The End of An Era: The Incredible Life and Legacy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Who Died at 96
A portrait of young Elizabeth II (1926-2022) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, wearing the crown of the kings and queens of England for her coronation in June of 1953. Her reign, which lasted into its 70th year, made her the longest-reigning British monarch in history. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor/Bettmann via Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled with aplomb and grace, has died at the age of 96, at Balmoral Castle, Scotland. Her long, illustrious life was bookended by two seismic global catastrophes: the Second World War and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement released soon after her death, King Charles III 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.
During this period of mourning and change, my family and I will be comforted and sustained by our knowledge of the respect and deep affection in which The Queen was so widely held.”
In a testament to the Queen’s stamina and commitment, she carried out one of her last duties on the Tuesday after Labour Day, meeting with outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and receiving the record-breaking 15th prime minister of her reign, Liz Truss, who as custom dictates kissed the Queen’s hand and was granted permission to form a government. A later meeting with her Privy Council the next evening was cancelled on the advice of doctors. In a dramatic moment in British Parliament this morning, Truss was called away after a note was passed to her informing her of the concerns for the Queen’s health.
Forged by the war of her youth and the ramifications of the shocking abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, Elizabeth II was steadfast of character and stoic in her resolve. These exemplary qualities enabled her to guide a nation, and a world, that looked to her for reassurance over her record-breaking reign of 70 years. Her life’s work crystallized in the dark, early days of the pandemic, when she offered a beacon of solidarity and hope, underscored by her own example of unwavering public service.
Elizabeth II’s iconic image never seemed to change even as she grew to a great age, repeated as it was endlessly on banknotes, coins and portraits the world over, a profile more familiar than that of our own mothers. The continuity belied the ability of the Queen to read the room; in her inscrutable and restrained manner, she adapted with the changing times, adjusting the fit of a very heavy crown to maintain the relevance of the institution she embodied.
Prince Charles, 73, is now King of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms, including Canada. Juxtaposed with his mother’s pragmatism, Charles was seen as a quirky environmentalist and sensitive aesthete through the decades as he waited to take on the mantle of his destiny. The times, however, have caught up to Charles, whose passions and focus are uniquely suited to address our imperilled planet and a less emotionally calibrated era.
Prince William, 40, is now heir to the throne, and in due time he will be invested as the Prince of Wales, the office held by his father since 1969. Prince George becomes second in line, with the top positions of succession moving up by one place. The Queen is survived by her four children, Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
The code words for the monarch’s death — “London Bridge Is Down” — were conveyed at 6:30 (U.K. time) Sept. 8, 2022 by the Queen’s Private Secretary to Britain’s Prime Minister, and his cabinet; the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, along with the leaders of the other 14 Commonwealth realms for which she was head of state, as well as the 54 states of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Plans for the Queen’s funeral have been in place since the 1960s, in a vast and detailed document known as Operation London Bridge. Code names were originally used to prevent Buckingham Palace telephone operators from learning about a monarch’s death before the country’s political leaders.
The death of Elizabeth II is not just the end of an era, but the end of many eras. Her reign began just as the world was emerging from the shadow and privations of war, with Winston Churchill at the helm of British Parliament, and she has been Head of State for 14 British prime ministers. She was declared Queen of Canada when she was coronated in 1953, a time period spanning the terms of 12 Canadian prime ministers.
The world has changed inestimably since Elizabeth uttered her personal pledge to a lifetime of duty on her 21st birthday, in 1947. “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 the great imperial family to which we all belong.” The words “imperial family” take on new, loaded meaning amid renewed republican sentiment across the Commonwealth, with Barbados the latest member to cut ties with the monarchy, removing the Queen as head of state in 2021.
Here in Canada, many of the treaties negotiated with Indigenous peoples that allocated land and resources were made in the name of the Crown. This relationship, too, will have to be reconciled, as Britain faces increasing calls to heal the wounds of its colonial past, and the Crown’s role in that dark legacy. Some Indigenous people in Canada, after receiving a personal apology from Pope Francis this past summer for the Catholic church’s role in the atrocities committed at residential schools, are demanding an apology and reparations from the Queen, the head of the Church of England and Canada’s head of state, for both the church’s and the Crown’s role in the assimilation disaster.
