An icon for 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II dies

Monarchy: Longest reign in British history ends, Charles III becomes king.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II looks out during a ceremony to mark her official birthday at Windsor Castle in Windsor, England, on June 13, 2020. The queen died Thursday at age 96 while at her summer residence in Scotland. A funeral will be held after 10 days of mourning. TOBY MELVILLE — POOL VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Danica Kirka, Jill Lawless, and Sylvia Hui | The associated Press

LONDON >> Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and a symbol of stability in a turbulent era that saw the decline of the British empire and disarray in her own family, died Thursday after 70 years on the throne. She was 96.

The palace announced she died at Balmoral Castle, her summer residence in Scotland, where members of the royal family had rushed to her side after her health took a turn for the worse.

A link to the almost-vanished generation that fought World War II, she was the only monarch most Britons have ever known. Her 73-year-old son Prince Charles automatically became king and will be known as King Charles III, it was announced. British monarchs in the past have selected new names upon taking the throne. Charles’ second wife, Camilla, will be known as the Queen Consort.

A funeral was to be held after 10 days of official mourning.

The BBC played the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” over a portrait of Elizabeth in full regalia as her death was announced, and the fl ag over Buckingham Palace was lowered to half-staff as the second Elizabethan age came to a close.

King Charles III

The impact of her loss will be huge and unpredictable, both for the nation and for the monarchy, an institution she helped stabilize and modernize across decades of enormous social change and family scandals, but whose relevance in the 21st century has often been called into question.

The public’s abiding affection for the queen has helped sustain support for the monarchy during the scandals. Charles is nowhere near as popular.

In a statement, Charles called his mother’s death “a moment of the greatest sadness for me and all members of my family,” adding: “I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world.”

The changing of the guard comes at a fraught moment for Britain, which has a brand-new prime minister and is grappling with an energy crisis, double-digit inflation, the war in Ukraine and the fallout from Brexit.

Prime Minister Liz Truss, appointed by the queen just 48 hours earlier, pronounced the country “devastated” and called Elizabeth “the rock on which modern Britain was built.”

British subjects outside Buckingham Palace wept when officials carried a notice confirming the queen’s death to the wrought-iron gates of the queen’s London home. Hundreds soon gathered in the rain, and mourners laid dozens of colorful bouquets at the gates.

“As a young person, this is a really huge moment,” said Romy McCarthy, 20. “It marks the end of an era, particularly as a woman. We had a woman who was in power as someone to look up to.”

World leaders extended condolences and paid tribute to the queen.

In Canada, where the British monarch is the country’s head of state, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s eyes were red with emotion as he saluted her “wisdom, compassion and warmth.”  In India, once the “jewel in the crown” of the British empire, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “She personified dignity and decency in public life. Pained by her demise.”

U.S. President Joe Biden called her a “stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy who deepened the bedrock alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States.”

Since Feb. 6, 1952, Elizabeth reigned over a Britain that rebuilt from a destructive and financially exhausting war and lost its empire; joined the European Union and then left it; and made the painful transition into the 21st century.

She endured through 15 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Truss, becoming an institution and an icon — a reassuring presence even for those who ignored or loathed the monarchy.

She became less visible in her final years as age and frailty curtailed many public appearances. But she remained firmly in control of the monarchy and at the center of national life as Britain celebrated her Platinum Jubilee with days of parties and pageants in June.

That same month she became the second longest-reigning monarch in history, behind 17th-century French King Louis XIV, who took the throne at age 4. On Tuesday, she presided at a ceremony at Balmoral Castle to accept the resignation of Boris Johnson as prime minister and appoint Truss as his successor.

When Elizabeth was 21, almost five years before she became queen, she promised the people of Britain and the Commonwealth that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”

It was a promise she kept across more than seven decades.

Despite Britain’s complex and often fraught ties with its former colonies, Elizabeth was widely respected and remained head of state of more than a dozen countries, from Canada to Tuvalu. She headed the 54-nation Commonwealth, built around Britain and its former colonies.

Married for more than 73 years to Prince Philip, who died in 2021 at age 99, Elizabeth was matriarch to a royal family whose troubles were a subject of global fascination — amplified by fictionalized accounts such as the TV series “The Crown.” She is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Through countless public events, she probably met more people than anyone in history. Her image, which adorned stamps, coins and banknotes, was among the most reproduced in the world.

But her inner life and opinions remained mostly an enigma. Of her personality, the public saw relatively little. A horse owner, she rarely seemed happier than during the Royal Ascot racing week. She never tired of the companionship of her beloved Welsh corgi dogs.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in London on April 21, 1926, the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York. She was not born to be queen — her father’s elder brother, Prince Edward, was destined for the crown, to be followed by any children he had.

But in 1936, when she was 10, Edward VIII abdicated to marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, and Elizabeth’s father became King George VI.

