Britain's current Queen was an accidental royal heir, but she has become the country's longest-running ruler. During her reign she has overseen the radical modernisation of the institution of monarchy, as historian Kate Williams relates...
This article was first published in BBC History Magazine ‘Royal Women’ bookazine
On 10 December 1936, Elizabeth, Princess of York, aged just 10, was at home with her sister Margaret in 145 Piccadilly, Hyde Park. She heard shouts from outside – cries of “God Save the King”. A footman told her that the king had abdicated. She dashed upstairs to tell her sister: “Uncle David is going away and isn’t coming back, and papa is going to be king?” “Does that mean that you will have to be queen one day?” asked Margaret, who was only six. “Yes, some day,” said the princess. “Poor you,” said Margaret.
Elizabeth II was, like Victoria and Elizabeth I before her, never meant to be queen. Born on 21 April 1926, little Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was intended for, in the words of her mother, “a happy marriage”, but little more. Twenty-six years later she became Queen, and one of the most famous women in the world.
Until the abdication of Edward VIII, who gave up the crown to marry Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth and Margaret led, by royal standards, a sheltered life. The abdication changed everything. The family moved to Buckingham Palace and their father, the new George VI, struggled with the weight of responsibility. Elizabeth never forgave her uncle for pitching her father into the role of monarch, especially as he had to reign through a punishing war.
As Britain celebrated the end of the Second World War, on VE Day, George VI and his wife (also Queen Elizabeth) waved from the balcony and the young Elizabeth and Margaret went incognito in the crowd. But, just as Churchill would lose his first postwar election, so the country was moving towards the idea of a new monarch. Two years later Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark at Westminster Abbey. In response to proposals that the marriage should be low key, Churchill hailed it as a “flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel” – and the marriage was turned into a celebration of renewal. Prince Charles was born in 1948 and Princess Anne in 1950. Young, hopeful and a mother of small children, Princess Elizabeth captured all the media attention.
On 6 February 1952, Elizabeth and Philip were in Kenya, staying in an isolated lodge when they received the news of George VI’s death. The tour was cut short and Elizabeth returned home to assume her new role. Winston Churchill wept copiously and complained that he didn’t know the new Queen and “she was only a child”.
But Elizabeth proved herself adept in the role. “I no longer feel anxious or worried,” she said. “I don’t know what it is – but I have lost all my timidity somehow in becoming the sovereign and having to receive the prime minister.” Churchill quickly changed his mind. “All the film people in the world, if they had scoured the globe, could not have found anyone so suited to the part,” he decided. On 2 June 1953, Elizabeth was crowned in a blaze of patriotism. News of Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest came through on the same day, and the papers proclaimed a new Elizabethan age.
It was an age of change, for the British empire was contracting as its subject peoples demanded independence. Between 1945 and 1965, the numbers governed by the empire dropped from 700 million to 5 million. George VI had seen himself as a king of empire; the Queen became a queen of Commonwealth.
The Queen is Britain’s most travelled monarch, thanks to the invention of air travel. In 1953–54, she took a six month tour of the Commonwealth, travelling 10,000 miles by air in Australia alone. The greatest Commonwealth crisis was in 1965 when Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, refused moves towards majority rule and argued with British prime minister Harold Wilson, who pushed for the enfranchisement of the black population. Smith declared Rhodesia an independent country under the Queen, a de facto Commonwealth country. Wilson recalled the high commissioner and put sanctions in place, and Smith’s loyalty to the Queen was refused – but the Smith regime continued until the new Zimbabwe-Rhodesia was born in 1979.
Alongside extensive foreign visiting, the Queen’s legacy as a monarch is in her political neutrality. As a teenager Elizabeth was schooled in history and constitutional affairs and, as Queen, she exemplified the ideal of the constitutional monarch: that they should not meddle in political affairs. In 1957 she received her first significant criticism after Anthony Eden resigned as prime minister. The Conservative party had no proper system for electing a leader, and the Queen called on Harold Macmillan to be prime minister on the advice of Churchill and the Marquess of Salisbury, who had spoken to the cabinet. To some, who had expected Rab Butler to be the successor, it looked like favouritism.
