30 Photos That Show The Extraordinary Life Of Queen Elizabeth II
Imagine being Queen Elizabeth II -- the young royal, aged 25 in 1952, assuming the throne of the most far-flung empire of the era. Regents are old, right? Prince Charles (her son) will be king -- in his 70s. Yet in 1952, with piles of rubble still lingering on London streets from World War II, Elizabeth stepped in as Queen of England at an age when high-achieving young people are, maybe, in grad school.
Elizabeth's status as an incredibly long-serving monarch overshadows her origins as an incredibly young monarch. We think of regal status as inevitable -- well, Elizabeth was not meant to be queen, and only got there because her uncle opted out. And while a royal monarch might be an anachronism, Elizabeth navigated her role as a figurehead impeccably through the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, 90s, and into the 21st century.
Did the world need a queen, in the 20th century, as even the most traditional countries all over the world continued to move toward representative government? No, obviously not. But if the people wanted a queen, those people were fortunate to have such a deft one as Queen Elizabeth II.
Born on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was the eldest daughter of Prince Albert, Duke of York, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. At the time she was expected to lead a normal life (well, for a member of the royal family), but when her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcée things changed in a big way.
Suddenly she was heir apparent to the throne and began taking on extra studies to make sure she understood the specific demands of royal life. In her spare time she trained to be a Girl Guide (think Girl Scouts but make it English) and spent time riding horses.
Early Preparation For The Throne
Queen Elizabeth II, nicknamed Lilibet, was thrust into a position few had anticipated. After all her father was still young and her uncle also remained ahead in the line of succession. Nevertheless, young Elizabeth earned experience in the royal ways during WWII. At the tender age of 14, she gave a speech broadcasted across Britain assuring the evacuated Brits of the future and their safety. In a calm and steady voice she told them "that in the end, all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace."
She also served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, learning to drive and fix a car. On VE (Victory in Europe) Day, she and her sister Margaret anonymously rubbed elbows with commoners, furthering her understanding of citizenry. Her marriage to Prince Phillip six years before her coronation allowed a glimpse into how she would rule. Many considered Phillip an inadequate choice for the throne as his family didn’t possess great wealth and he was considered “rough around the edges.” In royal terms, that’s very nearly unacceptable.
When Elizabeth wasn't helping with the war effort she and her sister were living in the Royal Lodge at Windsor Castle. This building is a medieval fortress directly outside London. Aside from being in Antarctica or something it's one of the safest places for a young royal during the Blitz. In 1942, she was made an honorary colonel of the 500 Grenadier Guards. Shortly afterwards, her father made her a member of the Privy Council and the Council of State which gave her permission to act on his behalf when he was out of the country.
The marriage of Elizabeth and Philip
Following World War II, the royal family traveled to South Africa and Rhodesia, and once they returned home Elizabeth's engagement to Prince Philip was announced. The couple first met when she was 13-years-old and they kept up a correspondence throughout his time in the Royal Navy. Members of the royal family believed that Philip was a bad match for the future Queen as he was lacking in funds at the time, but she didn't care. The couple married on November 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey.
Charles, the Prince of Wales was born in 1948. As the first son he was in the unique position of being next in line for the throne as a young newborn. The couple's second child and first daughter, Anne was born two years later.
Changing With The Times
Obviously, British royalty takes themselves very seriously. When Queen Elizabeth II took over, Britain controlled more than 70 territories across the globe. However, such a wide-ranging rule was not to last. In 1953, the Queen hinted at a changing of the guard, “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”
The decision to televise her coronation was met with horrified astonishment that cameras would be allowed in Westminster Abbey. Nevertheless, the Queen overruled her advisors and changed the relationship between royalty and the media.
Elizabeth was only 27-years-old when she became queen
Her father’s surprising death at the age of 56 and her uncle’s abdication of the throne for love meant an incredible responsibility landed on the shoulders of a 25-year-old princess. Though she was 25 when her father died on February 6, 1952, thus was technically queen, she was not crowned until June 2, 1953, when she was 27. Thankfully, Queen Elizabeth II was an exceptionally precocious 27-year-old.
27 million people watched Queen Elizabeth's coronation
Queen Elizabeth II ranks as the longest-ruling monarch in Britain’s extensive history, which dates back to 1603. Her coronation was also the first-ever to be broadcast on television. The ground-breaking event captured the eyes of 27 million people in the UK and many more millions across the globe. Queen Elizabeth’s televised crowning epitomized the difficult balance she would face continuing the long-running traditions of old and transitioning the throne into a modern age.
Elizabeth found her footing as queen within the first ten years of her reign, and early on she had a close relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. During the final years of his life he was right there with her while she worked through a foreign diplomacy near disaster in 1956 during an invasion of Egypt.
The queen broke protocol at Winston Churchill's funeral
At Churchill's funeral the queen broke protocol by showing up on time for the funeral to mourn with everyone else rather than waiting around to be the final person inside the building. Aside from this kind moment she also wrote a letter to Lady Churchill that read:
The whole world is the poorer by the loss of his many-sided genius while the survival of this country and the sister nations of the Commonwealth, in the face of the greatest danger that has ever threatened them, will be a perpetual memorial to his leadership, his vision and indomitable courage.
