Queen Elizabeth II: Longest Reigning Monarch, Dies at 96

She grasped the democratizing power of television in the 1950s.

She was portrayed onscreen by the likes of Helen Mirren, Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Jeannette Charles, most of whom won prestigious awards, such as Oscars and Emmys.

 

After 70 years of rule, Elizabeth died peacefully at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where she had spent the summer, the Royal Family announced.

She will be succeeded by her firstborn son, Charles. “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,” the new king said in a statement.

With her official title — Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, 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, at the time of the death, queen of the U.K. and 14 other commonwealth realms.

She was the longest-serving female head of state in history — having begun her reign in February 1952 at age 25 — and longest-serving incumbent head of state. In 2017, she became the first British monarch to reach a Sapphire Jubilee, marking 65 years in power. (She had surpassed Victoria in 2015 to become the longest-reigning British monarch ever).

With her financial and property portfolio, she also was one of the world’s richest women.

Elizabeth grasped the democratizing power of television long before sets were in virtually every household.

She insisted that her June 2, 1953, coronation be televised (against the wishes of the British government).

The meticulously planned ceremony became the first major world event to be broadcast internationally, attracting an estimated global audience of 277 million, and is credited with making TV a mainstream medium; in the U.K., those watching outnumbered the radio audience for the first time.

Fifteen years later, she would break again with tradition by letting cameras into Buckingham Palace for a BBC documentary that aimed to humanize her young family, and more than 30 million in the U.K. alone tuned in to watch the premiere of Royal Family in 1969. It was said that so many toilets flushed across London at the same time during an intermission, it caused a water shortage.

Alongside her own groundbreaking approach to television, Elizabeth was portrayed onscreen dozens of times. Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her depiction of her in Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006) and played her on the stage, while Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton portrayed her on Netflix’s Emmy-winning The Crown.

“I’m mourning along with the rest of my country, the passing of a great queen,” Mirren said in a statement. “I’m proud to call myself of the Elizabethan age. If there was a definition of nobility, Elizabeth Windsor embodied it.”

Jeannette Charles made a career out of comically doubling for Elizabeth for more than 40 years, showing up in such films as National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).

Others who portrayed her included Emma Thompson, Neve Campbell, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jane Alexander, June Squibb, Maggie Sullivun, Freya Wilson, Sarah Gadon and Fred Armisen.

Director Stephen Frears with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth in 2006’s ‘The Queen’ MIRAMAX/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

In 2013, Elizabeth received an honorary BAFTA for her patronage of the U.K. film and TV industry. At a star-studded gala at Windsor Castle, where Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh presented her with the award, BAFTA chairman John Willis described her as “the most memorable Bond girl yet,” a reference to her cameo appearance alongside Daniel Craig during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

Elizabeth Alexandra May Windsor was born in London on April 21, 1926, to the Duke and Duchess of York. Her father would ascend the throne, becoming King George VI, in 1936 following the abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII.

As the first child, Elizabeth, or Lilibet (a nickname coined when she was a toddler that was later given by her grandson Prince Harry to his daughter), immediately became the heir presumptive, aka first in line.

In November 1947, she married Philip Mountbatten, a former prince of Greece and Denmark, whom she’d first met in 1934.

Philip would remain steadfastly by her side throughout their marriage, and they would become the longest-serving royal consort in history.

 

Queen Elizabeth and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1974 ANWAR HUSSEIN/WIREIMAGE

George VI’s health declined in 1951. While in Kenya as part of a tour that was to include Australia and New Zealand, Elizabeth was told of his death and, consequently, her immediate accession to the throne.

Her tenure oversaw decades of dramatic change across the world and at home. In terms of her own duties, with Britain’s colonial past coming under greater scrutiny and countries seeking to sever ties, many nations would remove her as head of state as they sought independence and transition to a republic. In December, Barbados became the latest country to do so.

But her reign also would see a revolution within the royal family itself, with the queen appearing to become acutely aware of the modern, more ceremonial, role of the monarchy in public and political life.

The public face of the monarchy came with significant drawbacks, not least the intense media interest in the royals’ private lives. This perhaps reached a peak in the 1980s and ’90s when the Windsors became regular front-page tabloid fodder, particularly over the separation of Prince Charles and Diana in 1992 and the various revelations about their relationships.

The year 1992 — which Elizabeth would label an “annus horribilis” — also would see Prince Andrew split from his wife, Sarah Ferguson, sparking further embarrassing headlines. After Diana’s death in 1997, the queen came under intense criticism for not mourning publicly, failing to return from Balmoral to London, and apparently refusing to fly the flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace, later bowing to pressure and addressing the nation on TV. The broadcast — the day before Diana’s funeral — seemed to temper much of the public hostility.

In April 2021, in another televised ceremony, she laid Philip, her husband of 73 years, to rest in a scaled-backed, COVID-19-impacted funeral in which millions around the world watched her mourn, masked and sitting alone.

Survivors include their children, Charles, born in 1948, Princess Anne (born in 1950), Prince Andrew (born in 1960) and Prince Edward (born in 1964), and grandchildren Peter, Zara, William, Harry, Beatrice, Eugenie, Louise and James.