On her 21st birthday in 1947, Princess Elizabeth went on the radio and made a promise to Britain and its Commonwealth nations: She pledged that “my whole life, whether it be short or long, will be devoted to your service.”
Over her very long life, Queen Elizabeth II fulfilled that vow.
Through 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss. Through Britain’s postwar deprivations, crippling labor unrest and Brexit. Through the messy divorces, embarrassments and scandals of her family. She endured through it all — a reassuring anchor in a fast-changing world.
The longest-reigning monarch that Britain has ever known, Elizabeth died Thursday at 96 at Balmoral Castle, her beloved summer home in Scotland, after having steadied and modernized the royal institution through seven decades of huge social change.
Truss pronounced the country “devastated” and called Elizabeth “the rock on which modern Britain was built.”
Her passing ends an era, the modern Elizabethan age. Her 73-year-old son, Charles, automatically became king upon her death. He will be known as King Charles III, although his coronation might not take place for months.
Through countless public events in her 70 years as monarch, Elizabeth likely met more people than anyone in history. Her image — on stamps, coins and bank notes — was among the most reproduced in the world.
But her inner life and opinions remained mostly an enigma. The public saw only glimpses of her personality: her joy watching horse racing at Royal Ascot or being with her beloved Welsh corgi dogs.
Yet Elizabeth had an intuitive bond with many of her subjects that seemed to strengthen over time, keeping a sense of perspective that served her well in most instances, said royal historian Robert Lacey.
“A lot of it comes from her modesty, the fact that she’s very conscious that she’s not important, that she’s there to do a job, that it’s the institution that matters,” he said.
The impact of her loss will be huge and unpredictable, both for the nation and for the monarchy, an institution whose relevance in the 21st century has often been called into question.
World leaders paid tribute to her long reign. U.S. President Joe Biden called her a “stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy.”
She strongly felt the burden of her role as queen, though she was not destined for the crown from birth.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in London on April 21, 1926, the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York. Her father’s elder brother, Prince Edward, was first in line for the throne, to be followed by any children he had.
But in 1936, when she was 10, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, and Elizabeth’s father became King George VI.
Her younger sister, Princess Margaret, recalled asking Elizabeth whether this meant that she would one day be queen. “Yes, I suppose it does,” Margaret quoted Elizabeth as saying. “She didn’t mention it again.”
Like many of her generation, Elizabeth was shaped by World War II.
She was barely in her teens when Britain went to war with Germany in 1939. While the king and queen stayed at Buckingham Palace during the Blitz and toured the bombed-out neighborhoods of London, Elizabeth and Margaret stayed for most of the war at Windsor Castle, west of the capital. Even there, 300 bombs fell in an adjacent park, and the princesses spent many nights in an underground shelter.
Her first public broadcast, made in 1940 when she was 14, was a wartime message to children evacuated to the countryside or overseas.
“We children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage,” she said with a blend of stoicism and hope that would echo throughout her reign. “We are trying to do all we can to help out gallant soldiers, sailors and airmen. And we are trying, too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well.”
In 1945, after months of urging her parents to let her do something for the war effort, the heir to the throne became Second Subaltern Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She enthusiastically learned how to drive and service heavy vehicles.
On the night the war ended in Europe, May 8, 1945, she and Margaret managed to mingle, unrecognized, with celebrating crowds in London — “swept along on a tide of happiness and relief,” as she told the BBC decades later. She described it as “one of the most memorable nights of my life.”
Two years later, at Westminster Abbey in November 1947, she married Royal Navy officer Philip Mountbatten, a prince of Greece and Denmark whom she had first met in 1939 when she was 13 and he 18. Postwar Britain was experiencing austerity and rationing, and so street decorations were limited, and no public holiday was declared. But the bride was allowed 100 extra ration coupons for her trousseau.
The marriage lasted more than 73 years, until Philip’s death last year at age 99.
