Britain’s longest-reigning monarch died on Thursday at the age of 96. Learn about her seven-decade reign, as well as what is next for the British monarchy.
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“It’s inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you. When I was 21, I pledged my life to the service of our people. I am glad to have had the chance to witness and to take part in many dramatic changes in life, in this country. And with the support of my family, rededicate myself to the service of our great country.” “Queen Elizabeth II ushered the monarchy into a new and radically different era. Her reign blended the ancient and the modern. When she became queen, the country was still reeling from the memory of the Second World War. Her coronation in 1953 was the first royal event of its kind to be broadcast live on television. And it offered the British hope that something better was in the offing.” [cheering] “By then, the royal family was accustomed to broadcasting its message. In 1940, as Princess Elizabeth, the queen gave her first radio address.” “Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers.” “She was age 14, and Britain faced what Churchill called its finest hour in the war against Germany. Newsreel clips showed her parents inspecting the damage of bombing attacks on London.” “And the knowledge that their king and queen are among them, they were actually caught in a raid and had to take shelter during this particular visit, has greatly heartened the people.” “The royals understood the power of imagery, and television showed what the monarchy did best. The pageantry that celebrated its position, reinforcing its stature and the vital mystique that underpinned it.” “For the first time since her coronation, we saw the great state coach, ornate, gilded, richly painted. Perhaps the world’s most beautiful anachronism.” “This was technology that molded and massaged the information that reached the public about an ancient and distant institution. In the more than 60 years of the queen’s reign, the empire shrank back essentially to its island core, and she came to preside over a different nation, far less ready to acknowledge her, far less deferential, more assertive, more wealth-driven, greedier some people thought. It became increasingly important to use mass media and television where radio had sufficed in the past to control the royal narrative and uphold its importance. Above all, she created the impression of a royal household headed by a woman beyond all reproach, whose behavior was never, ever questioned. But upholding this image was not easy.” “We interrupt this film to tell you we are getting reports that Diana,” “Princess of Wales has died” “after a car crash in Paris.” “They were apparently being pursued by paparazzi on two motorcycles.” “After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the Queen almost lost public sympathy irrevocably, seeming very, very distant, almost aloof. She appeared reluctant to respond to a yearning among the public for her to acknowledge the national mood of mourning. It was several days before she finally went on television and addressed the nation.” “Since last Sunday’s dreadful news, we have seen throughout Britain and around the world an overwhelming expression of sadness at Diana’s death.” “Then, most tellingly of all, she stood in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace as the funeral cortege went by and lowered her head in acknowledgment of Diana’s immense popularity. Royal heads of state do not generally bow to other people, other people bow to them. And here she was in public, her head bowed, and that helped the monarchy begin to restore its image. As information became more readily available on computer screens and smartphones, the royal family established its own website. It took an account on Twitter. It used YouTube to broadcast its bigger moments.” [cheering] “You would find scripted, cautiously laid-out material that was designed overwhelmingly to create and reinforce the impression that this was a family at the service of the nation itself.” “Hip, hip, hooray!” “They wanted to make sure that they didn’t say the wrong things, that they kept their mystique. But that became harder and harder to do, and the junior members of the royal family made that harder to achieve. Prince Harry, her grandson, and Meghan Markle had decided to leave the royal family and set up a separate life for themselves in California. They went on to make various accusations against the royal family during a television interview with Oprah Winfrey.” “Months when I was pregnant, we have in tandem the conversation of he won’t be given security. He’s not going to be given a title and also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.” “The impact of the new technology had been reversed. The monarchy now was the target from within its own ranks. This happened about the same time as Prince Philip was in hospital, and it seemed like a double challenge to the queen. But as much as she needed to communicate, she remains sparing in her public utterances. Less was always more.” “It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty the Queen announces the death of her beloved husband, his Royal Highness the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.” “The death of Prince Philip was portrayed as a national tragedy. The couple had been married for 73 years. It was a relationship that had fused with the image of the monarchy. There was always the queen leading the way, with Philip a step behind as protocol required. Emotionally, though, he was at her side. The loss of her husband produced a tremendous outpouring of public sympathy. She responded at first with seclusion, then with the resumption of royal duties.” [laughing] “By and large, the queen’s tenure modernized the royal family without shedding its extraordinary privilege. It changed the way the world perceived the ancient institution and the way the institution reacted to the world. But at its heart, the monarchy remained ambivalent, bereft of executive power, reigning only with the tacit assent of its subjects, yet central to Britain’s sense of itself. Looking back, one is tempted to think, What was it? When did the queen define how she saw her role? And you could probably say in one speech in 1957.” “I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else. I can give you my heart.” “This would be her legacy as her reign came to an end, the longest rule of any British monarch.”
Featured Video: “The Legacy of Elizabeth II: The Media Queen” by Nailah Morgan, Will Lloyd, Alan Cowell and Robin Stein
Queen Elizabeth II, the world’s longest-serving monarch, died on Thursday at the age of 96.
In her obituary, The New York Times wrote that her “reign of almost seven decades survived tectonic shifts in Britain’s post-imperial society, inspired broad affection for her among her subjects and weathered successive challenges posed by the romantic choices, missteps and imbroglios of her descendants.”
In this lesson, you will examine Queen Elizabeth’s life and legacy through multimedia. First we invite you to view photos and watch an eight-minute video detailing her 70-year reign. Then you can go further by reading articles and Opinion essays that explore what happens next for the monarchy, the queen’s portrayal in pop culture, the history of the British Empire and more.
What do you know about Queen Elizabeth? When you think of her, what images come to mind? What major events in history did her seven-decade reign over Britain include? Take a few moments to reflect.
