I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” vowed a fresh-faced Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday. She stood by those words during a life that was long – so long that few people alive today can remember a time before Queen Elizabeth II, said Stephen Bates in The Guardian. She ascended the throne when Winston Churchill was still in Downing Street; the last of the 15 prime ministers who served her was not even born until ten years after his death. She met 13 US presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Joe Biden, and countless other world leaders. Some were villainous. Once, walking her dogs in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, she hid behind a bush to avoid having to make small talk with the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Others were “saintly”: she was close to Nelson Mandela, who was one of the few people allowed to call her simply Elizabeth. She met five popes, thousands of celebrities, and (it has been estimated) more than two million “ordinary people”. The patron of 600 or so charities, and colonel-in-chief to numerous regiments, she criss-crossed Britain “year in, year out” in the course of her public duties; and she visited almost 120 countries, many of them repeatedly.
Her image was everywhere: she was on coins, banknotes and stamps; her picture was in the papers almost daily. And she was in the background or foreground of almost every national event. In the last few years of her reign, she was often referred to as an anchor, an unchanging presence in a fast-changing world. In fact, she did change: as the monarchy became less stuffy during her reign, she became more accessible to her people. Even her accent became more demotic. But she remained, essentially, unknowable. She did not give a single interview: her opinions could only be guessed at. Her public mask did not slip. Her appearance in a James Bond skit, for the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, delighted viewers precisely because it was so unexpected. And the values she embodied – devotion to duty, restraint, stoicism, quiet religious faith – did not waver.
For older generations, she was a reassuring link to a disappearing past. For younger ones, her very remoteness made her appealing, said Monica Hesse in The Washington Post. This was a woman who’d raised four children while serving as head of state, yet she never talked about her struggle to “have it all”. She did not chase fashions or court popularity, let alone seek to build a brand. Her job was not about finding oneself; it was “about sublimating oneself”. The idea of having duties to others that “require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings” is becoming archaic, said Andrew Sullivan on UnHerd. Queen Elizabeth “kept it alive simply by example”.
She was born in 1926 at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, the London home of her maternal grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Her father, the Duke of York, was not heir to the throne, but she was still third in line to it, and her birth generated considerable excitement. A newspaper in Australia dubbed her the “world’s most famous baby”, and as she grew up, her activities were the subject of intense public interest. In 1937, a young Jewish girl in Amsterdam received a picture postcard of Princess Elizabeth from her aunt; later, Anne Frank – who was three years the princess’s junior – would pin it to the wall of the annex in which she hid from the Nazis.
By the standards of their time and class, her parents were doting and attentive. Following the birth of their second child, Margaret, the Duke of York would refer to their little family as “us four”, and Elizabeth’s early childhood – in a 25-room mansion in Piccadilly – was a carefree one, said The Daily Telegraph. However, the princesses were largely raised by a nanny, Mrs Knight; there was also a nursemaid, Margaret Macdonald, who would remain in the Queen’s service and became a devoted friend; and later a governess, Marion Crawford, or Crawfie, who stayed with the family for 17 years, but then disgraced herself by writing a book about the princesses. (It was sugary and anodyne, but she was never forgiven.) The girls learnt to ride, shoot and fish; they had only about seven hours of lessons a week, but they made regular trips to museums and galleries, and Princess Elizabeth grew up to be fluent in French.
Something of the Queen’s nature – calm, thoughtful, methodical – seems to have been evident from early on. Visiting Balmoral in 1928, Winston Churchill reported in a letter to his wife that the two-year-old princess was “a character” with “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant”. Later, she was said to have such a developed sense of responsibility, she’d sometimes get out of bed at 3am to check her shoes were polished. King George V was taken with his first grandchild (it was he who nicknamed her Lilibet). As his concerns about the character of her uncle, the Prince of Wales, grew, the king is alleged to have told a courtier: “I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”
In January 1936, the king died, and in December of that year, Edward VIII abdicated. His shy, stammering brother became king, and the family’s relatively private life came to a close. At ten, the princess – who once told a friend that she’d like to live the life of a country lady, surrounded by dogs and horses – was now heir presumptive: with her mother only 37, there remained the possibility of a brother coming along and displacing her in the line of succession. “I will be good,” she told Crawfie, when the implications of the abdication were explained to her. And yet, she was clearly a bit bewildered by the turn of events. “What? Forever?” she exclaimed, on being told that the family would be leaving their home, and moving into the formal surroundings of Buckingham Palace. Later, efforts were made to prepare her for her future duties. Henry Marten, provost of Eton College, taught her constitutional history. She was a diligent student, and from Marten she learnt the technicalities of the monarch’s delicate constitutional role, and its subtleties: as Queen, she would reign, but she would not rule.