The swinging '60s were a wonderful rime for the queen. Between 1960 and 1964 she had two more children, Andrew and Edward, and in 1968 Charles was officially named the Prince of Wales.
Moving Into The Future
In the 1960s she also started the tradition of Queenly “walkabouts.” Prior to her rise to power, commoners rarely saw royals in public and never up close. Queen Elizabeth changed all that in 1970 when she engaged in a limited meet and greet in New Zealand. Since then she continued the tradition of interacting person to person with thousands of subjects over the years.
In 1977, Queen Elizabeth celebrated her Silver Jubilee to mark her 25th year as the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom. This celebration came at a time of extreme economic disparity across the world, and especially in England. Her Jubilee was a nice break for the people of England, but for Elizabeth it was a non-stop set of engagements. She traveled 56,000 miles around the Commonwealth for the celebration, from England, to Canada, even Papua New Guinea.
In 1981, the royals were the center of attention of the entire world when Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married at at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Within the year Diana gave birth to a son, William, and a second, Harry, followed in 1984.
By 1986, the queen was doing her best to support a powerful woman like Margaret Thatcher while taking care of her commonwealth. Elizabeth worried that Thatcher's economic policies were too stringent and they created bitterness between the English classes. In spite of reports of the two women being at odds, the queen honored Thatcher with the Order of Merit and the Order of the Garter.
The Queen views the Terracotta Warriors in China
During her long reign as Queen, Elizabeth introduced many firsts to the position. In 1986, she became the first Queen to visit Mainland China. During her time in the country she visited the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Terracotta Warriors. The visit paved the way for the sovereignty of Hong Kong to be transferred from the United Kingdom to China a decade later.
On November 24, 1992, the Queen celebrated the Ruby Jubilee, or the 40th anniversary of her ascension to the throne. As much as this should have been a joyous occasion it was marred by pretty miserable time in her family's life. During her speech, Elizabeth referred to 1992 as her "annus horribilis," or horrible year.
That year Prince Andrew divorced, Princess Anne did the same, demonstrators threw eggs at Elizabeth when she visited Germany, and a fire broke out at Windsor Castle that November. On top of it all the monarchy was under increased criticism and scrutiny. During her incredibly personal speech the queen stated that the family would get through their downturn with "a touch of humor, gentleness and understanding."
In the early '90s, Elizabeth made one of the most modern decisions of any leader at the time and opened up the state rooms at Buckingham palace to the public for a small fee when she was away from the residence.
Queen Elizabeth and the People's Princess
In 1996, Charles and Diana divorced with Charles taking the royal titles and Diana keeping all of the public goodwill. She tragically died one year later and a tidal wave of grief flowed from the British public along with outrage at the royal family over their perceived treacherous treatment of her.
Following the death of Diana, the queen did her best to keep her family away from the public at at Balmoral Castle, but she returned to London following the massive outpouring of love from the British public. The Union Jack was lowered to half mast above Buckingham Palace before Elizabeth made a moving televised speech about her late daughter-in-law.
The 2000s showed a huge sea change for the royal family. Elizabeth celebrated 50 years on the throne with the Golden Jubilee in 2002, but the death of her mother and sister earlier in the year put a somber tone to what should have been special occasion.
In 2005, the queen gave her blessing to the marriage of Prince Charles and his longtime partner Camilla Parker Bowles. What was once unthinkable was becoming reality. Elizabeth received a wave of support from the public over this monumentous occasion.
After seven decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth welcomed yet another royal wedding to Westminster Abbey. This time around Prince William married Catherine Middleton in April 2011. England celebrated while Elizabeth watched as the next king and queen of England tied the knot.
While most people her age were hanging out at home, Elizabeth spent the 2010s traveling and making visits of goodwill to Commonwealth. During her visits she never missed a chance to look absolutely fitted.
In 2011, Elizabeth continued to make history by becoming the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland in 100 years. Inspire of the fat that her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, by the IRA she was exceedingly kind in her speech about the Good Friday Agreement. To make even more history, Elizabeth shook hands with ex-IRA leader Martin McGuinness one year later.
The Queen shares a laugh with her daughter-in-law, Meghan Markle
On one of the most joyous days in British history, Prince Harry married actress Meghan Markle in 2018. This was huge not only because of the wedding of it all, but because a member of the British Royal Family was marrying a Black divorcée from America. One year later Markle gave birth to their son, Archie, and in 2021 they welcomed Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor to the family.
A Queen Of Firsts
Amazingly, her most recent approval of the marriage between Prince Harry and Megan Markle stands as the largest illustration of change for the modernization of the British monarchy. The fact that a divorced, biracial American actress could marry into one of the most powerful monarchies in the world probably made Queen Elizabeth’s father roll over in his grave. Thankfully, times have changed.
Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 96
On September 8, 2022, Queen Elizabeth's extensive rule came to an end at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, her summer retreat. Earlier in the week Buckingham Palace announced that Elizabeth was under medical supervision and doctor prescribed rest. Following her death, Prince Charles released a statement saying:
The death of my beloved Mother, Her Majesty the Queen, is a moment of the greatest sadness for me and all members of my family. We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished Sovereign and a much-loved Mother. I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the Realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world.