Queen Elizabeth, the Longest-Reigning British Monarch, Dies at 96

Her historic reign has come to an end as her son Charles assumes the throne

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Queen Elizabeth II, one of the most iconic figures of both the 20th and 21st centuries, has died. She was 96.

“The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” Buckingham Palace announced in an official statement on Thursday.

The statement continued, “The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”

The news of Queen Elizabeth’s death comes with another history-making moment: She is succeeded immediately by her eldest son, Prince Charles, 73, who will now be the monarch. Charles’ firstborn son, Prince William, 40, is now next in line to the world’s most famous throne, followed by his firstborn son, Prince George, 9. Her death follows her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, who died at age 99 in June 2021.

“I cannot lead you into battle,” the Queen, summing up her role in a 1957 Christmas broadcast, once told her subjects. “I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else: I can give my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.”

Image
Queen Elizabeth. Chris jackson/PA

Upon the Queen’s passing, the United Kingdom — where she reigned for a record 70 years — was plunged into public mourning. Around the world, including in the other nations that called her the head of state or Sovereign, her death was grieved by those to whom she was an unwavering fixture amid the turmoil of ever-changing times.

But the loss was most profound for her large family, including her four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Tim Rooke/REX Shutterstock (2735684by) <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-charles/" data-inlink="true">Prince Charles</a>, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-william/" data-inlink="true">Prince William</a>, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-george/" data-inlink="true">Prince George</a>, Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-harry/" data-inlink="true">Prince Harry</a> and James Viscount Severn Trooping the Colour ceremony, London, Britain - 13 Jun 2015
Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince George, Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry and James Viscount Severn Trooping the Colour ceremony in 2015. Tim Rooke/REX Shutterstock

The Queen’s death comes after a year of various health issues. In October 2021, she stepped out with a walking cane. The same month, she canceled a scheduled trip to Northern Ireland under medical advice from her doctors and spent a night in the hospital.

The Queen also decided not to appear at the Remembrance Day ceremony in November due to a sprained back and did not celebrate a traditional Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham, partially due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases around the holidays.

She tested positive for COVID-19 in February. She was being monitored for mild cold-like symptoms while continuing to carry on light duties, according to Buckingham Palace.

After the Queen appointed Liz Truss as the new prime minister of the United Kingdom at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on Tuesday, September 6, Buckingham Palace announced the following day that the Queen would not preside over a scheduled Privy Council meeting so she could rest.

<a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II waits in the Drawing Room before receiving newly elected leader of the Conservative party Liz Truss at Balmoral Castle
Queen Elizabeth. Jane Barlow – WPA Pool/Getty Images

Although the Queen did not attend every event during her Platinum Jubilee weekend in June, celebrating her historic 70-year reign, she appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony on two occasions.

At Trooping the Colour, the annual parade for her public birthday, the Queen stepped out in a blue ensemble surrounded by the working members of the royal family.

Later in the day, the Queen appeared at Windsor Castle to light the Platinum Jubilee beacon. Queen Elizabeth also starred in a pre-recorded sketch featuring Paddington Bear that kicked off the Platinum Party at the Palace.

The monarch also made a surprise appearance following the weekend’s finale event, the Platinum Jubilee Pageant. She was joined on the palace balcony by her immediate heirs and their families in a special moment that represented the future of the monarchy: Prince Charles and Camilla as well as Prince William, Kate Middleton and their three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. The national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” played as the family sang along. Red, white and blue fireworks went off as Prince George looked up at his great-granny, and she looked back at him fondly.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 05: <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-charles/" data-inlink="true">Prince Charles</a>, Prince of Wales, <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-george/" data-inlink="true">Prince George</a> of Cambridge, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-william/" data-inlink="true">Prince William</a>, Duke of Cambridge and <a href="https://people.com/tag/princess-charlotte/" data-inlink="true">Princess Charlotte</a> of Cambridge stand on the balcony during the Platinum Pageant on June 05, 2022 in London, England. The Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II is being celebrated from June 2 to June 5, 2022, in the UK and Commonwealth to mark the 70th anniversary of the accession of <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II on 6 February 1952. (Photo by Chris Jackson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth, Prince George, Prince William and Princess Charlotte. Chris Jackson – WPA Pool/Getty

