Death of Elizabeth II: A look back at the extraordinary fate of a queen who should never have reigned

Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at the age of 96, went through decades of social change without ceasing to embody the stability of the British monarchy, yet threatened with anachronism in a changing world.

A dignified figure, who reigned longer than any other British monarch before her – in September 2015 she surpassed the record for the longest reign set before her by Victoria – Elizabeth helped adapt the royal institution to modernity , to make it more open and accessible, despite the increasingly intrusive gaze of the media.

While the nation over which she reigned sometimes struggled to find its place in the new international order, while her own family alienated public opinion, the queen defended a conception of unity that transcended the notion of class, s ‘attracting the respect not only of royalists but also, somewhat reluctantly, of republican-leaning Britons.

The first woman to rule since Victoria, she eased court protocol and opened the monarchy up to the masses. His subjects did not always subscribe to it and the end of the 20th century saw an increase in the marks of irreverence towards Buckingham. This detachment of opinion culminated with the car accident that caused the death of Princess Diana in 1997 in Paris. Many then accused the Queen of isolating Diana from the royal family due to her divorce from Prince Charles, heir to the throne.

But the standards of “competence” and etiquette she set as a monarch won her renewed admiration, particularly when she had to deal in 2002 with the deaths of her sister, Princess Margaret, and Queen Mother Elizabeth.

Figurehead of the Commonwealth and head of state of various territories dependent on Great Britain, the person who concealed the royal smile gave up relatively little, never granting an interview, only rarely expressing his emotions or his personal opinion in public. “She was a woman in a man’s world, taking on a job that everyone thought was only a man’s job,” her grandson Prince William said of her in a 2012 television interview. represented an incredible example to me.”

Middle ground

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on April 21, 1926 at 17 Bruton Street in central London, but the young princess never thought she would one day take the throne. She only became sovereign because of the crisis caused in 1936 by the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII after his marriage to Wallis Simpson, a divorced American.

She was ten years old when the crown passed over the head of her father Georges, who was to die on February 6, 1952. Hastily returned from Kenya, she was welcomed as sovereign by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the first of 15 heads of government whom she will rub shoulders with throughout her reign (until Liz Truss is appointed on September 6).

His coronation, on June 2, 1953, was the first in the television era. “In a way, I didn’t have an apprenticeship. My father died far too young and I had to take on this role very suddenly, and do my job as best as possible,” she confided in a documentary in 1992. During his 70 years of reign, Great Britain experienced spectacular changes.

The austere post-war years were followed by the “swinging Sixties”, then the divisive neo-liberalism of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the three mandates of Tony Blair’s “New Labour”, the return to austerity under David Cameron, the Brexit earthquake and the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. The June 2016 referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union laid bare deep divisions within British society. “As we search for new answers in the face of modernity, I personally prefer tried and tested recipes, namely speaking kindly to others, respecting different points of view, coming together to seek common ground and not never lose sight of the big picture,” she said at the time in a thinly veiled message to politicians.

“annus horribilis”

At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth initially relied on her father’s circle of advisers before gradually bringing diplomats and businessmen into the Court. In 1992, she responded to criticism of the wealth and lifestyle of the royal family by announcing that she would now pay income tax.

Her marriage to Greece-born Philip of Edinburgh, whom she married when she was 21, remained strong for 74 years until the Prince Consort’s death in April 2021. The couple had four children, an interval of ten years separating the second, Anne, from the third, Andrew. The Queen had her last child, Edward, in 1964 at the age of 37.

The marital troubles of his daughter and two of his sons, however, shook the monarchy. Elizabeth herself describes the year 1992 as “annus horribilis”, marked by the failure of the marriages of three of her children and a fire in the royal residence of Windsor Castle.

From scandals to indiscretions avidly reported by the tabloids, to the shock of the death of ‘Lady Di’, the royal family’s popularity is at an all-time low and for the first time, observers dare to suggest that the days of the monarchy are over. accounts. But Queen Elizabeth manages to stay above the fray, with the only critics of her criticizing her for being too cold or aloof.

Over the next twenty years, relying on more professional and sophisticated communication, the sovereign managed to make people forget the dark days of the 1990s. sees a million people gather in the streets of London and two billion viewers worldwide in front of their screens, is an undeniable success for the palace. The lavish commemorations of the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 2012 are in turn watched by millions of spectators and her appearance alongside Daniel Craig in a parody of a James Bond film for the ceremony opening of the London Olympics the same year shows her in a mischievous light, far from the solemnity of her public persona.

Christmas ornament

The years eventually reveal a woman gifted with common sense and wit, a friend of animals and the great outdoors, more comfortable in tweed attire than with a tiara. The unity of the kingdom that she embodies and the pageantry associated with the royal family remain a source of national pride for the British.

With his death, however, the future of the monarchy is likely to be questioned. Polls seem to suggest that Prince Charles, heir to the crown, is much less popular with the British. The decision of Prince Harry, younger brother of William, and his American wife Meghan to give up their royal duties has also deprived the institution of two of its most popular figures. “The monarchy is only good as long as people do their job,” royal family biographer Robert Lacey told Reuters at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. “Basically when you look at the structure and the way in which the country works, we are a republic decorated with a magnificent Christmas ball at the top. And we can always remove this decoration when we want.”

Death of Elizabeth II: A look back at the extraordinary fate of a queen who should never have reigned