When Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on April 21,1926, she was not expected to ever become Queen. Her father, the Duke of York, was the second son of George V and Queen Mary, while his elder brother Edward, Prince of Wales was heir to the throne, and in 1926 it was expected that Prince Edward would marry and have children of his own to succeed him. This allowed the Duke and Duchess of York a more private life with the freedom to devote themselves to their young family, time which they relished. As a result, Princess Elizabeth grew up in a warm and loving environment with her parents (and later her sister Margaret Rose) at their homes at 145 Piccadilly and Royal Lodge. The Princess was also adored by her grandparents, the King (whom she affectionately called “Grandpapa England”) and the Queen, who both took great pleasure in her company and took much interest in her upbringing. Elizabeth’s close bond with the King and Queen was quite a contrast to their Majesties relationship with their own children which was always distant, cool and highly disciplinarian. The Princess was such a bright light in the King’s life that in 1929 while recuperating from a feverish cold at Bognor, he sent for his little granddaughter to brighten his spirits. Queen Mary wrote to the Duke of York that “ I don’t think you or Elizabeth realize what a great joy your child is to us and how we love having her with us now and again in the house. She is so sweet and natural and so amusing.”
As Elizabeth spent much time in the company of her grandparents, she was brought up with an understanding of the customs and formalities of the royal court from her earliest years, even perfecting her curtsy by age 3. Winston Churchill remarked of her “She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant”. Elizabeth was also very aware of the public aspects of her life from a young age, whether from the birthday parades in her honour at Windsor castle with crowds behind the gates clamoring to see the little Princess or the letters she received by the thousand from around the world. She instinctively understood her place within the royal family and from her childhood on she carried out her public role with the dignity and grace that she continued to display for the rest of her life.
Elizabeth saw firsthand George V’s selfless dedication to the service of the nation which had won him the admiration of his people. As Nancy Astor had written to an exiled Russian Grand Duchess “He was really beloved as there was never a man who did his duty better”. This was especially evident during the King’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1935, where the outpouring of love for the devoted King was shown from all quarters. These demonstrations of affection had a profound effect on the future Queen, who like her father would adopt George V’s style of Kingship in her own reign.
Life was about to change for Elizabeth when the King died in 1936 and was succeeded by his eldest son as Edward VIII, whose reign lasted less than a year. Edward was at odds with his government, primarily over his desire to marry Mrs. Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American who the establishment refused to accept. Edward would ultimately abdicate in December 1936 in order to marry “the woman I love”, leaving the crown to the Duke of York, a reluctant and unprepared King who wept on Queen Mary’s shoulder upon hearing the news. As the daughter of the new King George VI, Elizabeth became Heiress Presumptive at age 10.
In her new position as heiress to the throne, Elizabeth's education needed adjustments. It became necessary for her to learn constitutional history, law and geography which she did by receiving instruction from Sir Henry Marten, vice-provost of Eton college. Queen Mary also sought to expand the knowledge of the future Queen by taking Elizabeth and her sister Margaret on excursions to the museums and historical sights of London, such as the Tower of London and the Royal Mint. But one of the most awe-inspiring occasions was her father’s Coronation, in which Elizabeth took part. She took a great interest in the event which deeply moved her, later writing an account of the coronation for her parents. It would seem inevitable that the young heiress to the throne would have considered her own future coronation on that day. Upon moving into Buckingham Palace, the family routine was to change but their closeness never did. George VI would affectionately refer to his family unit as “We Four”.
Elizabeth’s life was to change once again with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Elizabeth and Margaret were evacuated to Windsor Castle for most of the war while the King and Queen remained at Buckingham Palace. Although ensconced in relative safety at Windsor, the sisters frequently heard the sounds of enemy aircraft above and of explosive bombs which fell around the castle, with the Princesses spending many nights in the castle’s dungeons upon the sounding of the air-raid siren. During this time, Elizabeth recorded her first radio broadcast to the nation, for the BBC's “Children’s Hour”, offering a message of hope and sympathy for the many children of the UK and Empire who were separated from loved ones during the war. The broadcast was heard by hundreds of thousands and touched the hearts of children and adults alike.