When Macmillan resigned in 1963, Alex Douglas Home was selected – and observers accused Macmillan of manipulating the process to again avoid Butler. In 1965, a proper mechanism was brought in to find a leader – separate from the Queen. Henceforth, she was careful not to appear to favour any party or individual. We will never know which prime minister she preferred. Leftwing prime ministers judged her to the right, but the Conservative leader Mrs Thatcher despaired of the Queen as the “kind of woman who could vote SDP”.
In her time as monarch, the Queen has seen the media explode, with 24-hour news channels, internet news and social media. In her youth, the royal family could stay private – now it is impossible. Andrew was born in 1960 and Edward in 1964 and the idea of the royal family fascinated the country. In 1977, despite the Sex Pistols, whose songs attacked deference to the crown, the silver jubilee was an explosion of street parties and patriotism. However the Queen’s visit to Northern Ireland was brief and heavily policed: she did not disembark from the royal yacht in Belfast. In 1979, the Queen’s relative and Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was killed by an IRA bomb.
In the 1980s, the monarchy appeared to be riding high. Millions watched the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, with all its fairytale trappings. Prince William was born the following year and Prince Harry in 1984. Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson in 1986. The new Princess of Wales and Duchess of York seemed to breathe fresh air into the monarchy and the crowds were fascinated by Diana.
The fairytale didn’t last. In 1992, Prince Andrew separated from Sarah, Princess Anne divorced her husband, and Andrew Morton’s bombshell book Diana: Her True Story was published. The Queen was pelted with eggs on a visit to the German city of Dresden – heavily bombed in the Second World War. Windsor Castle was damaged by fire in November 1992, on the Queen’s 45th wedding anniversary. The government said it would pay for repairs, prompting an outcry. The plans were abolished and the prime minister, John Major, announced that the Queen was to pay income tax for the first time. After the fire, the Queen referred to the year as her annus horribilis (horrible year) but it was not over – in December, the Prince and Princess of Wales announced their separation.
The public face of the monarchy continued to sink, particularly under the uncertainty over the marriage of Charles and Diana, until in 1995 the Queen wrote to the pair suggesting a divorce. Charles and Diana divorced the following year.
On 31 August 1997, the car carrying Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed crashed in Paris. Fayed and the driver were killed. The princess died later, at 4am. The Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Harry were in Balmoral Castle, the Scottish holiday home to the royal family, and decided to remain there.
This decision prompted public fury. “Show us you care,” pleaded the Express newspaper. The Queen finally returned to London and addressed the nation, praising Diana’s warmth and talking of her feelings as a “grandmother”. Active hostility was dispelled, but enthusiasm for the royals remained muted.
The golden jubilee celebrations in June 2002, coming so soon after the deaths of the Queen’s sister in February that year and of her mother in March, were comparatively low key. Similarly, there was little public celebration for the marriage of Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005.
In recent years, the currency of the monarchy has risen alongside the increasing profile of the young royals. The wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011 was a patriotic pageant – followed by a huge extravaganza for the diamond jubilee in 2012, coming just before the first Olympics in Britain since 1948.
For the Queen, her most important role in recent years has been creating links with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In 2011, she made a state visit to Ireland and gave a significant speech about “things we would wish had been done differently or not at all”.
In 2012, as part of her jubilee tour, she visited Northern Ireland and met Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister and a former IRA leader. In 2014, the Irish president, Michael Higgins, made his first state visit – and talked of “crafting a future that offers hope and opportunity for the British and Irish people”, an expression of peace and unity that seemed impossible in the 1970s.
The Queen celebrated her 89th birthday in April and in September she will overtake Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest reigning monarch (63 years and seven months, timed from her accession to the crown on the death of her father George VI). For many, she has been the most successful, thanks to her impartiality, attention to duty and demanding schedules of travel and engagement.
During Elizabeth’s reign, the British monarchy caught up with monarchies across Europe and allowed women the same rights to the throne as men. In 2013, it was decreed that the firstborn gets the job, whether male or female. Elizabeth II has proved, above all, that a woman can do the job just as well as a man.