Long did Queen Elizabeth II reign as the sympathetic voice for her people

Seventy years ago, the queen promised to devote her entire life to service, and no one has ever had cause to doubt it

Queen Elizabeth II at the 300th anniversary service of St Paul's Cathedral, in June 2011. Getty Images
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As so often through the decades of her long reign, it was her quiet dignity and obvious sincerity that captured the nation’s mood and its attention when the queen gave her coronavirus broadcast on the BBC in April 2020.

Sympathising with her subjects about the physical and emotional cost of the pandemic, she referenced her first broadcast, made in 1940 with her younger sister Princess Margaret, to the evacuated children of Britain about the pain of separation caused by war.

As one of the dwindling number of people who heard the familiar strains of We’ll Meet Again, sung for the first time by Vera Lynn in 1939, the words with which she ended her speech had added poignancy. The certainty and delicate emphasis as she said “we will meet again”, gave hope and heart to many.

12 portraits of Queen Elizabeth II - in pictures

No one doubted her girlish voice either when she said in 1947 in a speech to the Commonwealth on her 21st birthday, and still Princess Elizabeth: “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.”

The queen’s old-fashioned values were such that no one ever had to doubt her. Shakespeare’s “My word is my bond” might have been written during the time of her namesake and fellow queen, Elizabeth I, but it is all the better applied to Elizabeth II.

She was such an institution that it’s easy to forget she wasn’t supposed to have become queen at all. Born in 1926, she was the daughter of King George V’s second son, and had little expectation of succeeding to the throne until her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936 to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.

United Kingdom: country in mourning as Queen Elizabeth dies - in pictures

After the death of her father, King George VI, the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth was called upon to assume the throne in 1952, beginning a reign that has spanned the better part of a century.

Her life encompassed the Second World War, the Independence of India from Britain and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Cold War, the first Moon landing in 1969, the Falklands War in 1982, the demolition of the Berlin wall in 1989, the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and, more recently, the 21st-century paroxysms of Brexit.

In terms of her own remarkable achievements, only five years after her wedding to Prince Philip, her coronation ceremony in 1953, also held in Westminster Abbey, was the first to be broadcast live on television.

Flags lowered to mark the passing of Queen Elizabeth II - in pictures

About 27 million people in the UK watched it, and 11 million more listened on the radio. In 1977, on June 7, the queen with Prince Philip by her side, rode in the Gold State Coach from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate her 25th year on the throne.

There, she repeated that long-ago pledge to devote her life to service, saying that: “Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”

In 2002, she celebrated 50 years on the throne. This was followed by her diamond, sapphire and platinum jubilee celebrations in 2012, 2017 and this year. She is the country’s longest-serving monarch.

Although she was a constitutional monarch who remains politically neutral, the queen retained the ability to give a regular audience to a prime minister during his or her term of office at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on government matters.

In total, the queen saw 15 prime ministers during her reign, including Boris Johnson, whose resignation she accepted on Tuesday before performing the simple constitutional duty known as the “kissing of hands” with the new incumbent, Liz Truss, at Balmoral, her Aberdeenshire estate, rather than at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle.

Sir Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister, lost the 1945 general election but returned to Downing Street in 1951, so when she became queen in 1952, the 77-year-old statesman was her first prime minister and, some believe, her favourite. They enjoyed their weekly meetings, and these lengthened from 30 minutes to two hours.

Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the queen has always fascinated biographers. The Grantham grammar-school girl was the queen’s eighth prime minister, and by far the most unusual.

All her previous premiers had been men, and they had fallen into two loose groups. First, there were the upper-class, old-fashioned Tories, such as Sir Winston and Sir Anthony Eden, her first two prime ministers. Then there were the Labour men, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, socialists in theory, but deeply patriotic, even socially conservative in practice.

There were certainly tensions between the two women. Since her accession in 1952, the queen had always been devoted to the principle of national unity. Yet within two years of Mrs Thatcher’s arrival, Britain seemed more divided than ever. A devastating recession threw at least three million people out of work.

On July 20, 1986, The Sunday Times ran a front-page story claiming that the queen privately felt Mrs Thatcher’s approach to be “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”. The source was the palace press secretary, Michael Shea, but the queen herself was mortified.

She rang Mrs Thatcher immediately to apologise, and the relationship survived. When Baroness Thatcher died in April 2013, the queen took the unusual step of attending the ceremonial funeral, a personal decision and an indication of the queen’s respect for her first, and at the time her only, female prime minister.

Tony Blair was described in some palace quarters as a “head of state-in-waiting”, and there were courtiers who were not enamoured by what they saw as his encouragement of a “people’s monarchy”.

Gordon Brown was reported to have had a good but formal relationship with her majesty. David Cameron was caught on camera telling Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York at the time, that the queen had “purred down the line” when he telephoned and told her the result of the Scottish independence referendum. He was forced to apologise for this breach of etiquette.

Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the queen has always fascinated their biographers. Getty Images

Theresa May was the second female prime minister of the queen’s reign, taking up her post in July 2016 in the wake of the Brexit vote more than a quarter of a century after Mrs Thatcher stood down. It was reported at the time that the queen was sad to see Mrs May step down.

