Queen Elizabeth II was a singular figure, one of the most visible leaders on the world stage for more than half a century and the matriarch of a sprawling dynasty who kept kin and country together through tough times.
And while her influence had waned in recent years, as the concept of empire has lost its appeal and new ways replace the old, the queen's death on Sept. 8 at the age of 96 unquestionably signaled the end of an era.
Britain's longest-reigning monarch had enjoyed robust health until recently, when a short hospital stay, advisement against travel and reports of doctors wanting her to give up her nightly tipple signaled that not all was well. And though her front was ever brave, she simply may not have felt entirely like herself since her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, died in April 2021, two months shy of his 100th birthday.
But while her final years were upended here and there by turmoil among her heirs—four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren at last count—she remained the most popular member of the royal family at home and leaves an unbelievable legacy, never to be matched as the world, let alone the United Kingdom, lurches into its uncertain future.
"Back then, there was a very different attitude to women," the young royal told Our Queen author Robert Hardman. "Being a young lady at 25—and stepping into a job which many men thought they could probably do better—it must have been very daunting. And I think there was extra pressure for her to perform."
The future history-maker was born in London on April 21, 1926, the eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Elizabeth, Queen Consort, who would later be widely known as the Queen Mother.
Princess Elizabeth—or Lilibet, the childhood nickname that stuck among those closest to her—was especially close to her younger sister, Princess Margaret, who died in 2002.
Like her father before her, who became king because his older brother David, or Edward VIII, abdicated his throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth wasn't groomed for the crown from birth but she did closely observe George VI (to his family he remained Albert, or Bertie) in his day to day affairs once her future became clear. And when the time came she stepped seamlessly into the role.
When the king died in his sleep during the night of Feb. 5, 2012, Elizabeth was in Kenya and it took hours for someone to relay the message that she had become queen. According to a Time magazine report from that month, it was her husband who broke the news of her father's death to her during a quiet walk along the river near their lodgings at the Royal Aberdare Game Reserve.
In an instant, Elizabeth was queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, which still comprises 54 member states. (Charles was appointed her successor to the non-hereditary position in 2018.)
"When I spoke to you last at Christmas, I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation—to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making," the queen said in her Coronation speech, which was televised around the world, on June 2, 1953.
"The ceremonies you have seen today are ancient, and some of their origins are veiled in the mists of the past," she said. "But their spirit and their meaning shine through the ages never, perhaps, more brightly than now."
The forward-thinking views that she exhibited as the decades went by, as much as the constraints of her position would allow, were also with her from day one.
"I have behind me," the young queen also said, "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…Parliamentary institutions, with their free speech and respect for the rights of minorities, and the inspiration of a broad tolerance in thought and expression—all this we conceive to be a precious part of our way of life and outlook."
Already a mother of two when she became queen, Elizabeth II would become a patron of dozens of women's and children's causes, including the YWCA, the Young Women's Trust, which provides support to female victims of poverty and abuse, and the Family Welfare Association.
The only person in the U.K. who didn't require a driver's license (or a passport), she could be found behind the wheel of her own Land Rover on the grounds of her country estates. During World War II, 2nd Lt. Elizabeth Windsor of the British Army's Auxiliary Territorial Service had trained as a mechanic and truck driver.
"One of her major joys was to get dirt under her nails and grease stains in her hands, and display these signs of labor to her friends," Collier magazine reported in 1947.
She also was an avid sportswoman who loved horses, riding until the end, and was a fixture at racing events, even invoking a steeplechase result in toasting Charles' 2005 marriage to Duchess Camilla. And, of course, the queen was synonymous with Welsh corgis, keeping several at a time throughout most of her life.
She traveled extensively, making state visits to (to name a few) North, South and Central America (Panama was the first country she visited as queen in 1953), Libya, Iran, Sudan, Turkey, Thailand, China, India, Pakistan and, in 2010, her last state visit out of Europe, to the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Her final state visit was to Germany in 2015.
In 2011 she approved a change in the law that would have allowed William's firstborn daughter to become queen—if his and Kate Middleton's firstborn hadn't been Prince George. In 2013, the queen decreed that Kate and William's second child would officially be a prince or princess along with his or her older brother. That change overturned a nearly 100-year-old tradition in which a second-born daughter to the Prince of Wales was not deemed a princess.
"In the modern world, the opportunities for women to give something of value to society are greater than ever, because, through their own efforts, they now play a much greater part in all areas of public life," she said in 2015 in an address marking the centenary of the Women's Institute at their annual meeting.
Despite the decades-old debate over what purpose the monarchy serves in this day and age (whatever day and age it might be), maintaining tradition has always been part of the royal family's reason for being, along with patronage and moral support.
When she was 14, Princess Elizabeth addressed her fellow youth in 1940, when so many had been forced to evacuate their London homes and flee to the countryside in the midst of the Blitz during World War II.
"In wishing you all good evening, I feel like I am speaking to friends and companions, who have shared with my sister and myself many a happy children's hour," the teen said during BBC Radio's Children's Hour, her voice high but perfectly composed in an audio recording made available by the Palace.
"To you, living in new surroundings, we send a message of true sympathy, and at the same time we would like to thank the kind people who have welcomed you to their homes in the country…Before I finish, I can truly say to you all that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage…We know, every one of us, that in the end, all will be well…And when peace comes, remember, it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place."
