Her Majesty the Queen ruled over Britain and the Commonwealth for 70 years, making her the longest reigning British monarch, and the fifth longest in world history.
As sovereign and Head of State her unfaltering sense of duty and commitment to her role earned her enormous respect around the globe.
The Queen’s devotion to a life of service meant she fulfilled her official duties well into her 90s, from hosting diplomats, ambassadors, and Heads of State, to overseeing new sessions of Parliament, bestowing awards, supporting charities, and addressing the nation during the coronavirus pandemic.
She represented high moral values, stability and tradition, and was seen as a steadying influence for Great Britain, and the Commonwealth, during times of enormous social change.
The Queen came to the throne in February 1952, aged just 25. She received the sad news that her father King George VI had died at 56 of lung cancer, while she was on an official tour of Kenya. It was her uncle Edward VIII’s unexpected abdication in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson that had placed her directly in line of succession.
Her coronation took place on June 2, 1953 at London’s Westminster Abbey, in front of more than 8,000 guests. Three million people lined the streets of the capital to catch a glimpse of their new monarch, while an astonishing 27 million viewers tuned in to watch the coronation, the first ever to be televised.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, led the ceremony which fell into six parts: the recognition, the oath, the anointing, the investiture, the enthronement and the homage. The Queen wore a stunning Norman Hartnell dress made of white satin, and embroidered with the emblems of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in gold and silver thread. Her crown, the George IV State Diadem, featured 1,333 diamonds and 169 pearls.
Speaking during the occasion, the Queen said, “I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
Her promise was reiterated later that year during her first Christmas broadcast as monarch. She said, “I want to show that the Crown is not merely an abstract symbol of our unity but a personal and living bond between you and me.”
At the time, the Queen was expected to juggle her new role with that of her home life, as wife to the Duke of Edinburgh and mother to Prince Charles, then aged four, and Princess Anne, who was two. How much her life changed was demonstrated shortly after her coronation when she left for a six-month tour of the Commonwealth, leaving the toddlers at home to be cared for by the Queen Mother.
Her determination to serve her country at all costs was perfectly summed up by Prince William in 2015, when he wrote in a preface to a biography of his grandmother. “I think I speak for my generation when I say that the example and continuity provided by The Queen is not only very rare among leaders but a great source of pride and reassurance.”
Although the Queen had to remain strictly neutral in political matters, she fostered special relationships with 15 Prime Ministers during her reign – against a background of great social, economic and cultural upheaval which included the regeneration of post-war Britain, the “Swinging Sixties”, economic decline in the seventies, the miners’ strike in the mid-eighties, the Gulf War in the early nineties, the peace process in Ireland, as well as joining and leaving the EU, a global pandemic and the threat of terrorism.
While acknowledging that continuity was key to a successful monarchy, the Queen also paved the way for future royals and their evolving roles. During her time on the throne she facilitated huge shifts in protocol, a key step in helping the royal family seem more approachable.
To this end, in 1970, she carried out the first royal walkabout meeting people face-to-face during a tour of Australia and New Zealand. She also spoke in Gaelic during her first royal visit to Ireland in 2011.
Indeed, she constantly adapted to meet the needs of her public and her popularity soared as a result. Her willingness to embrace the modern world meant she was also unafraid of technological advances. She entered the digital era in 1997 with the launch of the Buckingham Palace website.
The Queen’s close connection with the nation was clearly illustrated in June 1977 when she celebrated her Silver Jubilee – 500 million people across the Commonwealth watched live TV coverage of the day’s events and around 12,000 street parties were held across Britain.
In her Christmas speech that same year, she said of the celebrations, “The street parties and village fêtes, the presents, the flowers from the children, the mile upon mile of decorated streets and houses; these things suggest that the real value and pleasure of the celebration was that we all shared in it together.”
But her reign was not without its darker moments. Marking the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne, the Queen reflected that 1992 was not a year she would look back on “with undiluted pleasure”.
It was a 12-month period that saw the Prince of Wales separate from Diana, Princess of Wales, the Duke of York’s estranged wife Sarah Ferguson caught in a tabloid scandal and Anne, the Princess Royal, divorce from her first husband Mark Phillips.
And it didn’t stop there. On 20 November, Windsor Castle almost burned to the ground, leading the Queen to admit, “It has turned out to be an annus horribilis…”
However, the most unimaginable tragedy struck five years later, when on 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales died, aged just 36, in a car crash in Paris.
The Queen was said to be hurt by the vocal public criticism of the royal family’s initial low-key response to Diana’s death. Returning from her estate in Balmoral, Scotland, to Buckingham Palace, she attempted to repair the damage in a live TV broadcast. She paid tribute to her former daughter-in-law, saying, “She was an exceptional and gifted human being.”
In unprecedented scenes, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were seen inspecting the thousands of oral tributes laid outside the grounds of Buckingham Palace and even spoke to members of the grieving public.
