Queen Elizabeth II has died, aged 96

During the queen's reign, Britain lost its empire, joined and then left the EU, and is now in grave economic crisis.
Queen Elizabeth II at a Buckingham Palace receiption in December 2019
Queen Elizabeth II at a Buckingham Palace receiption in December 2019
Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)
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Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, died today (Sep. 8) at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, at the age of 96. The first, brief Buckingham Palace statement at 6:30pm said: “The Queen died peacefully at Barlmoral this afternoon.”

The Queen’s eldest son, Charles, who has been heir to the British throne for 70 years, is now officially the king. “The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow,” the Palace statement said.

News of the Queen’s poor health began emerging in the mid-morning, when a spokesperson said she’d been placed “under medical supervision.” Through the day, members of her family, including Charles and her grandson Prince William, hastened to Balmoral to be by her side.

No firm updates emerged from the palace for a while, but close observers of the British mood could sense that something was awry. After Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour leader, was handed a note in the middle of a parliamentary session, he ducked out and returned soon after in a black tie. Buckingham Palace canceled its changing of the guard ceremony.

On the BBC, anchors and reporters switched to sober black even as they continued to say only that the Queen was ill. Then they suspended regular programming for the rest of the day, in favor of rolling coverage of the news from Balmoral. Small crowds gathered outside the gates of both Balmoral and Buckingham Palace. They carried umbrellas; in a fitting cliché, the skies were gray and morose, and it rained.

What Queen Elizabeth II meant to Britain

The Queen had been at Balmoral Castle through this past summer, in part because of the condition of her health. She had no known fatal disease, but the Palace had said, due to her frailty, she suffered “episodic mobility” issues. On Sep. 7, she missed a meeting of her privy council—a group of advisers—on the advice of her doctors. Her last significant engagement with the British public, in a way, came on Sep. 6, when she gave them a new prime minister. Liz Truss traveled to Balmoral to meet the Queen—in itself unusual, since all such previous appointments of prime ministers occurred in Buckingham Palace.

Princess Elizabeth greets Winston Churchill
Princess Elizabeth greets Winston Churchill
Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

Truss is the Queen’s 15th prime minister—an astonishingly long sequence that began with Winston Churchill, who was in office when she came to the throne in 1952. During her seven-decade reign—the second-longest of any monarch ever—the remnants of Britain’s empire fell away, leaving a complex legacy of unacknowledged sins, guilt, and questionable nostalgia. The UK’s status in the world waned; it entered the EU, only to exit it noisily, wanting to be dependent on no other country. The country met one crisis after another, all seemingly vital to the UK’s sense of self: how to handle the economy, how to frame immigration policy, what wars to join, how to endure a pandemic.

Through this tumult, the Queen remained apolitical, above the fray, as her office demanded. Nonetheless, her consistent public presence won her a high degree of popularity, which lasted almost her whole life. She remained largely unbuffeted by the waves of scandal surrounding the rest of her family. These controversies were at their most intense in 1997, when Princess Diana, the Queen’s daughter-in-law, died in a car crash, and again in 2019, when Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, was accused of sexual assault.

The Queen’s longevity was more than a statistic. For many Britons, it was the essence of her appeal. It will often be said, in the days to come, that the Queen personified a kind of stability and continuity to a country undergoing dramatic change. But the Queen also personified her country’s reluctance to come to terms with that change. She was too readily available as a reminder of a once-dominant Britain. All it ever took was a glance at her regal image, printed on a postage stamp or a pound note.