Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, has died at the age of 96.
Prince Charles, 73, heir to the throne since the age of three, is now king, and the Duchess of Cornwall is now Queen Consort.
In a statement, Buckingham Palace said: “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The King and the Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”
The royal family’s official website carried the message: “Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022” along with the official statement issued by Buckingham Palace.
In statement, the new king 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.”
Flags on landmark buildings in Britain were being lowered to half mast as a period of official mourning was announced. Royal residences that are open to the public will be closed.
It is expected the bells of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral will toll their bells at midday on Friday, and ceremonial gun salutes will be fired in Hyde Park and at Tower Hill in London.
As is traditional, officials brought a notice confirming the Queen’s death to the gates of Buckingham Palace. A large crowd gathered to read it, and Royal Parks staff erected metal barriers to control the public. Those gathered sang the national anthem outside Buckingham Palace, with many crying after the flag was lowered to half mast.
As Queen of the UK and 14 other realms, and head of the 54-nation Commonwealth, Elizabeth II was easily the world’s most recognisable head of state during an extraordinarily long reign.
Coming to the throne at the age of 25, she successfully steered the monarchy through decades of turbulent change, with her personal popularity providing ballast during the institution’s more difficult times.
At her side for most of it, the Duke of Edinburgh remained her “strength and stay” during a marriage that withstood many strains imposed by her unique position.
Despite a family life lived under the often challenging glare of publicity, Elizabeth II remained a calm and steadfast figure, weathering the divorces of three of her children, and the crisis precipitated by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in a car crash in Paris in 1997.
There were undoubted low points, but the mass outpourings of affection on her silver, golden and diamond jubilees testified to the special place she held for millions. When there was criticism of the institution, it rarely translated into a personal attack on her.
Fifteen prime ministers served her, attesting to her deep knowledge, experience of world affairs and mastery of political neutrality. They stretched back to Sir Winston Churchill, who was still prime minister when she assumed the throne, with resolve and far earlier than she had expected, on the premature death of her father, George VI, in 1952.
That resolve continued to sustain her. In her silver jubilee message in 1977, she said: “When I was 21, I pledged my life to the service of our people, and asked for God’s help to make that vow. Although that vow was made in my salad days, when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”
Often portrayed as old-fashioned, during her reign many steps were taken to keep the monarchy up to date with rapid societal change. Out went debutante “coming out” presentations, in came garden parties, receptions, luncheons, almost weekly “away days” to provincial towns and regular walkabouts, allowing personal access on a vaster scale than ever before.
Out, too, went tax-free status on her private income, and that of the Prince of Wales, though she fought hard until she was convinced public opinion was firmly set against her. The laws on succession were changed, with the abolition of primogeniture, allowing first-born daughters to accede over sons, and those in the line of succession being allowed to marry a Catholic, although not to be one.
Rarely did she publicly reveal private anguish. Her plea for a fair understanding towards the end of 1992 – her annus horribilis, a year rocked by royal scandal and a row over finances – was unprecedented.
A devout, churchgoing Christian, the Queen’s annual Christmas broadcast, which she scripted herself, revealed a woman of unshakable faith. She took her position as head of the Church of England seriously, even when it required her to sidestep Charles’s civil marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles by absenting herself from the register office part of the ceremony. Nevertheless, it was a marriage, between two divorcees, that was unthinkable when she came to the throne, but one she ultimately embraced.
She was left bereft at the loss of her lifelong companion, Philip, who died in his sleep at the age of 99 in April 2021 during the Covid pandemic. She sat alone and bereaved in St George’s chapel, Windsor Castle, during the poignant funeral, hugely scaled down because of coronavirus restrictions. The royal couple, married for 73 years, had spent the last months of his life together in lockdown, shielding at Windsor Castle because of their vulnerability to the virus due to their advanced years.
The duke’s death came during one of the most turbulent times for the Queen and her family, when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex quit as senior working royals and decamped to the US to seek freedom and the ability to earn their own money.
Harry and Meghan plunged the monarchy into crisis with a bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey in March 2021, while Philip was in hospital, in which they accused an unnamed member of the royal family of racism towards their son, Archie, before he was born, and the institution of failing to help the duchess.
