Queen Elizabeth II, who died last month, was the longest-serving monarch in British history, finally accumulating an incredible seventy years on the throne. Yet Elizabeth was never actually expected to become queen! When she was born in 1926, she was third in line to the throne. However, when her uncle, King Edward VIII, unexpectedly abdicated in 1936, her father became monarch as King George VI. Elizabeth then ascended the throne when her father died on 6 February, 1952, aged just fifty-six. She was crowned Queen on 2 June, 1953, in Westminster Abbey.
Elizabeth II is generally considered to have been a highly effective monarch, with some considerable achievements. There were also, inevitably, some mistakes. One of her greatest achievements was something completely intangible: all these years she was a safe harbou for millions of people, someone that was always there in an ever-changing world. Her attitude was apolitical, so she rarely divided the country.
Elizabeth II took her public work extremely seriously. For most of her life she carried out more than four hundred public engagements every year. She was also the patron of more than six hundred British charities and organisations, and helped raise almost £1.5 billion, mostly for charities trying to reduce poverty.
The Queen also improved and modernised the monarchy’s public image. She made the royal family more approachable. In 1969, the Queen permitted a TV crew to follow her and her family for two months. The two-hour documentary, The Royal Family, showed the royals as a family for the first time. The Queen, however, quickly regretted her decision. The documentary affected the mystery and glamour of the monarchy, and possibly facilitated the invasive tabloid coverage of recent decades.
The Queen gave few interviews during her reign, but she was determined to see the public. In 1970, during a royal tour of Australia, she ignored centuries of tradition and took a casual stroll —a walkabout— among the crowds. This became a regular practice in the royal family. The Queen was also determined to keep up to date with changes in technology. In 1976, she was the first monarch to send an email. Twenty-one years later, she launched a website detailing her charitable activities and the work of the royal family. She was also quick to use Twitter and Instagram.
The Queen was a Head of State but not a Head of Government. She personified soft power. During her reign she became the world’s most powerful figurehead, using her superpower — royal glue — to preside over the transformation from a British Empire, covering 25 per cent of the world, to a voluntary association of sovereign nations, the Commonwealth, currently comprising fifty-four states in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. The Commonwealth promotes socio-economic and cultural ties. Throughout her reign, the Queen supported racial equality and advancement.
Elizabeth II also used her soft power in the recent attempts to heal the long, bloody relationship between England and Ireland, which reached a violent climax last century with decades-long acts of horrific terrorist violence. These were mostly ended by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The Queen also played her role when she made the first monarch’s visit to Ireland in 2011. She reset relations between the two countries simply by showing respect to those who had died fighting England. The Queen was also the first British monarch to address Congress, in 1991, more than two hundred years after the US won independence from British government.
The Queen also made some important changes at home during her reign. Through the Crown Act, 2013, she made the succession more equitable. The Act ended centuries of history of the eldest son being the heir to the throne even if he had an older sister. It also allowed the monarch to marry a Catholic. In addition, Elizabeth II reformed the monarchy’s finances, responding to public criticism of the expenses of the royal family. In the 1990s, the Queen began to pay taxes on royal income which had been exempt for years.
During the Queen’s long reign, there were, of course, mistakes. The Royal Family documentary affected the mystery of the monarchy. Three years earlier, however, Elizabeth II made what she considered her worst mistake. In 1966, 116 children and twenty-eight adults died in a coal mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales. The Queen delayed her visit for a week, possibly thinking her presence would affect the rescue efforts. She appeared heartless. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, was also handled badly. The Queen misjudged the public mood, refusing to allow the national flag to fly at half mast over Buckingham Palace. Realising her mistake, she gave a rare televised address about the People’s Princess ... and the flag appeared, on the day of the funeral. In recent times a perhaps yet more shocking scandal emerged, with serious sexual misconduct allegations against Prince Andrew, the Queen’s favourite son.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the world has lost one of its most recognised and popular figures. During her reign, the monarch served as Britain’s most important symbol of national identity and pride. One thing is clear: the new King will have some very big shoes to fill!
15 facts about the queen
1. During the Second World War, the Queen trained as an auto mechanic while serving in the (Women’s) Auxiliary Territorial Service. This started a lifelong love of cars and mechanical work.
2. Her financial and property holdings made her one of the world’s richest women.
3. Her favourite dog was the corgi. She owned more than thirty. She invented a new breed of dog when one of her corgis mated with a dachshund belonging to her sister, Princess Margaret, creating the ‘dorgi’.
4. She was the only person in Britain allowed to drive without a licence.
5. One of her favourite hobbies was keeping racehorses. She attended races and visited stud farms in Kentucky, US.
6. She also loved pigeon racing, reading mysteries, doing crossword puzzles, watching wrestling on TV, and supporting Arsenal Football Club.
7. She became a homeowner at the age of just six, when the people of Wales gifted her a house in the grounds of Windsor’s Royal Lodge.
8. She answered 3.5 million items of correspondence and sent more than 175,000 telegrams of congratulations to centenarians in the UK and the Commonwealth.
9. She sent out more than fifty thousand Christmas cards and gave ninety thousand Christmas puddings to her staff.
10. The Queen owned an elephant, two giant turtles, a jaguar and a pair of sloths, all presents from other countries, which lived in London Zoo.
11. She used ration coupons (introduced in World War Two) to buy material for her wedding dress for the ceremony in November 1947.
12. She received many unusual gifts during her travels around the world, including cowboy boots, sunglasses, pineapples and seven kilos of prawns.
13. Elizabeth II launched or named twenty-three cruise ships during her lifetime.
14. The site of her birthplace in Mayfair, London (17 Bruton Street), is now a trendy Cantonese restaurant, called Hakkasan.
15. She had two birthdays: her actual birthday on April 21, and her official one in June.