Elizabeth followed the progress of the war closely and she was devastated by the destruction in its wake. She expressed a deep desire to contribute to the war effort and at age 16 she enrolled in the Wartime Youth Service Scheme. However her role was minimal, leaving the Princess wanting to do more. Finally, in 1945 she was given a post in the Army Transport Service (ATS) as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, training and then carrying out the same duties as every other young woman in the service. She drove a truck and learned the skills of a mechanic, carrying them out with aplomb. This work was immensely fulfilling for the future Queen who was proud to be able to serve her country in it’s most trying time. On VE Day, Elizabeth and Margaret got a rare taste of freedom, leaving the confines of the Palace for the evening and joining the cheering crowds in the streets, a thrilling moment after the austerity and seclusion brought about by the war.
In the 1940s, George VI began to introduce his heiress to the duties and responsibilities of a monarch, which was to continue until the King’s death. Elizabeth joined her father in reading state documents and she accompanied him in meetings with officials and other key figures. Elizabeth also started carrying out public engagements, the first of which took place on her 16th birthday, inspecting a company of the Grenadier Guards as their Colonel at Windsor. At 18, Elizabeth deputized for her father as Counsellor of State.
During the war years, Elizabeth fell in love. The object of her affection was the handsome Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, her “Viking Prince". While the two first met in 1934 at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Elizabeth first fell in love with Philip in 1939 after visiting the Royal Naval Collage, Dartmouth, with her parents, where Philip was an 18 year old cadet. Throughout the war, they exchanged letters and while on leave, Philip would visit the royal family at Windsor and Buckingham Palace, often sitting in the audience of the Princesses' famous pantomimes. Elizabeth was smitten and hoped to marry him, but many at court and especially the King were against the match as a result of Philip’s Greek nationality and his boisterous demeanor. It would take some time to convince the King and court to consent to the eventual marriage.
In the meantime, Elizabeth joined the King, Queen and Princess Margaret on a tour of South Africa in 1947. It was her first overseas tour and it was the setting of one of the most important moments of her life. On her 21st birthday, Elizabeth delivered an historic radio broadcast, vowing that “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”. While the Empire was later to be dismantled and replaced with the Commonwealth of nations, it is a vow that Elizabeth upheld for the rest of her life.
Upon returning from the South African tour, Elizabeth’s romance with Philip progressed quickly. After finally gaining the approval of the King to marry, the couple’s engagement was announced by Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1947. The wedding took place a few months later on November 20 at Westminster Abbey and after the deprivation of the war years with the country still in austerity, it was an occasion the public looked forward to celebrating. Winston Churchill referred to the celebration as “a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel”. Elizabeth’s gown was designed by Norman Hartnell, a work of art with its exquisite embroidered flowers and its 15 foot train inspired by Botticelli’s painting of Primavera.
The next year, on November 14, 1948, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, Prince Charles, at Buckingham Palace. She was overjoyed, writing to a friend that “he is quite adorable. I can’t believe he is really mine”. A daughter, Princess Anne, would follow on August 15, 1950. While Elizabeth was away much of the time during Charles and Anne's early years, for which she has often been criticized, she loved her children dearly and took pride as they achieved their early milestones. Princes Andrew and Edward would complete the family in the 1960s.
In 1949, Philip was made second-in-command of HMS Chequers, based in Malta, and Elizabeth would often join him, staying together at Lord Louis Mountbatten's Villa Guardamangia. Away from the rigid formality of the court, Elizabeth had the opportunity to enjoy a more relaxed life with the freedom to walk openly around town, go shopping, visit the hair salon and dine at local restaurants. It was the closest she ever came to living a normal life, as much like that of any other naval officer's wife as was possible in her position. It has often been said that the Malta years were the happiest of her life. This bucolic existence came to an end in 1951 when the King’s health declined, and Philip stepped down from his command in order to support his wife as she deputized for her father.
