Throughout her 60-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has witnessed monumental change, leading post-war Britain into a new era and serving her people with unwavering dedication, writes Victoria Murphy
It is more than 60 years since Princess Elizabeth woke up in the wilds of Kenya to discover she was Queen. The exact moment of her accession is not known but her father King George VI died peacefully in his sleep between 5 and 6 February 1952. Aged just 25 and a young wife and mother, Elizabeth inherited the huge responsibility for the crown. Today, her reign has lasted so long most people cannot remember what the country was like before she was crowned Queen.
In stark contrast to today’s 24-hour communication, the princess did not hear of her father’s death for several hours as the news filtered slowly round the globe. A new Queen, to be greeted by Winston Churchill – the first of her many prime ministers to come.
A momentous era
During her reign Britain has seen huge social and political change, fought wars, survived economic boom and bust and undergone a technological revolution. No-one has observed these changes more acutely than the Queen as she travels the length and breadth of the country, visiting families in their homes and communities.
A mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, the Queen continues to secure a place in the hearts of generations of Britons. Shortly after her coronation, Elizabeth and husband Philip went on a six-month Commonwealth tour, travelling a total of 43, 618 miles. It was a resounding success, but back home the Queen soon faced tough problems.
In 1955 debate raged about whether her sister Margaret should be allowed to marry lover Peter Townsend – an unthinkable act then because he was divorced. The Queen was powerless to help Margaret, who was eventually forced to publicly renounce her love. She eventually put her heartbreak behind her to marry Antony Armstrong Jones in 1960 although, ironically, their marriage ended in divorce.
The Queen also had the nation’s problems to think about, and in 1956 the country was plunged into the Suez crisis, when Britain was condemned at the UN for joining France in bombing Egypt. That Christmas Elizabeth reflected: “Deep and acute differences, involving both intellect and emotion, are bound to arise between members of a family and also between friend and friend, and there is neither virtue nor value in pretending they do not.” That year was also the first time she spent Christmas without Philip, who was on a lone Commonwealth tour. His voyage sparked speculation of a rift – something denied by palace courtiers. When they were reunited in February 1957 Philip wore a tie with hearts on.
By the 1960s the once majestic British Empire was almost defunct – between 1945 and 1965 the number of people under British rule fell from 700 million to five million. But in its place the Commonwealth was booming, and the Queen was celebrated worldwide as she tirelessly carried out hundreds of engagements.
Her family expanded with the births of Andrew and Edward in 1960 and 1964 respectively, and she became the first monarch to visit Germany for 52 years in 1965. The day England won the 1966 World Cup remains one of the greatest in the country’s history and the Queen was at the heart of the celebrations among 93,000 faces in Wembley Stadium. But just three months later, she joined her people in great sorrow to tour Welsh mining town Aberfan where 116 children and 28 adults died when a coal tip slid down the mountain. Viewing the crushed homes, she had received a poignant card from “the remaining children of Aberfan”.
As she entered her forties, the Queen’s children were also becoming adults, and in 1969 she crowned Charles the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle. That year Royal Family, a special fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary, was televised, giving the public behind-the-scenes access to the palace. It was hugely popular, with two thirds of British people tuning in to watch.
A new era of celebrating the ‘ordinariness’ of the royals began, and in 1970 this was taken a step further with the inclusion of a ‘walkabout’ during a visit to Australia. It is now a staple part of royal visits, but Princess Anne later admitted she hated walkabouts, saying: “A 19-year-old suddenly being dropped in the middle of the street and being told to go and pick on someone and talk to them. Fun? I don’t think so.” The Queen’s only daughter soon became known for her no-nonsense attitude as well as her formidable horse-riding skills. In 1971, the same year the government launched a decimal currency, Anne was crowned European Champion at three-day eventing and won BBC Sports Personality of the Year. She married Mark Phillips in 1973.
At her 1977 Silver Jubilee, the Queen said: “When I was 21 I pledged my life to the service of our people and I asked for God’s help to make good that vow. Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgement, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”
Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979 and for the first time two women were at its helm. Soon after, Prince Charles announced his engagement to 19-year-old Diana Spencer, and the young girl from Norfolk generated unprecedented interest. Their wedding at St Paul’s Cathedral on 29 July 1981 saw Diana achieve worldwide adulation as they became the first royals to kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony. Less than a year later the Queen’s most famous grandchild, William, was born, shortly followed by brother Harry.
In 1982 the Queen waved off son Andrew to fight in the Falklands war following Argentina’s invasion of the British territory. And a bizarre incident also catapulted her into the spotlight that year when she woke up in Buckingham Palace to find intruder Michael Fagan at the end of her bed.
Two years later the Queen led D-Day 40th anniversary celebrations in Normandy, saying that Christmas: “For me, perhaps the most lasting impression was one of thankfulness that the 40 intervening years have been ones of comparative peace.”
But rocky times lay ahead as her children’s marriages broke down. Charles and Diana were barely out of the headlines, Anne separated from Mark Phillips and Andrew’s 1986 marriage to Sarah Ferguson was in trouble as early as 1990. In 1992 disaster after disaster struck. Andrew and Fergie separated, Anne and Mark divorced, and Charles and Diana’s unhappy relationship hit rock bottom with publication of bombshell book Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton. And in November things went up in smoke when the Queen’s beloved Windsor Castle caught fire. On the 40th anniversary of her accession to the thrown she infamously described the year as an “annus horribilis”.
In the nineties communication rapidly expanded, with internet and mobile phones becoming staple parts of homes and workplaces. History was made in 1995 when the Queen visited post-apartheid South Africa after Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president. But problems simmering at home came back with a vengeance when Diana gave a damning interview to the BBC’s Panorama. It was the final straw for the Queen who asked Charles and Diana to divorce.
A year later the country’s relationship with its government was overhauled when Labour’s Tony Blair became prime minister after 18 years of Conservative rule. But in August 1997 devastation struck when Diana was killed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Her sudden death rocked Britain to its core, and the Queen’s failure to make an announcement soon sparked a backlash. “Your people are suffering, speak to us Ma’am”, said the Daily Mirror newspaper.
On 6 September more than a million people lined the streets to watch Diana’s coffin process through London with sons Harry, 12, and William, 15, following behind. On the eve of the funeral the Queen said: “What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart… I want to pay tribute to Diana myself.”
Queen Mother’s 100 Birthday
The next few years were difficult for the royals but the Queen’s devotion to duty never wavered. In August 2000 there was an outpouring of affection for the Queen Mother when thousands took to the streets for her 100th birthday. As Britain entered the new millennium, with exciting developments came new challenges and threats.
Queen’s Golden Jubilee
The Golden Jubilee was a time of celebration, but 2002 began with tragedy for the Queen when her sister and mother died within weeks of each other. It was a devastating time but she put duty first and channelled her energies into the success of the Jubilee. And soon after Prince Charles married the woman he wants by his side when he becomes King, Camilla Parker Bowles. Their April 2005 wedding came 30 years after their romance began, and the Queen said: “My son is home and dry with the woman he loves.” Theirs was a fairly low-key event, but in 2011 an audience of two billion watched Prince William marry Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey in a display of pomp and circumstance at its best. Sealing the future of the monarchy with two balcony kisses, the couple captivated the world with their fairytale romance.
Britain’s longest reigning monarch
On the 60th anniversary of her accession the Queen dedicated herself once more to her country, declaring: “I hope also that this Jubilee year will be a time to give thanks for the great advances that have been made since 1952 and to look forward to the future with a clear head and warm heart.”
And then on 9 September 2015 she surpassed the reign of her great-great-grandmother Victoria to become the longest reigning British Monarch.