World

Queen Elizabeth, Canada's head of state, dead at 96

Queen Elizabeth, Canada's head of state and the longest-reigning British monarch, has died. She was 96.

Queen had been under medical supervision at Balmoral Castle in Scotland

Queen Elizabeth dead at 96

17 days ago
Duration 8:33
Queen Elizabeth, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, has died. The CBC's Margaret Evans has a look at her life and legacy.

Queen Elizabeth, Canada's head of state and the longest-reigning British monarch, has died. She was 96.

She died peacefully on Thursday afternoon at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, Buckingham Palace said in a short statement. 

"The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow," the palace said, in reference to the Queen's son Charles, who automatically became king upon her death, and his wife, Camilla.

In a separate statement, King Charles called his mother's death "a moment of the greatest sadness for me and all members of my family."

"I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world. During this period of mourning and change, my family and I will be comforted and sustained by our knowledge of the respect and deep affection in which The Queen was so widely held."

Charles's estate, Clarence House, confirmed his title was now King Charles III.

Watch and listen to full live coverage on CBC News Network, CBC Radio and the CBC News and Listen apps.

Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, at the relatively tender age of 25, and presided over the country and the Commonwealth, including Canada, for seven decades. Those 70 years as monarch were recognized during this year's Platinum Jubilee events, which reached their height in London in early June.

In her time as monarch, Elizabeth bore witness to profound changes at home and abroad, including the decline of the British Empire and decolonization of many African and Caribbean countries, along with the end of hostilities with Irish republicans. 

As one of the most famous women in the world, she was also under great public scrutiny during some of the most painful moments of her life, including the death of her father, King George VI, the marriage breakups of three of her four children and the death of her former daughter-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales.

Personnel place a sign announcing the death of Queen Elizabeth on a fence outside Buckingham Palace, in London, after her death at age 96 on Thursday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

But Elizabeth always had a keen sense of her role.

"I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice," she said during her first televised Christmas address in 1957. "But I can do something else: I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations."

That sense of duty was central to her life, even before she ascended the throne. In a speech broadcast from Cape Town, South Africa, on her 21st birthday in 1947, she made that clear.

"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.

The path to the throne

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born in London on April 21, 1926, the first child to Prince Albert and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duke and Duchess of York. At the time of her birth, Elizabeth stood third in line of succession to the throne and was not expected to become monarch.

But that changed when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936 in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Elizabeth's father became King George VI, making Elizabeth the presumptive heir.

It was around this time that Elizabeth met her future husband, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark.

Their wedding at London's Westminster Abbey in 1947 was a grand event that helped lift the spirits of the British public at a time when it was still reeling from the destruction of the Second World War and the rationing that followed the end of the conflict.

WATCH | Elizabeth's marriage to Prince Philip:

Prince Philip married the Queen in 1947

2 years ago
Duration 0:32
A young Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten in Westminster Abbey in London on Nov. 20, 1947.

The couple's first child, Prince Charles, was born in 1948 and the second, Princess Anne, arrived two years later. (Another two children, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, were born in 1960 and 1964, and the family has now grown to include eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.)

King George VI died in 1952, at which point Elizabeth became Queen as well as head of the Church of England and the Commonwealth.

Although her grandmother, Queen Mary, died in February 1953, Elizabeth's coronation went ahead that June. It was a lavish spectacle, and in a significant first, was televised worldwide to an audience estimated at 277 million.

  • Do you have a personal connection, story or memory to share about Queen Elizabeth II? Or a question about what happens next? Send an email to ask@cbc.ca

The role of a queen

Because Britain has a constitutional monarchy, the King or Queen is head of state but has no ability to make or pass legislation.

Throughout her reign, Elizabeth had a weekly audience with the British prime minister. While the substance of these discussions remains confidential, it is thought that it was an opportunity for the sitting prime minister to solicit her advice.

Elizabeth refused to be drawn into policy debates in public, but over the years, the British media sometimes alleged differences of opinion between her and the prime minister of the day. 

Elizabeth and Prince Philip wave goodbye as they leave Canada from Pearson International Airport in Toronto on July 6, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

For example, there were reports that Elizabeth was concerned about the anti-strike measures and reduction of social programs under Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 until 1990.

As much as Queen Elizabeth kept her distance from politics, there were times she let her views be known — or appeared to. For example, she favoured sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney has said.

And in the days leading to the Scottish referendum in 2014, there was much attention focused on her saying that she hoped people would think "very carefully about the future." At the time, Buckingham Palace said the Queen "maintains her constitutional impartiality. As the Queen has always said, this is a matter for the people of Scotland."

While Elizabeth remained largely apolitical, countless trips abroad made her something of a royal diplomat. In addition to more than 20 visits to Canada, Elizabeth spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, the U.S. Congress and met several popes.

