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Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest serving monarch, has died

The queen's eldest son, Charles, is now king of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth Realms.

LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II, whose 70-year reign spanned wars, a pandemic, 14 U.S. presidents and the winding down of Britain’s vast empire, has died. Her eldest son, Charles, is now king. 

“The queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” the royal family said in a statement. “The king and the queen consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”

The longest-serving British monarch was 96.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor is also survived by her other children, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. Prince William, next in line to the throne, and Prince Harry are among her eight grandchildren. She has a dozen great-grandchildren.

Tributes for the queen poured in from around the world as soon as the news was announced.

President Joe Biden called Elizabeth “a stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy who deepened the bedrock Alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States.”

In a statement, Biden and the first lady wrote that “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was more than a monarch. She defined an era.”

The death of a monarch whose life spanned era-defining events, from the discovery of penicillin to the ubiquity of the internet, casts the United Kingdom into the unknown.

It’s “a really shocking and discombobulating moment for a lot of Brits,” NBC royal commentator Daisy McAndrew said before the queen’s death. “Everybody realizes that when she dies, it’s going to be a very big deal. But I don’t think that we really know the shockwaves that it’s going to send.” 

“It’s going to make us, as a nation, look at ourselves and think: Everything’s changed,” she added.

The queen’s official title spoke to the world she was born into in 1926: Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. Back then, her country was near the peak of the British Empire, spanning India, swaths of the Caribbean and Africa, Canada and Australia — a territory about equal to the Moon’s surface.

Queen Elizabeth in Royal Carriage
Queen Elizabeth in the royal carriage shortly after her coronation in London on June 2, 1953. Bettmann Archive / via Getty Images file

A speech on the day of her coronation June 2, 1953, spelled out the 27-year-old’s understanding of her outsize role as a constitutional monarch. 

“I have behind me not only the splendid traditions and the annals of more than a thousand years but the living strength and majesty of the Commonwealth and Empire; of societies old and new; of lands and races different in history and origins but all, by God’s Will, united in spirit and in aim,” she said. 

Shorn of that empire in the previous and over the following decades, the U.K. increasingly came to rely on the queen’s emblematic status for its international relevance. Throughout, Elizabeth was courted by world leaders who vied for her time and to be photographed alongside her practiced smile.

Elizabeth’s financial and property holdings made her one of the world’s richest women. While she also owned a spectacular and priceless jewelry collection, it was her bright, color-coordinated outfits, upper-class, countryside style accessorized by trademark hats, handbags and her companion Corgi dogs that are widely emulated, as well as caricatured.

But while world famous, the queen was also scrupulously careful about what she shared with the public. In fact, it was this silence that made her a potent figurehead who appeared to transcend partisan politics and became a kind of avatar onto whom millions could project their own expectations.

During her reign, 15 British prime ministers served in office and she met 13 American presidents — every United States leader during her time on the throne, apart from Lyndon B. Johnson.

“She is an astonishing person and a real jewel to the world and not just to the United Kingdom,” then-President Barack Obama said when visiting the U.K. in April 2016.

Personal life

Elizabeth was not born to be queen — her father was the second son of King George V. As the oldest child of Prince Albert, the Duke of York, and the Scottish aristocrat Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duchess of York, she was destined for extreme privilege enjoyed in relative obscurity. All this changed in 1936 when her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated so he could marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. 

Her father, a shy man who suffered from a bad stutter, was then thrust onto the throne to become King George VI. With that, carefree “Lilibet,” as she was known to some of those closest to her, became heir to the throne.

At the age of 13, she met Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark (later Philip Mountbatten), a dashing Naval officer and her third cousin. They began exchanging letters and years later were engaged, the union caused some controversy in royal circles at the time because of his relative poverty and status as an outsider.

Royal Honeymoon
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip enjoying a walk during their honeymoon in Hampshire, England, on Nov. 24. 1947.Topical Press / via Getty Images file

At the outbreak of World War II, her parents stayed in London, a hugely symbolic gesture at the time that was taken despite the German “Blitz” bombing campaign hitting Buckingham Palace. Then a teenager, Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, were among the 3 million people evacuated from cities to the countryside.

It was at Windsor Castle just outside London that the young heir gave her first public speech, a radio address during BBC’s Children’s Hour that was intended to boost national morale. 

Elizabeth was just as well-known for her family’s ups and downs. Her “annus horribilis” in 1992 saw a string of scandals related to her children, including that of Charles and his then-wife, Princess Diana, capped with a devastating fire at Windsor Castle. Five years later, the queen and the royal family were accused of being unemotional, and even disrespectful, following Diana’s death.

Those allegations were echoed after Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, left the royal family to live in California amid a flurry of accusations against the regal “firm,” including of racism, by one unnamed member.

And another of Elizabeth and Philip’s sons, Andrew, would be stripped of his titles following his friendship with the late financier and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, and his own now-settled lawsuit accusing him of sexual abuse, which he has denied.

Through it all, her long marriage to Philip is thought to have been very happy, and many pictures showed the couple laughing together.

“She has a wicked sense of humor. She loves jokes, as Prince Philips did of course,” McAndrew, the royal commentator, said. “Philip came very unstuck with it,” she said, referring to a number of jokes made by him that were deemed in poor taste or even racist, but the queen has “always been much more careful.”

What next?

With the queen’s death, the U.K. will now enter into mourning and at least 10 days of carefully choreographed pageantry that have been in the planning for years, codenamed “London Bridge” by Buckingham Palace, the government and law enforcement. The events will dominate radio and television broadcasts, newspaper front pages and conversations over water coolers and backyard fences for days.

Large crowds are expected to pay their respects as she lies in state in Parliament. World leaders will begin arriving in the U.K. to pay their tributes before the queen’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey. She will be buried in Windsor Castle, the home of Britain’s kings and queens for more than 1,000 years.

Next comes the unknown. 

Image: Queen Elizabeth II attends an audience with the President of Switzerland Ignazio Cassis at Windsor Castle on April 28, 2022 in Windsor, England.
Queen Elizabeth II attends an audience with Swiss President Ignazio Cassis at Windsor Castle on April 28, 2022, in Windsor, England. Dominic Lipinski / WPA Pool via Getty Images file

Charles is far less popular than his mother, a hangover from his mutual infidelity and divorce from Diana, and a public persona seen by many as divisive. Unlike the queen, whose popularity is based on her discreteness and impartiality, Charles has been caught up in a number of political controversies, such as writing letters to government ministers in an attempt to influence policy — verboten now he has become the country’s politically powerless constitutional monarch.

The future of the Commonwealth is also in doubt. This group of 56 member states is seen as a voluntary successor to the British empire, but recently there have been calls among its Caribbean members for Britain to pay reparations because of the crown’s historical links with the slave trade. Last year, Barbados ditched the British monarch of its head of state, and others, including Jamaica and even Australia have signaled they may one day follow.

In Britain, however, the queen’s death will be mourned both for who she was and the era she represented.

“There’s probably a lot of us born into Elizabeth II’s reign who didn’t grow up as red hot monarchists,” said the historical author and royal commentator Sarah Gristwood. “But particularly in the past few years, when the world has been going through such turmoil, with Covid and uncertainty and mistrust in the political establishment, she has taken on even greater importance.”

The queen’s enduring popularity was ultimately down to her “epitomizing and standing for the rest of us” despite all her enormous wealth and privilege, Gristwood added. For many, watching her life’s ups and downs was like seeing “own human dramas on a much more public, much more ceremonial stage.”

“This is the end of an era and hugely significant.”