The 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II has ended with her death at Balmoral Castle. By Rick Morton.

One’s duty to history: Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II at her Scottish residence, Balmoral Castle, on September 6.
Queen Elizabeth II at her Scottish residence, Balmoral Castle, on September 6.
Credit: Jane Barlow / AP

Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch in British history and head of the Commonwealth, is dead at age 96. 

The sovereign, known to her family as “Lilibet”, died on September 8, after a short illness. She was at Balmoral Castle in Scotland with her eldest son and successor, King Charles III, and her daughter, Princess Anne, by her bedside.

Born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor in the Mayfair, London, home of her maternal grandparents on April 21, 1926, she was never meant to ascend the throne; in fact, Princess Elizabeth was third in line at birth and her uncle, the then Prince of Wales, was expected to marry and produce heirs. 

That King Edward VIII lasted less than a year as monarch, abdicating to marry the institutionally forbidden, twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, is now a matter of history. It changed the world, surely, but it also reshaped the life of a shy and polite young girl. Edward’s younger brother, King George VI, elevated following abdication, was said to have feared what this upheaval in succession would do to the life of his sweet daughter. She was only 10 and his firstborn heir. 

Princess Elizabeth turned 21 while touring South Africa with her family and gave a radio address that pronounced to the world her seriousness in the face of the task that so worried her father.

“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said in the broadcast.

“But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”

Within four years, Elizabeth would come to inhabit those words more fully than many had anticipated. She became queen at 25 after the death of her father and has reigned for 70 years, “advising” 15 British prime ministers and meeting 13 of the past 14 United States presidents.

It is true that Elizabeth did not have a normal life and came into contact with ordinary people only when duty demanded it. But, as sovereign for seven decades, she met millions of them. Almost a third of Britons say they have seen or met the monarch. Without a passport, the Queen travelled overseas officially on some 285 royal tours, visiting 56 Commonwealth countries with a total population of 2.1 billion people. 

Throughout, the monarch has remained a symbol of relative constancy in a period of global tumult and technological advances. As much as possible, Queen Elizabeth II resisted change and threats to tradition, as if she alone knew the horrors of being unmoored in history. 

While beloved by many, Elizabeth is also the colonial figurehead whose empire has presided over stolen land, stolen wealth and the continued subjugation of people long after her bannered armies have left. 

Now, at rest, Queen Elizabeth II will take her place among all great figures of times past. The tide of progress she resisted for its corrosive qualities against the monarchy will see that she is awarded her fair due and fair critique. It is, after all, one’s duty to history.

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