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The Queen, longest-reigning monarch in British history, dies at 96: Buckingham Palace

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada and the Commonwealth, ascended the throne as much by a twist of fate as by the grace of God.
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Queen Elizabeth II attends a garden party at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday June 30, 2010. The royal couple is on a nine-day tour of Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada and the Commonwealth, ascended the throne as much by a twist of fate as by the grace of God.

As the daughter and granddaughter of men who were not first in line to the throne, Elizabeth was once destined for a life of relative regal obscurity.

Instead, she became one of the world’s most famous women at the age of 25, when her father’s death in 1952 made her England’s sixth ruling queen and longest-reigning monarch.

She lived her early years in an intimate family atmosphere free from any hint of future royal responsibilities.

"Seldom can a royal child have enjoyed so simple and normal an early upbringing," commented the Guardian newspaper in 1952.

Elizabeth died Thursday at the age of 96. 

Buckingham Palace announced hours earlier that the Queen had been placed under medical supervision because doctors were concerned for her health. 

Members of the royal family had traveled to Scotland to be with the monarch.

The Queen had increasingly handed over duties to her son – who became King Charles III on Thursday – and other members of the Royal Family in recent months as she recovered from a bout of COVID-19, began using a cane and struggled to get around.

Born April 21, 1926, at 17 Bruton Street in London’s Mayfair district at the home of her maternal grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, the golden-haired, blue-eyed first granddaughter of King George V and Queen Mary grew up in a household where doors were never slammed in anger.

"We want Elizabeth and her sister Margaret to have happy childhoods, which they can always look back upon," said her mother.

Thus it was as the child of a country gentleman, rather than as a potential future monarch, that Elizabeth lived at Bruton Street, at White Lodge in Richmond Park, and at 145 Piccadilly, the house taken by her parents, near Hyde Park.

"In the days of my childhood," she recalled, "the sun seemed always to be shining."

Some happy moments were spent in the tall house on Piccadilly, with its top-floor nursery and Elizabeth’s "stable" of three dozen toy horses. 

When she was four, a sister Margaret Rose — the Rose was later dropped — was born in ancient Glamis Castle in Scotland.

"I’ve got a baby sister," Elizabeth is reported to have exclaimed joyfully. ‘‘I’m going to call her Bud." Asked why she chose the nickname, she replied: "Well, she’s not a real rose yet, is she? She is only a bud."

The two girls frolicked happily together, Elizabeth’s seriousness and sense of appropriateness an engaging contrast with Margaret's ingrained mischief.

They spent many hours in the 'Little House' (Y Bwthyn Bach), a gift from the people of Wales. This was a miniature of a real dwelling faithful in detail down to boxes of matches and baking powder in the tiny kitchen drawers.

Despite the presence of servants and governesses, it was their mother who played the most important role in bringing up the two princesses. Insisting on personal oversight of every detail, the woman later lovingly known as the Queen Mother excluded influences that might set Elizabeth and Margaret apart from other children.

Elizabeth studied languages, particularly French and German, and took special lessons in constitutional history from the late Sir Henry Marten, provost of Eton.

She made her first broadcast at 14.

"It was perfectly done," wrote South African novelist Sarah Millin in her diary. "If there are still queens in the world a generation hence, this child will be a good queen."

The generations that preceded her had never expected to rule.

Her grandfather was not the first-born son and only became heir apparent, and later George V, after the death of his elder brother. Elizabeth’s father was a second son and not expected to reach the throne. But in 1936 came the unexpected abdication of King Edward VIII who gave up his throne "for the woman I love" — Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American divorcee. That put Elizabeth’s father on the throne as King George VI.

Elizabeth herself came to the throne in similarly impromptu, if less dramatic, fashion.

When her father died at Sandringham on Feb. 6, 1952, she was 6,500 kilometres away in the African jungle, on the first leg of what was to have been a five-month tour.

It was the first time a sovereign acceded to the throne while abroad in the Commonwealth.

She flew back to London. In her declaration of accession at St. James Palace, she said: "My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than that I shall always work ... to uphold constitutional government and to advance the happiness and prosperity of my people, spread as they are all the world over.’’

