Messages of condolences and floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth are left at the gates of Government House, in Sydney, Australia September 9, 2022.
| Photo Credit: Reuters
Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday, broke many records as monarch, becoming an enduring symbol of the country over which she reigned for 70 years even as it changed beyond recognition, losing its empire and undergoing social upheaval.
Some commentators describe her reign as a "golden age" reminiscent of that of her namesake Elizabeth I, who ruled over England 400 years ago during a period of growing power and cultural flourishing.
"I think that we are partly viewed through the prism of the Queen: the consistency, the wisdom that she has shown, all of that has been apparent in the way that people view Britain," said Valerie Amos, a former politician and the first Black person appointed by the monarch to the ancient "Order of the Garter".
Others say the 96-year-old's impact on the nation was less profound than that of her illustrious forebear, the monarch's powers having shrunk since the first Elizabethan age.
Some critics argue she leaves no tangible mark, only an institution unfit for purpose in a world of egalitarian aspirations, irreverent social media commentary and scrutiny by round-the-clock media outlets.
Yet her legacy is still remarkable: ensuring the monarchy survived an era of rapid change.
Elizabeth ascended the throne aged 25 on February 6, 1952, on the death of her father George VI, when Britain was emerging from the ravages of World War Two. Rationing was still in place and Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister.
Since then, Presidents, Popes and Prime Ministers have come and gone, the Soviet Union has collapsed and Britain's empire has gone, replaced by a Commonwealth of 56 nations which Elizabeth was instrumental in creating.
"None of the other imperial powers have achieved that ... and in Britain, huge social and economic changes have been carried through on the whole peacefully and consensually," said Professor Vernon Bogdanor, an expert in British constitutional history. "That's very remarkable."
Second Elizabethan age
Elizabeth I spent 44 years on the throne in the 16th Century, a period regarded as England's Golden Age when the economy grew, the country's influence expanded and William Shakespeare wrote his plays - still performed all over the world and regarded as some of the most influential in any language.
"Some people have expressed the hope that my reign may mark a new Elizabethan age," the Queen said in her 1953 Christmas broadcast. "Frankly, I do not myself feel at all like my great Tudor forebear."
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on April 21, 1926. The young princess never expected to ascend to the throne: it was only after her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 because of his love for American divorcee Wallis Simpson that the crown passed to her father, George VI, when she was 10. In picture Princess Elizabeth, centre, age 11, appears on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the coronation of her father, King George VI, right, in London on May 12, 1937.
Princess Elizabeth was 13 when she fell for her 18-year-old third cousin Philip in 1939. Two years later, she married the Danish-Greek prince. In picture, Princess Elizabeth and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh pose on their wedding day at Buckingham Palace in London on November 20, 1947.
She was just 25 when her father died and she became Queen Elizabeth II on February 6, 1952, while on tour in Kenya with her husband Prince Philip. In picture. Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip arrive at Sagana Lodge in Nyeri County, during a Commonwealth visit to Kenya on February 5, 1952. The following day, during a walk in the grounds on the royal couple's return to the lodge from the Treetops Hotel, Prince Philip would break the news to Elizabeth that her father, King George VI, had died during the night and that she had acceded to the throne.
Elizabeth became queen in 1952 and was crowned on June 2, 1953 in a televised ceremony in Westminster Abbey, becoming the first queen in her own right since Queen Victoria and the 40th monarch in a royal line that traces its origin back to William the Conqueror in 1066.
Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill kisses Queen Elizabeth II's hand as she leaves 10 Downing Street in London, after a dinner given by the Prime Minister on on April 4, 1955. Winston Churchill was the first of the 15 Prime Ministers who served during her reign.
Queen Elizabeth was on the throne for most of the Cold War from the death of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. During her reign there were 14 U.S. presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Joe Biden, and she met all of them except Lyndon Johnson. In picture, Queen Elizabeth II is escorted by U.S. President George W. Bush past a painting of former President Harry S. Truman from the residence area to the Grand Foyer of the White House prior to State Dinner for the British monarch and Prince Philip May 7, 2007.
During Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne Britain underwent dramatic change. The austere postwar 1950s gave way to the swinging 60s, the divisive leadership of Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, Tony Blair’s three-term New Labour era, a return to economic austerity and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo combo shows Queen Elizabeth II during the State Opening of Parliament in April 1966 and November 15, 2006.
Queen Elizabeth II’s years on the throne were often far from smooth sailing. She famously described as an “annus horribilis” the 40th anniversary of her accession in 1992 after three of her four children’s marriages failed and there was a fire at her Windsor Castle residence. In piture, Queen Elizabeth II is accompanied by a fireman as she tours the scene of a major fire at Windsor Castle on November 21, 1992.
The death in 1997 of Princess Diana, the divorced wife of Elizabeth’s eldest son Charles, inflicted even more damage on the family’s public prestige. In picture, the Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth II on September 5, 1997 view the thousands of flowers and tributes left outside Kensington Palace in memory of Diana.
Millions turned out for celebrations to mark her 50th, 60th and 70th years on the throne, while her starring role in a spoof James Bond film became the highlight of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Television screen grab image taken on July 29, 2012, shows footage featured during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games starring British actor Daniel Craig playing James Bond escorting Britain's Queen Elizabeth II through the corridors of Buckingham Palace.
