Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British and Commonwealth history, died on Thursday. Buckingham Palace confirmed the news. She was 96.
“The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” the statement read. “The King and the Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.”
The news comes just hours after Buckingham Palace released a statement noting concern for the royal’s health. In a rare comment, the palace confirmed on Sept. 8 that the Queen would remain under medical supervision at her home in Balmoral. Following the news, the Queen’s children and grandchildren traveled to be by her side, including her son and heir, Prince Charles, as well as Prince William and Prince Harry.
“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 newly-appointed King Charles wrote in a statement. “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.”
He continued: “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 which The Queen so widely held.”
Born to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth II was not predestined to take the throne, and she spent her first decade in a relatively minor role in the royal family. This changed with the death of her grandfather King George V in 1936. The next in the line of royal succession was her uncle, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne less than a year after his reign so he could marry American socialite Wallis Simpson. His brother (and Elizabeth’s father) Albert, who later took the name George VI, became king, which paved the way to Elizabeth becoming heir presumptive, as she had no brothers.
While she remained primarily out of the public eye in her preteen years, she began to assert a more active role during World War II. She made her first radio appearance at age 14 in 1940 during BBC’s Children’s Hour to address youth who were evacuated during Germany’s blitz bombing campaign. She became the first female member of the royal family to become a full-time active member of the British Armed Forces in 1945, when she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a truck driver and mechanic. Five months later, she earned the rank of honorary junior commander.
At age 21, she publicly pledged her dedication to public service. Around this time, she also became engaged to Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. They married on Nov. 20, 1947. Together, they had four children: Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward.
The monarch officially ascended to the throne in February 1952, when her father died. The coronation occurred on June 2, 1953; it was the first televised coronation ceremony. Following Elizabeth II’s ascension, the Queen and prince traveled extensively, and she made hundreds of state visits throughout her reign — she was the most widely traveled monarch to date and served as the Head of the Commonwealth of more than 50 nations.
She marked her Silver Jubilee in 1977 with celebrations that highlighted her popularity with some at the time, while public critiques also abounded, notably with the Sex Pistols’ song “God Save the Queen” coinciding with the jubilee, though the band has said their song, which evokes resentment toward the monarchy and empathy for the working class, was not intentionally released to time with the celebrations. The track was banned by the BBC and others.
Still, the punk-rock group planned to perform the song during the jubilee while on a boat named Queen Elizabeth on the River Thames, but that was thwarted after a fight broke out and arrests were made.
The public’s love affair with the royals has waxed and waned over the seven decades of the Queen’s reign. A few weeks before Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s marriage in 1981, a man shot what turned out to be blanks at her as she rode her horse down the mall in London. Later that year, a 17-year-old man fired a rifle while she attended a parade in Dunedin, New Zealand. In 1982, a man broke into her bedroom at Buckingham Palace. Tabloids were relentless on the royal family during the Eighties, and her allegiances were questioned.
Despite differing public perceptions, the Queen’s appearances in popular culture remained numerous throughout her reign. From Andy Warhol silkscreens and an actress playing Queen Elizabeth being tackled by Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin in Naked Gun to being portrayed on The Simpsons and even personally popping in on The Game of Thrones set, she became as much a cultural icon as she was a reigning monarch. And though the monarchy’s role has become largely symbolic, Elizabeth II saw a resurgence of interest in her life in recent years with Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning portrayal in 2006’s The Queen and Netflix’s current series dramatization of her life in The Crown.
In June 2022, Queen Elizabeth became the first British monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, which marked 70 years in service. Four days of celebrations were held in London, with much of the country participating in the festivities. The Queen even had the distinction of appearing in a video with Paddington Bear, who expressed his gratitude for her decades of service to the U.K. and the Commonwealth.
While public opinion of the Queen has varied over the decades, she remained a consistent feature in the lives of millions around the world, both in the U.K. and throughout the Commonwealth. She served alongside 15 prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, and Margaret Thatcher. Before her death, she presided over the appointment of the U.K.’s most recent prime minister Liz Truss.
Although her role was primarily ceremonial, the Queen often provided the public with a sense of hope and comfort. Her annual Christmas message reflected the mood of the nation. In 2021, her televised speech encouraged families to find joy in the midst of tragedy.
“We see our own children and their families embrace the roles, traditions, and values that mean so much to us, as these are passed from one generation to the next, sometimes being updated for changing times,” the Queen noted. “I see it in my own family and it is a source of great happiness.”
In addition to their four children, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who died in 2021, had eight grandchildren, including Prince William and Prince Harry, and 12 great-grandchildren. The Queen will be succeeded on the throne by her son Charles, age 73.
While details of the Queen’s funeral are forthcoming, the U.K. government has long planned for what will happen following her death. According to the plan, dubbed “Operation London Bridge,” the Queen will lie in state at the Palace of Westminster for three days, where members of the public can visit her coffin in Westminster Hall. The royal family will announce the plans for the funeral, to be held within 10 days of her death.