Elizabeth II, often bound by traditions that became increasingly anachronistic, charted an enduring course through tumultuous social, political and economic shifts around the globe. There were triumphs and mistakes, and many adjustments along the way. But it was the Queen’s steady hand and her immense popularity that imbued all the pomp and circumstance with resonance and meaning.
Her Finest Hour
The COVID-19 crisis was one of the Queen’s finest hours, proving her relevance when it mattered most. Early in the pandemic, she made one of only five televised addresses of her long reign, soothing not just the British public, but also a world that had come unglued. Her measured message managed to make sense of an upside-down world, and invoked the resolute spirit shown by Britons during the Second World War when she called on her subjects to show the resolve they had demonstrated decades ago. “We will meet again,” she said, quoting Vera Lynn’s 1940s song, which was popular when she was a teenager during the war. “Better days will return.” It was a reminder why Britons value stoicism as a way of coping with daunting challenges.
Royal biographer Clive Irving, author of 2021’s The Last Queen: Elizabeth II’s Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor, told Zoomer in an interview that the Queen became “more valuable as a consoling figure than a constitutional authority. She has a maternal quality, and has become the mother of the nation.”
The soundtrack that accompanied the Queen’s reign may have swung wildly with the times — from Lynn to Beatlemania, and encompassing Glam Rock, New Wave, Punk, Emo, Manchester Acid House, the Britpop of the Cool Britannia period and onward to the Adele era — but Queen Elizabeth remained much the same, somehow above popular culture. She did nevertheless conquer the pop culture canon, not just embracing technology via social media and Zoom. “I’m critical in particular that she was slow to understand the enormous cultural shifts and wonderful social transformations,” Irving said, “but today she has a beady eye on the pulse of cultural advances. She got there by sheer experience and pain.”
Elizabeth II was born at the end of the Greatest Generation (1901 to 1927), a label given by journalist Tom Brokaw to people who grew up during the Depression. It was a cohort that embodied characteristics that seem almost implausible now that we are mired in a me-first culture. The noble ideals associated with the Queen’s generation include a credo of humility and personal responsibility, financial prudence and an unflagging work ethic. Her fealty to those values is at the heart of what she meant to us, and why we care so much. Hopefully, she has instilled these timeless values in her family members — baby boomer Charles and millennial William — who are destined to follow her into a life of service.
She was also a beacon of longevity, and set an example for staying healthy through her long life. The Queen Mother attained the spectacular age of 101, and her eldest daughter clearly inherited genes and habits for a long life. Save for the short period of ill health before her death, the Queen lived a vigorous, balanced life, and was rewarded with glowing health through her 80s and 90s. Her habit of working every day and staying current with state affairs was enhanced by her embrace of the outdoors: walking, horseback riding, visiting her stables, playing with great-grandchildren and keeping up a full calendar until almost the end. The Queen remained engaged in her very full life.
Constructing the Iconography
We think of fashion as something changeable, but the Queen proved it can also be about staying the course. Her image — frozen in time and constrained by rigid protocols — remained static even as social change roiled. She retained her signature hats and stockings as Britain and the Western world fell under the spell of Mod culture and Mary Quant, and through every passing trend since.
The spotlight was always on her, even before she leap-frogged up the line of succession. From the moment of her birth, “Elizabeth captured the imagination,” Andrew Morton told Zoomer in an interview for his 2021 biography, Elizabeth & Margaret. “Everything she did was written about, and photographed. She appeared on matchboxes, playing cards, postcards, mugs, this very pretty blond-haired little girl.” Arriving on the scene during the Depression, Morton says she “provided a distraction to the woes of the public.”
The princess version of Elizabeth is long in the rearview, replaced by a few very powerful tropes she has crafted over the years. The first is Her Majesty The Queen, who we see at formal events and in portraits, on stamps and bank notes, with an unchanging cloud of wavy hair often topped by a tiara or a crown. It is also defined by purple robe trimmed in ermine, gowns with sashes, uniforms bedecked with medals and the sceptre of the realm. That image is frozen in time, overlayed with the signifiers of power.
The second trope is the Queen as outdoorsy countrywoman: walking with her corgis; atop a horse; in a kilt, Barbour jacket and Wellies, with an Hermès scarf wrapped around her head. This is a timeless vision that evokes the rosy cheeks of good health and long life, and an upper-class embrace of sport and animal husbandry.
