Queen Elizabeth II, who was the longest reigning monarch in British history with 70 years of rule, died Thursday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. She was 96.
An unusual announcement on Thursday morning from Buckingham Palace that doctors were concerned about the queen’s health put royal watchers on high alert, as the move was viewed by many as preparation for a subsequent announcement of her passing. That theory was supported by the swift arrivals at Balmoral of the queen’s family, including her children—Prince Charles, who will succeed the queen, his brothers, Princes Andrew and Edward, and his sister, Princess Anne—as well as several of her grandchildren, including Princes William and Harry. Camilla, Duchess from Cornwall, joined Charles.
The announcement of Queen Elizabeth’s death was made at 6:30 pm GMT: “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” read the statement from Buckingham Palace. “The King and the Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.” The flag over Buckingham Palace was lowered to half-staff at the moment of the announcement.
Born on April 21, 1926, then-Princess Elizabeth was never expected to play an active role in the succession of England’s monarchs. As the oldest daughter of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, Elizabeth was the niece of Prince Edward, who succeeded his father as Edward VIII upon George’s death in January 1936. The famous twist of events that rocked Royal Family in the 1930s saw Edward abdicate his throne on December 1936. He chose to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite, rather than his duty towards the crown. Edward’s abdication resulted in Albert’s accession to the throne as King George VI, with Princess Elizabeth then thrust into the spotlight as the next in line for the crown.
Her father’s unexpected death just 16 years later from lung cancer and other complications placed Elizabeth on the throne at the age of 25. In June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was born. Her youthful glamour and energy brought joy to the monarchy in an England still reeling after the devastating effects of World War II. As proof of her desire to modernize both crown and country, Elizabeth’s coronation was televised. Although television cameras were readily available at the coronation of her father in 1937, they were prohibited inside Westminster Abbey. At the time of the queen’s accession, the British Commonwealth was comprised not only of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but also Canada, Australia, India and Pakistan. Since then, the commonwealth now includes 54 countries that total more than 2 million people. During her tenure, the queen met with 15 prime ministers. Winston Churchill was the first, and Liz Truss was the last.
Anglophiles and British citizens fell in love with Elizabeth well before she was made queen. During World War II, she gained attention at the age of 19 when she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army, and trained as a driver and auto mechanic, a move that was undeniably progressive for a woman member of the royal family. Meanwhile, amid the controversy of her uncle’s abdication, Elizabeth also had fallen in love with a young naval officer and distant cousin, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. Although her parents warned her to be cautious, Elizabeth made a strong choice and King George VI allowed the couple to wed in 1946. Elizabeth’s future husband was rechristened Philip Mountbatten, a family name that was deemed more palatable and further obscured his German ancestry.
Elizabeth used the post-World War II rationing coupons to purchase her pearl-embroidered satin wedding gown and lace veil. It was designed by Norman Hartnell in Britain. The UK sent Elizabeth its own coupons to pay for the gown, but these were returned promptly to their owners because such sharing was forbidden. The Britons’ affection for Elizabeth and her future queen was evident in their eagerness to help. Although the wedding was not broadcast live on television, it was captured and broadcast via BBC Radio to more than 200 million people worldwide. Highlights from TV were also shown. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who became the Duke of Edinburgh on their wedding day, were married for 73 years before Philip’s passing on April 9, 2021.
For most of their seven-plus decades together, and especially in the years immediately following Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation, the couple experienced a high-wattage lifestyle to which exceedingly few people could relate. The royal and her prince consort met the stars of the 20th-century, including Elton John and Marilyn Monroe. These appearances also put the queen’s enviable and historic jewels on display, a collection that’s estimated to include up to four dozen tiaras, roughly 100 brooches and up to 50 necklaces embellished with diamonds and gemstones. Cartier, Boucheron and Garrard & Co. are just a few of the fabled jewelry houses that have crafted pieces for the queen’s collection. These pieces are not to be confused with the Crown Jewels which are overseen by The Royal Collection Trust and taken out of Tower of London where they can only be seen for ceremonial occasions.
Although the royal lifestyle may seem glamorous on the surface, Queen Elizabeth had to deal with many issues that were common among mothers and wives. Her job was demanding and forced Philip to quit his Navy career. He also had to walk behind his wife at all events, according protocol. Those rough patches were sorted out, but the couple’s children later provided their own familial drama, from Charles’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer to their subsequent divorce, and Diana’s death in 1997—perhaps the most problematic time of the queen’s reign, as she misjudged the British public’s reaction to Diana’s death—to Prince Andrew’s divorce from Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson in 1996.
Many British citizens now regard Queen Elizabeth as a loved figure. Royal events that put England in a global spotlight burnished that attitude, from royal weddings—Prince William to Kate Middleton in 2011 and Prince Harry to Meghan Markle in 2018—to official celebrations, most notably this year’s Platinum Jubilee, the spectacular celebration marking Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne.
Balmoral Castle had been home to the queen since early July. According to the BBC, Windsor Castle tops the list of favorites among the queen’s seven official residences, but Balmoral Castle is roundly agreed upon to be a close second. Built in 1390, the original estate was not large, but Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandparents, replaced Balmoral Castle with a larger, more modern structure in the 1850s. Queen Elizabeth loved the quiet life afforded her by the 50,000-acre property. It was far from the intrusive gazes of the media. Commentators pointed out that the queen was not being moved to Aberdeen to receive treatment, but royal watchers believed she would prefer to stay at Balmoral.
As per royal protocol and a plan that’s long been in place, codenamed “Operation London Bridge,” Queen Elizabeth’s death will be followed by 10 days of mourning, with her state funeral expected to take place on Saturday, September 17, at Westminster Abbey.