Queen Elizabeth II, the world’s second-longest reigning monarch, died Thursday at the age of 96.
“The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” the palace said Thursday. “The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”
Elizabeth, who was Britain’s oldest monarch and served as queen for a record 70 years, is survived by her four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Her late husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, died on April 9, 2021.
Elizabeth’s eldest son, Prince Charles, succeeds her as sovereign of the United Kingdom. As king, he also takes her titles Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Elizabeth’s grandson Prince William and his son, Prince George, are now first and second to the throne, respectively.
The monarch also served as head of the Commonwealth, which consists of over 50 countries, during her reign.
Though this role is not hereditary, Charles was approved as his mother’s successor by the group’s heads of government in April 2018. Elizabeth had told the group it was her “sincere wish” for Charles to succeed her.
In December 2007, Elizabeth surpassed the record for longest-living U.K. monarch set by her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who died in 1901 at age 81. In September 2015, Elizabeth became the longest-reigning British monarch. Victoria, the former title-holder, had reigned for 63 years.
Elizabeth was the world’s second-longest reigning monarch after Louis XIV of France.
In February 2017, she celebrated her Sapphire Jubilee, the first British monarch to do so. That November, she became the first British monarch to celebrate a 70th wedding anniversary. She celebrated her Platinum Jubilee, which marks 70 years on the throne, on Feb. 6, 2022.
One of the most popular monarchs in the U.K.’s history, the queen was a globally recognized symbol of the British monarchy and its resilience in a changing world.
Elizabeth, however, wasn’t supposed to become queen; the role was thrust upon her unexpectedly.
She was born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary in London on April 21, 1926, to the then-Prince Albert, Duke of York, and his wife, Elizabeth, Duchess of York. The princess had been third in line to the throne when her uncle became King Edward VIII in 1936, upon the death of his father and Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V.
But Edward abdicated that year ― against the advice of the British government and the Church of England ― so he could marry Wallis Simpson, an American who was divorced. Elizabeth’s father was unexpectedly crowned King George VI as a consequence, and the course of her life and U.K. history was altered forever.
In 1952, George, who’d battled ill health for several years, died at the age of 56, and Elizabeth, who had no brothers, became queen at age 25. She had married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark ― whom she met when she was 13 years old ― less than five years earlier. The couple had two young children at the time.
Her coronation at London’s Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, was televised for the first time in the ceremony’s 900-year history. The decision initially enraged some senior officials, including Winston Churchill, who was then prime minister.
Churchill believed televising the event live could diminish the monarchy. But Elizabeth agreed to do it so that “as many people as possible could observe the ceremony.” She is quoted as telling Churchill that all her subjects "should have an opportunity of seeing it."
An estimated 27 million people in Britain (about three-quarters of the population at the time) ended up watching the event on TV. Millions of others listened to the ceremony on the radio.
Elizabeth showed loyalty to the institution of the monarchy and kept up with old rituals and traditions, but she was also a quiet reformer and modernizer. She made traditional events and royal grounds more accessible to the public, and hosted dinners at Buckingham Palace, where she mixed with people of all backgrounds, including businesspeople, charity workers, athletes and artists.
Still, the queen remained an enigmatic figure who kept her emotions and personal feelings private. Elizabeth rarely made her opinions on political or personal issues publicly known. And she never gave a press interview ― though she twice agreed to be filmed for documentaries.
The first film caused a stir when it screened in 1969, as no one had seen such intimate footage of the royals before. Buckingham Palace permanently withdrew the film from full public viewing later that year, concerned that it made the family seem too ordinary, though the film occasionally surfaces on YouTube.
In 2016, Elizabeth agreed to be part of a BBC film marking her 90th birthday.
The queen maintained the stoic composure that was the hallmark of her public persona, even in her darkest hour. In 1992, a period she described as her “annus horribilis,” or “disastrous year,” Elizabeth’s eldest sons, Princes Charles and Andrew, each separated from their wives; her daughter, Princess Anne, divorced; and a fire devastated Windsor Castle. “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” she said in a speech that November.
Five years later, the death of Charles’ former wife Diana, Princess of Wales, threatened the existence of the monarchy itself. Critics accused Elizabeth of being aloof and remaining in her Scottish castle instead of responding to the outpouring of grief that swept the U.K., as floral tributes to Diana filled streets near London’s royal palaces.
Tony Blair, then prime minister, was concerned the royal family was “out of touch” with public opinion, and persuaded the queen to travel back to London. She returned days later and acknowledged the sorrow of both the public and her own family in a televised broadcast that eased tensions. “She got the balance between showing emotion and retaining the respect and dignity of the of the monarchy,” Blair later told the broadcaster ITV of the speech.
During her reign, Elizabeth conferred hundreds of thousands of honors and awards, and though her role was mostly ceremonial, she was politically engaged. She’d pore over official documents and kept abreast with current affairs on a daily basis, and met privately with the prime minister of the day to have an intimate, confidential chat every week. Though the content of these meetings is largely unknown, the queen is believed to have acted as both confidant and adviser to these leaders.
Elizabeth also played an important diplomatic role, and was reportedly the most well-traveled monarch in history, with her diplomatic efforts taking her all over the world.
Among her most memorable, and successful, meetings was her 2011 state trip to Ireland. It was the first visit to Ireland by a British monarch in 100 years, and was seen as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation between the two countries. The queen’s show of goodwill, and her “words and bearing” during her visit, were “almost universally praised” by both Irish politicians and the general public, The Guardian reported at the time.