In February 1952, the King, Queen and Princess Margaret accompanied Elizabeth and Philip to the airport as they departed for a royal visit to Kenya. It was to be the last time Elizabeth would see her beloved father. George VI died on February 6, 1952. Elizabeth was staying at the Treetops hotel at the moment of her accession after an exciting day on safari. The British hunter Jim Corbett famously said “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after what she described as her most thrilling experience, she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen”. However the news of her father’s death and of her own accession did not immediately reach the new Queen. It was only hours later that Prince Philip was informed and broke the news to his grief-stricken wife. Suddenly at 25, Elizabeth was Queen. She not only lost the father she adored, she also lost any freedom and privacy she may have previously enjoyed before taking on the ultimate burden.
Although she was grieving the loss of the father she adored, Elizabeth kept her composure in public, remaining stoic at all times. Upon landing at Heathrow airport, the new Queen was met by Prime Minster Winston Churchill along with other government officials and her uncle, Henry Duke of Gloucester. She made her way down the receiving line, shaking hands with each one before driving back to her London residence, Clarence House, where she was given the red dispatch boxes of state previously meant for her father. Despite her sadness, Elizabeth handled her work and all that was required of her in her new role attentively and diligently with incredible self-assurance. She accepted her destiny, even if it came earlier than she had expected. She soon moved into Buckingham Palace.
The new Queen adopted the style of monarchy of her father and grandfather, with the same devotion to the service of the nation. She had no desire to change the status quo upon her accession, even inheriting her father’s aides and advisors. She would carry out the same tasks as her predecessors, which included the laying of foundation stones, opening hospitals, schools and charities, audiences with diplomats and officials, holding investitures and awarding medals, reviewing regiments of the armed forces and playing the central role in the State Opening of Parliament, to say nothing of the usual tending to the daily dispatch boxes and the carrying out of her weekly audience with the Prime Minister. Even while recording the annual Christmas broadcast, Elizabeth used the same desk and chair at Sandrigham as her father and grandfather before her. In her first year on the throne, Elizabeth carried out over 500 engagements.
The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2, 1953. Elizabeth had practiced for months, memorizing long passages of the liturgy, walking along the Palace corridors in a 60-foot train in order to regally make her way through Westminster Abbey in her Coronation robes, and wearing St Edward’s crown at home in order to get used to its weight. Even though it was pouring rain that morning, people lined the streets along the Mall, waiting to catch a glimpse of their beautiful bejeweled young Queen in the golden State Coach. The excitement in the air was palpable and the crowds cheered as the Queen passed on her way to her destination. Once inside the Abbey, the Queen proceeded slowly and gracefully down the long aisle to the throne, with her maids of honour carrying her train. Elizabeth went through the royal ritual with majesty. She took her oath, received communion and was anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury who then went on to crown her. Looking on were members of the Royal Family and the nobility in their own robes, long dresses and fine jewels, all proclaiming “God Save the Queen!” before proceeding to pay homage to Elizabeth II. The coronation was televised, which allowed the Queen’s subjects around the world to witness this solemn event for the very first time in history. The estimated viewership in Britain alone was 27 million.
In November 1953, The Queen and Prince Philip undertook a 6 month tour of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of independent nations formerly part of the British Empire. It was to be the longest overseas tour of Her Majesty’s reign as well as the first circumnavigation of the globe by any Monarch. With stops in Australia, Bermuda, Uganda, Fiji and Ceylon to name just a few, the Queen was able to to meet with and show herself to the people in the many realms of which she was Sovereign, for she said “I have be seen to be believed”. Everywhere they went, the couple were greeted with an outpouring of love and enthusiasm. Elizabeth and Philip visited big cities and smaller, more remote towns, often traveling long distances to carry out their engagements across each territory, with the Queen giving speeches (over 100 in total during the 6 month tour), meeting with Prime Ministers and participating in ceremonial events. The schedule was grueling but the Queen never lost her footing. The tour was highly successful, bringing about closer ties between the UK and the Commonwealth countries, cementing the Queen’s position as a symbol of unity amongst the many nations over which she reigned.
