Elizabeth, like all of us, endured good times and bad in her long life. But throughout, she was a beacon of stability and selflessness in the way she has conducted herself in her public life.
As the Queen she has steered the institution of monarchy from a time of imperial power into a multi-cultural, multi-media age, from the uncertainty of the end of empire to the new burgeoning Commonwealth.
To millions of people she was known simply as the Queen. She had travelled more than any other British monarch and lived longer and reigned longer than any of her predecessors.
She surpassed Queen Victoria’s record as the longest-reigning British monarch in 2015. When the moment to mark that record came she did so with her customary modesty and dignity.
She ruled out any staged major celebration; for Her Majesty, once her speech was over it was business as usual. Dressed in turquoise with her trusty black handbag at her side at an engagement in the Scottish borders, the monarch addressed the crowd.
“Prince Philip and I are very grateful for the warmth of your welcome on this occasion. Many have also kindly noted another significance attached to today, although it is not one to which I have ever aspired.”
The historic milestone was reached a few hours later at 17.30 (British Summer Time). At that precise moment Elizabeth had reigned for 23,226 days, 16 hours and about 30 minutes.
The then prime minister, David Cameron, described her service as monarch as “truly humbling”.
Most people have only ever known the Queen as their monarch. She acted as a figure of continuity as the country modernised itself. She served, with the Duke of Edinburgh at her side, through almost half the 20th century and into the new millennium, witnessing technological advances and a succession of British governments of different political persuasions and major changes in the way her subjects lived their lives.
Elizabeth welcomed in the new century at the Millennium Dome in east London with a chorus of Auld Lang Syne alongside the prime minister of the time, Tony Blair and his wife Cherie.
But it would prove a difficult start to the new century for the monarch.
The nation celebrated Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother becoming a centenarian in the summer of 2000, making her the first member of the royal family to reach her 100th birthday.
The Queen had to cope with a double loss in March 2002.
First, her beloved sister and confidante Princess Margaret died after a sustained period of ill-health six weeks earlier; and then her mother died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 101.
The two women had been a tremendous source of strength to the Queen, part of her private support system, discreet and loyal. Now they were gone.
It was a terrible way to start the Queen’s Golden Jubilee year; but afterwards the sadness turned to joy with a warm outpouring of affection for the monarch.In June 2002, millions took to the streets and crowded into the Mall to catch a glimpse of the royal family.
The Queen also toured Britain and the Commonwealth. During the summer, two concerts, one pop and one classical, were held at Buckingham Palace, and televised around the world.
In April 2005, the Prince of Wales married his long-term love Camilla Parker Bowles. It was a private civil wedding at Windsor’s Guildhall.
Afterwards the couple returned to Windsor Castle for a service of blessing at St George’s Chapel, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Around 800 of the couple’s close family and friends attended the second religious service, including of course the Queen and Prince Philip.
The Queen later hosted a reception in Windsor Castle’s state apartments.
In November 2007 the Queen and Prince Philip marked their diamond wedding anniversary. A few weeks later she passed another milestone in her reign, beating her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria’s record of 81 years and 243 days to become the oldest monarch in the history of the nation.
In turn, Prince Philip became Britain’s longest-serving royal consort in April 2009, beating the record of 57 years and 70 days set by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III.
Prince William and Catherine Middleton married in 2011 when around a million well-wishers lined the London streets, and around 34 million viewers tuned in to watch the ceremony throughout the UK, joined by a further 25 million in the United States.
It was estimated that in total more than a billion people watched the royal wedding coverage globally.
It was the crowning moment of the first grand act in the theatre of royalty this century — pomp and pageantry at its best, a resplendent symbol of national pride.
Later the same year, the Queen became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland.
During the historic visit she said: “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all.”
The Queen was not able to use the word “sorry” for what Britain did during the Irish War of Independence, but she came as close to it as she could. For more than six decades our Queen quietly but surely guided a modern monarchy, making it fit to take on the challenges of a new, modern century.