In 2022, at the start of a Platinum Jubilee pop concert, she again won huge plaudits for a pre-recorded comic sketch with Paddington Bear, in which she told the famous fictional character that she always kept his favourite snack — a marmalade sandwich — in her ever-present handbag. Picture, released by Buckingham Palace on June 4, 2022, shows Queen Elizabeth II and Paddington Bear having cream tea at Buckingham Palace, taken from a film that was shown at the BBC Platinum Party at the Palace Photo: Buckingham Palace via AFP
Queen Elizabeth II was said to crack jokes with world leaders, enjoy an easy familiarity with long-serving Commonwealth heads of government, and relish a wager on race horses. Racing was an enduring passion. Photo shows Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arriving for the first day of the Royal Ascot horse racing meet in Ascot, west of London on June 14, 2016.
Queen Elizabeth II was also accompanied for most of her reign by her corgi dogs, which earned a reputation for snapping at the heels of royal retainers and were descended from the dog called Susan she received as an 18th birthday gift from her parents.
in the picture, Queen Elizabeth II is seen walking in the private grounds of Windsor Castle on steps at the rear of the East Terrace and East Garden with four of her dogs: clockwise from top left Willow (corgi), Vulcan (dorgie), Candy (dorgie) and Holly (corgi), in this official photograph released by Buckingham Palace to mark her 90th birthday on April 20, 2016. Photo: Buckingham Palace via Reuters
In September 2015, Queen Elizabeth II overtook Queen Victoria to become the country’s longest-ever reigning monarch, an achievement to which she said she had never aspired, and the following year there were more celebrations for her 90th birthday. Picture shows her, wearing the Imperial State Crown, proceeding through the Royal Gallery as she attends the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster in central London on May 27, 2015.
Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage to Philip, the Greek prince she wed aged 21, stayed solid for 73 years until his death in April 2021. In the picture, Queen Elizabeth II takes her seat for the funeral service of Prince Philip inside St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021.
“It has been said that ‘the art of progress is to preserve order amid change and change amid order’, and in this the queen is unparalleled,” then-Prime Minister David Cameron said in a speech to parliament in 2012. “She has never shut the door on the future; instead, she has led the way through it.” In this file combination of pictures created on October 29, 2021 shows the various colourful outfits worn by Queen Elizabeth II throughout the decades.
Having never given an interview or made her personal views on political issues known, her own assessment of her reign - the longest in British history - is hard to ascertain. A senior royal aide told Reuters she would regard her legacy as a matter for others to judge.
Constitutional historian David Starkey has said the Queen did not regard her role as embodying a historical period, but merely doing a job.
"She has done and said nothing that anybody will remember. She will not give her name to her age. Or, I suspect, to anything else," he wrote in 2015.
"I say this not as criticism but simply as a statement of fact. Even as a sort of compliment. And, I suspect, the Queen would take it as such. For she came to the throne with one thought only: to keep the royal show on the road."
Other historians and biographers say Starkey's views do not do justice to how she has performed in her role and moved with the times.
"In an increasingly chaotic world, she has given a sense of stability," said Andrew Morton, whose 1992 biography of Princess Diana caused ructions in the royal family.
The Queen's determination to perform her role as well as she could and restraint from voicing any views that might cause offence gave her a moral authority beyond anything she commanded merely through her position as queen, some say.
"What the Queen's managed to do is ... to bring the monarchy into the 21st century as best as she can," grandson Prince William said in a 2012 documentary.
"Every organisation needs to look at itself a lot of the time and the monarchy is a constant evolving machine and I think it really wants to reflect society, it wants to move with the times and it's important that it does for its own survival," he said.
Constitutionally, the British sovereign has few practical powers and is expected to be non-partisan.
However, historians say Elizabeth has wielded "soft" power and made the monarchy a unifying, focal point for the nation amid great societal divisions, exemplified by her broadcast to reassure the public at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While above the political fray herself, she still meets the Prime Minister for a private weekly audience.
"They unburden themselves or they tell me what's going on or if they've got any problems and sometimes one can help in that way too," she said in a 1992 documentary.
"They know that one can be impartial, so to speak. I think it's rather nice to feel that one's a sort of sponge."
Former leaders have said her years of experience have proved of great help, allowing them to speak candidly without fear of their conversations ever being made public.
"You can be utterly, totally frank, even indiscreet with the queen," John Major, the British leader from 1990 to 1997, said.
Tony Blair, who replaced Major and was Prime Minister for a decade, said: "She will assess situations and difficulties and can describe them without ever ... giving any clue as to political preference or anything like that. It's quite remarkable to see."
Some historians say the Queen will be looked upon as the last of her kind, a monarch from a time of when elites commanded unquestioned respect. But she would still, perhaps, be one of the country's greatest.
"There's no doubt that she will be up there as one of the greatest monarchs not just for her longevity, but for the period of change which she has witnessed," Anna Whitelock, Professor of the History of Monarchy at London's City University, said.
"And like Elizabeth I ... equally seminal for Britain and also Britain's place in the world."