One of the first crises in the young Queen’s reign occurred in 1956 when Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser seized and nationalized the Suez Canal Company which had been owned and operated by the British and the French since 1869. This occurred during the Cold War, when Nasser’s Egypt was growing closer to Soviet Russia, who hoped to drive the West out of the region. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was furious, concerned with protecting Britain’s economic and military interests in the area, in particular the transport of oil on British ships which made up 1/3 of the Canal’s traffic. Despite the fact that war had not been declared and Britain’s allies not consulted, Eden sought to topple Nasser, conspiring in secret with France and Israel to launch an attack. When troops were deployed, the United States and the United Nations, strongly opposed to military force in Egypt, threatened sanctions against all 3 nations. In the face of this breakdown in diplomatic relations, military action lasted less than a week before Eden reluctantly accepted a UN-proposed ceasefire. The expensive and politically damaging debacle resulted in the loss of British influence in the region and greatly diminished the nation's global prestige, no longer seen as the Imperial world power of former days. While it is said that The Queen was opposed to the invasion, as a constitutional Monarch she was required to remain politically neutral and never let her personal opinions be known, with no option but to follow the advice of her Prime Minister. The crisis brought about the downfall of Eden who months later resigned his post, and accelerated the further dismantling of Empire.
The Suez crisis had effects at home as well as abroad, shifting the perception of old institutions including the monarchy. The idea of a glorified Royal Family entirely above reproach, with the Monarch at the head of an Empire on which “the sun never set”, became antiquated in a post-war world where Empire was disintegrating, and it was up to the Queen and her advisors to adapt to changing social attitudes. When Elizabeth first came to the throne, much had remained as it was during the reign of Queen Victoria, the monarch remote and unimpeachable, but in the post-war world with class barriers breaking down, deference was dying. In 1957, the Queen was personally criticized for the first time in print, which would have been unthinkable in previous reigns. Lord Altrincham accused the Queen (and her advisors) of being out of touch with her subjects, of being old-fashioned and too “upper-class”. For the Queen who always sought to be in tune with the sentiments of her subjects, it was the impetus for change, with Elizabeth seeking to become closer to the people in a tangible way. Later that year, the Queen’s Christmas broadcast was televised for the first time, allowing Elizabeth's subjects to see her rather than simply hear her over the radio, and the following year, the traditional debutante presentation parties were abolished and replaced with more informal garden parties at Buckingham Palace, allowing for conversation and connection rather than mere formality. This was only the start of many changes which would impact the relationship between Monarch and subject throughout the coming years.
The 1960’s, with youth culture in full swing, ushered into Britain a period of vast change. Morals and manners were relaxed, hemlines were raised and remaining class barriers were torn down, all impacting the way that the Monarchy was regarded at home and abroad. During this time, new independent nations were forming in the place of the once great British Empire. One nation aiming to do so was Rhodesia which through white minority rule unilaterally declared itself independent of Britain while still maintaining allegiance to Elizabeth as Queen of Rhodesia. This, however, was illegal in the absence of majority rule, unrecognized by the government, the Commonwealth and even the Queen herself, causing much division and hostility in its wake. Much to the Queen’s dismay, Rhodesia’s minority rule would continue until 1980.
