Obituary

A Queen for the Ages

Through tragedy and tumult, Queen Elizabeth II was a model of constancy. Her death will have important repercussions for the monarchy and the future of the United Kingdom.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1961.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1961.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip leave St. Paul’s Cathedral in London after attending the annual service of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1961. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By , a former political editor at the BBC, the Times, and CNN.

Queen Elizabeth II did not grow up expecting to become queen of the United Kingdom and its many colonies. At the time, it was anticipated that Elizabeth’s uncle King Edward VIII would reign for a full term and have children of his own to succeed him. A shocking turn of events—Edward’s abdication and the assumption of the throne by Elizabeth’s father, King George VI—determined Elizabeth’s destiny.

Perhaps that seminal twist of fate prepared her well for the many other dramatic changes to come—changes wrought by war, political and social upheaval, personal tragedy, and family turmoil during a reign that lasted longer than any other.

Elizabeth, who died on Sept. 8 at age 96, may be best remembered as a leader who provided a model of constancy in a rapidly shifting world. She was admired by monarchists and republicans alike for her unswerving devotion to duty and her refusal to bend to the faddish expectations of critics.

Queen Elizabeth II did not grow up expecting to become queen of the United Kingdom and its many colonies. At the time, it was anticipated that Elizabeth’s uncle King Edward VIII would reign for a full term and have children of his own to succeed him. A shocking turn of events—Edward’s abdication and the assumption of the throne by Elizabeth’s father, King George VI—determined Elizabeth’s destiny.

Perhaps that seminal twist of fate prepared her well for the many other dramatic changes to come—changes wrought by war, political and social upheaval, personal tragedy, and family turmoil during a reign that lasted longer than any other.

Elizabeth, who died on Sept. 8 at age 96, may be best remembered as a leader who provided a model of constancy in a rapidly shifting world. She was admired by monarchists and republicans alike for her unswerving devotion to duty and her refusal to bend to the faddish expectations of critics.

Her rejection of intimacy or public emotion—she was the epitome of the stiff upper lip once seen as the supreme British quality—may not have seemed suited to an age prone to letting it all hang out. But as she went about her ceremonial duties unveiling monuments, awarding medals, and entertaining foreign dignitaries whom her government wished to flatter or placate, she built a bond with the British people.

There was a special cheer from the crowds when her beloved horses won races, especially at Royal Ascot.

The question now is what the end of her rule means for the British monarchy. Subjects that have been politely put off for years—out of personal respect for Elizabeth—will now be reopened.

[Read more: Queen Elizabeth II’s successor will need to adapt while also protecting the age-old magic of the monarchy, argues Owen Matthews, author of Stalin’s Children.]


The world today, of course, is nothing like it was in February 1952, when Elizabeth learned of her father George’s death. She was then visiting Sagana Lodge in colonial Kenya, during a tour of far-flung parts of the British Empire.

At the time of Elizabeth’s death, she was the titular head of state of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and 11 other Commonwealth realms beyond the U.K. But Kenya and many other cherished so-called possessions of the British Empire had long since gone their own way.

The queen dealt with 15 British prime ministers. One of her reported favorites, surprisingly, was the Labour Party’s Harold Wilson, a middle-class socialist from the north of England who was apparently allowed to smoke his pipe in their meetings. When Wilson reportedly realized he had Alzheimer’s disease and would have to leave office, the queen accorded him the rare compliment of asking him to host her at a Downing Street dinner.

She also met 13 of the last 14 U.S. presidents. The first of those was Harry S. Truman, whom she met in 1951 when still a princess; among her favorites was Dwight D. Eisenhower, to whom she sent her favorite recipe for scones.

Margaret Thatcher was Elizabeth’s first female prime minister, but the two strong-willed women were less than soulmates. One of the few issues on which Elizabeth robustly agreed with Thatcher was her fury with U.S. President Ronald Reagan for sanctioning the U.S. invasion of Grenada, a British Commonwealth realm, in October 1983.

As the living personification of the British state, Elizabeth signed parliamentary bills into law, received the ambassadors of other countries, and had members of the armed forces swear their personal allegiance to her. She was also the nominal head of the Church of England. Yet for all the grandeur that surrounded her, she had no formal powers beyond the ceremonial.

Even so, her unflappable nature and willingness to embrace the demands of the throne enabled her to maintain the mystique of the monarchy and to exert a kind of moral authority.