Elizabeth was barely in her teens when Britain went to war with Germany in 1939. While the king and queen stayed at Buckingham Palace during the Blitz and toured the bombed-out neighborhoods of London, Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret spent most of the war at Windsor Castle, west of the capital. Even there, 300 bombs fell in an adjacent park, and the princesses spent many nights in an underground shelter.

In 1945, after months of campaigning for her parents’ permission to do something for the war effort, the heir to the throne became Second Subaltern Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She enthusiastically learned to drive and service heavy vehicles.

On the night the war ended in Europe, May 8, 1945, she and Margaret managed to mingle, unrecognized, with celebrating crowds in London — “swept along on a tide of happiness and relief,” as she told the BBC decades later, describing it as “one of the most memorable nights of my life.”

At Westminster Abbey in November 1947 she married Royal Navy officer Philip Mountbatten, a prince of Greece and Denmark whom she had first met in 1939 when she was 13 and he 18.

The couple lived for a time in Malta, where Philip was stationed, and Elizabeth enjoyed an almost-normal life as a navy wife. The first of their four children, Prince Charles, was bornin 1948. He was followed by Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960, and Prince Edward in 1964.

In 1952, George VI died at 56 after years of ill health. Elizabeth, on a visit to Kenya, was told that she was now queen.

Her coronation took place more than a year later, a grand spectacle at Westminster Abbey viewed by millions through the still-new medium of television.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s first reaction to the king’s death was to complain that the new queen was “only a child,” but he was won over within days and eventually became an ardent admirer.

In Britain’s constitutional monarchy, the queen is head of state but has little direct power; in her official actions she does what the government orders. However, she was not without influence. The queen, officially the head of the Church of England, once reportedly commented that there was nothing she could do legally to block the appointment of a bishop, “but I can always say that I should like more information. That is an indication that the prime minister will not miss.”

She was obliged to meet weekly with the prime minister, and they generally found her well-informed, inquisitive and up to date. The one possible exception was Margaret Thatcher, with whom her relations were said to be cool, if not frosty, though neither woman ever commented.

The queen’s views in those private meetings became a subject of intense speculation and fertile ground for dramatists like Peter Morgan, author of the play “The Audience” and the hit TV series “The Crown.” Those semi-fictionalized accounts were the product of an era of declining deference and rising celebrity, when the royal family’s troubles became public property.

And there were plenty of troubles within the family, an institution known as “The Firm.” In Elizabeth’s first years on the throne, Princess Margaret provoked a national controversy through her romance with a divorced man.

In what the queen called the “annus horribilis” of 1992, her daughter, Princess Anne, was divorced, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated, and so did her son Prince Andrew and his wife, Sarah. That was also the year Windsor Castle, a residence she far preferred to Buckingham Palace, was seriously damaged by fire.

The public split of Charles and Diana was followed by the shock of Diana’s death in a Paris car crash in 1997. For once, the queen appeared out of step with her people.

Amid unprecedented public mourning, Elizabeth’s failure to make a public show of grief appeared to many to be unfeeling. After several days, she finally made a televised address to the nation.

The dent in her popularity was brief. She was by now a sort of national grandmother, with astern gaze and a twinkling smile.

Despite being one of the world’s wealthiest people, Elizabeth had a reputation for frugality and common sense. She turned off lights in empty rooms, and didn’t flinch from strangling pheasants.

A newspaper reporter who went undercover to work as a palace footman reinforced that down-to-earth image, capturing pictures of the royal Tupperware on the breakfast table and a rubber duck in the bath.

In 2015, she overtook her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s reign of 63 years, seven months and two days to become the longest-serving monarch in British history. She kept working into her 10th decade, though Prince Charles and his elder son, Prince William, increasingly took over the visits, ribbon-cuttings and investitures that form the bulk of royal duties.

The loss of Philip in 2021 was a heavy blow, as she poignantly sat alone at his funeral in the chapel at Windsor Castle because of coronavirus restrictions.

And the family troubles continued. Her son Prince Andrew was entangled in the sordid tale of sex offender businessman Jeffrey Epstein, an American businessman who had been a friend. Andrew denied accusations that he had sex with one of the women who said she was trafficked by Epstein.

The queen’s grandson Prince Harry walked away from Britain and his royal duties after marrying American TV actress Meghan Markle, who is biracial, in 2018.

She enjoyed robust health well into her 90s, although she used a cane in an appearance after Philip’s death. She held virtual meetings with diplomats and politicians from Windsor Castle, but public appearances grew rarer.

Seven decades after World War II, Elizabeth was again at the center of the national mood amid the uncertainty and loss of COVID 19 — a disease she came through herself in February.

In April 2020 — with the country in lockdown and Prime Minister Boris Johnson hospitalized with the virus — she made a rare video address, urging people to stick together.

She summoned the spirit of World War II, that vital time in her life, and the nation’s, by echoing Vera Lynn’s wartime anthem “We’ll Meet Again.”

“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again,” she said.

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