Queen Elizabeth II is one of the most famous women in the world, yet she is the most discreet. No one truly knows how the Queen feels, as she prefers to remain outside the fray of celebrity and above political strife. She can – and does – step forward to advise, consult, and warn politicians in her government, but she remains aloof. Instead, Her Majesty is seen as a uniting force not just for the British Isles, but for her Commonwealth Nations, too.
The Queen can never retire, despite being 90 years old. As she herself once said, “The job and the life go on together”. It is a destiny she has accepted since her uncle Edward abdicated in 1936: it placed her first in line to the throne after her father, who took the reins as King George VI. He and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), were the iconic British monarchs during World War II.
After her father’s untimely death in February 1952, Elizabeth embraced her new role as queen. She vowed that she would reign as her father had and embraced the entire Commonwealth. In the time since her accession, Elizabeth II has seen Presidents and Prime Ministers come and go, media coverage change and evolve, scandal and divorce among her children, two milestone jubilees, and a gaggle of great-grandchildren born. The Queen is still married to the love of her life, the ever-irrascable Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whom she married in 1947. Elizabeth and Philip have been a strong royal partnership ever since, and though there have been rumors of discord, both of them have shrugged it off and continued in their roles as representatives of the nation.
On Coronation day in 1953, the new queen and her husband inspired mankind as they rode along in a procession straight out of a fairy tale – the golden coach driving through the streets of London, drawn by grand white horses. The young queen, glittering in her jewels, waved to all whom she passed by. Prince Philip, dressed in his naval uniform with shining gold epaulets, waved and occasionally saluted the crowds with a white-gloved hand.
Once they arrived at Westminster Abbey, they were heralded by trumpets, and throngs of people cheered. Elizabeth, at only twenty-five years of age, was the first reigning queen since Victoria.
The ceremony was broadcast on the radio around the world. At Elizabeth’s request, it was also broadcast live on the television, the newest media device at the time. With the coronation televised, it brought home the splendor and the significance never before seen to hundreds of thousands of people.
In the Beginning
The Queen was born in London on April 21, 1926. She was the first child for Prince Albert, the Duke of York, and his wife Elizabeth. Five weeks after her birth the baby Princess was christened with the beautiful name of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary in the chapel at Buckingham Palace. She was named for her mother, her grandmother Queen Mary, and great-grandmother Queen Alexandra. As a toddler, too young to pronounce her own name, Elizabeth called herself “Lilibet”. The name stuck, and to this day that is what members of her family still call her.
Princess Elizabeth lived at 145 Piccadilly, the elegant London townhouse taken by her parents shortly after her birth. She also resided at White Lodge in Richmond Park and at the country homes of her grandparents. At six years of age, Elizabeth, along with her sister Princess Margaret, then 2, were moved to Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park officially as their own country home.
Princess Elizabeth was educated at home with Princess Margaret. The two sisters would mainly be schooled in the importance of social graces and how to behave as a proper lady. When not practicing social etiquette, Elizabeth and Margaret would put on plays and pantomimes for their parents and other royal friends. It was clear that Princess Margaret was the star of these performances, and the enthusiastic youngster would remain a lifelong fan of theatre and the arts.
As a young girl, Elizabeth was always dressed exactly like Princess Margaret, despite the four years between them. The Duchess of York felt that would serve to bridge the age gap. That’s where the similarities ended however. Margaret was an impish little girl who would sing and dance at the drop of a hat and frequently spoke her mind, while Elizabeth was more logical, serious, and reserved. She wanted to please her parents and adhered to the path of duty and decorum.
When her sister was born – whose full name is Margaret Rose – the little Elizabeth declared, “I shall call her Bud.” When asked why she called Margaret this, Elizabeth replied logically, “Well, she’s too young to be a rose. She is only a bud.”
In 1936, upon the abdication of his elder brother, Prince Albert ceased being the Duke of York and became King George VI. Elizabeth automatically became heiress presumptive, and as such had the royal “The” appended to her title as the child of the Sovereign. Her education turned sharply away from that of Margaret’s. Elizabeth would one day be Queen and her studies now focused on geography, constitutional history, and law. She still studied art and music, her mother’s greatest loves, and learned to ride. The Queen is still a keen horsewoman and breeder today.
Much of the Queen’s personality and devoted work habits are credited to her father, George VI, who was concerned that she receive the proper apprenticeship for the throne. The king, perfectly content as the Duke of York, had been thrust onto the throne when his elder brother abdicated. He had no training for his role. The Duke was the second son of the monarch, never expecting this mantle of responsibility. George decided that his daughter, now the heir to the throne, would not face the same surprises.
Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary, was also a huge influence on the young princess’ life. Mary had instilled in her the importance of keeping up appearances and how to endure, with aplomb, endless rounds of public duties.
Princess Elizabeth met her future husband, Prince Philip, during a tour of Dartmouth Royal Naval College with her parents. Philip was eighteen, she was thirteen, and was completely smitten by the handsome naval cadet. Philip was following in the footsteps of his uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been the Admiral of the Fleet in the British Navy. Mountbatten was such an effective leader he had been posted to India as Viceroy after the war.
Prince Philip had been born a prince of Greece and Denmark, the youngest child of Prince Andrew and Princess Alice of Greece. As a baby, Philip’s family had been forced to flee when Greece was invaded by Turkey. Philip, his parents, and his four sisters escaped with the help of the British Royal Navy.