It was a huge credit to the queen that she managed relationships with this disparate group of people, from all walks of life and different political backgrounds, on a weekly basis. Furthermore, she has hosted 152 state visits, and met 13 out of 14 US presidents. Her travels have taken her to 110 countries across six continents. She is probably the most travelled monarch in the world.

When she became queen in 1952, she also became the head of Commonwealth realms — a group of sovereign territories and protectorates that consider the queen to be their head of state. As of 2021, there are 15 states that fall under the Commonwealth realm, including Jamaica, Grenada, Australia, the Bahamas and Canada. These 15 countries are also members of the Commonwealth of Nations of which the queen served as the head.

During her reign, the queen visited every country in the Commonwealth — with the exception of Cameroon, which joined in 1995 and Rwanda, which joined in 2009 — and made many repeat visits. In fact, one third of her total overseas visits were to Commonwealth countries.

In a decision made by Prince Philip, the queen agreed to the making of a documentary about her young family in 1969. Just as the television filming of her coronation was innovative, so too was this public broadcast revealing some private royal moments with footage including the queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and their children enjoying a barbecue at their Scottish home at Balmoral. Prince Charles is seen water-skiing, while a young Prince Edward asks his mother for an ice cream.

Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne visit Randwick Racecourse in Sydney at the start of their royal tour of Australia in 1970. Getty Images

The film was criticised by some for trivialising the royal family and The Times later reported that “the queen regretted giving the BBC behind-the-scenes access for the 1969 film and requested it never be broadcast again”.

It has not all been plain sailing for her majesty. Although they married in 1981 to huge fanfare, the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana deteriorated and in 1992 they announced their decision to separate.

Prince Andrew, her second son, and his wife, Sarah Ferguson, also separated, while Princess Anne divorced her husband, Mark Phillips. Later that year, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, destroying more than 100 rooms.

In a speech delivered to mark the 40th anniversary of her succession, Queen Elizabeth remarked that 1992 “has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’”.

After the shock death of Princess Diana in 1997, the queen, at the urging of advisers, allowed the flag to fly at half-staff over Buckingham Palace and returned to London to greet crowds of mourners. AP

Public criticism of the royal family grew after Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s divorce in 1996 and especially after Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris the following summer. The queen initially remained at her estate in Balmoral to comfort and shield her grandsons and refused to allow the flag to fly at half-staff over Buckingham Palace, by convention lowered only for those of royal birth.

At the urging of advisers, she revised her stance on the flag, returned to London to greet crowds of mourners and delivered a rare televised address to a nation grieving after the death of her daughter-in-law.

The celebration of her 50th year on the throne was marred by a personal double loss, when her beloved younger sister, Princess Margaret, and their mother, the Queen Mother, died within weeks of each other in 2002.

Nonetheless, the first British monarch since Queen Victoria to celebrate a golden jubilee, and stalwart as ever, she travelled more than 64,000 kilometres that year, including visits to the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. She also visited 70 cities and towns in 50 counties in the UK.

Compared with the tumultuous 1990s, the start of Queen Elizabeth’s second half century on the throne was characterised by warm relations between the nation and its royal family, and in 2005 most of the British public supported Prince Charles’s wedding to Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Queen Elizabeth with Meghan Markle in June 2018. Getty Images

The happy marriage of her eldest grandson Prince William to Kate Middleton took place in April 2011 and the births of their three children ― the queen’s first great grandchildren ― followed promptly, first Prince George, then Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis.

As third in the line of succession after his grandfather and his father, Prince George is widely expected to become king one day. His birth marked the first time since Queen Victoria’s reign that three generations of direct heirs to the British throne were alive at the same time.

In May 2011, the queen and Prince Philip visited the Republic of Ireland at the invitation of President Mary McAleese. Although she had frequently visited Northern Ireland over the course of her reign, this was her first to the Republic of Ireland, and the first by a British monarch in 100 years.

The visit, during which she expressed her “sincere thoughts and deep sympathy” for the victims of the troubled Anglo-Irish past, was widely celebrated as the beginning of a new era of friendship.

Perhaps no other event during Queen Elizabeth’s reign symbolised the modernising monarchy more than the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a divorced, mixed-race American actress. Although the queen reportedly gave her quick approval to the match, the relationship between the couple and the British media, as well as other members of the royal family, grew increasingly tense after the marriage.

In 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced they were stepping back from their role as senior royals and moved to southern California with their son, Archie, born in 2019, and where their daughter, named Lilibet after the queen's childhood nickname, was born last year.

As head of their own family and throughout everything, Prince Philip was always beside the queen, or as he once jokingly complained, “two steps behind” his wife, marking the order of precedence. He was never officially prince consort; at the coronation, he swore to be her “liegeman of life and limb”.

He died in April 2021 and, because of Covid-19 measures, the queen was obliged to sit isolated at his funeral in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The queen may have pledged to serve her subjects be her life “long or short”, but Prince Philip served her throughout their long 70-year marriage.

After a period of mourning, she resumed her duties ― true to her original pledge ― and although illness reduced her outings of late, when seen in public, she displayed her usual smiling demeanour.

Queen Elizabeth II was a source of continuity and stability, not just for Britain, but for all those nations and peoples under her aegis. To paraphrase the British national anthem only slightly, she has “long reigned over us, happy and glorious”.

Published: September 08, 2022, 5:39 PM
Updated: September 12, 2022, 11:07 AM
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