The year that followed was busy. She opened Parliament, presided over state functions at Buckingham Palace and signed up to 100 documents a day.

The climax in pomp and pageantry came on Coronation Day, June 2, 1953, the same year in which she also formally became Queen of Canada. Six kings and seven queens attended as Elizabeth drove to Westminster Abbey in a gilded coach and dedicated herself to her people in the world’s oldest state ceremonial.

It was the most-seen coronation in history. Only a few hundred could crowd into the ancient abbey, but millions watched on television and a colour motion picture film was shown around the world.

One of the largest crowds in London’s history acclaimed Elizabeth when she rode through the ancient, rain-drenched streets after the long ceremony. Later, at Buckingham Palace, she made six balcony appearances as her subjects celebrated far into the night.

For many, it was reminiscent of a ceremony six years before when a slim, grave-faced girl in white stood in the sanctuary of the abbey with a handsome sailor bridegroom, Philip Mountbatten.

There were conflicting stories about how the two met, but there was no conflict over the contention that this was a love match.

Marion Crawford, Elizabeth’s governess for 17 years, said the young princess was 13 at the first meeting and that she was most impressed by the 18-year-old Philip’s capacity for tucking away plates of shrimp.

Later they corresponded and, during one of Philip’s wartime leaves from the Royal Navy, went to a theatre together.

His red sports car was increasingly seen parked outside the palace and it was said that when he first asked the King for Elizabeth’s hand, the couple was advised to wait.

One obstacle was the fact that Philip had been baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. Before the marriage, he was received into the Church of England.

King George VI named Philip Duke of Edinburgh before the marriage took place, and early in 1957 the Queen made her husband a prince of the realm.

The Queen and Prince Philip had two children before and after she succeeded to the throne. Charles, the future Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, was born in November 1948, followed by Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960, and Prince Edward four years later.

When the couple marked their 50th wedding anniversary, Philip discussed the secret to their union.

"I think the main lesson that we have learnt is that tolerance is the one essential ingredient in any happy marriage," he said. "You can take it from me that the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance."

The Queen announced the death of her "beloved husband" at the age of 99 with "deep sorrow" on April 9, 2021.

Marital stability proved elusive for most of the Queen's children, and the sensational media coverage of the Royal Family's romantic woes proved some of the most trying and best-remembered moments of her reign.

Three of her children, Charles, Anne and Andrew, divorced, often under messy circumstances.

The split between Prince Charles and his wife Diana in the 1990s marked a particularly painful time for the Royal Family, with revelations about their ill-fated marriage filling Britain’s notoriously salacious tabloids.

It emerged that Diana had battled anorexia during the marriage and was desperately unhappy at her husband’s ongoing affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Diana's death in 1997 was a tragedy that marked another period of strain for the Royal Family as even the Queen’s perceived lack of public grief was vexing to some of her subjects.

The initial reaction was seen as a rare misstep in judging the public's mood, but by 2002 the monarchy witnessed a revival as Elizabeth marked her Golden Jubilee, becoming only the fifth British monarch to reign for 50 years.

She matched another historical milestone in 2012 by becoming the second monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee, and made history alone in 2015 when she succeeded her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

Earlier this year, she became the first monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne.

The prince was front and centre throughout the festivities as he stood in for his mother and demonstrated he was ready to take on her mantle. 

The Queen’s public appearances during the jubilee were brief but symbolic, underscoring three pillars of her reign: a personal bond with the public, strong links to the armed forces and support for the Commonwealth, a group of 54 nations with former colonial ties to Britain.

On the final day of the event, she joined other senior members of the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch a flyby by 70 military aircraft and wave to supporters who filled the street below. Later, she took part in a beacon lighting ceremony at Windsor Palace, the culmination of events that spanned the Commonwealth.

The prince and his wife Camilla, now known as Queen Consort, travelled to Canada in May as part of the celebrations of the Queen's platinum jubilee.

Canada was a popular destination for the Queen since her first visit here in 1951 as a princess.