By then she had already met the love of her life, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, on a tour of the Royal Naval College, where he was an 18-year-old cadet tasked with looking after the king's daughters. With the country on the precipice of war, the earliest years of their courtship consisted of them exchanging letters while he served on a series of battleships, at 21 becoming one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy.
"She never looked at anyone else," recalled the queen's cousin Margaret Rhodes in Sally Bedell Smith's 2012 biography Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch.
At her father's behest, their engagement wasn't announced until Elizabeth was 21 and they married on Nov. 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey. Philip became His Royal Highness, Duke of Edinburgh.
Down the road, presenting the face of "cheerfulness and courage" to the U.K. would become one of the queen's primary duties, as it has been a major part of the job for the entire royal family, whose stock in trade is reliable visibility.
Even when she acknowledged 1992 as her "annus horribilis"—the year daughter Princess Anne got divorced (but also remarried) and the respective marriages of her sons Prince Charles and Prince Andrew fell apart, and a fire at Windsor Castle damages 115 rooms—in an address at Guildhall on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of her ascension to the throne, she did so with a certain wit that was ever-present underneath her tidy, stoic exterior.
"I sometimes wonder how future generations will judge the events of this tumultuous year," the queen said. "I dare say that history will take a slightly more moderate view than that of some contemporary commentators. Distance is well-known to lend enchantment, even to the less attractive views. After all, it has the inestimable advantage of hindsight."
Hollywood has certainly found no shortage of ways to portray the royal family, and the queen in particular.
Helen Mirren won a Best Actress Oscar for 2006's The Queen for her performance as the titular monarch set in the days following Princess Diana's death in a car crash, when public sentiment swiftly (and, ultimately, briefly) turned against her when her response to the tragedy was deemed lacking.
"Nowadays people want glamour and tears, the grand performance," the queen says in the Peter Morgan-scripted film. "I've never been good at that."
Mirren said of the monarch in a 2011 CNN interview, "She is a symbol. But it's a very potent symbol. It's a symbol that carries the history of Britain with it. And along with that a certain—a sense of continuity, obviously. And in her particular case, I think an incredible sense of self-discipline, which I suspect they all had, actually."
And though she remained ambivalent about the royal family overall, Mirren declared herself a proud "queenist."
Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton (for the upcoming fifth season) have been the latest to portray the queen in different stages of her life in the lavish, award-winning Netflix series The Crown, another Morgan creation.
"I suppose she was a protofeminist in a way, but from a personal point of view, I'm a bit reluctant to say that's what she is—only because I think it makes things less complicated," Foy, who won two Emmys, two SAG Awards and a Golden Globe for her turn as Elizabeth from her newlywed days until 1964, told Marie Claire. "The beauty of the series—and the beauty of her as a person—is that she's massively complicated, and I don't think you can pigeon-hole her as one thing."
That seems to be the consensus, that the queen was always more than whatever met the public's eye—that's how she expressly preferred it and that's how she needed it to be. Even though what met the eye was also pretty darn impressive.
In the 2012 PBS special Royal Memories: Prince Charles' Tribute to the Queen, which aired during her Diamond Jubilee, Charles is seen going through a box of reel-to-reel home movies shot by the queen—a hobby, he says, his mother must have inherited from her father, who also "took quite a lot of film in the '30s."
"I can hardly believe how much things have changed since the 1950s, in every walk of life," Charles, now king at the age of 72, said. "So the fact that my mama's been a constant feature on the scene has provided that sense of continuity in a time of immense change over the last 60s years, I think, is one of the most important things to celebrate, it seems to me. Because perhaps subconsciously people feel encouraged, perhaps reassured, by something that's always there."
It will be no easy task for Charles, or in future years William, to keep this royal ship afloat, not least because of the absence of the woman who's been the literal face of the U.K. for 70 years, her visage gracing the currency and postage stamps, let alone an endless array of souvenirs.
But she did have utmost faith in those left behind to pick up the mantle, not too stuck on tradition to disregard a changing world, and fully aware that future generations will have different challenges on their hands.
In a speech she recorded Oct. 29 for the COP 26 conference held in Glasgow, the queen, sitting with a portrait of Prince Philip in view, noted that "the impact of the environment on human progress was a subject close to the heart of my dear late husband."
She continued, "It is a source of great pride to me that the leading role my husband played in encouraging people to protect our fragile planet lives on through the work of our eldest son, Charles, and his eldest son, William. I could not be more proud of them. Indeed, I have drawn great comfort and inspiration from the relentless enthusiasm of people of all ages—especially the young—in calling for everyone to play their part."
The queen noted that over the course of 70 years she'd had the privilege of meeting a parade of world leaders, and she expressed hope that those in charge now could come together, "to rise above the politics of the moment," to tackle the dangers facing the environment. "Of course," she added on an elegiac note, "the benefits of such actions will not be there to enjoy for all of us here today. We none of us will live forever. But we are doing this not for ourselves but for our children and our children's children, and those who will follow in their footsteps."
No-nonsense candor dosed with optimism, spiced up with a pointed jab and served with an emotional twist. Others may sit on her throne, but no one will fill her shoes.