The Queen’s role as Head of the Commonwealth is one which was always especially close to her heart. To Elizabeth, the Commonwealth was a family of nations all administered in different ways but connected in friendship, and she recognized her place at its head as a symbol of unity, a mediator between differing parties, encouraging understanding and cooperation amongst vastly different parties without showing deference to any one member. At the start of Elizabeth’s reign, the Commonwealth consisted of just 8 nations, eventually it would grow to include a total of 54 members. In 1961, the Queen was scheduled to visit Ghana, an independent Commonwealth country since 1957. During this time Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, was in the process of establishing himself as an authoritarian ruler amidst rising tensions and her Majesty’s government had fears for her safety in the area. Despite much opposition at home, the Queen, always the devoted diplomat, was determined to make the trip as planned. This she did with much success by remaining a steadfast ally without deviating from political neutrality, solidifying ties between Britain and Ghana. At the state dinner, Nkrumah danced with the Queen and toasted to her saying that “The wind of change blowing through Africa has become a hurricane. Whatever is blown into the limbo of history, the personal struggle and affection we have for Your Majesty will remain unaffected”. Throughout these years many newly independent Commonwealth nations developed in their own unique ways, some with an elected president and others retaining The Queen as Head of State, but all with the Queen’s support, for she believed that every nation had the right to choose how they should be governed.
In 1969, Elizabeth participated in a documentary entitled “Royal Family”, aimed at bringing the Queen closer to her subjects by providing a glance at the many aspects of her life, both public and private, the very idea of which would have been unimaginable in Queen Mary’s lifetime. A camera crew followed the Queen and her family for one year, capturing Her Majesty's daily working life as well as private moments of the Windsors off-duty as a family. The cameras captured the Queen at work on her red dispatch boxes, the Queen’s tour of Brazil, a conversation with the US president and the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony amongst other moments, all in contrast with scenes of Prince Philip at the barbecue, the family dining together and the Queen tending to her horses. While the film was very well-received and gave audiences a look at the day-to-day work involved in running the institution of Monarchy, it very much chipped away at the idea of royal mystique with the Queen and her family appearing in such an informal manner, ultimately paving the way to increased interest in the private lives of the Royal Family and uncomfortable press intrusion in the future.
One of the most significant modernizations to the Monarchy during the Queen’s reign was the introduction of the royal “walkabout”, the first of which took place during a 1970 tour of Australia. For the first time, formality was tossed aside in favour of a more personal approach. At the suggestion of her press secretary, Sir William Heseltine, Elizabeth stopped her car just ahead of her destination and approached the waiting crowds to engage directly with the people. Prior to this innovation, those meeting the Monarch would have to be vetted before being allowed into the Royal presence and would only then be introduced through a formal presentation. The walkabout allowed Monarch and subject to mingle openly, shake hands and engage in conversation, coming into closer contact with one another than in any previous reign. It would forever change the carrying out of Royal tours as well as the relationship between the Queen and her subjects in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth.
By the 1970’s, Elizabeth had become the most widely travelled Monarch in history, having visited Australia, Canada, India, Ceylon, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Singapore, Botswana and the Caribbean among many others. She met with government ministers, military troops, tribal chiefs, school children and great public crowds, taking part in endless ceremonial events, allowing herself to be seen by as many people as possible across her realms. The Queen saw herself as the personal link between the Crown and the Commonwealth, to which she was absolutely devoted, and she consistently sought to immerse herself in the customs and culture of every country she visited and in which she reigned, leaving a lasting impression on all who took part. Over the course of her reign, Elizabeth met with most of the great leaders of her era from around the world, including at times controversial leaders whose administrations she privately disapproved of. For example in 1978, Her Majesty hosted Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu at Buckingham Palace, despite the fact that she privately found him to be an unsavoury character and his regime abhorrent. Elizabeth never let personal opinions interfere with her role as Head of State, always remaining stoic and impartial through potentially awkward encounters. The Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977 with festivities taking place in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth, highlighting her far-reaching popularity.
In 1979, The Queen travelled to Zambia to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. Her calming, reassuring presence was crucial in pacifying tensions amongst African leaders who were dismayed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s position on Rhodesia, still under white minority rule. While Elizabeth privately supported majority rule and strongly opposed racial discrimination, her role as Head of the Commonwealth required that she remain politically neutral, so she did not attend any of the debates or offer any direct advice. Instead, the Queen fostered an atmosphere of openness to possibilities by meeting privately with each leader, all for the same length of time, taking in concerns from all quarters while always remaining discreet, encouraging willingness and understanding between opposing parties. Her Majesty’s diplomacy ultimately paved the way for the Lusaka Declaration of 1979 which condemned racial discrimination amongst Commonwealth countries, demanding equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, sex, creed or political belief.