She spent much of the War at the blacked-out Windsor Castle, and in 1945, she persuaded her father to let her join the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor learnt to drive, and to strip down an engine. On VE Day, she famously put on her uniform and slipped out, with some Guards officers, into the crowds massing in Park Lane and Piccadilly. It may have been the only time in her life that she mingled unnoticed with ordinary people, said The Guardian. “I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes… all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.”
By then, the princess was in love. She had set her sights on Prince Philip of Greece on a visit to Dartmouth College when she was 13. They exchanged letters; met again; and at some point, he was invited to Windsor. Her parents, however, were anxious about the match: the princess was young, and she had met few other men of her age. In 1947, the king and queen took her off on a three-month tour of South Africa. It was there, on her 21st birthday, that she made the vow that would define her long reign. “There she goes, alone as usual, an extraordinary girl,” noted her father to Field Marshal Smuts. But the princess did not wish to be alone. Her heart was set on her dashing Naval officer, and she and Prince Philip were married in 1947. Churchill spoke for many when he welcomed the royal wedding as a “flash of colour” in austere times.
In the years that followed there was sometimes public speculation that the marriage was in trouble, and it was often rumoured that Philip had been unfaithful; but the union weathered its ups and downs, and royal insiders insisted that although Philip enjoyed the company of women who shared his interests (which were broader than the Queen’s), his love for his wife, and fidelity to her, had never wavered. After his marriage he had written to his mother-in-law to reassure her of his commitment to her daughter. “Cherish Lilibet?” he mused. “I wonder if that word is enough to express what is in me.”
In 1948, Princess Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Charles. The couple then moved to Malta, where Philip had been stationed, leaving the baby in the care of his grandparents. In Malta, the princess enjoyed something akin to an ordinary life – riding, going to dances, exploring the coastline. This happy period proved brief, however. Her father was in poor health, and in 1951 they were summoned back to England. In early 1952, the king was judged well enough for them to leave for a tour of Australia; he saw them off at the airport. But a few days later, he died. The couple were in Kenya when the news came through. They immediately flew home. Arriving at Heathrow, the new Queen came down the steps of the plane a fraction ahead of her husband, to be greeted on the tarmac by a line of eminent figures in black frock coats, led by Churchill, who was too overcome by emotion to speak. The next day, at a meeting at St James’s Palace, she read the formal declaration of sovereignty: “My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than that I shall always work, as my father did…” Afterwards, said The Times, when she was safely back in the car with Philip, “she broke down and sobbed”.
Already acutely aware that her husband would struggle to adjust to the constraints of their new life, she put him in charge of the coronation commission, said Valentine Low in The Times. Soon, she was facing her first major clash between the forces of old and new, over whether TV cameras should be allowed into Westminster Abbey. She sided with the traditionalists: she was concerned about fluffing her lines in front of a worldwide audience, and also felt that parts of the service were too sacred to be broadcast. But news of the decision caused “uproar” in the press. “Let the people see the Queen,” came the demand. Not for the last time, she listened to the public mood, and reacted to it. A compromise was agreed: there would be cameras, but there would be no closeups; and the more sacred rites would not be filmed. The monochrome images were distant and grainy; yet in a country in which fewer than three million households owned TV sets (half a million of which had been bought for the occasion), 27 million people watched the ceremony, along with 100 million more in the US and Canada.
In London, hundreds of thousands of people had gathered in the city for the spectacle, on 2 June 1953. As the day dawned, news broke that Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary had become the first people to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world, prompting the Daily Express’s jubilant headline. “All this – and Everest too!”
