|The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Photos from Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons.|
Like Elizabeth I of England’s Golden Age, Elizabeth II came to the throne when she was 26 years old. “A fair and youthful figure,” said Winston Churchill, “princess, wife, and mother, is heir to all our traditions and glories.” The young queen had already won the affection of the British people by her charm and thoughtfulness, her modesty and simple dignity. On her 21st birthday she had broadcast from South Africa: “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 the great imperial family to which we belong.”
Elizabeth’s father was Albert, Duke of York, second son of George V, who would later ascend the throne as George VI. Her mother was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the ninth child and youngest daughter of Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorn, and Miss Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck.
Princess Elizabeth was born April 21, 1926, at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, the London home of Lord and Lady Strathmore. Five weeks later she was baptized at Buckingham Palace and christened Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, after three queens of her country, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Alexandra, and Queen Mary, her grandmother. She was four years old when her sister, Margaret Rose, was born (August 21, 1930). In spite of the difference in their ages, the princesses became close companions. Margaret Rose was lively and mischievous; Elizabeth, rather serious and thoughtful.
Childhood of the Little Princesses
|The christening of Princess Elizabeth of York. Image source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.|
The family’s London home was a large Victorian house at 145 Piccadilly. Summer vacations were usually spent in Scotland and weekends at the Duke’s country house, Royal Lodge, in Windsor Great Park, 25 miles west of London. Here the children had a playhouse, a gift of the people of Wales. Its name was “Y Bwthyn Bach,” or The Little Thatched House. It was complete with small furniture, linens, electric lights, plumbing, and windows that opened and shut. Since only children could stand up in it, the princesses themselves cleaned it and kept it in order.
The little princesses did not go to school but were taught by a governess, Miss Marion Crawford, a Scottish woman. Their daily routine varied little from day to day. Elizabeth, at the age of five, rose at six o’clock and went out for riding lesson with a groom. After breakfast, she and her sister went to their parent’s room. They spent the rest of the morning with their governess. After lunch they had lesson in French, voice, and piano. In the afternoon they played in the garden, usually with their governess. They would become so absorbed in their games of hide-and-seek or “sardines” that they seldom noticed people who would gather outside the garden and fence to watch them. They rarely had the company of other children, but they had many pets, particularly horses and dogs. Occasionally their governess would give them a special treat by taking them for a ride in the Underground (subway) or on top of a bus. They dresses simply, in cotton dresses at home and in tweed coats and berets when they went out. They went to bed early, after a visit with their parents.
Heiress to the Throne at the Age of Ten
Elizabeth’s carefree days ended in 1936. George V, her grandfather, died early in that year, and before the year ended her Uncle David (Edward VIII) abdicated. Elizabeth’s father then became king, as George VI, and Elizabeth became heiress presumptive to the throne. The family moved into Buckingham Palace, the royal residence, which was more like a museum than a house. From the princesses’ rooms, in the front, it was a five-minute walk to the garden in the rear.
From this time, Elizabeth began to be trained for her future duties. From her parents and her grandmother, Queen Mary, she learned court etiquette and diplomatic practices. She studied the geography and history of the Commonwealth countries and the United States and was driven to Eton College for private lessons in the constitutional law. She disliked arithmetic, and Queen Mary decided she would have little use of it.
Elizabeth was 13 when the Second World War broke out (1939). The next year bombs began to fall on London and the princesses were sent for safety to the grim fortress of Windsor Castle. On Oct. 13, 1940, Elizabeth returned to London to make her first broadcast, from a room in Buckingham Palace. In a clear confident voice she told children everywhere that the children of Britain were “full of cheerfulness and courage.” Before the war ended, she joined the women’s branch of the army and took training as an automobile driver and mechanic.
Elizabeth had the privilege, often denied to royalty, of marrying a man she loved. During the war she met Prince Philip, a blonde, handsome officer in the royal navy. Philip was born June 10, 1921, on the Greek island of Corfu. As a son of Prince Andrew of Greece, he was in line for the Greek throne; but he had no Greek blood. Through his mother, Princess Alice, he was descended, like Elizabeth, from Queen Victoria of England. He had been educated in Scotland under the care of his uncle and guardian, Earl Mountbatten.
As soon as the war ended, Philip became a frequent visitor at the palace, coming in, the governess said, “like a refreshing sea breeze.” Before the king announced the betrothal of the young couple, Philip dropped his title of prince to become a British citizen and took his mother’s family name, Mountbatten. The king then created him Duke of Edinburgh. On November 20, 1947, the young couples were married at Westminster Abbey. A son, Prince Charles Philip, was born November 14, 1948, and a daughter, Princess Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise, on August 14, 1950. Prince Andrew followed in 1960 and Prince Edward, 1964.
Elizabeth is Proclaimed Queen
Even before she became queen, Elizabeth served the government as a skilled ambassador. In 1948 she visited Paris and was acclaimed by the French people. In 1951 she and her husband made a six weeks’ tour of all the provinces of Canada and then flew to Washington, D.C. (Oct. 31), for a brief visit with President and Mrs. Truman at Blair House.
The royal couple were just beginning a five-month tour of the Commonwealth countries that was to have taken them to Ceylon, Australia, and New Zealand, when George VI died (Feb. 6, 1952). Elizabeth automatically became Queen. She and her husband were in Kenya, East Africa, when they received the news. They flew to London, and on February 8 the queen took the oath of accession before the Privy Council.