Though she was known for being dutiful, the queen occasionally showed glimpses of a more daring side, like when the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited her Balmoral estate in Scotland in 1998. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recounted in his memoir how Elizabeth had asked the then-crown prince if he’d like a tour of the property. He agreed and soon found himself in the passenger seat of a Land Rover.
“To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off,” Cowper-Coles wrote. “Women are not — yet — allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen.”
Showing a great willingness to promote interfaith harmony, Elizabeth, the head of the Anglican Church, met with five pontiffs, including Pope Francis, during her reign. The queen also met with a host of world leaders at home and abroad, including U.S. President Donald Trump, South African President Nelson Mandela, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu ― a visit that the queen reportedly described as the “worst three days of her life.”
“I think what the queen symbolizes, not just to Great Britain, but to the entire Commonwealth and obviously the entire world, is the best of England,” Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, told the BBC in 2011. Obama, who made state visits to Buckingham Palace in 2009 and Windsor Castle in 2016, said the monarch was a “charming” and “gracious” host.
A British anti-monarchy group called Republic has been calling for the end of the royal family’s reign for years. “Essentially, the monarchy is corrupt,” Graham Smith, the group’s chief executive, told The Guardian in 2018.
On the other side of the world, Australians have frequently mulled whether their government should become a republic or remain part of the monarchy. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has repeatedly suggested holding a plebiscite seeking voters’ opinions on this matter upon Elizabeth’s death.
Elizabeth also came under scrutiny for her handling of a sex abuse scandal involving her son Prince Andrew.
Virginia Giuffre has said that she was trafficked by disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein and that he forced her to have sex with Andrew in 2001, when she was a teenager. Andrew vigorously denied the accusations and in 2019 gave a disastrous BBC interview in which he failed to express sympathy for Epstein’s victims or even censure the late convicted sex offender’s actions. Amid widespread backlash to the interview, the Duke of York announced he was stepping back from public duties “for the foreseeable future.”
Following the interview, which Elizabeth had reportedly allowed, the queen’s judgment was criticized when she was pictured horseback riding with Andrew, in an apparent show of support, days after he announced he was stepping back. A few weeks later, Andrew attended the queen’s annual Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace and went to Christmas Day church services with his brother, Prince Charles.
“Many people’s judgment has been called into question over this, not least the queen for allowing the interview to take place,” royal commentator Peter Hunt told CNN, adding that Andrew’s behavior had “damaged the royal family.”
Andrew’s legal troubles didn’t end there. In August 2021, Giuffre sued Andrew in Manhattan, citing trafficking and sexual assault allegations stemming from when she was 17. The Duke of York’s behavior was once again tied to the queen, as he was pictured hiding out at his mother’s estate in order to escape process servers. Giuffre and Andrew eventually reached an out-of-court settlement in February 2022.
The queen’s final years were also marked by personal loss and family upheaval, as well as the challenge of helping guide the U.K. through the onset of COVID-19. In April 2020, Elizabeth was praised for her ability to reassure and unify people after she delivered a moving, emotional speech amid the uncertainty and dislocation of the pandemic. It was only the fifth time she had given a special address to the nation.
“We should take comfort that while we have more still to endure, better days will return,” she said in those remarks. “We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
It was a period regarded as another “annus horribilis” for the queen, in part because her grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, declared in January 2020 that they were stepping back as working senior members of the royal family to pursue financial freedom and a move to North America.
In March 2021, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex revealed in a bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey that a member of the royal family had expressed racist concerns before their son, Archie, was born, among other extraordinary revelations.
The queen subsequently issued a statement through Buckingham Palace saying: “The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.”
And shortly after Harry and Meghan’s interview aired, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and the queen’s beloved consort and husband of 73 years, died on April 9 at the age of 99. An image of Elizabeth sitting alone at the funeral, which was held at a relatively small scale in accordance with COVID-19 regulations, was seen as one of the most poignant moments of the day, and became a symbol of the loneliness and grief of losing a loved one during the coronavirus pandemic.
The queen once described the duke as her “strength and stay” in a speech celebrating the couple’s golden wedding anniversary, which marked their 50 years together.
“He is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know,” Elizabeth said on Nov. 20, 1997.
For her own part, the queen remained a widely beloved leader all the way through the final years of her life. In 2012, the year of her Diamond Jubilee ― or 60th year as queen ― and when London hosted the Olympic Games, Elizabeth had an approval rating in the U.K. of 90%, which was said to be an all-time high. In February 2017, around the time of her Sapphire Jubilee (or 65th year), she still reigned with an approval rating of about 80%.
In 1947, as a 21-year-old princess, Elizabeth delivered a speech to the Commonwealth in which she vowed that her “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.” She remained true to this promise until the end, refusing to abdicate even as other monarchs in Europe chose to do so.
Even in her late 80s and into her 90s, the queen, who became known for her monochromatic outfits, maintained an active schedule and was a patron of hundreds of charities and organizations, though in later years she began to pass on some of her patronages to other royals to “ease her workload.” She continued to draw massive crowds wherever she went.
“When you’re in the presence of the queen, you’re keyed up,” British historian Robert Lacey said in the 2012 BBC documentary “The Diamond Queen.” “You want to be your best. You want the occasion to be something you can talk to everybody about afterwards.”
“That of course is the magic of what she is wherever she goes,” Lacey said. “The real human exchange that happens there is not a facsimile, and it’s not drummed up by the press. It’s something about the best of us.”
Rebecca Falconer contributed reporting.