Queen Elizabeth II: A lifetime of devotion and service
Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch died on September 8, setting off a series of well-planned events to mark her passing. The state funeral at Westminster Abbey on Monday, followed by her burial at King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle, is the culmination of these events. The nation of the United Kingdom, as well as leaders from all over the world, will gather in London to pay their respects and say goodbye to the queen.
The beginning of an era
Queen Elizabeth II sat at her desk, undertaking her first duties as monarch. She had just hours earlier been Elizabeth Windsor. Now she was Queen of the United Kingdom, Head of the Commonwealth of Nations and the sovereign of the Commonwealth realms.
It was 1952, and she was in mourning. The young queen embraced her new role with grace and her trademark stiff upper lip, despite her grief. Her private secretary later remembered that she was sitting straight, accepting her destiny. When he asked her which name she would reign under, she said “My own, of course.”
Over the seven decades that followed, Queen Elizabeth II would leave an unmistakable impression on her nation and the rest of the world. Her path to the throne was difficult. She experienced many social catastrophes and crises. Her destiny was to rule through sorrow, conflict, and almost unimaginable change. She would go on to become the longest-ruling monarch of Britain, linking past and present and becoming an indelible figure on world stage.
A twist of royal fate
Born in London on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth was the granddaughter of a king and daughter of a duke–the newest member of the House of Windsor. Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, despite her royal pedigree didn’t seem to be destined for the British throne. Although she was third in line for the monarchy, it was widely believed that her uncle Edward would become king and marry to produce royal heirs. History had other plans.
When Elizabeth was nine years old, her uncle assumed the throne of Edward VIII as per plan. He abdicated the throne less than a year later to marry Wallis Simpson. Simpson was a twice-divorced American socialite. Elizabeth’s father would become king and Elizabeth was suddenly next in line for the throne of Britain’s hereditary monarchy.
The lonely princess
Elizabeth had been raised quietly along with her younger sister, Princess Margaret. However, Elizabeth’s future reign shaped her life indelibly when she was heir to the throne. Privately educated at Buckingham Palace, and supervised by a beloved governess. She was also mentored by leading scholars and the archbishop. She also learned from her father: Shy, stuttering George VII addressed his people frequently and insisted that he stay in London during World War II’s Blitz.
Elizabeth was a lonely but dutiful young girl–one biographer noted that her loud cries during her christening as a baby were “the last recorded instance of her surrendering to anything like a tantrum.” But the war opened up her horizons.
In 1940, she made her first public speech at age 14, addressing children who had been separated from their parents during the war. She said, “We children at home have a lot of courage and cheerfulness.” “We are trying to. . . to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war.”
Love and war
The teenage princess took part in the war effort in another way, too. In 1945, Elizabeth made history when she became the first woman in the royal family to serve full-time in Britain’s military as a truck driver and mechanic. She wore her uniform as she celebrated the end of the war and blended in with the revelers, basking in the relief and joy of peace.
By then, the seeds of a seven-decade-long romance were planted. Elizabeth and Margaret spent a lot of World War II at Windsor Castle. Prince Philip of Denmark and Greece, Elizabeth’s third cousin was often seen at Windsor Castle when he was on leave with the Royal Navy. Their relationship blossomed after the war.
The dashing, blunt prince–who was exiled to England as an infant amid political strife in Greece and became naturalized as Philip Mountbatten in 1947–was an unlikely match for the reserved queen-to-be. His childhood was difficult and he seemed to be quite poor. But Elizabeth was captivated, reportedly falling in love at age 13. One observer said that Elizabeth had a protective shell around herself and that he helped her get out. They married in Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947.
The young queen
As a young wife and mother–Charles III was born in 1948 and Princess Anne followed in 1950–Elizabeth began to step into her aging father’s shoes. In 1952, she undertook a world tour in King George VI’s stead. After a short getaway in Kenya with Philip, word reached her that her father had died. The 25-year-old was now a queen.
Elizabeth II, Britain’s 61st monarch, would reign over a vast empire and serve as head of the Church of England. At the time of her accession, Britain had more than 70 territories overseas. She was the sovereign and head of the Commonwealth realms, which included Canada and Australia. She was also the second Head of the Commonwealth of the Commonwealth of Nations. This association of sovereign states is closely linked to the United Kingdom due to a history of British colonial rule. Her role was symbolic, however. Although technically she was head of state and church, she was not allowed to pass or enforce laws under the United Kingdom’s constitution monarchy. She was only responsible for being a national figurehead and not a politician.
Elizabeth considered her responsibility as monarch a sacred duty. “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,” she said in a radio address on her 21st birthday, when her father was still king. She would live up to that promise for the rest of her adult life.