When her then-Prime Minister David Cameron urged her to “raise an eyebrow” during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014—to encourage Scots to remain part of the United Kingdom—her only reaction was to tell a member of the public outside the church she attended that people should “think very carefully” about the vote. Her displeasure at Cameron’s revelation of his request was made plain by a Buckingham Palace source.

A further wrist-slapping for the prime minister followed when Cameron told former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—within earshot of a camera crew—that the queen had “purred down the [phone] line” when he called to inform her that 55.3 percent of Scots had voted to stay within the union. Cameron was heard telling Bloomberg that he had “never heard someone so happy.” For that, Cameron had to go to the palace to apologize to the queen in person.

Both sides of the Brexit debate sought desperately to claim that the queen favored their view on staying in or leaving the European Union. Elizabeth was ambiguous on the point, however. “As we look for new answers in the modern age,” she said in 2019, when the details of the exit were a subject of much debate, “I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view, coming together to seek out the common ground, and never losing sight of the bigger picture.” Vigorous deconstruction of the remarks followed, but neither faction could convincingly claim her support. She hated the nationwide rancor and division the issue had unleashed.

The one occasion on which Elizabeth appeared to intervene in politics came when she encouraged officials to leak her disapproval of Thatcher’s policy on the question of imposing sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Within the Commonwealth, Thatcher’s Britain was the only dissenting voice, much to the chagrin of a monarch who had promised when she came to the throne to strive for all Commonwealth peoples. She feared that Britain seemed to be condoning apartheid in a way that could even lead to the breakup of the association.

It is unlikely that the Commonwealth will ever again have such a staunch defender in Buckingham Palace, but Thatcher, too, was resolute—and largely refused to budge.


Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip ride in the golden state carriage amid a crowd.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip ride in the golden state carriage amid a crowd.

Elizabeth and Philip ride in the golden state carriage at the head of a parade from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul’s Cathedral celebrating the queen’s Golden Jubilee in London on June 4, 2002.Sion Touhig/Getty Images

As society became less deferential, the queen had to live with growing pressures on the monarchy to modernize, as the more publicly visible Scandinavians had done. She also had to contend with growing criticism of the cost to maintain the broader royal family: “The Firm,” as it’s known to its intimates, cost the British taxpayer some 87.5 million pounds ($100.6 million) a year as of 2021. (A sum dwarfed, the monarchy’s defenders argue, by the boost the royals give to the tourism industry.)

During Tony Blair’s time as prime minister, the government scrapped one of the more visible signs of royal profligacy: the Royal Yacht Britannia. In a rare moment of visible emotion recorded during her reign, the queen appeared to shed a tear at the vessel’s decommissioning. Since 1992, the queen and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, have been making voluntary payments of income and capital gains taxes.

Perhaps the most perilous moment during her reign, at least in terms of the queen’s relationship with her subjects, was the 1997 death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash. As much of the world grieved the death of a princess who had become a media icon, the queen remained somewhat aloof. She was on holiday at Balmoral with Diana’s sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, and their father, and made no effort to rush to London to share in public outpourings of grief. Nor did she order the flag to be flown at half-staff. The queen, not known for putting family first, was said to have wanted to spare the young princes from public attention. But after much criticism and pressure from Downing Street, she did break away from Balmoral and travel to London to pay tribute to Diana—and have the flag lowered to half-staff.

The Queen and Prince Philip view tributes from the public to Diana, Princess of Wales, on the day of her funeral in London on Sept. 16, 1997.
The Queen and Prince Philip view tributes from the public to Diana, Princess of Wales, on the day of her funeral in London on Sept. 16, 1997.

The Queen and Prince Philip view tributes from the public to Diana, Princess of Wales, on the day of her funeral in London on Sept. 16, 1997. John Shelley Collection/Avalon/Getty Images

The episode was a telling example of the struggles that the queen and the royal family had in adapting to a changing world—a world in which attitudes toward class and privilege had shifted dramatically. Those struggles were documented (and somewhat embroidered at length) in the Netflix series The Crown, watched by millions of people who will have taken its dramatic interpretations as fact.

The underlying tensions, of course, were very real. When the writer John Grigg, who would go on to renounce his title as Lord Altrincham, criticized the royal family in 1957 for being too upper-class and ignorant of most people’s lives—saying the queen came across as a “priggish schoolgirl” whose voice was “a pain in the neck”—outrage ensued.