The first of their four children, Prince Charles, was born on Nov. 14, 1948. He was followed by Princess Anne on Aug. 15, 1950, Prince Andrew on Feb. 19, 1960, and Prince Edward on March 10, 1964. Besides them, the queen is survived by eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Elizabeth and Philip lived for a time in Malta, where he was stationed and Elizabeth enjoyed an almost-normal life as a navy wife.
Then in February 1952, George VI died in his sleep at age 56 after years of ill health. Elizabeth, on a visit to Kenya, was told she was now queen.
“In a way, I didn’t have an apprenticeship,” Elizabeth told a BBC documentary in 1992 that gave a rare view into her emotions. “My father died much too young, and so it was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can.”
Her coronation took place more than a year later at Westminster Abbey, a grand spectacle viewed by millions through the new medium of television.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s first reaction to the king’s death was to complain that the new queen was “only a child,” but he was won over within days and became an ardent admirer.
“All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part,” Churchill’s biographer, Lord Moran, reported the prime minister gushing about the young monarch.
In Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the queen is head of state but has little direct power; in her official actions, she does what the government orders. However, she was not without influence.
Officially the head of the Church of England, she once reportedly commented that there was nothing she could do legally to block the appointment of a bishop, “but I can always say that I should like more information. That is an indication that the prime minister will not miss.”
The extent of the monarch’s political influence sparked occasional speculation, but not much criticism. The views of Charles, who has expressed strong opinions on everything from architecture to the environment, might prove more contentious.
The queen was obliged to meet weekly with the prime minister, and they generally found her well-informed, inquisitive and up to date. The one possible exception was Margaret Thatcher, with whom her relations were said to be cool, if not frosty, though neither ever commented.
The queen’s views in those private meetings became a subject of intense speculation and fertile grounds for dramatists like Peter Morgan, author of the play “The Audience” and hit TV series “The Crown.” Those semi-fictionalized accounts were the product of an era of declining deference and rising celebrity, when the royal troubles became public property.
And there were plenty of troubles in the royal family, an institution known within the palace as “The Firm.” In Elizabeth’s first years on the throne, Princess Margaret provoked a national controversy through her romance with a divorced man.
In what the queen called the “annus horribilis” of 1992, her daughter, Princess Anne, got divorced, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated, and so did Prince Andrew and his wife, Sarah. That was also the year Windsor Castle, a residence she far preferred to Buckingham Palace, was seriously damaged by fire.
The public split of Charles and Diana — “There were three of us in that marriage,” Diana said of her husband’s relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles — was followed by the shock of Diana’s death in a Paris car crash in 1997. For once, the queen appeared out of step with her people. Amid unprecedented national mourning, Elizabeth’s failure to make a public show of grief appeared to many to be unfeeling. After several days, she made a televised address to the nation.
The dent in her popularity was brief. She was by now a sort of national grandmother, with a stern gaze, a kind smile and an inexhaustible repertoire of brightly colored outfits with matching hats.
She took the monarchy from the black-and-white era to the digital age and was a cautious modernizer: She ended the presentation of debutantes at court and instituted garden parties with a cross section of her subjects; her children were sent to school, rather than being privately tutored as she was; she was the first monarch to give the annual royal Christmas speech on television, and the first to send an email and post a tweet.
Financial pressures led to staff reductions, cutbacks in repairs and maintenance at some of her palaces, and the removal of the royal yacht from active service. In the 1990s, she voluntarily but prudently agreed to pay taxes, and her dignity survived the necessity of topping up her income by opening a souvenir shop at Buckingham Palace.
Despite being one of the world’s wealthiest people, Elizabeth had a reputation for frugality and common sense. She was known as a monarch who took care to turn off lights in empty rooms, a country woman who didn’t flinch from strangling pheasants.
A newspaper reporter who went undercover to work as a palace footman reinforced that down-to-earth image, taking photos of the royal Tupperware on the breakfast table and a rubber duck in the bath.