At the end of August 1979, Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated while on holiday with his family when the the IRA detonated a bomb planted on his fishing boat. Lord Mountbatten was a great grandson of Queen Victoria, a distant cousin to the Queen, uncle to Prince Philip and mentor to Prince Charles, and he was deeply mourned by the Royal Family he proudly served all his life. Unfortunately that was not to be the final aggression against the Royal Family going into the 80s. During the 1981 Trooping the Colour ceremony, a 17 year old named Marcus Sarjeant shot at Her Majesty 6 times at close range, frightening her horse, Burmese. The brave Queen, no doubt frightened herself, kept her composure and carried on with the ceremony, resulting in soaring admiration for the formidable Monarch who made no subsequent alterations to her schedule. While the shots were discovered to be blanks, Sarjeant was sentenced to 5 years in prison under the Treason Act of 1842. Another breach occurred In 1982, when Michael Fagan managed to break into Buckingham Palace and found his way to the Queen’s bedroom. He woke a sleeping Elizabeth and proceeded to sit on the edge of her bed, rambling, before the Queen’s footman appeared and promptly escorted the intruder out. Fagan was subsequently committed for psychiatric care.
The 1980’s were a tireless decade for Elizabeth, as the Sovereign, who earnestly carried on with her work, and as a mother, who welcomed new additions to her family. July 1981 saw the marriage of the Prince of Wales to the young and beautiful Lady Diana Spencer. The fairytale “wedding of the century” was a televised event, viewed by 750 million people around the world. The press and the public were thrilled with the charming, empathetic Princess of Wales, and Diana became one of the most popular members of the Royal Family. However, as the decade went on, the relationship between Charles and Diana began to disintegrate, leading to an unprecedented level of sensationalism from the press. Then in 1982, Margaret Thatcher deployed a naval task force to the Falkland Islands after Argentina invaded and occupied the territory. Amongst those deployed was Prince Andrew, who was said to be the Queen’s favourite child. While Elizabeth proudly encouraged Andrew's wartime service, she naturally worried for his safety, greeting him in person upon his return after Argentina surrendered on June 14th. The 80’s saw the Queen pay a state visit to China, the first of any British Monarch, where she and Prince Philip were famously photographed at the Great Wall and alongside the Terracotta Army. This diplomatic visit paved the way to the smooth return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, after 156 years of British rule. The Queen also oversaw the modernization of ancient customs at home. In 1987, Elizabeth announced that for the first time in history non-royal women could be admitted to the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle, a welcome update to the highest of honours.
Media interest in the private lives of the Windsors only increased going into the 1990’s, easily the most personally challenging decade of the Queen's reign. In 1989, Princess Anne announced her legal separation from her husband, Mark Phillips. They were divorced in 1992. Also in 1992, Prince Andrew announced his separation from his wife, Sarah Ferguson. Worst of all, Andrew Morton’s book “Diana: Her True Story” was released, painting an unflattering image of life behind the Palace gates, bluntly revealing Diana’s misery in her marriage and her frosty relationship with the royal family, who were no longer seen as the ideal family of George VI’s reign. The Queen who long lived by the motto “Never complain, never explain” was horrified. The Waleses would announce their separation that December and they would officially divorce in 1996, the third failed marriage amongst Elizabeth's children. The year 1992, which marked Elizabeth’s 40 years on the throne has become known as her “Annus Horribilis”. Not only was her family in complete disarray, but Windsor Castle itself, Elizabeth’s ancestral home, burst into flames. The devastated Queen surveyed the damage in her raincoat and headscarf while firefighters worked for 15 hours to contain the damage. When it was announced that public funds would be used to cover the immense cost of restoration, public backlash ensued, prompting the Queen to open part of Buckingham Palace to the public for a fee to help cover the expense. She also voluntarily agreed to start paying income tax on her personal fortune for the first time since her accession. Through good times and bad, Elizabeth accepted the sentiments of her subjects whom she was committed to serving, making adjustments as necessary along the way.
