Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born to the Duke and Duchess of York at 2:40am on 21 April 1926, the eldest daughter of the second son of King George V.
Third in line to the throne at birth, she was never expected to inherit any title beyond the Duchess of York. The young princess was the third grandchild of the King and his eldest grand-daughter. ‘Lilibet’ formed a close bond with her grandfather, whom she called “Grandpa England”.
At the age of 4, she gained a younger sister, Princess Margaret. As the two young princesses grew up, the young Elizabeth showed early signs of understanding duty and leadership. Their father noted this character trait and referred to his two daughters as his “Pride and Joy” – Elizabeth the ‘pride’ and Margaret the ‘joy’. Winston Churchill marvelled at her “air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant”.
On 11 December 1936, at the age of 10, her life changed irrevocably when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in order to marry the divorced Wallis Simpson. Instantly, her father ‘Bertie’ became King George VI and she became the heir to his throne. Her family moved from the relative calm of Clarence House to Buckingham Palace.
Her own sense of turmoil at these events was heightened by the instability in Europe at the time. She was 13 when Britain declared war with Hitler’s Germany. As bombs fell across Britain, her parents resolved that the whole family would remain in the country, despite offers of safe passage to Canada.
While many children were evacuated away from Britain’s cities, the teenage Princess Elizabeth spent most of the war in and around Windsor Castle. In early 1945, aged 18, she was appointed to the Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she trained as a lorry driver and mechanic.
Two years after the end of the war, aged 21, Princess Elizabeth became engaged to Philip Mountbatten, a Naval officer descended from the royal houses of Greece and Denmark. On 20 November 1947, they were married at Westminster Abbey.
Almost a year later, 14 November 1948, she gave birth to a son, Charles. At the age of 24, on 15 August 1950, she bore her second child, a daughter, Anne.
Not for the first time in her life, the idyll of a young family life was interrupted by fate. In early 1952, her ailing father was at London Airport to wave off Elizabeth and Philip as they left to represent him on their planned tour to Australia and New Zealand. Days later, with the young couple still on the African leg of their tour, in Kenya, George VI died and the 25 year-old Princess became Queen Elizabeth II.
Once again, her life would change irrevocably. The young queen returned home to a future for which she had been undoubtedly prepared but was perhaps not expecting to occur so soon.
Her coronation took place the following year, when still aged only 26, she took the oath to serve her realms across the Commonwealth for the rest of her life. Shortly afterwards, she and Philip embarked upon a seven-month world tour, visiting 13 countries over 40,000 miles. It’s estimated that three quarters of the population of Australia saw her during that particular leg of the tour.
The accession of a young queen was seen by many to be symbolic of a new Britain, rebounding from post-war austerity and leading the world in many areas of technological development. The new Elizabethan era seemed to represent a forward-looking contrast to the traditions and protocols of previous generations.
In the earliest years of her reign, she was guided in statecraft by her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and learned how to re-define not only her own role, but that of the wider royal family as well as re-engineering the purpose of the Commonwealth.
Towards the end of her first decade on the throne, she and Philip chose to add to their family, with the birth of Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964. At the age of 37 and now a mother of four, she became the visible matriarch of the nation. And visible she was – decades before the world knew what an image consultant was, she favoured a wardrobe of bright, solid colours, famously declaring “I need to be seen to be believed”.
The 1970s brought challenges as Britain experienced economic and social challenges. Closer to home, her daughter Anne was the subject of a failed kidnapping and Phillip’s uncle, Louis Mountbatten, was murdered by Irish Republicans. Britain was becoming a les class-riven, less deferential nation and Elizabeth once again had to steer a path of both constancy and modernity to ensure that the monarchy retained its relevance. The success of her Silver Jubilee, despite negativity and even hostility in some quarters, was another major milestone in the life of a monarch who was by then 51 years old.
As the 1980s dawned, the Royal Family was once again at the centre of worldwide attention with the engagement of her eldest son, Charles, to Lady Diana Spencer. Their wedding in July 1981 was another era-defining event and an opportunity for the profile of the monarchy to be raised to levels that it routinely held decades before, especially following the birth of her grandsons, William and Harry, in 1982 and 1984.
The wedding of her second son, Andrew, to Sarah Ferguson later in the decade and the addotion of their two daughters meant that by the end of the decade, the Queen, by now 63, was a grandmother to three girls and three boys.
In Elizabeth’s own words, 1992 was her “annus horriblis”. It was to be the year of her 40th, ‘Ruby’ Jubilee but ongoing negative press about her daughter’s divorce and the failing marriages of her eldest sons led to her deciding to scale down the significance of the event. Before the end of the year, even worse was to follow, when a major fire broke out at her beloved Windsor Castle, causing extensive damage and concern.
As the world began to enter the Internet age, Elizabeth was once again required to re-define her role. Many felt that her greatest challenge was in 1997, following the death of Princess Diana in Paris. Having delayed her return to London, for family reasons, she gave a rare address to the nation to re-affirm her connection with the grieving population. In doing so, she demonstrated that, even as she entered her 70s, she retained her willingness to learn and adapt.
As a new millennium began, Elizabeth completed her transformation to become, effectively, the nation’s grandmother. The loss of her younger sister and her own mother re-iterated her seniority. Her 2002 Golden Jubilee signalled a return to the levels of public affection that she’d enjoyed in 1977.
As Elizabeth approached her 80th birthday, the marriage of her son and heir to his long-time companion, Camilla, was thought by some to be a divisive, even unconstitutional union. Instead, it signalled a more mature, more modern face of royalty that was seen as more reflective of the lives of many British people. The wedding of William and Kate in 2011 was also seen by many to elevate the status of the monarchy still higher. When the Olympic games came to Loindon in 2012, the 86 year-old monarch proved that she could still surprize and amaze, with her playful participation in Danny Boyle’s epic opening ceremony.
By her tenth decade, Elizabeth continued to negotiate with skill the twin forces of fate and ever-shifting public opinion, just as she had done since the age of 25. The impact of Harry’s marriage and subsequent withdrawal from royal duties, of Andrew’s legal difficulties and of a global pandemic continued to test her resolve to do her sworn duty. Even the loss of her husband Philip, her greatest supporter did not deter her from fulfilling her lifelong oath. This year, another Jubilee, celebrating an unprecedented 70th year on the throne gave us the chance to reflect on her remarkable service and unstinting grace.
Even at the age of 96, she was able to meet and advise her fifteenth British Prime Minister, an unbroken span of influence that included every post-war UK leader except Clement Atlee.
Queen Elizabeth II was a unique monarch. Not just in terms of longevity or even length of service. Her reign coincided with unparalleled levels of change. As a consequence, she has travelled more miles, met more people, seen more history and touched more lives than perhaps any human being who has ever lived.
Elizabeth inherited an ancient institution and ensured it was relevant, respected and loved for 70 years, more than any other monarch. She did this in a world that has developed at dizzying speed, compared to any other period in human history.
As a young lady, Elizabeth ascended to a throne of Empire and Cold War in a country still rationing food after a devastating war. It was a world where older certainties were becoming increasingly uncertain and, throughout her monarchy, she continued to respond to the changes around her. In doing so, to her people, she became the greatest certainty.
We now live in a world where the greatest challenges do not sit neatly within national boundaries and require global solutions. Her unwavering commitment to the Commonwealth shows that she understood that decades before most.
Today, the role she bequeaths is just as relevant and elicits just as much affection as it did in 1952 and yet it is in a world almost unrecognisable to those who cheered her own coronation. Her ability to achieve that single objective may be an accomplishment we can only truly appreciate in the years to come.