One of the most enduring figures in modern history, her time on the throne spanned 14 U.S. presidencies and 15 British Prime Ministers, the most recent appointed by the Queen on Tuesday, September 6. In April 2016, she celebrated her milestone 90th birthday, a landmark occasion that followed worldwide celebrations of her record-breaking reign on September 9, 2015. (The day she passed previous record-holder Queen Victoria.)

Unlike her famous forbears, however, Elizabeth was never meant to be Queen. She inherited the throne at just 25 years old in February 1952 upon the death of her father, King George V — who himself had been a surprise monarch when his brother Edward VIII abdicated amid scandal in 1936.

By then, she and Prince Philip were already the parents of two young children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Prince Andrew and Prince Edward followed in 1960 and 1964.

The dramatic story of her ascension to the throne became the focus of renewed public interest with the premiere of the hugely successful Netflix series The Crown.

In 2011, during a glittering state dinner at Buckingham Palace for then-U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, the President summed up her longevity and place in history.

“This dinner is a humble reminder of the fleeting nature of presidencies and prime ministerships,” President Obama said in his toast. “Your Majesty’s reign has spanned about a dozen of each — and counting. That makes you both a living witness to the power of our alliance and a chief source of its resilience.”

A Carefree Childhood

Future King and Queen, George, Duke of York (1895 - 1952) and Elizabeth Duchess of York (1900 - 2002) holding their first child, future Monarch Princess Elizabeth at her christening ceremony.
Future King and Queen, George, Duke of York (1895–1952) and Elizabeth, Duchess of York (1900–2002), holding their first child, future monarch Princess Elizabeth at her christening ceremony. Central Press/Getty

Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, known to her family as Lilibet (a name the Queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, and granddaughter-in-law, Meghan Markle, would later choose for their daughter), came into the world on April 21, 1926, the elder daughter of the then-Duke and Duchess of York. (Her sister Margaret was born four years later.) The young princess enjoyed an idyllic childhood of homeschooling and long summer holidays playing in the heather in Scotland.

“It was a life of picnics, and paddling around in burns [Scottish streams] and watching people shooting,” her late cousin Margaret Rhodes previously told PEOPLE. Rhodes later said in the ITV documentary Our Queen at Ninety, “She was very much an ordinary little girl. But she was always a slightly serious little girl.”

Elizabeth’s father, the soon-to-be King George VI, famously described dutiful Elizabeth as his “pride” and fun-loving Margaret as his “joy.”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM: Picture dated from the year 1933 of Princess Margaret (L), the younger sister of future Britain's <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II (R). Margaret was born at Glamis Castle 21 August 1930.
Princess Margaret (left) and Princess Elizabeth in 1933. AFP/Getty

It was in those early years that Elizabeth fell in love with the first in a long line of her cherished corgis: a pup named Susan. The breed would later become a mainstay of her long life, captured in a special portrait by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz in 2016.

Another childhood fixture would also carry through to adulthood: her love of horses, which she owned both for pleasure and racing and rode into her 90s.

But the simple years were not to last long. By the time she was just 10, Elizabeth knew her destiny — when her uncle Edward abdicated after just a few months on the throne in order to marry his American lover, Wallis Simpson.

“Does that mean that you will have to be the next Queen?” her younger sister Margaret is said to have asked when the family learned of King Edward’s abdication.

“Yes, someday,” Elizabeth said. “Poor you,” came the reply.