Weeks later, leaving Charles and his sister Anne at home, the couple began a six-month, 43,600-mile tour of the Commonwealth. They were greeted by extraordinary crowds. It has been estimated that three-quarters of Australia’s population came out to see the new Queen and her prince. But the tour was gruelling, and there were sporadic complaints that the Queen had looked grumpy. (She did not smile as easily as her mother. “I simply ache from smiling,” she was reported to have said in 1983. “Why are women expected to beam all the time? It’s unfair.”) Over the years, she’d learn that as well as keeping her opinions to herself, a certain consistency of expression was required. There was the dignity of her role to consider; but it was also the case that, were she to seem light-hearted and cheerful on one royal visit, she’d have to keep it up for the next one, or risk upsetting or puzzling people. Yet she knew that her resting expression could be misconstrued. “Oh Philip, do look! I’ve got my Miss Piggy face on,” she is said to have exclaimed, while watching footage of the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981.
The 25-year-old Queen settled quickly into her role, impressing Churchill and others with her dedication to duty and her grasp of matters of state. Yet Churchill’s promise, made in a speech hours after the death of King George VI, that Britain was entering a bright new Elizabethan Age, seemed unconvincing in a country that was contending with the loss of empire, and a diminished status in the world. This was brought to the fore by the Suez Crisis of 1956. Twice in this period the Queen was “swept up” in the Conservative Party’s internal politics, said The Guardian. In 1957, following the resignation of Anthony Eden, many were surprised when – on the advice of party grandees – she called Harold Macmillan to the palace to become prime minister. The expectation had been that Rab Butler would be appointed. Six years later, Macmillan persuaded her that Alec Douglas-Home should replace him, though Butler’s candidacy had been favoured by MPs. It was intimated that the Queen had become embroiled in a stitch-up by the Tory old guard, but if she’d challenged the advice she’d been given, she would have risked accusations of meddling in the party, said Vernon Bogdanor in the same paper. Soon after that, the Tories followed Labour in deciding to elect their leaders when in government.
There were other difficulties, too: in the early 1950s, her sister Margaret had fallen in love with Group Captain Peter Townsend. He was a divorcé, at a time when divorced people were not even allowed into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. The result was a long saga in which it fell to the Queen to warn her sister of the dire consequences of marrying the man she loved. To many, the establishment’s refusal to bend the rules looked cruel and anachronistic (it did not escape attention that Eden, the PM, was himself a divorcé). And as the 1950s wore on – and a mood of deference gave way to Angry Young Men and the age of satire – questions started to grow about the cost and purpose of the monarchy. In 1957, John Osborne referred to the House of Windsor as “a gold filling in a mouthful of decay”.
In the same year, an affable young writer, John Grigg, suggested in a small-circulation journal that the Queen’s upper-class advisers were out of touch, and that she came across as “priggish” in her speeches. News of the article quickly spread in the new TV age, and although Grigg insisted that he’d been trying to be helpful, he was denounced in the press, and punched in the face by a member of the League of Empire Loyalists. If the Queen was hurt by his remarks, she did not show it; and she seems to have absorbed the criticism. Her first televised Christmas message was broadcast that year. “It is inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you,” she said. “Someone whose face may be familiar in newspapers and films, but who never really touches your personal lives. But now, at least for a few minutes, I welcome you to the peace of my own home.”
The practice of debutantes being presented at court came to an end; a broader crosssection of the public was invited to palace garden parties; and in the late 1960s, she even agreed to allow the BBC to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary that showed the family at home and at work. It was watched by 37 million people, before being locked away in the BBC archives: the Queen had concluded that it was too intrusive; it had risked, in the words of Walter Bagehot, letting too much “daylight in upon magic”. Television would be reserved for official occasions: Charles’s investiture as the Prince of Wales, at Caernarfon Castle in 1969, was a dazzling display organised with colour TV in mind. Meanwhile, traditions continued to evolve, as the social strata from which the Queen’s courtiers were recruited changed too: in the last few years of her life, one of her closest aides and confidantes was Angela Kelly, a Liverpudlian whose father had worked as a docker.
