Queen Elizabeth II, the seemingly eternal monarch who became a bright but inscrutable beacon of continuity in the United Kingdom during more than seven decades of rule, died Sept. 8 at Balmoral Castle, her estate in the Scottish Highlands. She was 96.
In her reign, which began in February 1952 after the death of her father, King George VI, Elizabeth served as a constant and reassuring figure in Britain and on the world stage as she helped lead her country through a period of profound shifts in geopolitical power and national identity.
The designs of postage stamps and bank notes changed through the decades, but they all depicted the same, if aging, monarch. The British national anthem now shifts to “God Save the King,” but most Britons have only known the other version, for the queen.
Her son and heir, Charles, summed up the power of her constancy in a rare television documentary aired in 2012 to mark her 60th year as queen. “Perhaps subconsciously,” he said, “people feel encouraged, reassured by something that is always there.”
Her last major constitutional action came on Tuesday, when she accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and asked his successor, Liz Truss, to form a new government.
In a monarchy dating back to at least the 10th century with King Athelstan, Elizabeth’s reign was the longest. In 2015, she broke a record once thought unassailable, surpassing the 63-year rule of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. While Victoria retreated from her regal duties after the early death of her husband, Prince Albert, Elizabeth — with her outwardly stern demeanor, iron constitution and abiding handbag — remained fully engaged in her queenly duties for most of her life, and true to a pledge she made on her 21st birthday.
Then a fresh-faced princess on tour with her parents in South Africa, she broadcast to British Empire listeners around the globe: “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 length of that service, measured against that of other leading figures, proved astonishing — coinciding with that of 15 British prime ministers, 14 U.S. presidents and seven popes. As supreme governor of the Church of England, Elizabeth appointed six archbishops of Canterbury.
She also had to navigate shifting public attitudes toward the royal family as the increasingly unfettered media laid bare its troubles. The low point came in 1997 with the death in a car accident of her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, and public anger at the queen’s halting response to it.
It was one of few missteps, and the crisis passed: By the time of her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, Queen Elizabeth was the subject of a four-day love fest that included a waterborne procession on the River Thames that rivaled a medieval pageant. Her approval rating stood at 90 percent. At a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, then-Archbishop Rowan Williams said, “We are marking six decades of living proof that public service is possible, and that it is a place where happiness can be found.”
By the time of her platinum jubilee in 2022 marking her 70 years as queen, the national celebration had added another dimension, a shared recognition that the reign was almost over and was of a type that would not be seen again in terms of its length, pomp and place in a changed British society.
“While we celebrate the mightiness of Elizabeth II’s allegiance to a life of service, we should also acknowledge that an antiquated version of monarchy must now pass into history,” wrote journalist and royal watcher Tina Brown in her 2022 book, “The Palace Papers.”
Nothing captured this moment more clearly than the image of the queen at her husband’s funeral, held in 2021 amid restrictions related to the covid-19 pandemic. Dressed in black and with her face veiled by a mask, she seemed alone if not isolated in the oaken pews of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
The ensuing months were marked by increasing frailty, a rare hospitalization and a covid infection. She was unable to perform long-standing and familiar public duties.