Princess Elizabeth (later <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II) and her fiance, Philip Mountbatten at Buckingham Palace, after their engagement was announced, 10th July 1947.
Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and her then-fiancé Philip Mountbatten at Buckingham Palace after their engagement was announced on July 10, 1947. Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty

In her teens, the future Queen spotted the man she was to marry. Just 13 when she met the dashing Prince Philip, she wrote to him for several years before they began courting formally.

Many observers say the first signal that the two were destined for a future together came when a picture emerged of them at the wedding of their mutual cousin, Lady Patricia Mountbatten, in October 1946. They were spotted in the doorway of the Romsey Abbey in Hampshire, and as Elizabeth removed her coat, Philip looked on smiling, with his eyes locked on hers.

He was a handsome prince five years her senior, and Elizabeth a fresh-faced beauty. “Patricia Mountbatten said, ‘She has such beautiful skin,'” says biographer Sally Bedell Smith. “And Philip said, ‘She’s like that all over.’ There was a physical attraction!”

As their relationship grew, the two started spending more time together, especially when Philip accepted a job at an officers’ school in England and was able to visit with greater frequency.

“He’d spend weekends with us, and when the school was closed he spent six weeks at Balmoral,” Elizabeth wrote in a 1947 letter to author Betty Shew that went up for auction in April 2016. “It was great luck his getting a short job first then!”

Further into their relationship — but before their engagement — they would drive out in his sports car together.

“Philip enjoys driving and does it fast!” Elizabeth wrote. “He has his own tiny M.G. which he is very proud of — he has taken me about in it, once up to London, which was great fun, only it was like sitting on the road, and the wheels are almost as high as one’s head.”

A Wedding for the Ages

<a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II, as Princess Elizabeth, and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, styled <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-philip/" data-inlink="true">Prince Philip</a> in 1957, on their wedding day. She became queen on her father King George VI's death in 1952.
Then-Princess Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (styled Prince Philip) on their wedding day in 1957. Hulton Archive/Getty

On November 20, 1947, the pair married in a spectacular ceremony at London’s Westminster Abbey — the same place where Prince William would wed Kate Middleton in 2011.

And just like William and Kate, a young Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip brought smiles and celebrations to the nation — something that was certainly needed just two years after the end of World War II.

At the time of their wedding, which was the first major event following the end of the war, millions of Britons were living in the aftermath of the bomb-damaged cities and coping with food rations.

A 21-year-old Elizabeth, who was accompanied to the famous Abbey by her father, King George VI, wore an elegant Norman Hartnell gown. Philip, then 26, wore his ceremonial naval uniform. (He had served in the war — and so had she.)

“With her bridal dress and tiara on her wedding day, she was a knockout,” one of her bridesmaids, Pamela Hicks, previously told PEOPLE. “And, of course, Philip was every girl’s dream Viking prince.”

Sweet Newlywed Years Overseas

The first color photograph of Princess ANNE, taken in 1951, in the arms of her mother <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen ELIZABETH</a> II while her father, Philip MOUNTBATTEN, holds her brother <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-charles/" data-inlink="true">Prince CHARLES</a>. The family lives at Clarence House, in London.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with children Princess Anne and Prince Charles. Getty

After their wedding, Elizabeth and Philip spent around two years from 1949 to 1951 living in Malta while he was based there in the Royal Navy.

The blissful time was the “most ‘normal’ of her entire life,” biographer Ben Pimlott once noted. Their then-private secretary Mike Parker said it was a “fabulous period.”

It was, Pimlott wrote in The Queen, a “haven of comparative privacy and freedom from official duties.” She was happy being a service wife (albeit one with a retinue of servants) while she left her son, Prince Charles, then 1, in the charge of the royal nursery and his maternal grandparents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, back in Sandringham.

She announced she was pregnant with daughter Princess Anne in April 1950 and headed home to Clarence House in order to give birth in August that year.