In the aftermath of the interview, the Queen issued a carefully worded statement, saying that “while some recollections may vary”, the issues raised would be taken “very seriously” but dealt with privately as a family.
At the same time, the Duke of York was in a storm that also threatened the institution. Forced to step back from public duties in November 2019 after a disastrous television interview over his friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, he was under mounting pressure to answer FBI questions over Epstein.
Andrew faced allegations from Virginia Roberts Giuffre, which he strenuously denied, that he had had sex with her when she was 17 and had been trafficked by Epstein. As his friend Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted at trial in the US over charges she recruited girls for Epstein, Giuffre filed a civil suit against the duke seeking unspecified damages at a federal court in New York.
The civil lawsuit was settled out of court in February 2022, with the duke paying an undisclosed sum.
To cap this turbulent time for the monarchy, the Queen then contracted Covid, suffering mild cold-like symptoms, shortly before she marked her platinum jubilee.
As age gradually caught up with her, and she had mobility issues, she was seen less often at public events. In April 2022 she did not attend the state opening of parliament, instead issuing letters patent, authorising the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge, as counsellors of state, to deputise for her. It was only the third time in her reign that she had missed a state opening, the other two being when she was pregnant in 1959 and 1963.
The mobility issues meant the Queen remained in Balmoral in September 2022 rather than return to Buckingham Palace for an audience with the new prime minister. The outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his successor, Liz Truss, travelled to Scotland instead.
Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on 21 April 1926 at her maternal grandparents’ home at 17 Bruton Street, in London’s Mayfair district, and was not expected to accede to the throne. But at the age of 10, the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, over his love for the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and her father’s rushed coronation as substitute king, changed the path her aristocratic life could have been expected to take.
The world witnessed her transformation from shy princess to young Queen, attracting the same global fascination as Diana, Princess of Wales would 30 years later. Even in middle and later years, she retained photogenic regal glamour.
But she seemed most content in a thick jacket and headscarf, walking her corgis or tramping Balmoral’s highland moors. “You can go for miles and never see anybody; you can walk or ride, it has endless possibilities,” she once said.
Watching her thoroughbreds pass the post was another great pleasure, and her love of horse racing once subconsciously manifested itself during the 2003 state opening of parliament when she announced details of a national hunt service bill, rather than “health service”.
The image of a queen who kept cereal in plastic boxes and fed toast to her corgis while a gruff Philip breakfasted next to her listening to a battered old transistor radio, did much to endear. So, too, did the two-bar electric fire she used in 2013 and beyond to heat her palace audience room, and “revelations” that her favourite TV programmes included Last of the Summer Wine and The Bill.
When required to subject herself to popular culture, such as a pop concert, she would oblige, with earplugs in place. Her parachuting stunt – when a body-double landed in the middle of the London Olympics opening ceremony – illustrated well that she did often get it.
Illnesses were rare as she enjoyed robust health. At 85, she was still carrying out 325 engagements a year. Long-haul travel was only curtailed when she reached 87, and Philip 92.
She was the most widely travelled of any world head of state. Coming to the throne as the empire collapsed and with Britain’s status as a world power diminishing, she believed the flourishing of the Commonwealth to be among her greatest achievements. She visited every Commonwealth country bar Cameroon, which joined in 1995, and Rwanda (2009). She visited Canada more than 20 times, Australia 16, New Zealand 10 and Jamaica six.
In 2011, Elizabeth became the first British monarch in a century to visit the Republic of Ireland. The following year, she shook hands in Belfast with the Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness, putting aside the personal tragedy of the IRA assassination of “Uncle Dickie”, Lord Mountbatten, her distant cousin and Philip’s uncle.
In 2002, her golden jubilee, her sister, Margaret, and mother, Queen Elizabeth, died within eight weeks of each other. Her relationship to both had been close, as they were among the few individuals in whom she could confide the pressures and frustrations of her position.
As many nations today mourn a queen, one family is mourning a mother of four, a grandmother of eight, and a great-grandmother of 12.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism