“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,” Elizabeth Alexandra Mary told the people of Great Britain and her colonies on April 21, 1947, in a radio broadcast from South Africa’s Cape Town, the day she turned 21.
She did not know that in five years, her father, the King of England, would die and the crown would pass to her, and her Cape Town declaration would define the remainder of her life.
To her word, Queen Elizabeth, until the age 96, lived exactly as she said she would: As a monarch of the people for the people.
While she was one of the last born to a classic age of European royalty, when kings and queens wielded genuine political power, her transition into the role of a symbolic figurehead of state was almost seamless, winning the admiration of the world as she displayed the highest level of decorum and discipline required of her office — qualities conspicuously often missing in today’s young royals, including her own children.
The breadth of her rule and its evolution in her 70 years as Queen Elizabeth II — there were more than 70 colonies under the British empire when she ascended the throne and just 14 at her death on Sept 8, 2022 — saw her struggling to maintain her relevancy without overstating it. Her goal was to be wherever her subjects needed her. Yet, she did not seek any glory for herself, only that of the crown. She never gave one media interview in her seven decades of rule, not even to BBC. But she was easily the planet’s most recognizable person. You just had to say “Queen” to someone and the response would be: “Elizabeth?”
Few other monarchs had a following and space in popular culture like her. There was a ship named after her — QE II, a retired British ocean liner that had been converted into a floating hotel. She even had a signature wave — a slow, controlled movement designed to prevent wrist ache but was deemed so regal and classy that it at once became known as the “Queen Elizabeth Wave”. And she was “cool” enough to the young ones, that a 14-year-old boy jumped unannounced in front of her to snap a selfie with Her Majesty during her visit to Belfast, Ireland in 2014.
Simply known as ‘Queen E’ to many — with the letter E needing no introduction — she was a monarch who “captivated the world” with a “reign defined by grace, elegance and a tireless work ethic”, said former US president Barack Obama.
“Time and again, we were struck by her warmth, the way she put people at ease, and how she brought her considerable humor and charm to moments of great pomp and circumstance,” said the 44th president of the United States, who with his wife Michele, had met her Highness on several occasions. For better context, the Queen had met a total of 13 US presidents during her reign. Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden, himself the 46th US president, said Queen E was “more than a monarch – she defined an era”.
It was an era that began in 1926, when she was born as the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York.
But she didn’t become heir presumptive to the throne until 1937, when her father was crowned King George VI after the scandalous abdication of his older brother — events dramatized in the Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech” and hit Netflix show “The Crown.”
As World War II erupted, Elizabeth was quietly groomed for statehood.
While living out the Blitz on London in nearby Windsor Castle, she was privately tutored in matters of constitution by Henry Marten, an eccentric yet respected teacher who reputedly kept a pet raven in his study.
She began taking tentative steps into public life in 1940 when, aged 14, she made her first radio broadcast: a speech to children displaced by the conflict. At 16, she was made an honorary colonel of the Grenadier Guards, a British army infantry regiment.
Wartime offered her certain freedoms beyond the traditional constraints of royal life.
In 1945 she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and spent four weeks getting her hands covered in oil and grease as she learned to drive and maintain military vehicles.
When victory was declared in Europe, a uniformed Elizabeth mingled with jubilant crowds outside Buckingham Palace.
Peacetime brought the return of Lieutenant Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, a handsome young naval officer who had, by all accounts, won her heart when she was just 13. The pair married in Westminster Abbey in 1947. Their first son, Charles, was born just over a year later.
The Joy of Early Queenhood … And The Pain of Late Years
With her father’s health in rapid decline, Elizabeth began accepting more official duties, taking his place at the annual “Trooping the Colour” military parade in 1949.
In 1952, while Elizabeth and Philip were on an official trip to Kenya, news came of her father’s death.
Overnight, she had become Queen. It was a job that she never wanted — one she was pulled into kicking and screaming, if her heart was to be read correctly, and one she only accepted out of duty to her late father, the House of Windsor and its subjects across the world. Yet, once installed, it was a job she performed so well that the word Queen became synonymous with her, winning her almost universal praise as she put duty and her subjects above self.
Queen E’s reign would see Britain transform from a war-weary declining imperial power into a modern multicultural state that rarely looked to its monarch for leadership, but still held her in high esteem.
And while her queenship witnessed its fair share of joy — not least the 2011 marriage of her grandson Prince William to Catherine Middleton, and the birth of their three children — Elizabeth’s rule also weathered many storms, both public and personal, as the monarchy tried to keep pace with changing times.
The 1997 death of her divorced daughter-in-law Princess Diana was possibly the single greatest stain on the legacy of the Queen. Some Britons still blame the Queen for allegedly colluding with her son Prince Charles to end his marriage with Diana, whose beauty and charm had mesmerized the world and whose sad end in a Paris car crash arguably made her as popular or more beloved than the Queen herself.
The abrupt departure from Buckingham Palace by her younger grandson Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle in 2020 — and their abdication of royal duties — was probably another episode the Queen wished never happened. Even worse would be the memories of her youngest son Andrew being sued in a US court on charges of sexually assaulting an underage girl — an infraction of palace decorum serious enough for the Queen to strip him of his military and royal duties, roles and titles until the case was settled out of court.