WATCH | Queen Elizabeth's many visits to Canada:

The Queen in Canada

4 months ago
Duration 3:25
Queen Elizabeth has visited Canada 22 times, beginning her royal tours as a princess in 1951, where she met Indigenous people in Alberta.

Arguably her most significant diplomatic mission was closer to home. In 2012, she visited Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she shook the hand of Martin McGuinness, a one-time commander with the Irish Republican Army and at the time the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

The meeting, although brief, was seen by many as a key moment of reconciliation between Britain and Irish republicans.

Elizabeth has "been astonishingly effective as a diplomat and as a statesperson," Ninian Mellamphy, a professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont., and a longtime royal watcher, said at the time.

Largely inscrutable

Renowned as much for her composure as the colourful clothing she wore to make sure she could be seen in a crowd, Elizabeth rarely showed her true emotions in public. As a result, she was seen by many as a symbol of British resilience.

Even so, she had her dark years, particularly 1992, which she called her own "annus horribilis." That year, among other events, the marriages of three of her four children crumbled, a tell-all book about Diana was published and a fire devastated part of Windsor Castle, a royal residence she particularly favoured.

Diana divorced Prince Charles in 1996, and a year later, she died after a car crash in Paris. Elizabeth was heavily criticized for not responding publicly immediately following Diana's death, but days later she delivered a heartfelt speech on TV in which she expressed admiration for her former daughter-in-law.

As recognizable and high-profile as Elizabeth was, however, she remained in many ways an elusive personality. She was known for her sense of humour and dry wit, but didn't do interviews and her personal views never got a public airing. 

Certain interests seemed apparent — whether it was her love of horses or devotion to the corgis that would run up airplane steps with her. 

There was also the sense she was a frugal Queen who ran a tight ship, one who reportedly kept her cereal in Tupperware containers and made sure lights were turned off in the regal palaces she called home.

Elizabeth, left, Prince George, Prince William, Princess Charlotte, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Louis are seen at Buckingham Palace during the Platinum Jubilee Pageant on June 5. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

In her later years, she became an object of fascination for screenwriters and playwrights, most notably Peter Morgan, who tried to capture the inner life of Britain's longest-serving monarch.

Celebrated actor Helen Mirren won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Elizabeth in the 2006 film The Queen, and also starred in the stage play The Audience, about her weekly meetings with the prime minister.

Netflix is also producing The Crown, a series created by Morgan that explores her reign.

Despite public debates about the necessity and future of the monarchy, Elizabeth remained a highly popular figure among Britons until her death.

In 2020, she was praised for offering a sense of calm strength and reassurance as the coronavirus pandemic continued. Her strong sense of duty was on display particularly as she urged resilience early in the pandemic through a rare televised address. She also found herself carrying out her role in new ways as she took part in virtual events.

Philip, who was the longest-serving consort to a monarch, died on April 9, 2021. At Philip's funeral on April 17, 2021, Elizabeth led a small group of family members as pandemic restrictions at the time meant the funeral service was limited to 30 people. She sat alone, wearing a mask, at the front of St. George's Chapel before his casket was lowered into the royal vault. 

Elizabeth sits alone in St. George’s Chapel during Philip's funeral at Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021. (Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press)

Health concerns arose after she was in hospital overnight for what were described as "preliminary investigations" in October 2021. Following advice from doctors to rest for at least two weeks, she continued to undertake light duties from her home at Windsor Castle.

She also carried out several engagements virtually, but missed high-profile public events such as Remembrance Sunday.

In early February 2022, Elizabeth marked 70 years on the throne, an unprecedented milestone for a British monarch and the official beginning of her Platinum Jubilee. 

Later that month, Buckingham Palace announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. She recovered and continued to carry out virtual engagements, along with a few in-person meetings, including with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon at Windsor Castle.

While Platinum Jubilee events continued largely without her public presence, she did appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the beginning and end of the celebrations in early June.

WATCH | Queen appears at Jubilee event: 

Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations begin with Trooping the Colour parade

4 months ago
Duration 2:29
Trooping the Colour military parade in London marks the start of four days of events celebrating Queen Elizabeth's 70 years on the throne.

"While I may not have attended every event in person, my heart has been with you all and I remain committed to serving you to the best of my ability, supported by my family," she said in a message as the Jubilee events concluded. 

"I have been inspired by the kindness, joy and kinship that has been so evident in recent days, and I hope the renewed sense of togetherness will be felt for many years to come."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andre Mayer is a features writer and editor at CBCNews.ca. He is also the editor of the environmental newsletter What on Earth?, which won a Digital Publishing Award in 2019 for best editorial newsletter. You can contact him at andre.mayer@cbc.ca.

With files from Janet Davison

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