Prince Andrew was a cousin of King George V, in whose reign these events transpired. The old king remembered his Russian cousin’s horrible execution and was determined not to make the same mistake again by abandoning family. George V’s forces saved not only a cousin but the family of Mountbatten’s sister Alice.
Philip’s four sisters eventually came of age to marry, and one by one left the family to marry German noblemen. Deciding that they were now secure with husbands, Prince Andrew ran off a few years later to be with his mistress. Princess Alice had a nervous breakdown and was sent for treatment in Switzerland. The only member of the family left, the future Consort of Queen Elizabeth II, was only ten years old.
The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh
When it was thought that he might marry Elizabeth, Philip had to renounce his title and his Orthodox Greek religion and become a member of the Church of England. After WWII, Philip eventually made his intentions known to the king about Elizabeth, and the Princess was thrilled. George VI was wary, worried that she was too young. The King took his family on a trip to South Africa while Philip stayed behind. He figured it would give his daughter time to think about her impending engagement. After they returned from the 6 month tour, Elizabeth’s mind was still made up – she wanted to marry Philip. He officially proposed, giving her an engagement ring fashioned from a few diamonds from his mother’s old tiara. The engagement was announced publicly July 10, 1947 and the wedding was set for November 20 of that year.
Being of a traditional sort, Philip discussed with Elizabeth about the taking of his new surname, Mountbatten. As a royal prince, he never had a last name, so Lord Mountbatten, his mother’s younger brother, offered his own name as a solution when Philip was to marry Elizabeth. The king and many other members of the family were extremely cagey towards Lord Louis and were agitated beyond belief that he had actually publicly toasted to the House of Mountbatten, which had now “risen from obscurity from the banks of the Rhine”. The thought of Elizabeth changing her name or the name of the royal house was not an idea her father or Queen Mary wanted to entertain. Elizabeth put off the name controversy for a few years, but eventually, when she became Queen, she instituted that all her descendants will bear the name Mountbatten-Windsor. That way, the official name of the house would not be changed, but her children and their descendants would bear Mountbatten as part of their names.
The Prince and Princess, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, took on more and more of the king’s official engagements as his health was declining. George had cancer, and it was building up in his lungs. He went ahead with an operation to have one of his lungs removed, which proved successful. For a time he was well and back to his old self, but unfortunately it would not last long. Elizabeth and Philip went on an African tour – one of her father’s engagements – and George saw them off at the airport with the Queen and Princess Margaret. It would be the last time Elizabeth would see her beloved father again.
Life Without Father
King George VI died in his sleep February 6, 1952, emaciated by cancer. The healthful effects of the operation had lasted a greviously short time, and the king died during his daughter’s tour in Africa.
A courtier from the palace contacted Philip’s servant and friend Michael Parker to tell him to inform the Princess, now Queen Elizabeth II, that her father had passed away. Lilibet, as royal protocol declared, had her funeral clothes on hand, and during the plane ride home changed from her summer cottons to a plain black dress. At Heathrow, the new Queen was greeted by Winston Churchill, among others, with the Royal black Daimlers.
“Oh, they’ve brought the ‘hearses’,” she commented sadly of the large, black royal automobiles.
In accordance to what she had been taught all of her life, the new Queen did not show much emotion. She greeted the men waiting for her on the tarmac, and then set off in the Royal Daimlers towards Buckingham Palace to sign the Accession Papers, cementing her destiny. Elizabeth II’s reign had begun.
“She didn’t cry – at that moment – but, my God, she was crying inside,” said Lady Pamela Hicks (younger daughter of Lord Mountbatten and Philip’s first cousin). Elizabeth had been very much her father’s daughter and she loved him dearly, and taking on the new responsibilities as Queen and to have him gone like this was going to be a great deal to bear.
One of the first acts of her reign was to bring back her father’s old Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He was by far her most favorite PM, and got along with him very well. He provided her with guidance in her early years of reign, and he was, as several people noted, a “little in love” with his monarch. Everyone, in fact, adored her; as a princess and as queen. She reigned well, and the monarchy was more popular than ever.
At age twenty-five, Elizabeth became Queen not only of Britain but also of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Much of the Empire had dwindled during her father and grandfather’s reign, becoming a Commonwealth of countries. There are 13 British dependent territories, which are: British Indian Ocean Territory, Gibraltar, Bermuda, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, British Antarctic Territory, St Helena and its dependencies (Ascension and Tristan da Cunha), Montserrat, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, and the Pitcairn Group of Islands. (Hong Kong, a former dependent territory, was handed back to China on 1 July 1997.)
Her Majesty carries out hundreds of official engagements every year – but it’s all in a day’s work for the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. Visits around the country and overseas give Elizabeth the chance to meet people from many backgrounds.
The Queen also attends many meetings with the government, including government ministers in the Privy Council and the Prime Minister, and gives audiences to foreign and British ambassadors.
Elizabeth contends with truckloads of paperwork, consisting of letters from the public, government officials, and the top secret papers in the “red boxes” – Government and Commonwealth policy documents and other State papers – which arrive every day of the year, wherever she is. She even “does the boxes” at her holiday residence of Balmoral (working while on vacation – now that’s dedicated!)
The Queen cannot just rule arbitrarily. She conducts weekly meetings with the Prime Minister – usually on Tuesdays – to see what is happening in the government and the general political goings on. She, on almost all matters, acts on the advice of the government of the day. Her Majesty is only a constitutional monarch, meaning she does not have absolute rule over her country. She must take Parliament’s and other members of government’s views into consideration.