While the burden of the crown weighed heavily on the Queen, she always managed to find solace amongst her dogs and horses. Since her nursery days, Elizabeth was delighted by both, connecting with them on an almost intuitive level. The Queen grew up surrounded by her family’s dogs and horses, receiving her first riding lesson at age 3, and gifted her first pony by George V at age 4. The toys she treasured most during her nursery days were her horse figurines which she passionately tended to every day. As Princess and later as Queen, she took great pleasure in caring for her animals herself, personally feeding and grooming them whenever possible. Having become an expert in horse-breeding and horse-racing, she became a fixture at the Royal Derby and Ascot amongst other "horsey” events. And she was rarely seen throughout her life without the trail of her beloved corgis at her feet. Had she not been Queen, Elizabeth likely would have chosen to live a simple life in the country surrounded by dogs and horses.
The 1990’s saw Elizabeth make two historic State visits, the first to Russia in 1994 and the second to South Africa in 1995. The visit to Russia was the first by a reigning British monarch, a significant gesture which helped reconcile the two countries 70 years after the assassination by the Bolsheviks of Elizabeth's distant cousin Tsar Nicholas II, along with his wife and children. The next year, The Queen and Prince Philip visited post-apartheid South Africa, which had been readmitted to the Commonwealth after Nelson Mandela was voted into office in the first multi-race election of 1994. It was Elizabeth's first visit to South Africa since the tour she undertook with her parents and sister in 1947, where she delivered her historic speech vowing to devote her life to the service of Britain and the Commonwealth. The Queen, always required to remain politically impartial, had long opposed apartheid and she had the utmost respect for Mr Mandela. The two developed a long-lasting friendship, cementing the new relationship between the two countries. On this historic visit, the Queen awarded Mr Mandela with the Order of Merit, and in 1996 he paid a return visit to the Her Majesty in London. 1995 also marked the 50th anniversary of VE and VJ day. The Queen, along with her 95 year old mother Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, just as they had done 50 years before, a moving moment of national pride, moving even the unflappable Queen herself.
While the Queen was staying at Balmoral with her family in August 1997, she was informed of the tragic death of Princess Diana in Paris. Londoners, overcome with sorrow, thronged to Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace laying heaps of flowers at the gates. The loss of Diana was a crushing blow to a nation that adored her, and the people looked to the Queen to publicly acknowledge and share in their grief. But an address was not immediately forthcoming. The Queen’s primary instinct as a grandmother was to shelter her grandsons from the onslaught of the press, and for 5 days, she remained in Scotland with William and Harry so they could mourn in private. However, the Queen’s silence and absence from the capital caused anger and outrage amongst her subjects. When she finally returned to London and saw the outpouring of grief, the immense crowds and the overflow of flowers for herself, she understood that she had misread the sentiments of the people who looked to her for solace. Against the backdrop of the crowds in front of Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth delivered a live television broadcast to the nation, praising Diana’s human touch, a gesture which helped soothe tempers. Diana was honoured with a rare State funeral, watched by 3 billion people worldwide. As Diana’s coffin passed by Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth bowed her head in a show of respect to her former daughter-in-law.
Going into the new millennium, The Queen showed no signs of slowing down. In 2002, the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee marking 50 years on the throne, but before the festivities could take place, she lost two of her closest confidantes, her sister Princess Margaret on February 9th, and her beloved mother seven weeks later. Elizabeth was now the last surviving member of George VI’s “We Four”. The Jubilee went ahead with commemorative events taking place amidst much rejoicing throughout Britain and the Commonwealth. The main celebrations featured a concert with performances by British legends including Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, followed by the largest fireworks display in London’s history with street parties taking place in every city. Following a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral, the festivities culminated in a magnificent parade along the mall, with crowds of over a million, highlighting British life throughout the Queen’s reign and featuring 5000 people from across the Commonwealth in national costumes. The Queen visited 70 towns in the UK and undertook an extensive Commonwealth tour to celebrate the occasion. 5 years later, Elizabeth surpassed her predecessor Queen Victoria as the longest reigning Monarch in British history.