Then, spend some time viewing this selection of photos from her remarkable life. Choose one to write about. You might use these questions to guide your thinking:
In your own words, what is going on in this image?
What made you choose this photo? Why did it stand out to you? What does it make you think and feel?
What do you think this photo says about Elizabeth and her reign? About the monarchy and its role in British society? About the portrayal of the queen in the media over the years?
What questions do you have about this image, about Elizabeth’s life or about the monarchy in general?
Finally, why do you think the queen, and the royal family in general, is so fascinating to so many? What is the power of royalty, in both substance and symbol? Are you interested in the British monarchy? Why or why not?
Share your reactions and questions with a partner.
Watch the video at the top of this post (and which can also be found in the related obituary), perhaps taking notes with an activity sheet like the one we use for our Film Club documentaries. Then answer the following questions:
1. What stood out for you in this video? What images or lines particularly resonated? Why?
2. What did you learn that you didn’t know before? Did anything surprise you? What questions do you still have?
3. The video opens with footage from four different eras in Queen Elizabeth’s life, and in each she is addressing the nation. What does she say? How do those four quotes introduce her, her role and the focus of this short film?
4. “Her reign blended the ancient and the modern,” the narrator tells us. How? What aspects of the monarchy have been in place for centuries, and what aspects of the modern world did Queen Elizabeth have to negotiate for the first time?
5. This piece focuses on Queen Elizabeth as the “media queen.” Throughout, it gives examples of how “the royals understood the power of imagery” and how the queen “sought to control the royal narrative.” What are some examples? How successful was Queen Elizabeth? How important do you think controlling the royal narrative was, given her role as monarch?
6. At what point, according to the film, did Queen Elizabeth “almost lose public sympathy irrevocably”? Why? What did she do to “help the monarchy begin to restore its image” afterward?
7. How have the “junior members” of the monarchy made it difficult for the royal family to both keep its mystique and reinforce the impression that it is “a family at the service of the nation itself”? How much have you been aware of and interested in the stories — for example, those about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? What impression have they given you of the queen and the royal family?
8. The video ends by describing the monarchy as “central to Britain’s sense of itself.” How? (You might return to this question after you learn more about the queen’s extraordinary life or read some of the pieces in the “Going Further” options below.)
Just after the official announcement that “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon,” The Times published a lengthy obituary for Queen Elizabeth II, written by Alan Cowell. The piece is a thorough reflection on her life and her role as “the nation’s anchor.”
In the obituary, Mr. Cowell writes, “Elizabeth’s long years as sovereign were a time of enormous upheaval, in which she sought to project and protect the royal family as a rare bastion of permanence in a world of shifting values.” To what extent was Queen Elizabeth II successful in doing so during her seven decades as the world’s longest reigning monarch? Read the full piece and reflect on the statement, perhaps noting the details in the obituary that support it.
Mr. Cowell also writes, “Just as telling in the chronicles of her rule, Britons’ unquestioning deference to the crown had been supplanted by a gamut of emotions ranging from loyal and often affectionate tolerance to unbridled hostility. The monarchy was forced, more than ever, to justify its existence in the face of often skeptical public attention and scrutiny.” To what extent do you think the queen was successful at justifying the existence of the monarchy in the 21st century, a very changed world from the one that existed when her reign began in 1952? Use evidence from the obituary, as well as from the video and photo spread, to support your answers.
How is this “a moment of reckoning” for Britain? What do you know about what the nation is facing right now, beyond the death of the queen?
First, you might learn about the meticulously choreographed process that the palace and the nation have spent decades planning for when the queen eventually died. What details stand out for you? Why do you think so much attention has been paid to this period of mourning, transition of power and national memorializing? What do you know about King Charles III and the role he will now play? How important do you think this process is for the palace, the government, the news media, the British public and the rest of the world?
Then, read this article about the new prime minister, Liz Truss, who will “be greeted by an array of vexing problems, including double-digit inflation, a looming recession, labor unrest and soaring household energy bills.”
What predictions can you make about the days and weeks to come in Britain? Why?
“In recent years, public pressure has been building on the British state and institutions to acknowledge and make amends for the legacies of empire, slavery and colonial violence,” Maya Jasanoff writes in a guest essay, “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire.” What do you know about the history of the British Empire and the monarchy’s rule over its colonies? What have you learned in school about this topic?
Ms. Jasanoff, a historian, introduces Queen Elizabeth’s role in the era this way:
The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.
“Now that she is gone, the imperial monarchy must end too,” this author argues. Read her full piece and follow the links. Do you agree? Why or why not?
“She was the most opaque of celebrities, a silent film star somehow thriving in a TikTok world,” Sarah Lyall writes. “Over the years, Elizabeth was a character in an endless stream of feature films, made-for-TV movies and television series — biopics, satires, dramas, comedies, you name it — as well as in the occasional documentary, play, musical and novel.”
Have you seen some of these portrayals? Or, have you seen memes or other pop culture versions of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps via social media? Now that you have read more about her, which portrayals seem most accurate? Most interesting? Why?
Over the years, The Learning Network has responded to news about this couple, including with a 2017 lesson plan about their wedding; a 2020 Student Opinion question that asked young people for opinions about their decision to “step back” from official duties (to which nearly 200 responded); and a 2021 Student Opinion question about the Oprah Winfrey interview.
What is your opinion of the couple and the decisions they have made in relation to the royal family? Why? Now that you know more about the role and history of the monarchy, how would you explain why they seem to pose such a threat to its traditions? Do you think the issues they have raised, including those about race and mental health, have broader implications beyond the royal family? Why and how, if so?
Find more lesson plans and teaching ideas here.