The royals, led by the queen, did later attempt to become more accessible and to develop more of a common touch, but it was never a comfortable process.

It didn’t help that the royal family was often divided against itself. The marriages of three of the queen’s children ended in divorce, including the very public breakup of Charles and Diana, during which both sides made use of allies in the media. Inevitably, some of the magic of the monarchy was badly tarnished then.

The deterioration has only continued. Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, decided not only to break away from their royal duties but also to tell the American TV host Oprah Winfrey all about it. In a televised interview, the pair said that there had been “concerns and conversations” in the royal family about the likely skin color of their son, Archie. Further damage was inflicted on the family by Prince Andrew’s association with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.


So where does the death of Elizabeth—and the assumption of the crown by Charles—leave the British monarchy? Some defenders of the monarchy fear the institution could come under unprecedented assault. Although opinion polls showed the queen herself remained popular and respected until her death, those approval ratings drop sharply among the younger generations. Many British citizens and subjects who revere the queen are unlikely to transfer that affection to her son.

Royalists fret that many who would like to see the monarchy deeply altered or abolished have merely been biding their time. Critics of the monarchy, this thinking has it, knew there would be little sympathy for their cause while the queen continued to show her devotion to duty well into her 90s. But with the queen gone now, everything could change.

In Australia, for example, there is likely to be a renewed effort to break the link with the British crown. Republican former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull once suggested that there was no point in pressing for Australia to reject the British monarchy while the queen lived; there weren’t that many monarchists in Australia, he observed, but there were plenty of “Elizabethans.”

Charles, meanwhile, suffers in comparison, and not only due to a lack of charisma. The queen came to the throne as an engaging and energetic 25-year-old fairy-tale princess. Her son, who holds the record for the longest term as heir apparent, inherits the throne at the age of 73, not exactly a fresh face to provide new impetus.

The queen was rarely tempted to stray beyond the strict impartiality expected of a British monarch. Charles, on the other hand, has made no secret of his strong views on a range of issues, from architecture to badger culls: He has long been an advocate of vigorously combating climate change and at one stage was notorious for sending “black spider memos”—so called because of his distinctively spidery handwriting—to ministers in sensitive departments.

The queen, while she was still alive, persuaded the Commonwealth countries to accept the idea that Charles should succeed her automatically as the head of that organization. But a number of Commonwealth leaders felt that the post should not be hereditary, transferred automatically to the British monarch. They have already been calling for the role to be held for specific terms by distinguished figures from other Commonwealth countries.

A crowd fills the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace during the queen's Platinum Jubilee.
A crowd fills the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace during the queen's Platinum Jubilee.

A crowd fills the Mall as they wait for the royal family to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on the first day of celebrations for the queen’s Platinum Jubilee in London on June 2. Richard Pohle/WPA/Getty Images

The death of the queen may play a part, too, in another crucial issue: the continued unity of the United Kingdom. During the 2014 referendum on independence for Scotland, the Scottish National Party, seeking to break away, proposed keeping Elizabeth as head of state for an independent Scotland. Apparently, the party feared that opposing the continued reign of such a revered figure would have severely damaged its cause. In any future referendum, however, it’s not clear that continuation of the monarchy would even be an issue.

Pressures are likely to build on Charles from all sides. He has already indicated—perhaps out of concern for public sentiment—that he wants to shrink the number of fringe royals benefitting from the public purse. But if he proceeds along those lines, that in turn will likely cause him problems within “the Firm.”

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” as Shakespeare put it in Henry IV, Part 2. Taking over from his remarkable mother, Charles is no doubt aware of that. He should note, too, what his father, Prince Philip, declared in Canada in 1969: “If at any time the nation decides that the system is unacceptable then it’s up to them to change it. I think it’s a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch—It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people.”

Charles will have to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the monarchy is still worthwhile and relevant. His biggest advantage, at least for now, may be the spectacle of the new government to be led by Prime Minister Liz Truss. It could be argued that the monarchy’s greatest value—its sense of tradition and decorum and constancy—has rarely been more needed.

Robin Oakley is a former political editor of the BBC and before that of the Times. He was also for many years the European political editor for CNN. He is the author of several books on politics and horse racing.

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