Queen Elizabeth II
April 21st, 1926 - October 6th, 2022
The long reign of Queen Elizabeth II was marked by her strong sense of duty and her determination to dedicate her life to her throne and to her people.
She became for many the one constant point in a rapidly changing world as British influence declined, society changed beyond recognition and the role of the monarchy itself came into question.
Her success in maintaining the monarchy through such turbulent times was even more remarkable given that, at the time of her birth, no-one could have foreseen that the throne would be her destiny.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born on the 21st April 1926, in a house just off Berkeley Square in London, the first child of Albert, Duke of York, second son of George V, and his duchess, the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.
Both Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret Rose, who was born in 1930, were educated at home and brought up in a loving family atmosphere. Elizabeth was extremely close to both her father and her grandfather, George V.
At the age of six, Elizabeth told her riding instructor that she wanted to become a “country lady with lots of horses and dogs”.
She was said to have shown a remarkable sense of responsibility from a very early age. Winston Churchill, the future prime minister, was quoted as saying that she possessed “an air of authority that was astonishing in an infant”.
Despite not attending school, Elizabeth proved adept at languages and made a detailed study of constitutional history.
A special Girl Guides company, the 1st Buckingham Palace, was formed so that she could socialize with girls of her own age.
On the death of George V in 1936, his eldest son, known as David, became Edward VIII.
However, his choice of wife, the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, was deemed to be unacceptable on political and religious grounds. At the end of the year he abdicated.
A reluctant Duke of York became King George VI. His Coronation gave Elizabeth a foretaste of what lay in store for her and she later wrote that she had found the service “very, very wonderful”.
Against a background of increasing tension in Europe, the new King, together with his wife, Queen Elizabeth, set out to restore public faith in the monarchy. Their example was not lost on their elder daughter.
In 1939, the 13-year-old princess accompanied the King and Queen to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.
Together with her sister Margaret, she was escorted by one of the cadets, her third cousin, Prince Philip of Greece.
It was not the first time they had met, but it was the first time she took an interest in him.
Prince Philip called on his royal relatives when on leave from the navy, and by 1944, when she was 18, Elizabeth was clearly in love with him. She kept his picture in her room and they exchanged letters.
The young princess briefly joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) towards the end of the war, learning to drive and service a lorry. On VE Day, she joined the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace as thousands gathered in The Mall to celebrate the end of the war in Europe.
“We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves,” she later recalled. “I remember we were terrified of being recognized. 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.”
After the war, her desire to marry Prince Philip faced a number of obstacles.
The King was reluctant to lose a daughter on whom he doted, and Philip had to overcome the prejudice of an establishment that could not accept his foreign ancestry.
But the wishes of the couple prevailed and on 20 November 1947 the couple married in Westminster Abbey.
The Duke of Edinburgh, as Philip had become, remained a serving naval officer. For a short time, a posting to Malta meant the young couple could enjoy a relatively normal life.
Their first child, Charles, was born in 1948, followed by a sister, Anne, who arrived in 1950.
But the King, having suffered considerable stress during the war years, was terminally ill with lung cancer, brought about by a lifetime of heavy smoking.
In January 1952, Elizabeth, then 25, set off with Philip for an overseas tour. The King, against medical advice, went to the airport to see the couple off. It was to be the last time Elizabeth would see her father.
Elizabeth heard of the death of the King while staying at a game lodge in Kenya and the new Queen immediately returned to London.
“In a way, I didn’t have an apprenticeship,” she later recalled. “My father died much too young, so it was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can.”
Her Coronation in June 1953 was televised, despite the opposition of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and millions gathered around TV sets, many of them for the first time, to watch as Queen Elizabeth II made her oath.
With Britain still enduring post-war austerity, commentators saw the Coronation as the dawn of a new Elizabethan age.
World War Two had served to hasten the end of the British Empire, and by the time the new Queen set off on a lengthy tour of the Commonwealth in November 1953, many former British possessions, including India, had gained independence.
Her Coronation was the first to be broadcast live on British TV
Elizabeth became the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and New Zealand. It was estimated that three-quarters of Australians turned out to see her in person.
Throughout the 1950s, more countries hauled down the union flag and the former colonies and dominions now came together as a voluntary family of nations.
Many politicians felt that the new Commonwealth could become a counter to the newly emerging European Economic Community and, to some extent, British policy turned away from the Continent.
But the decline of British influence was hastened by the Suez debacle in 1956, when it became clear that the Commonwealth lacked the collective will to act together in times of crisis. The decision to send British troops to try to prevent Egypt’s threatened nationalization of the Suez Canal ended in an ignominious withdrawal and brought about the resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
This embroiled the Queen in a political crisis. The Conservative Party had no mechanism for electing a new leader and, after a series of consultations, the Queen invited Harold Macmillan to form a new government.
The Queen also found herself the subject of a personal attack by the writer Lord Altrincham. In a magazine article, he claimed her court was “too British” and “upper-class” and accused her of being unable to make a simple speech without a written text.
His remarks caused a furor in the press and Lord Altrincham was physically attacked in the street by a member of the League of Empire Loyalists.
Nevertheless, the incident demonstrated that British society and attitudes to the monarchy were changing fast and old certainties were being questioned.
From ‘the Monarchy’ to ‘the Royal Family’
Encouraged by her husband, notoriously impatient with the court’s stuffiness, the Queen began to adapt to the new order.
The practice of receiving debutantes at court was abolished and the term “the Monarchy” was gradually replaced by “the Royal Family”.
The Queen was once more at the center of a political row when in 1963, Harold Macmillan stood down as prime minister. With the Conservative Party still to set up a system for choosing a new leader, she followed his advice to appoint the Earl of Home in his place.
It was a difficult time for the Queen. The hallmark of her reign was constitutional correctness, and a further separation of the monarchy from the government of the day. She took seriously her rights to be informed, to advise and to warn - but did not seek to step beyond them.
It was to be the last time she would be put in such a position. The Conservatives finally did away with the tradition that new party leaders just “emerged”, and a proper system was put in place.
By the late 1960s, Buckingham Palace had decided that it needed to take a positive step to show the Royal Family in a far less formal and more approachable way.
The result was a ground-breaking documentary, Royal Family. The BBC was allowed to film the Windsors at home. There were pictures of the family at a barbecue, decorating the Christmas tree, taking their children for a drive - all ordinary activities, but never seen before.