The life and long reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II


From stuffy to selfies: Elizabeth II tries to change with the times
From stuffy to selfies: Elizabeth II tries to change with the times

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s 63rd monarch, has steered the monarchy through decades of social change while remaining a symbol of national stability in a shifting world.

The eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of York, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary would have been expected to play merely a supporting role in the monarchy.

At the time of her birth on April 21, 1926, her uncle was the Prince of Wales and heir apparent to George V, her father being only second in line to the throne.

Elizabeth’s life changed abruptly on December 11th, 1936, when her uncle, now King Edward VIII, announced he was renouncing the throne to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.

The crown passed to his brother, who became George VI, and Elizabeth became heir presumptive on the assumption that her father would have no sons to take precedence over her.

She moved with her parents and sister, Margaret, to Buckingham Palace to serve her apprenticeship in statecraft, growing up under strict parental guidance.

Princess Elizabeth’s adolescence was overshadowed by the Second World War, which she and her sister largely spent in the relative safety of Windsor Castle, west of London, retreating during air-raids to the cellars where the Crown Jewels were stored.

At the age of 16 she registered with the local labour exchange, or jobs office, and at her own request she later joined the women’s division of the British army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), where she received training in driving and vehicle maintenance.

Two years after the end of the war, Elizabeth celebrated her 21st birthday while visiting South Africa and marked the occasion with a broadcast address dedicating herself to the service of the Commonwealth.

Shortly after her return from South Africa came the announcement of the Princess’s engagement to her distant cousin Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and great-great-grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria.

They were married in Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947 in a ceremony attended by statesmen and royalty from around the world. Philip’s titles — His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, Baron of Greenwich — were conferred on him by King George VI prior to the wedding ceremony.

The couple’s first child, Prince Charles, was born in 1948, followed by Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964.

In February 1952, Princess Elizabeth and her husband began a Commonwealth tour with a visit to Kenya. News of King George’s death reached the royal couple six days after their departure and the princess returned to London as Queen Elizabeth II.

Her coronation, at the age of 27, took place in Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953. The ceremony, attended by peers of the realm and international political, civic and business leaders, was transmitted by television and radio broadcasts throughout the world. Queen Elizabeth’s youth and gender caused some comment at the time, but turned out to be an asset in a country keen to make a fresh start after the war and the years of austerity which followed.

Social divisions and respect for the old order began to wane but the Queen was seen as an important symbol of unity and remained stoically true to the guidelines she set herself on her 21st birthday.

In July 1969, Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales at a ceremony in the 700-year-old Caernarfon Castle. During the ceremony the Prince, following ancient tradition, pledged his loyalty to the Queen before being vested with the emblems of office.

The Queen’s only daughter, Princess Anne, inaugurated an era of sumptuous royal weddings when she married commoner Captain Mark Phillips in November 1973. The 23-year-old princess broke with tradition during the marriage ceremony, omitting the customary vow to obey her husband.

In 1981, an annual event famed for its pageantry, the Trooping the Colour, was marred by an incident in which a man fired six blanks from a replica pistol as the Queen rode along the route of the parade. Her horse shied but she was unhurt.

Later that year Prince Charles, at the age of 32, married 20-year-old Princess Diana in a ceremony watched by an estimated world-wide television audience of 700-million people. Crowds packed the streets to catch a glimpse of the royal couple as they rode past in an open carriage.

Princess Diana gave birth to the couple’s first son, William, in June 1982. Their second son, Harry, was born in 1984.

In March 1986 Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, announced his engagement to childhood playmate Sarah Ferguson, who brought with her what was initially seen as a breath of fresh air into a royal family hidebound by tradition.

The following decade saw the royal family under the public spotlight as never before. The Queen referred to 1992 as an “annus horribilis”, or horrible year, during a banquet to mark her 40th year on the throne.

During the year Princess Anne’s 18-year marriage ended in divorce amid speculation about her relationship with her future second husband Royal Navy Commander Timothy Laurence; Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced their formal separation after six years of marriage; the Queen’s favourite royal home, Windsor Castle, was badly damaged by a fire; the perilous state of Prince Charles’ and Princess Diana’s marriage was revealed in the biography “Diana, Her True Story” and in December they announced their separation.

The years following the break-up of her marriage saw Princess Diana’s popularity soar and thousands mourned her passing after she was killed in a car crash in Paris on August 31st, 1997. The Queen came under unprecedented pressure to recognise the nation’s grief and pay public tribute to the “people’s princess”.

During her reign, the Queen has broken new ground for the British monarchy during many of her overseas visits. In 1975 she was the first British monarch to visit Japan. She met Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and became the first British monarch to walk on the Great Wall of China when she visited the country in 1986.

Many of the Queen’s overseas visits are to Commonwealth countries and as titular head of the association she regularly attends the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM).

In October 1994 the Queen arrived in Moscow for a ground-breaking visit aimed at healing nearly five decades of Anglo-Russian Cold War enmity.

Some overseas visits have involved following local customs such as the Queen’s visit to the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad where she was required to cover her hat with a veil and exchange her shoes for a pair of socks.

The Queen has also acted as host to many state leaders visiting Britain including former United States President Ronald Reagan, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

On New Year’s Eve 1999, the Queen took part in London’s New Millennium celebrations by joining hands with Prime Minister Tony Blair and singing Auld Lang Syne as thousands of revellers watched a spectacular fireworks display.

London marked another milestone in August 2000 when the Queen joined her mother and her sister on the balcony at Buckingham Palace to cheers from the crowds gathered to celebrate the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday.

The celebrations were soon to be followed by a period of loss and mourning for the Queen. Princess Margaret died in February 2002 after suffering a number of strokes and two months later the Queen Mother died, at the age of 101.