Rise of a Young Queen

Coronation Day, 2 June 1953
Queen Elizabeth on her Coronation Day. Cecil Beaton. Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

But tragedy struck the young couple less than two years later when King George VI died at just 56 of lung cancer on February 6, 1952. Philip broke the news to his young wife while they were on safari in Kenya.

The death would become known as Ascension Day for Elizabeth, marking the beginning of her reign — and thrusting her new husband into the role he would play for the rest of his life: the consort to the Queen of England. (In 1957 Elizabeth granted him the title of prince that he had given up to marry her.)

Her coronation took place the following year, on June 2, 1953, in Westminster Abbey. But the post-war landscape was vastly different for Britain, and the once-vaunted British Empire evolved gradually, sometimes painfully, into the Commonwealth of Nations.

As head of state in the U.K. and many of those Commonwealth countries, Queen Elizabeth, supported by her family, represented the country abroad and at home, making historic trips everywhere from China to the Mideast to the Vatican while strengthening ties with old allies like the U.S. By 2015, she had hosted 110 state visits — including her famous state banquets at Buckingham Palace.

The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend the Queen's Diplomatic Reception at Buckingham Palace, London, UK, on the 8th December 2016. Picture by Dominic Lipinski/WPA-Pool. 08 Dec 2016 Pictured: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-charles/" data-inlink="true">Prince Charles</a>, Prince of Wales, Queen, <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a>, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-philip/" data-inlink="true">Prince Philip</a>, Duke of Edinburgh, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-william/" data-inlink="true">Prince William</a>, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, <a href="https://people.com/tag/kate-middleton/" data-inlink="true">Kate Middleton</a>.
The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend the Queen’s Diplomatic Reception at Buckingham Palace in London on December 8, 2016. MEGA

There can be few world figures who have met as many leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries, and fewer still to have shared as many secrets and insights with them. And yet through the decades, she offered little or no evidence of her opinions on state matters or on the political decisions and issues of the day, even during the controversial Brexit vote in June 2016.

Although she bonded with many of her fellow figureheads and elected politicians — South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was a favorite — it was said that she and Britain’s only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, weren’t close.

“There is nowhere on this planet, that I can think of, that she hasn’t been in the last 90 years,” her grandson Prince Harry said in 2016’s Our Queen at Ninety. Her tireless globe-trotting added quite a bit of pressure to the younger members of her family, Harry added. “Sometimes it’s quite hard, if you go to a place that she hasn’t visited for maybe 20, maybe 15 years. And you just think to yourself, How can I fulfill this expectation that comes with being a member of her family?

Personal Tragedies

<a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-charles/" data-inlink="true">Prince Charles</a> and Princess Diana on their wedding day on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. L to R: Queen Mother, pageboys Lord Nicholas Windsor and Edward van Cutsem, , <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II
Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth and royal wedding participants. Tim Graham Picture Library/AP

Away from affairs of state, there were personal setbacks, including seeing the marriages of two sons crumble: that of Prince Charles to Princess Diana and Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Charles and Diana’s very public divorce in 1992, which was accompanied by Diana’s thinly veiled criticism of her monarch mother-in-law, came the same year as a devastating fire at her favorite official residence, Windsor Castle. She would famously call the year her “annus horribilis.”

Then in 1997 came the intense shock of Princess Diana’s death in a Paris car crash — a world-shaking event that the stoic Queen was ill-equipped to navigate publicly. Diana’s grieving sons William and Harry were secluded in the highlands of Scotland with her, the family protecting them in their insurmountable grief.

And yet the public soon wondered why the flag at Buckingham Palace wasn’t lowered to half-staff, and then called for the Queen and Prince Philip to head south from Scotland to London. “Show Us You Care” cried a memorable headline in the Sun newspaper; 2006’s The Queen would go on to portray the events surrounding Her Majesty’s reaction to the death, with Helen Mirren earning an Oscar for her characterization of the emotionally removed monarch.