A glittering coronation
As she mourned her father and acclimated to life as queen, Elizabeth prepared for perhaps the most memorable of the many royal appearances she was to make during her long life: Her coronation, held in Westminster Abbey in June 1953, hewed to time-honored tradition. The young, elegant queen, dressed in an elaborate, white satin gown, traveled from Buckingham Palace to her abbey. She was blessed with oil and dressed in royal robes before being given an orb and a scepter.
Finally, after a nearly five-pound crown studded with jewels was placed on her head, she received the homage of the royal family and the peerage. Prince Philip was the first to kneel before her, pledging to be her “liege man of life and limb.”
Admiring subjects lined the streets of London to celebrate. They weren’t alone in admiring the splendour. At the queen’s request, television cameras were allowed inside and the coronation broadcast live. An estimated three-quarters of the population of Britain, more than 20 million people, tuned in for the ceremony, and millions more watched from other countries. Her coronation was the first major television event of its kind and her reign brought about a new, modern monarchy.
Her changing empire
The British Empire of the queen’s forebears was changing rapidly as countries asserted their independence in the postwar years. Elizabeth served as the constitutional monarch of a growing number Commonwealth realms. As head of the Commonwealth of Nations she presided over a loose group of ex-colonial colonies that had abandoned colonial relations with Britain.
After the coronation, Elizabeth and Philip embarked on an unprecedented tour of the Commonwealth. During the trip, the pair traveled more than 40,000 miles and visited 13 countries. It was the first time that a reigning monarch visited Australia or New Zealand.
The Commonwealth would be one of Elizabeth’s most lasting projects. She was open to the diversity of the association and forged close relationships with its leaders. She stated that the Commonwealth “has no resemblance whatsoever to the Empires from the past.” It is a completely new concept, built on the highest qualities in the spirit of man: friendship and loyalty, as well as the desire for freedom, peace, and liberty. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”
A busy travel schedule made up just part of the queen’s royal duties. The British sovereign must be neutral in all matters of state. However, they have the right to appoint prime minsters and call a general elections. These duties are mainly ceremonial but they remain an important part of protocol. Monarchs can also advise or be advised by their prime ministers.
During her weekly visits with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in her first years as queen, Elizabeth received his tutelage and shared in his notorious sense of fun. Her private secretary recalls hearing “peals and laughter” during their audience. The queen later wrote that she was “profoundly thankful” for his guidance during those first years as sovereign.
A “priggish schoolgirl”
Despite her outward neutrality, the queen had her detractors–and soon learned that, in times of national strife, the monarchy could be harshly criticized. The first gauntlet came after the Suez Crisis, Britain’s disastrous, short-lived invasion of Egypt in 1956. This brief fiasco led to a decline of the U.K.’s global standing and fueled an economic and political crisis.
After Anthony Eden, the prime minister who had given the invasion the green light, resigned, Elizabeth came under fire for relying on the advice of an insular group of royal insiders in choosing Eden’s successor. In 1957, Lord Altrincham, the influential editor of the National and English Review, published sharp criticism of Elizabeth and her “tweedy” advisers. He then launched into a personal attack against the queen herself, complaining about everything, from her voice to her “priggish girl” demeanor.
The criticism and the resulting debate prompted the queen’s to make lasting changes. The queen retained the monarch’s prerogative of appointing prime ministers but would be deferential to the choice of the prime ministers of political parties for the rest her life. In a gesture of equality, the queen ended the tradition of presenting debutantes from the upper classes at court. This was a long-standing tradition that some considered unfairly to an elite minority.
A troubled nation
British society was changing and so was the monarchy. During her reign, Elizabeth faced a seemingly endless parade of crises, from economic malaise in the 1970s and 1980s to the international woes of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic in the 21st century. Some events are closer to home than others.
One such event was the Aberfan mine disaster in 1966, a landslide in which 144 people, many of them schoolchildren, were killed. Elizabeth was criticized for refusing to visit the Welsh community for more than a week following the incident. According to reports, the queen considered her bungled response in the wake of the disaster to be her greatest regret.
The Troubles was another crucible. It was a three-decade-long conflict between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. The violence left more than 3,600 dead and more than 30,000 injured. The Troubles also touched Elizabeth personally: Her second cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1979. It would take until 2011 for Elizabeth to make an official state visit to the Republic of Ireland, where she offered her sympathy to the victims of the Troubles. Despite her words, which were the closest a member of Royal Family came to apologizing to Britain for its reprisals during the conflict, tensions continued to simmer in Northern Ireland, particularly in the throes of Brexit that threatened trade between Northern Ireland (and the Republic of Ireland).