Marking the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death in 2017, Katie Jones – whose gesture of handing an emotional Queen a bunch of flowers was seen as a turning point in the public’s attitude towards the monarch – said, “I was waving my flowers and she asked me if I wanted her to go and put them down with the rest of the owers, and I said, ‘No, they’re for you Ma’am.’” Katie added, “She held my hand at this point, shaking and she sort of questioned me and said, ‘Are you sure?’”
After a difficult decade, the Queen’s place in the heart of the nation was restored in time for her Golden Jubilee in 2002, marking her incredible 50 years on the throne.
The celebration coincided with the FIFA Football World Cup, which was held in South Korea and Japan, and the Queen’s dry wit was evident as she addressed the nation. “Although this weekend comes about half way through my jubilee year, as far as we are concerned, it bears no relation to a rest at half-time,” she joked. “However, I am very glad that the 50th anniversary of my accession is giving so many people all over this country and in the Commonwealth an excuse to celebrate and enjoy themselves.”
She also spoke warmly of her “loyal subjects”, saying, “Gratitude, respect and pride, these words sum up how I feel about the people of this country and the Commonwealth – and what this Golden Jubilee means to me.”
Ten years later, the Queen reached another magnificent milestone when she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. Addressing the Houses of Parliament in 2012, she paid tribute to the British virtues of “resilience, ingenuity and tolerance”, and also thanked Prince Philip for his support during her 60 years of rule.
Laughter broke out in the chamber as she quipped, “Prince Philip is, I believe, well-known for declining compliments of any kind. But throughout he has been a constant strength and guide.”
The London Olympics in 2012 was a global smash, notably for its magnificent opening ceremony which featured the Queen in a light-hearted comedy sketch alongside James Bond star Daniel Craig.
The hilarious six-minute film saw the monarch embark on a secret mission with 007, culminating with her “parachuting” into the Olympic Stadium with the British spy, much to the delight of spectators and the millions watching worldwide.
The warmth of public feeling towards the Queen remained and her 90th birthday in 2016 was widely celebrated. That summer, her official birthday weekend of June 10 saw events including the traditional Trooping the Colour, in which the Queen, dressed in a vivid lime green coat and hat, was escorted down the Mall in a horse-drawn carriage to Horse Guards Parade.
Later, there was an RAF flypast, a royal flotilla down the River Thames, gun salutes, fireworks and street parties. David Cameron, then Prime Minister, commended her “unshakeable sense of duty”, while former US President Barack Obama flew into the UK to wish her a happy birthday, saying, “The Queen has been a source of inspiration for me like so many people around the world. She is truly one of my favourite people. She is an astonishing person and a real jewel to the world and not just the United Kingdom.”
The Queen once again showed what a great sense of humour she has in April 2016 when she teamed up with the former President for a hilarious video exchange to promote Prince Harry’s Invictus Games.
In the spoof, Harry showed his grandmother a video of Barack and wife Michelle issuing a challenge to the British team. After watching the video on Harry’s mobile phone, the Queen smiled and said, “Oh, really. Please!” And Harry simply replied, “Boom!”
The following year she and her husband Philip celebrated 70 years of marriage, and in 2018 she was in attendance when Harry married American actress Meghan Markle, seemingly ushering in yet another modern milestone in the history of the British monarchy.
The Queen bestowed upon the couple the title of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and was said to be hugely sympathetic when the pair decided to step down from public life and relocate to California.
That same year, the monarch hosted the first official visit by then US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania. She also met President Biden at Windsor Castle in June 2021. The Queen was always extremely welcoming to US Presidents and met 12 out of the 13 who held office during her reign. The only one she didn’t meet with was Lyndon B. Johnson.
Changing the world beyond recognition, the Covid-19 pandemic affected the Queen and her family, as it did her millions of subjects. On April 5, 2020 she made the decision to address the nation from Windsor Castle to thank key workers. Reassuring the public, and echoing Dame Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song We’ll Meet Again, she said, “Better days will return. We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
Ever willing to stay connected to the wider world, she was able to embrace new technology and made her first public video call in June 2020, when she talked to carers to mark Carers Week. Speaking on Zoom from Windsor Castle with her daughter Anne by her side, the monarch heard from carers about their work and experience shielding the vulnerable. The then 94-year-old told them, “It’s interesting listening to all your tales. I’m very impressed by what you have achieved already. I’m very glad to have been able to join you today.”
Sadly, the following year the Queen faced “deep sorrow” when she lost Philip, her husband of 73 years, aged 99, and while she naturally took time to grieve, she was also determined to continue to fulfil her duties and remain visible to the public.
A visit to Northern Ireland, however, was cancelled in October 2021, when after a precautionary overnight stay in hospital, she was told by her doctors to rest. However, a week later, she was back at work holding virtual audiences from Windsor, greeting South Korea’s ambassador Gunn Kim and the Swiss ambassador Markus Leitner, who were at Buckingham Palace.
It was a far cry from the early days of the Queen’s reign when televisions were rarities and cars were only for the wealthy. But after 70 years on the throne, having seen it all and met almost everyone of note, the Queen remained as eager as ever to connect with people from all walks of life, and in any way she could.
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