An Era That Began With Pomp and Pageantry
Queen E’s first decade saw the young monarch settle into her role. After her coronation in 1953, she embarked on numerous official trips, oversaw state openings of parliament, welcomed visiting leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, and toured a coal mine.
In 1964, the Queen became a mother for the fourth time as new son Edward joined Charles and fellow siblings Anne and Andrew. There was, however, barely any let-up in her busy schedule.
By the arrival of her third decade on the throne, she was in her element. Prince Charles was embarking on a military career, Princess Anne, an acclaimed horsewoman, was married — drawing huge crowds of well-wishers.
While indulging in her own equestrian pursuits, she continued to throw herself into public life, clocking up dozens of overseas tours and official visits around the UK — one of which, in 1976, saw her become one of the first people to send an email.
There were family problems when her sister’s marriage collapsed, and constitutional issues as debate grew among Commonwealth countries about the role of the monarch, but these failed to dampen celebrations to mark the silver jubilee of her reign in 1977.
Another royal wedding followed in 1981 when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Millions of people around the world watched the ceremony on television, happily unaware it would usher in the most turbulent period yet of the Queen’s life.
Divorce, Fire and Diana’s death
The Queen’s 40th year on the throne, 1992, marked her lowest moment as three royal marriages fell apart. Princess Anne and Mark Philips divorced, Charles and Diana separated after claims of infidelity while Sarah Ferguson, Prince Andrew’s wife, was photographed topless with an American financial manager.
To cap it all, a huge fire ripped through Windsor Castle, causing major structural damage. In the wake of the blaze, a furor broke out when it was suggested that public money be used to fund the restoration.
This year was not one “on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” the Queen said in a speech later. “In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”
These problems overshadowed the Queen as she made an historic visit to meet South African President Nelson Mandela in 1995, but criticism reached new heights in the wake of Diana’s tragic death in 1997, when the royals were accused of being aloof and out of touch amid widespread public outpourings of grief.
This marked a turning point.
After days of silence, the Queen returned to London, talked to mourners and admitted there were lessons to be learned from Diana’s life. The gestures struck a chord with the public and criticism ebbed away.
After Diana, the Queen’s popularity rebounded as she presided over what appeared to be a softer, more accessible and thoroughly modern royal family.
This was evident in 2005 when, to public approval, she assented to the previously unthinkable marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. It was capped eight years later when Britain’s parliament ended the principle of men taking precedence over women in the line of succession to the throne. Charles would ascend the throne as King after her, while Camilla becomes “Queen Consort”.
She witnessed two of her grandsons, Princes William and Harry, graduate as military officers in 2006 and five years later oversaw the marriage of William and Catherine, the woman who — as the wife of the now heir to the throne — will one day succeed her as Britain’s Queen. She also attended the wedding of Harry to Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel, Windsor in May 2018.
In 2012, the Queen’s diamond jubilee was celebrated around the Commonwealth, culminating in a glittering river pageant on the Thames in London, and a concert showcasing some of the best music from her six decades on the throne.
Three years later, she surpassed Queen Victoria’s 63-year-rule to become the longest-reigning British monarch and, in 2016, she marked her 90th birthday with a series of festivities and goodwill messages from around the world.
In February 2022, she marked the start of her platinum jubilee year, as she became the first British monarch to reign for 70 years.
The Queen’s final years were punctuated by challenges as well as celebrations, however.
As the novel coronavirus swept through Britain in 2020, she gave two televised addresses in quick succession, one calling for unity in the face of the pandemic and the other, still amid a national lockdown, to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
But while rallying the nation’s spirits, the Queen was facing upheaval within her own family. Less than two years after their spectacular Windsor Castle wedding, Harry and Meghan announced that they were stepping back from their roles as senior royals and leaving Britain.
They subsequently set up home with son Archie in California and, in a March 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey, accused “the firm” of leaving Meghan unprotected against racist abuse and unfair media coverage, as well as having neglected her mental health concerns. The couple — whose daughter Lilibet, named in honor of the Queen, was born in June 2021 — also made a damaging allegation of racism by an unnamed member of the royal family, although Winfrey later said they had clarified that this was neither the Queen nor Prince Philip.
Meanwhile, Prince Andrew, often referred to as the Queen’s “favorite son,” had been forced to step back from public duties after a disastrous 2019 interview with the BBC over his association with prominent sex offender and disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. In January 2022, the Queen sought to distance the royal institution from a civil sex abuse lawsuit brought against Andrew in the United States by stripping him of his HRH status and royal patronages permanently. He subsequently settled the case out of court for an undisclosed figure and continues to reject the allegations against him.
In April 2021, the Queen suffered the loss of Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years and the longest-serving consort in British history. Pandemic restrictions meant she cut a lonely figure at his funeral, scaled back in terms of guests but still marked with military pomp.
Elizabeth returned to her royal duties within days, now a widow but still dedicated to a lifetime of service. She even continued with light duties after testing positive for Covid-19 in February 2022.
But as the year wore on, the monarch was forced to significantly slim down her diary due to mobility issues. On Tuesday, she met with outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his successor, Liz Truss, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, rather than traveling to Buckingham Palace to do so.
The nation had come together to mark her platinum jubilee in June 2022 — a crowning achievement in a long and storied life.
By the time of her death, she had proven to be a constant, if regally distant, presence in the lives of several generations of Britons.