The last trope is the most remarkable, for it was developed in her senior years, and was her greatest contribution to fashion in the past three decades. It is an unchanging, iconic formula of bright, matching coat, dress and hat, with a purse in the crook of her arm and a clear umbrella trimmed to match the day’s outfit. It is designed to stand out in a crowd: she herself articulated the strategy best, saying, “I have to be seen to be believed.” And the monochromatic brights also make a terrific rainbow slideshow of photographs for the internet age.
Very few people, especially women over 65, have that kind of instant brand recognition, created entirely through the lens of fashion.
None of her outfits have anything remotely to do with the runway, and that is much of their success. Telegraph fashion editor Bethan Holt, author of The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style, told Zoomer this year that the Queen has had a major influence on fashion, in a deeper sense than setting hemline trends. “Fashion has become enamoured with older women, and the Queen has definitely been central to that movement. We love women who have stayed true to themselves and created a unique look — the Queen completely epitomizes that, which is why she makes best-dressed lists and people want to buy the bag she carries or be as daring as she is with colour.”
The Queen had a keen sense of the power of imagery. Royals are restrained by protocol and custom from speaking out on politics and other controversial subjects, but the Queen used visual cues to symbolize shifts in royal philosophy. That is why she agreed to have her coronation televised. The image of her dancing a foxtrot with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah on tour in 1961 was a silent acknowledgement of the Civil Rights movement. And she must have known how modern (and iconic) she would look when she agreed to be filmed alongside James Bond (actor Daniel Craig) at Buckingham Palace in the remarkable and humorous intro to the opening of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, when they appeared to jump out of a plane together and parachute into the stadium.
For someone whose every move was relentlessly scrutinized, the Queen understood the power of small moments, too. When American first lady Michelle Obama instinctively moved to hug the Queen on a visit to England in 2009, without hesitation the monarch, whom protocol states no one is to touch, wrapped her arm around the wife of the American president. She used the erstwhile gaffe as a bridge to demonstrate her relatability, just as she did when she cracked a joke in front of world leaders.
The Queen’s life involved a great deal of significant events and tremendous stories, and Hollywood certainly noticed. She has been portrayed in movies and television shows by at least 14 actresses, ranging from Helen Mirren (twice) to Emma Thompson, with Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton playing Elizabeth II at various ages in the massive Netflix hit The Crown. Even as lines blur between reality and fictionalized accounts in the internet and streaming age, the real Queen kept calm, and carried on.
Change has threatened the monarchy on many fronts. Media revolutions — the rise of the tabloids and the all-encompassing reach of social media — put a largely unaccountable institution under unprecedented scrutiny and revealed human foibles, which made the Royal Family all the more intriguing. That came with a loss of deference in wider society, which made the monarchy appear even more aloof and unrelatable. And yet that remove helped preserve the institution itself, since the Queen knew, instinctively, that the mystique would be lost with overfamiliarity. Grandeur fades up close.
Former British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, who wrote the introduction to the 2022 book for the National Portrait Gallery, Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon, told Zoomer, “The Queen is the leader in personal branding. She has forged an image for herself to which she remains faithful and by which she is instantly recognizable. To have this embedded in the collective consciousness is invaluable, and means that you don’t have to keep adapting how you present yourself.”
Born the Princess Elizabeth of York, she was the granddaughter of King George V. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary came into the world on April 21, 1926, at Mayfair in London, the daughter of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Prince Albert. When her father, King George VI, died on Feb. 6, 1952, she became Elizabeth II 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. She was the longest-reigning monarch in British history, surpassing Queen Victoria, who ruled for 63 years.
Elizabeth was, of course, never supposed to be Queen. The abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII, in December of 1936 changed her destiny. From that moment on, she was being trained to take over the throne. Her childhood was spent in London, being educated by governesses, as was the custom for female children from noble families. As the Second World War approached, Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, moved to the Windsor estate, moving between Royal Lodge and Windsor Castle for safety during the Blitz.
Princess Elizabeth was eight when she met her future husband, 13-year-old Prince Philip of Greece, for the first time at the 1934 wedding of Prince George, Duke of Kent, to Philip’s cousin Princess Marina. Five years later, when the Queen was 13, they met again when Philip was a young naval officer, with the world on the verge of war.
