name, she called herself Lilibet, a nickname that became widely used by close relatives.
“She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant,” Winston Churchill, later to be the queen’s first prime minister, said of the 2-year-old Princess Elizabeth after a visit to her parents. Schooled at home by tutors, little Lilibet was, according to governess Marion Crawford, “very lovable” and fond of horses.
Elizabeth was 10 years old when her life was transformed.
Her uncle, Edward VIII, gave up the crown so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, and Elizabeth’s father, Prince Albert, reluctantly became King George VI. The family moved to Buckingham Palace and Elizabeth, his first-born, was suddenly heir to the throne. Her memories of the abdication reportedly reinforced her strong sense of public duty, which later became a hallmark of her reign.
During World War II, the king refused to send Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, to Canada, keeping them instead in royal residences outside the capital. When Nazi bombers pounded the East End of London in September 1940, the royal couple visited the victims. Buckingham Palace was also hit by German air raids.
In 1945, with the war drawing to a close, Elizabeth Windsor was allowed to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British army, as a second lieutenant, becoming the first female member of the royal family to be a full-time active member of the services. She took a six-week course in driving and vehicle maintenance, learning to steer convoy trucks and strip engines.
Once the war was over, the princess made clear she was in love with Prince Philip of Greece, whom she had met in 1939 when the royal family visited Dartmouth Naval College.