Her Twilight Years

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, <a href="https://people.com/tag/princess-charlotte/" data-inlink="true">Princess Charlotte</a>, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-george/" data-inlink="true">Prince George</a>, <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-william/" data-inlink="true">Prince William</a>, Duke of Cambridge, <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II and <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-philip/" data-inlink="true">Prince Philip</a>, Duke of Edinburgh stand on the balcony during the Trooping the Colour.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte, Prince George, Prince William, Prince Harry and Queen Elizabeth. Samir Hussein/WireImage

But time would soften even the ever-unflappable royal. When Charles wed his longtime love, Camilla Parker Bowles, in a low-key 2005 ceremony, the Queen welcomed her into the royal family with open arms.

More joy would follow with the spectacular wedding of her grandson Prince William to Kate Middleton in April 2011, introducing new energy to the family — and bringing a bright new smile to the Queen’s face. Confident that the couple wed for love and that the relationship is built on solid ground, she beamed throughout the historic day — a sign, palace insiders have told PEOPLE, of her contentment that the line of succession had been secured.

With the arrival of the young couple’s children, Prince George in 2013, Princess Charlotte in 2015 and Prince Louis in 2018, the line was cemented still further. She celebrated with a portrait commemorating four generations of royal heirs in 2016.

The Duchess Of Sussex Undertakes Her First Official Engagement With <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II
Queen Elizabeth and Meghan Markle in 2018. Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

She welcomed Meghan Markle — the first biracial member of the modern royal family — into the fold after her grandson, Prince Harry, introduced his beloved granny to his future wife in the fall of 2017. The Queen celebrated their nuptials on May 19, 2018, and hosted their luncheon reception at Windsor Castle immediately following the ceremony. She and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex later shared a memorable “away day” together via the royal train.

When Meghan and Harry stepped back from senior royal duty in January 2020, the Queen released a statement, saying in part, “My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family. Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family.”

The royal family sustained the loss of another senior member from official duty when Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son stepped down in November 2019 following a disastrous BBC interview regarding his longstanding friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Prince Andrew and <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Andrew. Chris Jackson/Getty

Through everything, the Queen relied on the stalwart support of her husband, Prince Philip, until his death in April 2021.

“Regardless of whether my grandfather seems to be doing his own thing, sort of wandering off like a fish down the river, the fact that he’s there — personally, I don’t think that she could do it without him,” Prince Harry told the BBC in 2012.

In the last years of her life, her leadership during the global COVID-19 pandemic evoked her steadiness during wartime.

“It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made, in 1940, helped by my sister,” she said in a televised address in April 2020. “We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.

“While we have faced challenges before, this one is different,” she added. “This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed — and that success will belong to every one of us.”

As the broadcast came to a close, the Queen reiterated that the tough times will not last forever.

“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,” she said. “But for now, I send my thanks and warmest good wishes to you all.”

A Lifetime of Service, a Legacy for the Future

CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND - JULY 13: <a href="https://people.com/tag/queen-elizabeth/" data-inlink="true">Queen Elizabeth</a> II and <a href="https://people.com/tag/prince-philip/" data-inlink="true">Prince Philip</a>, Duke of Edinburgh as they open the new East Anglian Air Ambulance Base at Cambridge Airport on July 13, 2016 in Cambridge, England. (Photo by Danny Martindale/WireImage)
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Danny Martindale/WireImage

On September 9, 2015, in a lifetime of landmarks, Elizabeth passed the record set for the longest reign by a British monarch. This was not something to which she “aspired,” she said on the day. “Inevitably, a long life can pass by many milestones; my own is no exception.”

As she approached her 90th birthday, her grandson William praised her “kindness and sense of humor, her innate sense of calm and perspective, and her love of family and home.”

Writing in a foreword to 2015’s Elizabeth II: The Steadfast, he added, “All of us who will inherit the legacy of my grandmother’s reign and generation need to do all we can to celebrate and learn from her story. Speaking for myself, I am privileged to have the Queen as a model for a life of service to the public.”

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