September 8, 2022 2:04 PM EDT

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest reigning monarch, has died at 96. The Queen provided comfort to the British people even before she sat on the throne, beginning with her first ever recorded radio broadcast to the United Kingdom in 1940 when she was just a teenager, 13 years before her coronation in 1953. Over her decades as Queen, she was an elusive figure, never allowing much access to the press. The role she played in history is perhaps best summarized in her entry in TIME’s 100 Women of the Year: “In her utter rejection of a public persona, she is best understood, still, as a symbol: no longer the potent florescence of youth, but a hard-worn tree in whose limbs and roots can be traced the archaeology of an era.” The Queen leaves a complicated legacy in addition to the families of her four children: Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, Princess Anne, and the eldest, Prince Charles—who is next in line for the throne.

Princess Elizabeth, right, and her sister Princess Margaret send a message during the BBC's children programme, particularly to the children who were being evacuated because of the World War II, in Windsor in Oct. 1940. (POOL/AFP/Getty Images)
Princess Elizabeth, right, and her sister Princess Margaret send a message during the BBC's children programme, particularly to the children who were being evacuated because of the World War II, in Windsor in Oct. 1940.
POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne was unexpected, a surprise only surpassed by the duration of her reign. Here’s a brief history of how she ascended to the throne.

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King George VI takes the throne

Queen Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI, became King after his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Spencer in 1936. Shortly after he assumed power, World War II broke out. The King gained popularity through his efforts to boost wartime morale, including by visiting the sites of bombings across the U.K. alongside Queen Elizabeth I, and visiting Normandy 10 days after D-Day in 1944. He also took the royal family on a momentous tour of South Africa, a first for the monarchy, in 1947.

Already in poor health due to lung cancer and other ailments, King George VI died in his sleep of coronary thrombosis at age 56 on Feb. 6, 1952. Elizabeth, then 25 and still a princess, had been visiting Kenya and returned home to assume her position as Queen.

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Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation

The exact moment Queen Elizabeth came into power is unknown. The shift of power takes place the moment the reigning monarch dies, but given that King George VI died in his sleep and was found by a servant at around 7:30 in the morning, Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is said to have begun sometime during that night.

TIME reported on the way she found out about her father’s death during her trip to Africa. “It was not until early in the afternoon that Philip got the news (by telephone from a local newspaper) that changed their lives. He sent an equerry to call London for confirmation, then gently led his wife down to the river’s edge and told her that her father was dead. The Queen returned to the lodge on her husband’s arm, shaken but in full command of herself.”

Her coronation took place on June 2, 1953—14 months after she ascended to the throne.

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A memorable speech

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, she became Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. When she addressed the public, she gave a memorable speech that remains a highlight of her legacy.

She thanked the public for their support and promised to do right by the nation. “Many thousands of you came to London from all parts of the Commonwealth and Empire to join in the ceremony, but I have been conscious too of the millions of others who have shared in it by means of wireless or television in their homes. All of you, near or far, have been united in one purpose. It is hard for me to find words in which to tell you of the strength which this knowledge has given me,” Queen Elizabeth said.

She added: “Therefore, I am sure that this, my Coronation, is not the symbol of a power and a splendor that are gone but a declaration of our hopes for the future, and for the years I may, by God’s Grace and Mercy, be given to reign and serve you as your Queen.”

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com.

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