The diamond jubilee was a chance for her people to look back as well as forward. People again turned out in their millions. In addition to the weekend celebrations in June that marked the diamond jubilee, the Queen toured England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Her immediate family represented her too on high-profile overseas tours throughout the Commonwealth.
In cold and rainy weather, the Queen’s Thames pageant reached its end as a world record-beating 1,000-strong flotilla passed under Tower Bridge.
The Belfry carrying the Royal Jubilee Bells was the first vessel through, followed by the £1 million rowing barge Gloriana, led by Olympic gold medallists Sir Matthew Pinsent and Sir Steve Redgrave, rowing with 16 others. A 41-gun salute was fired from the Tower of London to celebrate the Queen’s 60 years on the throne while thousands of people cheered.
Unfortunately the Duke of Edinburgh was taken ill after the pageant and had to miss much of the planned jubilee celebrations. His illness meant that when the Queen climbed the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving she was without her partner of 64 years at her side. Instead, he was recovering in hospital a few miles away from a bladder infection.
For once, she appeared a little uncertain. As she slowly progressed on June 5 — followed by her family — that abiding air of implacable confidence seemed to escape her. Characteristically uncomplaining she carried on. Four days of diamond jubilee events culminated in an appearance by the Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony in front of huge, cheering crowds.
There was also a fly-past by Second World War aircraft, and the Royal Air Force Red Arrows capped it off perfectly. As the party rolled on, news emerged that, on the advice of his doctors, the Duke would have to miss the jubilee concert, organised by Take That singer Gary Barlow, and had even gone to hospital.
Charles paid tribute to “the life and service of a very special person,” he rounded off to loud applause. It was a brilliant performance. In the palace corridors of power, however, the absence of the Duke of Edinburgh and his ill health the next day had focused minds. It was clear to everyone that it was no longer reasonable to expect him to keep up the same pace as he approached his century.
He clearly felt the same and in 2017 the palace announced that the Duke would effectively retire. Another hospitalisation for Philip — and the Queen’s concern about his workload — accelerated behind-the-scenes plans for a subtle but deliberate handing over of some responsibility to Prince Charles. Together with his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, his brothers Andrew and Edward and sister Anne, as well as the next generation they all stepped up to support the Queen.
The younger generation had already acquitted themselves well during the London Olympics of 2012, when they appeared in Team GB T-shirts to shout encouragement to our athletes. Prince Harry, too, had a key role to play since he retired from his Army career. A number of successful royal tours followed too before his engagement to actress Meghan Markle in 2017. In July 2013 the Queen and the royal family celebrated the arrival of Prince George, at the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital, London — her direct heir.
Another milestone came in 2013 when the Queen announced that she would miss her first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting for more than 40 years in November, and asked Prince Charles to represent her at the summit instead. From now on, Charles, supported by Camilla, would be expected to step in whenever the Queen needed him to represent her on future long-haul trips. In a stroke, she had given the Prince of Wales — our longest-serving and best-prepared heir to the throne in history — the chance to show his strengths on the world stage.
He was an undoubted success and since then he has accompanied Her Majesty to Commonwealth meetings.
Throughout her long life the Queen had remained remarkably physically and mentally fit. She rode her horses regularly, loved walking and reading.
But in her nineties it was time, she seemed to suggest, to start the process of giving the next generation their chance. In November 2015 in Malta for CHOGM the Queen delivered a strong speech in which she thanked Charles for his support and “great distinction”. Her carefully chosen words of praise were the clearest hint that he could take over the role that she had held for more than 60 years.
It was part of a discreet campaign to ensure that Charles, Prince William — and eventually Prince George — would inherit her role as Head of the Commonwealth.
With a combination of quiet modesty, wisdom and experience, she had been central to holding the association together. There always seemed, during her long lifetime and reign, a quiet, irrational belief among us that the Queen would just go on and on indefinitely. As William put it: “For the grandchildren, it’s a bit difficult for us to say ‘take it easy’ when she’s so much older than us, and has done so much more. We do hint at taking some things off her, but she won’t have anything of it. She’s so dedicated and really determined to finish everything she started.”