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YEAR IN REVIEW: The final sight of Queen Elizabeth II

It was taken on the off chance but became one of the most famous photos in history. As Queen Elizabeth II waited for the fifteenth Prime Minister of her reign to arrive at Balmoral for the traditional kissing of hands, she posed for quick picture. It wasn’t shared until later that afternoon, once the images of The Monarch and PM had been released. And so, this charming image became the final ever of Elizabeth II, the history maker.

It was taken by Jane Barlow on a rainy Tuesday at Balmoral. The bad weather had delayed Liz Truss as she made her way from London to Ballater to be appointed as Prime Minister. And so Elizabeth II stood in front of the fireplace in the drawing room at her beloved Balmoral for a photo, just to fill in the time.

September 6th 2022 was a day already set to go down as the end of one tenure at Number Ten and the beginning of another. Instead, it became far more than that. Queen Elizabeth looked frail, a little older than we were used to but that sparkling smile in this now world famous photo convinced plenty that the longest reigning Monarch in British history was going to keep on ruling for the considerable future. Instead, people fell upon the sweet details of one of her favourite rooms, noting the nods to Queen Victoria, the pretty lamps and the ornate clock.

No one knew that same piece was ticking towards another moment in history, the end of Elizabeth II’s reign and the start of the rule of Charles III. It was less than 48 hours away by the time the photo was released. But Charles, then the longest serving heir in British history, was on royal duties elsewhere in Scotland when the image was shared while Elizabeth II was settled in front of the fire, having appointed another Prime Minister.

As the photo winged its way around the world, the bruise on The Queen’s hand was noted, as was the stick which had become a familiar sight in recent months. Equally discussed were the choice of clothes – central to this last image of Her Majesty was Balmoral tartan and a cardigan, that same mix of royal and practical that had become her hallmark.

i-Images /Pool

But it was the smile that made the difference. There was something about this image of Queen Elizabeth II that was familiar and yet different, all at once. Perhaps it’s hindsight that makes this snap so singular. But there she is, as she had been for seventy years, looking out, serenely, as if to say that all will be well. When the photo was taken, the UK was in the midst of political turmoil. And then everything changed again.

Just two days after this photo was taken, the health of Elizabeth II worsened significantly and Buckingham Palace announced that doctors were concerned. Crowds gathered, TVs were turned on, conversation everywhere turned to The Queen. When the announcement came, it was still a shock, perhaps reinforced by the oh so recent image of the Monarch. The photo winged its way around the world once more, now the final photo of a much lamented Queen.

This special portrait will always have its place in royal history. Perhaps Elizabeth II knew, as she smiled, that it was a chance to say goodbye. Or maybe it was just a photo that is filled with happiness because Her Late Majesty was happy. There is no doubt that Elizabeth II found contentment in her last summer at Balmoral. And she left a smile to show it in that unforgettable photo that became the final chapter of an incredible royal story.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.