She ruled over Britain for seven decades, unshakably committed to the rituals of her role amid epic social and economic change and family scandal.
Queen Elizabeth II, the world’s longest-serving monarch, whose broadly popular seven-decade reign survived tectonic shifts in Britain’s post-imperial society and weathered successive challenges posed by the romantic choices, missteps and imbroglios of her descendants, died on Thursday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, her summer retreat. She was 96.
The royal family announced her death online, saying she had “died peacefully.” The announcement did not specify a cause.
Her death elevated her eldest son, Charles to the monarchy. In a statement, he said:
“The death of my beloved Mother, Her Majesty the Queen, is a moment of the greatest sadness for me and all members of my family.
“We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished Sovereign and a much-loved Mother. I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world.”
Earlier Thursday, Buckingham Palace said that the queen had been placed under medical supervision and that her doctors were “concerned” about her health. She had remained at Balmoral for much of the summer. On Wednesday evening, she abruptly canceled a virtual meeting with members of her Privy Council after her doctors advised her to rest.
On Tuesday, she met with the incoming Conservative prime minister, Liz Truss — the 15th prime minister the queen dealt with during her reign — though in doing so, because of infirmity, she broke with longstanding tradition by receiving her at Balmoral rather than at Buckingham Palace.
Elizabeth’s long years as sovereign were a time of enormous upheaval, in which she sought to project and protect the royal family as a rare bastion of permanence in a world of shifting values.
At her coronation on June 2, 1953, a year after she acceded to the throne, she surveyed a realm emerging from an empire of such geographical reach that it was said the sun never set on it. But by the new century, as she navigated her advancing years with increasing frailty, the frontiers had shrunk back. As Britain prepared to leave the European Union in 2020, a clamor for independence in Scotland was rekindled, potentially threatening to narrow her horizons yet further.
Her coronation was the first royal event of its kind to be broadcast almost in full on television. But it was a token of the changes — and global fascination — that accompanied her time as queen that her reign became the subject of a Hollywood movie and a blockbuster series on Netflix, while her family’s travails offered voluminous grist to the heated mill of social media.
Just as telling in the chronicles of her rule, Britons’ unquestioning deference to the crown had been supplanted by a gamut of emotions ranging from loyal and often affectionate tolerance to unbridled hostility. The monarchy was forced, more than ever, to justify its existence in the face of often skeptical public attention and scrutiny.
Elizabeth, though, remained determinedly committed to the hallmark aloofness, formality and pageantry by which the monarchy has long sought to preserve the mystique that underpinned its existence and survival. Her courtly and reserved manner changed little.
As the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 spread to Britain, forcing people to suspend their normal lives and social ways, the queen left Buckingham Palace, in central London, for Windsor Castle, west of the capital, a move that recalled the decades she had spent inspiring genuine affection among many Britons.
It was to Windsor that she and her younger sister, Margaret, were sent to escape the threat of German bombing after the outbreak of World War II in 1939. It was from Windsor, too, that she made her first radio broadcast as a princess in 1940, age 14, ostensibly directed at British children who had been evacuated to North America, according to her biographer Ben Pimlott, but also intended to sway official thinking in Washington.
“My sister, Margaret Rose, and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all,” Elizabeth said then.
In 2020, too, she sought to equate her plight with that of her subjects. “Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that loved ones are safe,” she said in a statement released after she and her husband, Prince Philip, arrived at Windsor. “I am certain that we are up to that challenge. You can be assured that my family and I stand ready to play our part.”
On April 5, 2020, in a televised address that evoked her 1940 broadcast, she urged her subjects to fight the virus with the same bulldog tenacity that wartime Britons had shown. It was only the fourth special broadcast of her monarchy outside of her scheduled TV appearances at Christmas.
“I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” she said. “And those who come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any..”
She added, “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,” the last line a direct reference to a wartime song by Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again.”
The extent of her success was clear by 2002 when, at 76, Elizabeth celebrated 50 years as queen with a four-day national holiday. She closed out the occasion with what Warren Hoge of The Times called “the traditional wave from the balcony of Buckingham Palace as choirs sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’”
“There was no doubt that the emotional and institutional hold on the nation that her presence represents had been emphatically revalidated,” Mr. Hoge wrote.
The shift from the closed early days of the monarchy was clear as one million people thronged the parks outside the gates of Buckingham Palace to watch a rock and pop concert on the palace grounds that was projected on giant screens. Brian May, the lead guitarist of the band Queen, played the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” in a live solo performance from the roof of the palace.
“The black-and-white newsreels from 1952 show a country very different from the one in which we live today,” Tony Blair, then the prime minister, said in toasting the queen in 2002 at a formal lunch in the 17th-century Guildhall. “You have adapted the monarchy successfully to the modern world, and that has been a challenge because it is a world that can pay scant regard to tradition and often values passing fashions above enduring faith.”
The queen replied, “It has been a pretty remarkable 50 years by any standards.”
Part of the public sympathy for the queen in 2002 may have derived from her personal losses: Her mother and her sister, Margaret, both died that year. And, although her role precluded direct political intervention, she used her position deftly to offer comfort to those facing loss.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she sent a message to New Yorkers, telling them, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And after the attacks in her own capital on July 7, 2005, in which four suicide bombers killed 52 people, she told Londoners, “Atrocities such as these simply reinforce our sense of community, our humanity and our trust in the rule of law.”