Less than a month after the Queen Mother’s funeral the Queen began a gruelling Golden Jubilee tour marking her 50 years on the throne which culminated in four days of nation-wide celebrations in June 2002.

After a tumultuous 35-year affair Prince Charles finally married the love of his life, Camilla Parker-Bowles, in April 2005. As titular head of the Church of England the Queen declined to attend the civil ceremony in Windsor Guildhall but together with Prince Philip and the rest of the royal family she attended the service of blessing in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Following the suicide bomb attacks on London’s transport system on July 7th, 2005 the Queen visited some of the injured in the Royal London Hospital. 52 people were killed and more than 700 injured in the simultaneous attacks on three underground trains and a double-decker bus during the morning rush hour.

The Queen celebrated her 80th birthday with a walkabout in Windsor on April 21st, 2006, and accepted flowers and cards from some of the thousands of well-wishers who had gathered to mark her octogenarian milestone.

She has shown little sign of slowing down in her ninth decade. In April 2009 she welcomed newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to Buckingham Palace. During her reign the Queen has met all 12 serving U.S. presidents except Lyndon B Johnson.

As Head of State the Queen formally opens each new session of parliament in a lavish ceremony steeped in pageantry and tradition. Seated on the throne in the House of Lords and wearing the Imperial State Crown and parliamentary robes, she delivers the Queen’s Speech which is drawn up by the government and contains an outline of the policies and proposed legislation for the coming session.

On September 16, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI received a State welcome from the Queen at the palace of Holyrood, her residence in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. The four-day visit was the first by a pope to be designated a State visit as the pontiff had been invited by the Queen rather than by the church.

The highly publicised wedding of the Queen’s grandson Prince William and Kate Middleton took place on April 29, 2011 in London’s Westminster Abbey. The ceremony, full of British pomp and pageantry, was watched by an estimated 2 billion people around the world.

In May 2011 the Queen made an historic State visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a British monarch since Ireland won independence from London in 1921. The Queen was greeted by Irish President Mary McAleese at her official residence in Dublin and the visit included a wreath laying ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance, Ireland’s monument to its fallen nationalist heroes.

The Queen travelled to Australia in October 2011, her 16th visit to the country. During her 11-day tour she opened the biennial Commonwealth meeting in Perth and hosted a banquet attended by the heads of the state.

On the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne and the beginning of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, February 6, 2012 was marked with a traditional 41-gun salute fired in London’s Hyde Park. She is now the second-longest reigning British monarch in more than a 1,000 years of history, surpassed only by Queen Victoria, who reigned for more than 63 years.

The Queen and Prince Philip spent the next six months taking part in Jubilee events across the United Kingdom. In May the Queen hosted a Diamond Jubilee Sovereign Monarchs Lunch at Windsor Castle. The inclusion of the King of Bahrain on the guest list caused some controversy following the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in his country.

In June the celebrations included a spectacular flotilla of 1,000 vessels taking part in the largest display of pageantry seen on London’s River Thames for 350 years. Typically inclement British weather failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands of well-wishers taking part or watching from the river embankments.

The following month the 86-year-old monarch became the unlikely star of the London Olympics opening ceremony, making her film debut with James Bond star Daniel Craig in a spoof video that ended with her appearing to jump from a helicopter and make a parachute landing in the Olympic stadium.

The Queen’s ‘Bond Girl’ role and her longstanding support for the British film and television industry won her one of Britain’s most prestigious entertainment honours when she was presented with an honorary BAFTA award – Britain’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Oscars – by actor Sir Kenneth Branagh who encouraged her to pursue her burgeoning acting career.

In December 2012 she attended her first cabinet meeting, the first time a British monarch had taken part in a cabinet meeting since King George III in 1781. The Queen spent 30 minutes seated in Prime Minister David Cameron’s usual seat, listening to cabinet ministers discussing a range of issues including changes to the rules governing the royal succession which would allow a first-born girl to become head of state even if she had a younger brother.

The Queen had special cause for celebrations in June 2013 when her horse Estimate won the Royal Ascot Gold Cup. It was the first time a reigning monarch’s horse had claimed victory in the race’s 207-year history. The Queen had been expected to present the winner’s trophy, but instead she received the cup from Prince Andrew, Duke of York.

With the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s son in July 2013, for the first time in over a hundred years there were three generations of direct living heirs to the throne. Prince George, named after the Queen’s father, became third in line to the throne, after his father and grandfather.

In June the Queen travelled to France for a three-day state visit during which she attended events marking the 70th anniversary of the World War Two D-Day landings. During the official welcoming ceremony she and French President Francois Hollande laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in remembrance of France’s war dead.

Scotland took precedence during the summer of 2014, with Glasgow hosting the Commonwealth Games in July and Scotland’s bid to become independent in a September referendum. In a serious breach of royal protocol Prime Minister David Cameron let it slip that the Queen had told him she was delighted Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond’s independence bid had failed and Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom.

Events marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War One were held worldwide in 2014, and the sea of red ceramic poppies installation ‘planted’ in the dry moat of the Tower of London attracted an estimated five million visitors. The Queen and Prince Philip visited the site in October. Each of the 888,246 poppies commemorates a British or Colonial soldier who died in the four-year conflict.

Prince Charles has taken over some of the Queen’s royal duties who has scaled back on international travel, but in June this year the Queen and Prince Philip spent a few days in Germany for a state visit.

The following month baby Princess Charlotte, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s second child and the Queen’s fifth great-grandchild, was christened at a small, family service at the church on the Sandringham estate.

During her reign the Queen’s personal standing has remained high in spite of the occasionally strong criticism attracted by other members of the royal family. The 89-year-old monarch is seen as a dignified figure, much loved by royalists and respected even by republicans.

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Story By Lisa Kamau
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