“Dogs and horses, courtesy, kindliness and community service, count with her,” biographer Giles Brandreth wrote.
Her sangfroid was not dented when a young man aimed a pistol at her and fired six blanks as she rode by on a horse in 1981, nor when she discovered an intruder sitting on her bed in Buckingham Palace in 1982.
The image of the queen as an exemplar of ordinary British decency was satirized by the magazine Private Eye, which called her Brenda. Anti-monarchists dubbed her “Mrs. Windsor.” But the republican cause gained limited traction.
On her Golden Jubilee in 2002, she said the country could “look back with measured pride on the history of the last 50 years.”
“It has been a pretty remarkable 50 years by any standards,” she said in a speech. “There have been ups and downs, but anyone who can remember what things were like after those six long years of war appreciates what immense changes have been achieved since then.”
A reassuring presence at home, she was also an emblem of Britain abroad — a form of soft power, consistently respected whatever the vagaries of the country’s political leaders on the world stage. It felt only fitting that she attended the opening of the 2012 London Olympics alongside another icon, James Bond, as portrayed by Daniel Craig. Through some movie magic, she appeared to parachute into the Olympic Stadium.
Despite Britain’s complex and often fraught ties with its former colonies, Elizabeth was widely respected and remained head of state of more than a dozen countries, from Canada to Tuvalu. She headed the 54-nation Commonwealth, built around the U.K. and its former British colonies.
In 2015, she overtook Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother, as the longest-serving monarch in British history, and this year she became the second longest-reigning monarch in world history, behind 17th century French King Louis XIV, who took the throne at age 4.
She kept working well into her 10th decade, though Prince Charles and his elder son, Prince William, took over most of the visits, ribbon-cuttings and investitures that form the bulk of royal duties. The loss of Philip was a heavy blow, as she poignantly sat alone at his funeral in the chapel at Windsor Castle.
The family troubles kept coming. Her son, Prince Andrew, was entangled in the sordid tale of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, an American businessman who had been a friend. Andrew denies accusations that he had sex with one of the women who said she was trafficked by Epstein.
The queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, walked away from Britain and his royal duties after marrying American actress Meghan Markle in 2018. He alleged in an interview that some in the family -– but pointedly not the queen -– had been less than welcoming to his wife.
She enjoyed robust health well into her 90s, though frailty eventually caught up with her. In October, she spent a night in a London hospital for tests, and was later said by the palace to be experiencing “episodic mobility issues.”
She kept up virtual meetings with diplomats and politicians from Windsor Castle, but public duties grew rarer, though she made several appearances as the U.K. celebrated her Platinum Jubilee in June.
Pragmatic to the end, she began to prepare the country for the transition to come. She let it be known that she wanted Charles’ wife Camilla to be known as “Queen Consort” when her son became king. It removed a question mark over the future role of the woman some blamed for the breakup of Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana in the 1990s.
In May, she asked Charles to stand in for her and read the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, one of the monarch’s most central constitutional duties.
But she remained firmly in control of the monarchy and at the center of national life as Britain marked her Platinum Jubilee with parties and pageants. Just 48 hours before her death, she presided at a ceremony at Balmoral Castle to appoint Truss as the 15th prime minister of her reign.
Seven decades after World War II, Elizabeth was again at the center of the national mood amid the uncertainty and loss of COVID 19 — a disease she came through herself in February.
In April 2020 — with the country in lockdown and Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized with the virus — she made a rare video address, urging people to stick together.
She summoned the spirit of World War II, that vital time in her life, and the nation’s, by echoing Vera Lynn’s wartime anthem “We’ll Meet Again.”
“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.
At Queen Square in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood stands an urn erected to commemorate Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. Etched on the ground around it are the words of poet Philip Larkin, written for that event in 1977, but which remained true decades later:
“In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange,
There was one constant good
She did not change.”