Their wedding on Nov. 20, 1947, was a source of joy for a war-weary Britain. Princess Elizabeth spent the first years of her marriage as the wife of a commander in the British navy, and the young couple had their first two children in quick succession — Charles in 1948 and Anne in 1950.
In the ’40s and ’50s, Queen Elizabeth was an incredibly glamorous and beautiful young woman, and the crowds — and the newspapers — went wild for any glimpse of her and her younger sister, Princess Margaret. The echoes of adulation for the young York sisters came to be repeated, first with Diana-mania, and now with the spotlight trained on the current generation of Windsor grandchildren and their wives.
Upon the Queen’s accession to the throne, the young family entered a life of service. Her coronation, on June 2, 1953, was one of the first major events of the modern age, televised for the world to see, with 27 million people (out of a total population of 36 million) in the United Kingdom watching on TV and 11 million more listening to the radio. Some three million people lined the carriage route that day.
Her Greatest Achievement
Momentous historical events occurred on the Queen’s watch. The Berlin Wall rose, then came the Cold War and détente, followed by the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Civil Rights movement and the decolonization of the Commonwealth in the ’60s and ’70s. The European Union was created in 1973, and in 1982, her own son, Prince Andrew, went to war in the Falkland Islands. Diplomatic relations resumed with China and the Berlin Wall fell. The Arab Spring went through its incomplete arc. Wars raged and were extinguished.
But the most important achievement of Queen Elizabeth will be her stewardship of the Commonwealth. Even as it was threatened by calls for reparations — for instituting and perpetuating slavery — and announcements this year from Jamaica and Bahamas that they intend to remove her as head of state, it was her true life’s work. She began her time on the throne after her father, George VI, had reigned over the partitioning of India and the dismantling of the British Empire.
When she was named head of the Commonwealth on her accession to the throne in 1952, her vision was one of equality. “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”
The Commonwealth started out as a group of eight post-colonial nations, and now numbers 54. These are independent states and, on the whole, they have benefitted from the association with each other, and to Britain as a G7 world power. The colonial identity comes with an egregious history of slavery, and the Royal Family itself has ties to the slave trade dating back to the 16th century and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. These things must be reckoned with in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and change must come at a pace to which the Crown is not accustomed.
The Prince of Wales, it has been pre-arranged via a vote of Commonwealth nations at the request of the Queen in 2018, will be the next head of the Commonwealth. This year, his son and heir, William, Duke of Cambridge and his wife, Catherine, returned from a Platinum Jubilee tour of the Caribbean with protests ringing in their ears. William has vowed to serve the changing needs of the Commonwealth, and reiterated the family’s stance that states must determine their own fate. The success or failure of Charles and William will do much to determine the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II.
A Unique Family Dynamic
Queen Elizabeth juggled an incredibly complicated work-home balance, decades ahead of the progressive changes that would rock the domestic social order across the Western world. Her situation was unique, in that she had to place the preservation of the Crown ahead of herself and her family. Her husband had to learn to walk behind her from the moment she became Queen. All family interactions were constricted by protocol, down to who curtseyed and bowed to whom and when, and determined the order in which various family members arrived at both public and private events. No one ate before the Queen picked up her utensils; no one ate after she laid them down.
This rigid formality, combined with the time-consuming and stressful burden of her work and frequent travel, made for a difficult family dynamic. The Queen, it is often reported (and portrayed in the retelling of stories of Royal Family life), was a distant mother. The repercussions of this devotion to duty over the nursery played out over the years in the struggles and scandals of her children and grandchildren, which occasionally became public. Her commitment to her obligations — especially her role as head of the Church of England — meant divorce was never an option for her generation.
Thus it must have pained her when three of her children divorced, particularly Diana and Charles, who is now the head of the Church of England himself — a church founded to accommodate the divorce of King Henry VIII. Still, the Queen fought hard to make amends for the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, leading a life of restraint and propriety.
Recent years have been marked by interfamily turbulence, notably the scandals involving Prince Andrew and the late, convicted American pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The Queen ordered Andrew to step down from all royal duties in the aftermath of a failed BBC news interview to explain his side of the story. One wonders whether she gave her “favourite son” too long a leash, for too long. She was no doubt acutely aware that the “spare” — her sister Margaret, her second son Andrew, and Charles’s second son Harry — often had the hardest job in the Firm, a life without the purpose and meaning of the heir, but constrained by the palace walls from pursuing their own way in life.
