Queen Elizabeth II has died at age 96, after 70 years of serving as a crumbling empire’s head of state. She died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland on Thursday and will lie in state at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh.
Americans were greeted on Thursday morning with news that the queen’s family members were traveling to Balmoral (where she traditionally spends summers), including Prince Harry, who lives in California but was already in the U.K. for unrelated events. Hours before her death was officially announced, British news channels pivoted to wall-to-wall coverage, and BBC anchors were wearing black suits and ties, a clear sign of what was to come.
The longest-living and longest-reigning British monarch is survived by a number of great-grandkids, feuding grandkids, and disgraced children. She’s also survived by a global population that witnessed the slow-but-necessary dismantling of the British Empire, and the U.K.’s exit from the European Union at the end of 2020.
Details about the queen’s funeral will emerge shortly, but what happens after that has been a matter of state planning for years, if not decades. In 2017, the Guardian published a remarkably detailed account of how the royal bureaucracy planned to kick into high gear, noting that by the time we’d all find out about the queen’s death, she would’ve likely been dead for a while. Now, Charles is king, William is second in line to the throne, and alleged rapist Prince Andrew no longer has the protection of being the monarch’s favorite child. The implications, however, for the British monarchy in the 21st century are much larger, and much more uncertain. Europe is already in the midst of a season of instability. Could the death of a woman whose reign lasted the better part of a century make it worse?
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born April 21, 1926, in London’s tony Mayfair neighborhood. She was expected to be a member of the aristocracy, yes, but Princess Elizabeth was never meant to reach the throne. Her parents were the Duke and Duchess of York; her uncle, King Edward VIII, reigned over an empire that spanned four continents. (At this time, Edward ruled over about 80 countries. While not the empire’s peak, it was a respectable number in the eyes of his fellow colonialists.)
Still, Elizabeth was a princess, and it was an idyllic life. She was called Lilibet as a child because she couldn’t pronounce her own name correctly. Her grandfather King George V started using Lilibet to mirror her own youthful error and it stuck. (This is the only relatable thing about a queen who grew up with a miniaturized, fully working cottage gifted to her by the people of Wales in 1932.)
Her comparatively normal childhood came to an abrupt halt in January 1936, when her grandfather died and her uncle became King Edward VIII. But Edward couldn’t hack it in the Windsor game of thrones. In early December 1936, after it became clear that his chosen love, American socialite (and divorcée) Wallis Simpson, would never be accepted as queen consort, Edward abdicated and left the ruling duties to his brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York. This made Princess Elizabeth the heir at only 10 years old. Lil Lilibet had no way of knowing she and her family would become more irrelevant by the decade.
For 10 years, she prepared to lead the world’s leading power. Elizabeth would go on to take part in schooling from the vice-provost of Eton, the preferred private boarding school of the British ruling class, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. She also did normal things. At 11, Elizabeth became a Girl Guide, a British corollary to Girl Scouts (without the cookies).
Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1953 and witnessed the late 20th and early 21st centuries unfold from its high peak. Her reign was marked by massive world tragedies memorialized in history books, as well as smaller incidents famous in the U.K. but not so much elsewhere. Repeatedly, she was criticized for not speaking up soon enough. When a coal slide in Aberfan killed 146 people in 1966, the queen initially sent her husband and brother-in-law to visit the disaster site. The queen’s former private secretary said waiting a week to visit was one of the queen’s biggest regrets.
When Diana, Princess of Wales, died, it took five days for the queen to issue a statement. After spending days with young Princes William and Harry at Balmoral Castle, she returned to London to—finally—publicly mourn “the devastating loss” of her ex-daughter-in-law.
The queen gave a live speech to the nation from Buckingham Palace:
We have all been trying in our different ways to cope. It is not easy to express a sense of loss, since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings: disbelief, incomprehension, anger - and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days. So what I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart.
It’s perhaps the best example of how unyielding the British monarchy is, no matter who you are. The crown expects certain things from you, even if you are a grandmother. First and foremost, you are the sovereign. Choosing to be a grandmother first during, instead of a symbol of the empire at one of its most fraught moments in modern memory, was a controversial move. Normal people get to choose their families over their jobs. Then again, by the queen’s own admission during a speech on her 21st birthday...the Commonwealth was her family, too.
The cliché about fairy tales being too good to be true was, in fact, borne out by the queen’s family. Elizabeth’s apparently favorite son, Andrew, settled a sexual abuse case to avoid a trial that would have brought his ties to the dead sex offender Jeffrey Epstein under even greater scrutiny. The man who has succeeded her, Charles, had decades of image rehabilitation undone by one (1) particularly well-cast television drama—in addition to the many news stories that have shown a man divorced from financial propriety. In 2021, Charles and his top aide were reported to police for allegedly accepting a donation in exchange for honors. That was followed by reports in June 2022 that Charles accepted millions in cash from a former Qatari leader.
The gilded cage constructed for the next generation isn’t looking any sturdier. Columns sourcing “royal insiders” say that Charles and Diana’s sons are estranged or feuding or just don’t like each much anymore. These rumors come after the racism that undergirds much of Buckingham Palace made Meghan Markle’s time as a royal consort one of the worst experiences of her life. It caused Harry to choose his wife and children’s mental health over the jewels and money, and take his family out of the Firm. (Not that they still don’t have loads of cash in Los Angeles.)
None of the great-grandchildren are old enough for the royal watchers in media to follow their every move—yet. By the time they are, maybe we’ll have learned something from Diana and Meghan.
There is no place in feminism for a monarchy, even if a woman is leading it. Something is not feminist or “good for women” simply because there is a woman at the top. Elizabeth’s steadfast loyalty to the crown does not a feminist make. Staying at a job for the long haul only makes you a sucker—not a martyr—with a tiara.
Maybe, with Elizabeth’s death, royalty will finally lose its sheen.