Pomp and circumstance
As a mother of four–Prince Andrew was born in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964–the queen hewed carefully to her symbolic duties. Each year, she presided over the State Opening of Parliament and delivered a speech to the assembled Houses of Commons or Lords. (During her reign she missed only three appearances; twice while pregnant with her younger sons and once in 2022 as concerns for her health increased. )
State events were filled with pitfalls of procedure and etiquette. The queen was not happy about the five-pound Imperial State Crown. “You can’t look at the speech from the ground, you must read it up. Because if you did, your neck would break–it would fall off,” she told the BBC in a 2018 documentary. “So crowns have some disadvantages, but they’re still very important things.” The queen began to wear a lighter-weight diadem when she was older.
Another tradition was the royal Christmas message, a speech broadcast first by radio, then by television to a worldwide audience. Elizabeth gave thanks and encouragement to the Commonwealth people and addressed the most pressing issues at the time during the annual messages, which were established by her grandfather.
And then there were the jubilees–anniversary celebrations of the queen’s ever lengthening rule. During jubilee years the queen would often travel across the Commonwealth of Nations. She used these jubilee celebrations to greet her subjects and keep her eyes on the progress and unity of her nation and the Commonwealth.
In 1969, she presided over a very personal ceremony: the investiture of her oldest son, Charles, as Prince of Wales. Her son, Charles, knelt in front of her at Caernarfon Castle and she placed a jewel-studded crown on his head before presenting him to the Welsh people.
Over the years, the queen survived multiple assassination attempts. These were less traumatizing than the family disputes that roiled her personal life and shaken public confidence in the monarchy.
The queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, caused a furor when tabloids published photos of her cavorting with her lover in 1976. Although Margaret’s divorce caused scandal in the family, Elizabeth gave her blessing. It was only a glimpse of the trouble to come.
The fallout of the tempestuous marriage and separation of Charles III and Princess Diana led Elizabeth to refer to 1992 as her “annus horribilis,” a year that also included a catastrophic fire at Windsor Castle, the divorce of Princess Anne, and the separation of Prince Andrew and his wife, Sarah.
When Diana died in a tragic car crash while being pursued by paparazzi in 1997, her former mother-in-law was condemned for her seeming lack of emotion. The queen, however, expressed her grief privately to a friend, writing that Diana’s death was “dreadfully tragic.” She also cared for her grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry.
A stiff upper lip
Elizabeth’s troubles didn’t end then. Prince Andrew, her son, was accused of sexually assaulting a minor Epstein had allegedly facilitated. Under increasing public pressure and after a widely criticized television interview in which Prince Andrew downplayed Epstein’s actions and denied any wrongdoing, he stepped down from public life in November 2019 and returned his royal patronages and military titles to the queen in January 2022.
In January 2020, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, announced they would step back from the royal family and become financially independent. They also claimed that Meghan, a biracial woman, had been treated racially by members of the royal inner circle. Although the couple’s departure to the United States was reportedly a blow to her, the monarch maintained a relationship with the Duke of Sussex and Duchess from afar and was said be “overjoyed” to have named their second child Lilibet.
Another blow came in 2021, when Philip, the longest-serving royal consort in British history, died at age 99. The queen’s grief is vividly illustrated by images of her sitting alone at the funeral of her husband. She was a calm face for the world through it all.
Intensely private though she was, the queen was also known to be warm and witty. She loved her corgis and enjoyed her summer getaways to Balmoral Castle, Scotland, where she could go on long walks, picnics, drive her Range Rover and visit her royal ponies. A committed horsewoman, she was a fixture at horse shows and races and could be spotted in the saddle into her 90s.
But for the woman who committed to serving her country at the age of just 25, her country was never far from her thoughts. She remained active and involved in public events into her mid-90s and never turned away from her responsibilities as queen. “These are the things that, at her age, she shouldn’t be doing, yet she’s carrying on and doing them,” her grandson Prince Harry said in a 2012 interview. What did the resilient queen make of her own life that was so challenging? She reportedly joked, “I have to be seen to be believed.”
Elizabeth could find the humor in her complicated destiny. For her millions of subjects, her loving family and her fans around her world, she was more than a figurehead. It was difficult for her to be a woman in a world that was dominated by men. . . make a difference,” her grandson Prince William said in a 2019 interview. She’s done it in her own unique, distinct way. In her own very unique, distinct way.”
To the end, she retained the calm resolve of the young woman who accepted her royal fate so many years before–a life of duty and service, accomplished as no one but Elizabeth could.
To learn more, check out Queen Elizabeth II: A Life in Photographs. You can find it wherever books and magazines can be purchased.
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Queen Elizabeth II: A Life in Photographs by Erin Blakemore. Copyright (c) 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.