In 2010, the Queen made her 22nd trip to Canada with a nine-day stay that included an address that hailed Canada's modern development.

"In my lifetime Canada's development as a nation has been remarkable," she said.

"This vast, rich and varied country has inspired its own and attracted many others by its adherence to certain values. Some are enshrined in law, but I should imagine just as many are simply found in the hearts of ordinary Canadians."

Her visits usually attracted big, admiring crowds — with the exception of a tour in Quebec City in 1964. Noisy knots of demonstrators, mostly college-aged youths, chanted and sang demands for independence as the Queen and her husband rode through the streets. Police compounded the turmoil by charging the crowd, truncheons swinging. Thirty-two people were arrested.

The Queen continued to tour Canada frequently and her visits sometimes became embroiled in the controversies surrounding Quebec’s role in the Canadian federation. In 1990, for instance, her Canada Day visit to Ottawa and what is now neighbouring Gatineau, Que., was seen by some as an insult to Quebec.

The visit had been timed to celebrate the ratification of the Meech Lake accord, which was meant to address many of Quebec’s constitutional concerns. As it turned out, the accord officially died a few days before her visit to the capital. Although pro-sovereigntist sentiment within Quebec was running high, the Queen’s visit continued as planned, without violence.

"Knowing Canadians as well as I do," she said, "I cannot believe that they will not be able, after a period of calm reflection, to find a way through present difficulties."

Many of the Queen’s visits coincided with major national events: in 1967, for the country’s Centennial and Expo 67; in 1976, for the Montreal Olympics; in 1982, for the signing of the Constitution; and in 1992, briefly, for Canada’s 125th anniversary.

The Queen's calm acceptance of personal hazards — whether travelling or at home — was an inheritance from her father, who firmly refused to leave London during the worst of the bombing in the Second World War.

During the war, she served as an army mechanic.

On the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June 2019, the Queen noted that when she attended the 60th-anniversary commemoration, many thought it might be the last such event as she expressed her affinity with those who lived through the war.

"But the wartime generation–  my generation – is resilient," she said.

"The heroism, courage and sacrifice of those who lost their lives will never be forgotten," she said. "It is with humility and pleasure, on behalf of the entire country – indeed the whole free world – that I say to you all, thank you.''

Later in her reign, the Queen navigated the Royal Family through allegations of racism made by her grandson Prince Harry and his wife Meghan in a television interview in the United States, where the Duke and Duchess of Sussex live after stepping away from their royal duties.

Meghan, who is biracial, said an unidentified member of the Royal Family had raised "concerns" about the colour of her baby's skin when she was pregnant with her son, Archie.

"The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning," the palace said in a statement in March 2021. "While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately."

When Princess Elizabeth acceded to the monarchy on the early death of her father in 1952, Winston Churchill, who was then prime minister, described her as "a gleaming figure who providence has brought to us at a time when the present is hard and the future is veiled."

In a publicity-conscious era, one of the Queen’s most ticklish problems was how to strike a balance between reserve and familiarity.

There were occasional complaints from newspapers and broadcasters of difficulty in obtaining royal news. Some felt — on the other hand — that too close an interest was being shown in the personal affairs of the Royal Family by the energetic British press.

The Queen was known to have an intense distaste for any probing into her private life. Her character was forceful, some said somewhat Victorian, and there was speculation that this may have been responsible for much of the royal reticence.

But Elizabeth, partly because of the period during which she ruled, ushered the Royal Family into a new era of 24-hour news cycles and the television age.

At a luncheon to mark her 50th wedding anniversary in 1997, the Queen indicated that the Royal Family had learned from its mistakes, a poignant message as it came just a couple of months after Diana’s death.

Noting that a hereditary monarchy only exists "with the support and consent of the people," she acknowledged that was sometimes difficult to read for an institution so steeped in tradition, unlike politicians who get their consent clearly through the ballot box.

"For us ... the message is often harder to read, obscured as it can be by deference, rhetoric or the conflicting currents of public opinion. But read it we must," she said.

- With files from the Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

Kevin Ward, The Canadian Press

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