Enter the problems with Harry after his whirlwind marriage to American Meghan Markle. After a rush of goodwill and fresh air in the aftermath of their royal wedding, relations between Harry and Meghan and the Crown soured fast. The drama of Megxit, when they left abruptly after a high-drama negotiated settlement with the Queen, taking son Archie to Canada, then Los Angeles, prompted an avalanche of derogatory headlines internationally. The couple stepped down formally from their roles as senior royals in 2020, then set the palace gates ablaze with their tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey.
The very public family squabbles continued to play out through the April 2021 death of Prince Philip. The newly widowed Queen rallied to host the G7 summit that summer, where her remarkable stamina, humour and equanimity were on display. By the end of 2021, she began withdrawing from events due to continued ill health. She also began setting her affairs in order. Charles got Camilla by his side, with the title he wanted. A new, slimmed-down team of working royals — Charles and Camilla, William and Catherine — were elevated to the fore, with a tight core of Charles’ siblings — Anne, Edward and his wife, Sophie — supporting them.
Then, no doubt under pressure from the Crown, Prince Andrew settled a pricey American lawsuit (though did not admit guilt) from trafficking victim Virginia Giuffre, who accused him of having sex with her when she was a minor. The Queen made a clear statement that, although stripped of his formal duties and patronages to protect and distance the monarchy from his scandals, Andrew was nevertheless part of the family. She did so silently, by allowing Andrew to guide her down the aisle at the Service of Thanksgiving for Prince Philip in March of 2022.
Alas, the issue of Prince Harry’s estrangement from the Royal Family remained unresolved, at least publicly. The Sussexes returned to England for the Platinum Jubilee as a family of four, and the Queen met her namesake, Lilibet, for the first time. But arrangements left the Sussexes, no longer working senior Royal Family members, relegated to the sidelines, with only a short window of time with the monarch. Anticipation around the release of Harry’s memoirs, expected to land like a bomb in the fall of 2022, no doubt contributed to a frosty atmosphere.
Towards the end, the Queen softened her reactions to her family. The monarch who felt forced half a century earlier to deny her sister Margaret’s pleas to marry her young love, Capt. Peter Townsend, due to the scandal of his prior divorce, showed in the past few years that, while she had to be tough with Andrew and Harry to safeguard the Crown, she made them welcome in private family life.
Celebrated journalist and biographer Tina Brown told Zoomer in an interview for her 2022 book, The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor – the Truth and the Turmoil: “I think the Queen has been very saddened by what has happened to her family. She’s also so pragmatic. She knows her reign is coming to the twilight moment.” Her concern, continued Brown, was to tidy up things. “I think she is focused on how do I leave this solid? How do I leave my legacy intact? It won’t be easy because her family have not shown the same self-discipline. Except for William and Kate.”
She found solace, too, in the next generations. Getty Royal Photographer Chris Jackson witnessed some intimate behind-the-scenes interactions. He told Zoomer about them in an interview for his coffee-table book, Elizabeth II: A Queen For Our Time. “There are so many heartwarming moments,” he said. “Especially with her grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Seeing her interact with them, her face just lights up. It is rare, but so lovely.”
Diana as Crucible
One of the most significant gestures the Queen ever made was a tiny bow of her head as Diana’s casket was wheeled past her en route to her funeral. In that gesture, the Queen knew she had to stoop to conquer. The death of Diana demarcated two distinct parts of the Queen’s reign: before Diana’s death, the Queen bowed to no one, but the public outcry over her perceived lack of compassion for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren William and Harry changed the course of her reign as she learned to listen, and respond, to her subjects.
When she arrived on the scene in 1981, Diana Spencer seemed like the answer to the Queen’s succession plans. Of noble birth, virginal, beautiful and immensely popular, she injected a much-needed breath of fresh air and currency into the institution. She embodied the princess in the fairy tale. The birth of William and Harry, the heir and the spare, solidified the bloodline.
But things turned quickly, and the dirty laundry aired about messy affairs on both sides, as well as Diana’s confessions of bulimia and suicidal thoughts, consumed the news cycles of the early ’90s. The public took Diana’s side in the divorce, and her tragic death in 1997 cemented her mythology. The clamour for the Royal Family, meaning the Queen, to respond to the public’s outpouring of grief became the moment the monarchy was most endangered on Elizabeth II’s watch.