Although the Queen’s judgement was considered largely unerring, there were missteps. In 1966, 116 children and 28 adults were killed in the small mining village of Aberfan, when a colliery spoil tip collapsed onto a primary school. The prime minister, Harold Wilson, and Prince Philip arrived at the scene the next day, but the Queen waited eight days before visiting. She’d been advised that her visit would disrupt rescue efforts (and some villagers later said that they felt she’d been right to hold off); it is said that she’d also been worried that, faced with the enormity of the tragedy, she would be unable to maintain her composure. Her initial reaction to the Aberfan disaster is understood to have been one of her greatest regrets. On her visit, she told local people that she’d return, to open a new school when it was built, and she kept her word: she visited Aberfan four times in total, the last in 2012, to open another new school. Typically, she took a keen interest in her itinerary for that visit. Having decided that the children would like to see the royal car and the royal helicopter, she’d opted to arrive by road, and leave by air. On the day, the ground was wet, and she was advised to cancel the helicopter, but she was immovable: “No, I want the children to see the helicopter.”
In 1977, there were street parties up and down the country to mark her silver jubilee; it was from then that another innovation – the royal “walkabout” – became an increasing feature of her reign. In a difficult decade, large swathes of the British public were still able to unite around the throne, while ministers crowed about the hundreds of millions in tourist revenue they could expect the celebrations to generate. Four years later, the extraordinary pomp and spectacle that accompanied the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer brought yet more tourists to the UK. That wedding was watched on television by a global audience of 750 million. The early 1990s, however, were marred by unprecedented public scandals: the collapse of Prince Charles’s marriage to Diana was painful, and led to mortifying revelations in the tabloid press about their extra-marital affairs. In the same year, Prince Andrew separated from his wife Sarah Ferguson, and Princess Anne’s marriage also ended, though more quietly. Then, a devastating fire at Windsor Castle was followed by an angry public debate about who’d pay for the restoration. The Queen eventually decided that most of the cost would be covered by opening up Buckingham Palace to the paying public. In a speech at the Guildhall, she referred to 1992 as her “annus horribilis”.
Five years later came the second major misstep of her reign, when, following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, she stayed at Balmoral with Princes William and Harry. She felt that her first duty was to her grandsons, but a febrile atmosphere was developing in the country. “Show us you care,” screamed the papers. The Queen duly did. In a departure from protocol, the Union flag was flown at half-mast over Buckingham Palace; she gave a moving televised address about Diana; and visited Buckingham Palace to examine the huge mound of flowers that had been left at its gates. There, a young girl handed her a small bouquet. “Would you like me to lay it down with the others,” the Queen asked. “No,” replied the girl. “It’s for you.” The Queen carried on with her public duties, and in time, the dust settled. Her husband had predicted that the public would love her most in her old age, and so it proved.
As the Queen’s hair turned first grey, then white, people speculated that she might abdicate in favour of Prince Charles, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. But not only did she have a “heroic sense of duty”, and a firm belief that she was doing the job she’d been chosen by God to do, she had also started to relish her position. “People don’t understand,” her private secretary once told me. “She likes being Queen.”
In 2002, there were concerns that her golden jubilee would be a flop: they proved unfounded. A decade later, on her diamond jubilee, she and Philip, aged 86 and 90 respectively, stood in the rain for fours hours during a pageant on the River Thames – and the public was reminded of the fortitude with which they were still carrying out their royal duties. Philip officially retired in 2017, and went to live in a house on the Sandringham estate, where the Queen joined him whenever possible. But Covid lockdowns saw them reunited in a bubble at Windsor Castle. His death, last April, deprived the Queen of the man she’d described as her “strength and stay”, and was met by an outpouring of affection that took even the royal family by surprise.
She spent this summer at her beloved Balmoral, and it was here that she performed her last official duty, welcoming Liz Truss as her 15th Prime Minister. Perhaps, with this last loose end of her reign tied up, Britain’s longest-serving monarch felt she could let go, said The Sunday Times. She died as she had lived – a simple countrywoman, who was also the Queen.