In May 2011, the Queen paid a state visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first of any British monarch since that of George V in 1911, healing old wounds between the two countries. Standing beside President Mary McAleese at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, Elizabeth laid a wreath in honour of those who died fighting for Irish independence, before bowing her head in respect. The visit, and the Queen’s speech at the State dinner held at Dublin Castle, where Elizabeth expressed genuine sympathy for the suffering perpetuated in the past under British rule, left a lasting impression on even the most ardent republicans (including Martin McGuinness, the man responsible for the assassination of Lord Mountbatten), who praised her sincerity, an important moment in the process of healing and reconciliation.
The Queen was as popular as ever when she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, marking 60 years on the throne, again with celebrations taking place throughout the UK and Commonwealth, reaffirming her enduring popularity. Also during 2012 and to a roaring applause, Elizabeth took part in a short sketch alongside James Bond (Daniel Craig) to kick off the Summer Olympics in London, a rare opportunity for the public to see their Queen’s incredible sense of fun. As the 2010’s progressed, Elizabeth continued to carry out her duties with the same devotion as always, meeting with world leaders, carrying out royal tours and engagements, attending Commonwealth summits, taking part in ceremonials and tending to the red dispatch boxes which always arrived twice a day. In 2014 at 88 years of age, The Queen carried out over 400 engagements.
2020 saw the onslaught of the dreadful Covid-19 pandemic, during which the UK and many Commonwealth countries went into lockdown. With so many families kept apart and so many losing loved ones, the Queen made a touching broadcast to the nation promising that “better days will come; we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”. It struck the perfect note, reminding Britons of the nation's strength during World War Two and the ability to overcome, offering hope and a calming influence amidst the turmoil. Throughout lockdown, Elizabeth followed the same government guidelines as her people, wearing a mask and following strict social distancing measures. On April 9, 2021 Elizabeth lost her beloved husband of 73 years, Prince Philip. The funeral took place under lockdown restrictions, requiring the Queen to sit alone, a heartbreaking sight but one which demonstrated her solidarity with her subjects who faced the same conditions.
The Queen’s last years were certainly tumultuous, from the death of Prince Philip and the scandals of Prince Andrew to the treachery of Prince Harry and his wife, yet through it all Elizabeth II had kept calm and carried on, putting duty above all else. Throughout times of war, political strife, natural disasters and rapid societal change, Elizabeth remained a symbol of unity and stability for her people. She promised on the occasion of her 21st birthday that her "whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”, and this promise she honoured to the very end, never letting the heavy crown weigh her down. The Queen passed away peacefully at her beloved Balmoral, her sanctuary in Scotland where she spent many happy summers, first with her parents and her sister, and then with Prince Philip and their children. Now, Elizabeth has been reunited with the many loved ones that she had outlived.
Elizabeth’s reign has been historic in many ways. Her reign saw the transition from Empire to the voluntary Commonwealth of Nations, a Coronation was televised for the first time, the Royal walkabout was introduced, Britain had it’s first female Prime Minister, the laws of succession to the throne have been reformed to end male primogeniture, and the first ever Platinum Jubilee in British history took place, marking Elizabeth's historic 70 years on the throne, an occasion that is unlikely to be repeated again. It is difficult to imagine a world where Elizabeth II no longer reigns but we have much to be grateful for, in particular her steadfast devotion to her Country and Commonwealth for the entirety of her life. Now she has laid down her burden, and we have a new King. May Her Most Gracious Majesty rest in peace.
Her Majesty: 60 Regal Years - Brian Hoey
Queen of our Times - Robert Hardman
The Queen - Ben Pimlott
The Queen - Matthew Denison
The Queen - Robert Lacey
The Queen's Speech - Ingrid Seward
The Queen and Mrs Thatcher - Dean Palmer