The Queen learned from the moment, and took the necessary steps to show sympathy commensurate with the public mood. She learned, too, to be decisive in these delicate matters, something she demonstrated when she was firm in her statements about how Harry and Meghan, and then Andrew, were stripped of their public service roles, albeit for different reasons. The singular, strong and characteristically brief statements she released showed the Queen understood definitive action is central to her role.
She also learned the long game, something she demonstrated in the gradual rehabilitation of Camilla’s reputation. Once cast as the homewrecker in the Wales’ marriage, anti-Camilla sentiment had shifted enough that the Queen allowed Charles to marry Camilla in 2005. But acceptance was slow, and it wasn’t until 2022, the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne, that the Queen said Camilla would become Queen consort when Charles became King. She had lived long enough to see history come full circle, with her son marrying the woman he should have been allowed to marry all along (but who wasn’t eligible back when she and Charles dated in their youth, because, to put it bluntly, she wasn’t a virgin, which was still a prerequisite for the mother of future kings).
The preservation of the monarchy was also at play when the Queen bowed to public opinion about her taxes and expenses. Taxpayer funding has always been the institution’s Achilles heel, and the Queen’s decision to pay her own taxes, and to decommission the royal yacht Britannia (along with cutting down usage of the Royal Train, and opening palaces to the public) showed she understood on which side her bread was buttered. Charles, no doubt at the Queen’s urging, has long signalled he plans a slimmed-down monarchy, trimmed of excess palaces and supporting players.
Major Events of Her Rule
Following her coronation, the Queen and Prince Philip set off on an ambitious tour of the Commonwealth. Lasting more than six months, they covered 71,000 kilometres, touching down in the West Indies, Australasia, Asia and Africa. The Queen mixed childrearing with her role as head of state through the late ’50s and early ’60s; Prince Andrew was born in 1960, a full 10 years after Anne, while Edward arrived in 1964, when the Queen was 37 and Prince Philip was 42. It was also a time of great tragedies, such as the 1966 mudslide in Aberfan, Wales that claimed 116 children and 28 adults; as seen on the fictionalized series The Crown, the Queen was slow to react and appear in the shattered village, something she later admitted was a great regret of her reign.
The Queen, at the urging of Prince Philip, invited BBC cameras into the palaces to show a more intimate side of her family life. Called Royal Family and aired in 1969, this was another decision the Queen regretted, though some 350 million watched it around the world. The film was banned in the decades following, with a bootleg version making it on to YouTube only in 2021.
Realizing some connection with the public was necessary, the royal walkabout was introduced during a 1970 tour to Sydney, Australia. Now a signature of royal tours, it marked the first time the Queen walked among the crowds. (In Sydney in 1983, Prince Charles felt the full heat of Diana-mania as the young parents greeted locals, and they called his glamorous wife’s name ahead of his.)
The Silver Jubilee in 1977 marked another major tour for the Queen and Prince Philip, covering 90,000 kilometres, including a stop in Canada. She reaffirmed the commitment to service she had made at 21: “Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgement, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”
The Queen’s popularity dipped during the Thatcher years, beginning in 1979, but the whole family enjoyed a major boost of adrenaline (and bloodline) when Diana married the heir to the throne in 1981. Some 750 million people watched the wedding of the century.
In 1982, the Queen came to Ottawa in April to oversee the patriation of the Canadian constitution. It had been 115 years since her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria had signed the British North America Act, which created the dominion of Canada. Her speech on Parliament Hill praised the “natural beauty and strength of Canada,” a people with “hearts and minds as grand as the land itself,” and her unbounded confidence in the future of “this wonderful country.”
In a symbolic move, in the runup to the handover of Hong Kong to China, in 1986 Queen Elizabeth became the first monarch to tour the Chinese mainland, visiting the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors in Xi’an. This is an instance where the Queen’s brand of soft diplomacy helped open doors in that era (although Prince Philip made a few racially charged gaffes on that tour that distracted from the larger efforts.)
