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Encore: Queen Elizabeth II, who brought stability to a changing nation


The flag over the White House is flying at half-staff today. And the NFL season opener began with a moment of silence. They were tributes to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who died at the age of 96 yesterday. She served as the U.K.'s constitutional monarch for more than seven decades, making her the longest ruling monarch in British history. NPR's Frank Langfitt looks at her life and reign.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Queen Elizabeth's life spanned a remarkable arc in British history. She was born into an empire on which the sun never set and witnessed the nation's great victory in World War II, when, Elizabeth recalled, she slipped out of Buckingham Palace to join the crowds.


QUEEN ELIZABETH II: I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief. I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.

LANGFITT: Later, she watched as Britain lost most of its colonies and much of its power. There were many personal lows - the divorces of three of her children, the death of her former daughter-in-law, Diana, a sex scandal involving her son, Prince Andrew. In addition, her grandson, Prince Harry, left the family to settle in California with his American wife. Through it all, though, the queen worked to honor a pledge she'd made when she was just 21.


ELIZABETH II: 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.

LANGFITT: Elizabeth was born in 1926, her ascension to the throne an accident of history.

CHRISTOPHER WARWICK: The queen, of course, was never born to be queen.

LANGFITT: Christopher Warwick has written a number of royal biographies.

WARWICK: For the first 10 years of her life, she was pretty much an ordinary little girl.

LANGFITT: All that changed in 1936, when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced woman from America. Elizabeth's shy, stammering father assumed the throne as George VI, placing her next in line. When the Second World War erupted three years later, Princess Elizabeth began performing official royal duties and delivered the first of many broadcasts billed as addresses to the children of the British Empire.


ELIZABETH II: When peace comes, remember; it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The day is November the 20, 1947, the time, 11 o'clock. A nation and a world watch.

LANGFITT: Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, a naval officer and distant cousin.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Once only in 1,100 years of British kingship has there been such a day. An heiress presumptive to the throne marries the man of her choice.

LANGFITT: She'd fallen in love with Philip in her early teens. While traveling in Kenya five years later, she received grim news from home.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The king, who returned to rest last night in his usual health, passed peacefully away in his sleep.

LANGFITT: Elizabeth's father died in 1952. The following year, her lavish coronation drew a global TV audience.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) God save the queen. All hail the queen. All hail the queen (ph).


GEOFFREY FISHER: God crown you with a crown of glory and righteousness.

LANGFITT: Elizabeth made a glamorous young queen in the grey post-war years but also a remote one. Occasionally, she appeared to drop her guard and allow TV cameras into her home.


ELIZABETH II: You live very much by tradition and by continuity. I find that's one of the sad things - that people don't take on jobs for life. They try different things all the time. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, you know, you know exactly what you're going to be doing two months hence or even beginning to know about next year. And I think that this is what the younger members find difficult - is the regimented side of it.

LANGFITT: Difficulties involving younger royals led to some of the most painful periods of the queen's life. In the space of a year, in 1992, the marriages of three of the queen's four children collapsed. And that November, fire devastated Windsor Castle, her childhood home.


ELIZABETH II: In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.

LANGFITT: A horrible year. Things got even worse.


DERMOT MURNAGHAN: We have reports from Paris that Diana Princess of Wales has been killed in a car accident.

LANGFITT: The Mercedes she was traveling in crashed into a pillar in a tunnel along the Seine.


MURNAGHAN: They were apparently being pursued by paparazzi on two motorcycles.

LANGFITT: It was 1997, and instead of returning to London to lead her people in mourning, the queen remained in her castle in Balmoral, Scotland, comforting her grandchildren, Diana's sons, Princes William and Harry. She appeared out of touch and uncaring. Many Britons were furious. Bowing to public pressure, the queen eventually responded.


ELIZABETH II: I, for one, believe there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death. I share in your determination to cherish her memory.

LANGFITT: With that tribute to Diana, the crisis faded.




LANGFITT: When the queen celebrated her 60th year on the throne in 2012, she'd recovered her popularity. Years later, during the pandemic, the queen made a rare national speech that illustrated the unique role she played in the United Kingdom as head of state and above politics. She reassured the British people and emphasized the country's traditional values.


ELIZABETH II: I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any, that the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve and a fellow feeling still characterize this country.

LANGFITT: But recent years brought a return of family turmoil and crises that undermined the monarchy, including allegations that a 17-year-old girl was coerced into having sex with Prince Andrew, which he was forced to address in an interview with the BBC.


EMILY MAITLIS: She went on to have sex with you in a house in Belgravia belonging to Ghislaine Maxwell, your friend. Your response?

PRINCE ANDREW: I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady.

LANGFITT: And claims by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, of racism inside the royal family.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) O sacred spirit, who didst brood upon the chaos dark and rude...

LANGFITT: About a month later, Prince Philip, who the queen had called her strength and stay, died at age 99 after more than seven decades of marriage. Elizabeth became queen when Winston Churchill and Harry Truman were in power. She is the only monarch most Britons have ever known. A quarter of a century after assuming the throne, Queen Elizabeth summarized her role and her relationship with her subjects.


ELIZABETH II: When I was 21, I pledged my life to the service of our people, and I asked for God's help to make good that vow. Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM ALLHOFF'S "STILLNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.