The brilliant pageant of the coronation took place June 2, 1953. More than a million cheering people lined the five-mile route of the royal procession to Westminster Abbey. In a long and solemn ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed the queen on her hands, breast, and head. Then the regalia of her authority were brought to her. Finally the Archbishop placed on her head King Edward’s crown. She was crowned queen not only of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but of the independent states of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, Ceylon, and about 50 other lands.
With Elizabeth's accession, it seemed probable that the royal house would eventually be known as the House of Mountbatten, in line with the tradition that the wife should take her husband’s name upon marriage. However, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Elizabeth's grandmother, Queen Mary, preferred if the House of Windsor be retained. However, in 1960, with Queen Mary dead and Churchill resigned from office, the Queen announced that her male-line descendants who do not carry royal titles should carry the name Mountbatten-Windsor.
The Commonwealth and Its Evolution
By the time of her accession in 1952, Queen Elizabeth’s position as head of multiple independent states was already established.From 1953 until 1954, the Queen and Prince Philip went on a six-month tour around the world. She was the first reigning sovereign to have stepped foot in Australia and New Zealand where she was welcomed by immense crowd. It was estimated that over three-quarters Australians were able to have personally seen her. To this day, Queen Elizabeth II is the world’s most travelled head of state.
In 1957, she became the first sovereign to personally open the Parliament in Canada. She also visited the United States, where she spoke before the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of the Commonwealth.
In 1961, she toured Cyprus, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Iran.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the independence of Britain’s extensive colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. More 20 territories proclaimed independence from Britain as part of the post-war plan to grant these countries self-government.
In 1977, celebrations were held in commemoration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Parties and events took place throughout the Commonwealth, majority of which coincided with her tours. The outpouring love and support only served to reaffirm her subjects’ loyalty and the Queen’s unwavering popularity.
The 1980s saw the changing attitude of the public and the press towards the Royal Family. The private lives of the members of the Royal Family came under immense scrutiny, culminating to a series of sensational stories in the press, although some of them were actually not true. In 1981, her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, married Lady Diana Spencer, youngest daughter of the Earl Spencer. Their wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral was dubbed as the wedding of the century and was watched by millions of people around the world. The Princess became an instant hit among the crowd and transformed the image of the Royal Family. Their marriage produced two sons: Prince William (born 1982) and Prince Henry (born 1984).
The 1990s was a trying decade for the Queen’s reign.
In 1991, while on a visit to the U.S. she made history as the first British sovereign to address the joint session of the United States Congress.
1992 saw the Queen’s fortieth year on the throne but there was no reason to celebrate as personal setbacks marred the year.
In her speech, she called 1992 as annus horribilis, a year that she would not want to look back to.In March, the marriage of her second son Prince Andrew, Duke of York, with his wife Sarah, Duchess of York, ended in a separation (they were divorced in 1996). The following month, her daughter, Princess Anne ended her marriage with Captain Mark Phillips in a divorce. In October, angry protesters in Dresden, Germany, threw eggs at her. The following month, Windsor Castle went on fire. The issue as to who should shoulder the cost of repairing the castle placed the monarchy under direct criticism and public scrutiny. In December, it was announced that Prince and his wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, had separated.
1997 was another trying year for the Queen. In 1996, the Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales were divorced. On August 31, 1997, while eluding the paparazzi in Paris, Diana and her boyfriend, Harrod’s heir Dodi Fayed died in a car crash. Queen Elizabeth was then enjoying a holiday at Balmoral when news broke of the Princess’ death. However, the Royal Family, particularly the Queen, was criticized for not sympathizing with the public. Pressures from public outcry of seclusion compelled the Queen to appear on a live broadcast where she expressed her admiration for Diana and her feelings "as a grandmother" for Princes William and Harry. The Queen’s act eventually caused public hostility to subside.
In 2002, Princess Margaret died in February. In March, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother died. The two deaths in the Royal Family, however, did not dampen the celebrations of her Golden Jubilee. The festivities were capped by the Queen’s extensive tour of her realms.
The three-day Jubilee celebrations in London welcomed a million people each day, a testimony of the public’s never-ending love for the Queen. The number was surpassed any estimates made by the press.
Diamond Jubilee and Beyond
In 2012, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. Other than her, only two other monarchs managed to reach 60 years on the throne: King George III and Queen Victoria.
On her Accession Day message, she said: "In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighbourliness ... 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 clear head and warm heart.”
The lighting of Jubilee beacons on June 4 around the world highlighted the celebrations.
Together with Prince Philip, she embarked on an extensive tour of the United Kingdom. Her children and grandchildren, meanwhile, touredthe Commonwealth realms.
On December 18, 2012, the Queen achieved another milestone after becoming the first British sovereign since George III in 1781 to attend a peace-time Cabinet.
While her contemporaries, including Spain’s King Juan Carlos, Netherland’s Queen Beatrix and Belgium’s King Albert, have already abdicated in favor of their children, Queen Elizabeth II made it know that dhe does not intend to abdicate, although much of the Sovereign's duties have already been handled to Prince Charles as the Queen reduces her commitments.