Then came 1992, the year the Queen herself dubbed her annus horribilis, when a fire at Windsor Castle destroyed 115 rooms, topped off by the divorces of three of her four children. The shocking 1997 death of her former daughter-in-law Diana, Princess of Wales, in a Paris car crash sparked another crisis for the Queen, as her reserved style of mourning did not sit well with her subjects. As head of the family, she was seen as uncaring, and the public demanded a response of sympathy, bringing the Queen back from Scotland to lead the nation in mourning.
On her Golden Jubilee in 2002, the Queen lost her sister, Princess Margaret, and then her mother, who was 101. She still travelled extensively throughout both Britain and the Commonwealth to mark the 50th anniversary of her accession.
The London Olympics was a huge event for the country, and Queen Elizabeth opened the ceremonies in style, showcasing her sense of humour and her willingness to take the stuffing out of her image. Another high point of her final decade was the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, seen as a step into the modern age when the sixth in line to the throne married the American divorcee and biracial actress.
The job of being Queen also involved many more quotidian moments that added up to something much, much more. Photographer Jackson cited this in his Zoomer interview, “the variety of engagements, from huge moments like weddings where the world media is there,” to the bread-and-butter stuff of royal life: the hospital ribbon cuttings, the town hall tours, the visits to royal charities, the sports demonstrations — what Jackson calls “the fabric of British life, and British history.”
The reign of Charles III will begin less as the dawn of a sudden new era and more as a continuation of the easing into place the Queen engineered. He and the rest of the senior royals have been stepping up and stepping in for Her Majesty for some time now at major calendar events.
In the year following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Elizabeth II has gradually handed over major functions to her heir and the rest of senior royals due to health issues. After spending a night in the hospital in October of 2021 for undisclosed “preliminary observations,” Elizabeth began to be seen occasionally using a cane. Further information emerged, that she had not been able to ride her beloved horses since September of that year, and that on the advice of doctors she was giving up her evening drink.
The first major event the Queen missed was Remembrance Sunday, though she did make a private event marking the joint baptism of two of her great-great grandsons, Princess Eugenie’s son and Zara Tindall’s son. As COVID-19 spread in England at the end of last year, the Queen decided not to hold her traditional family Christmas at Sandringham. Then in February, the Queen herself was revealed to be suffering with COVID-19 herself, something she later told health workers on a video call left “one feeling very tired and exhausted.”
After spending her 96th birthday on her own at Wood Farm at Sandringham, the cottage on her estates where Philip had chosen to spend his retirement, announcements about the Platinum Jubilee began to appear. The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall; the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; the Earl and Countess of Wessex; and Anne, the Princess Royal and Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence all undertook Commonwealth tours on behalf of the Monarch.
When the Queen passed on duties of the Opening of Parliament in May to Prince Charles, fears mounted for the appearances the Queen was likely to be able to attend over the long-anticipated and extensively planned Jubilee weekend in June. In the end she appeared twice on the Buckingham Palace balcony and attended the beacon-lighting ceremony at Windsor Castle.
In some ways, it feels as if Queen Elizabeth II was holding things together even as the world and the arc of history swirled around her. How successful was she in her reign? The Royal Family is a Firm, and the real test of any CEO is in the state of the institution they hand down to the next leader. To wit, the question becomes: how well did she set up Charles for his reign?
Biographer Tina Brown has a prediction she gave to Zoomer readers: “Of course, Charles’ reign will be of great interest to people as well. There is a lot of gloom essentially from many people saying we should just skip over Charles. I don’t agree. I think that Charles and Camilla are very good shock absorbers, if you like, from the Queen’s going to William ascending. It gives William a chance to breathe without having to take on this tremendously heavy legacy of the Queen and will allow him a little bit of time and space to understand what he really wants to do when he is king. And I think he will be very successful, I think that he’s got ideas to modernize, I think he is diligent I don’t think he wants to escape the destiny.”
Part of that destiny involves the reckoning with a lack of diversity within the organization, and acknowledging the institution was at the heart of a former empire built on slavery and profiteering. This will be the first order of business for Charles, and then William to negotiate.
Elizabeth II was perhaps the most famous public figure of her time, known and respected across much of the globe, connecting generations of politicians and people simply by dint of her longevity on the British throne. Her enormous personal popularity and canny adaptations kept the monarchy relevant throughout her reign. She was a figurehead with no real power, but carried the weight of much of the Western world on her slender shoulders.
We will never see the like of her again.