When Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of York was born in April 1926, she was not expected to become queen — much less Britain’s longest-reigning sovereign. The daughter of King George V’s second son arrived at a time when male heirs took precedence; she was born not at a palace but her maternal grandparents’ London townhouse (though a government official attended to certify that the baby was, in fact, royal — and crowds gathered as word spread). For 10 years, Elizabeth captured public imagination while growing up free of the pressures on direct heirs: She first appeared on the cover of Time magazine at age 3; her clothes and toys set trends. Then, in 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry a twice-divorced American, catapulting his niece up the line of succession. In 1952, she was again suddenly propelled toward the throne when her father’s death made her queen at age 25. She died Thursday at 96 years old.
The seven decades of Elizabeth II’s reign spanned so many milestones that it’s tempting to assess the queen’s life and work in historical facts and figures. En route to becoming the world’s oldest monarch, she traveled more than 1 million miles and visited at least 117 countries; she was served by 15 prime ministers and met 12 of the past 13 U.S. presidents. (She met another, Harry S. Truman, while still a princess.) Born in the age of empire, before the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations, she was the first British monarch to send an email — in 1976 — or a tweet.
But distilling her reign to statistics misses her larger contribution to British society and our cultural consciousness. Steady as her ubiquitous profile on stamps and coins, the queen embodied the British stiff upper lip. Even when a teenager fired six blanks at her during the sovereign’s annual birthday parade in 1981, Elizabeth II was unflappable: She calmed her horse and continued riding.
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The queen ascended the throne as a young woman in a male-dominated era and was effectively tasked with being seen but not heard. As the United Kingdom’s head of state and queen of 14 other Commonwealth realms, she reigned as a politically neutral figurehead. So rarely did Elizabeth allow her personal views to be known that her remark to a well-wisher outside church ahead of Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 — “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future” — became a major point of debate. A few years later, social media users saw sartorial signals about Brexit in her hat. While others in the royal family have been vocal about their private lives and opinions, including in government affairs, she put the monarchy before the monarch — prioritizing duty over personal or family interests. She sometimes appeared cold, and her keep-calm-and-carry-on approach was criticized, particularly after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Faced more recently with suggestions of racism in the royal family, she issued a rare statement, calling her relatives’ comments “concerning” and saying the allegations would be explored privately. Ultimately, her practiced impartiality was an advantage, allowing her to inspire nationalism without partisanship. Her commitment to public service was commendable — all the more so for the span of her reign and the leadership she offered during divisive times.
The queen’s popularity and longevity have acted as a unifying force, even as Brexit has unraveled Britain’s ties to Europe and the links binding the U.K. countries to each other have loosened. The monarchy, and Britain, might change dramatically without the queen. We are not British subjects, nor do we endorse a hereditary class system. But we agree with a point that Elizabeth’s grandson Prince William made in 2015: “I think I speak for my generation when I say that the example and continuity provided by The Queen is not only very rare among leaders but a great source of pride and reassurance.” For more than 70 years, Elizabeth II symbolized stability, and Britain was the better for it.
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