Born on 21 April 1926 in London, Elizabeth became queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on 6 February 1952 following the death of her father, King George VI (1895–1952). Known for her efforts to modernise the institution of monarchy – and for her love of corgis – Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
Here, we bring you 12 surprising facts about Queen Elizabeth II…
Elizabeth was not expected to become queen. The first child of the Duke and Duchess of York (who later became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), Elizabeth stood third in line to the throne after her uncle, Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), and her father, the Duke of York.
On this podcast, Alexander Larman is joined by popular historian Dan Jones to discuss Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallis Simpson and how it led to the British king’s abdication:
The teenage Princess Elizabeth performed alongside her younger sister, Princess Margaret, in a number of pantomimes during the Second World War. Never-before-seen images emerged recently of a 15-year-old Elizabeth playing the part of Prince Florizel in Cinderella in 1941.
Engaged to Philip Mountbatten (who was then created His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) in 1946 (although the formal engagement was delayed until Elizabeth turned 21 in April 1947), the then-princess Elizabeth used ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding dress. The pair wed in November 1947.
According to the Independent, because of rationing the couple’s wedding cake was made using “ingredients given as a wedding present by the Australian Girl Guides”. The cake was baked by McVitie & Price.
A working mother
When Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Andrew in 1960, she became the first reigning sovereign to have a child since 1857 when Queen Victoria celebrated the arrival of Princess Beatrice.
The year 1992 spelled disaster for the Queen: a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, and the respective marriages of three of her children – Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne – broke down. The Queen deemed this her “annus horribilis” (horrible year).
Staying in touch
The Queen has answered more than three-and-a-half million items of correspondence during her reign so far, and has sent more than 175,000 telegrams to centenarians in the UK and the Commonwealth. She has also sent more than 540,000 telegrams to couples in the UK and the Commonwealth celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary.
The Queen has penned more than 45,000 Christmas cards during her reign, and has given out upwards of 90,000 Christmas puddings to staff.
The Queen has, during her reign, received a number of unusual gifts – some of them live animals. According to The British Monarchy website, these include two tortoises given to her during a tour of the Seychelles in 1972; a seven-year-old bull elephant called Jumbo, presented by the president of Cameroon in 1972 to mark the Queen’s Silver wedding anniversary; and two black beavers during a royal visit to Canada. The animals were placed in the care of London Zoo.
Other curious gifts received by the Queen include a pair of cowboy boots (during a visit to the US); sunglasses, pineapples and 7kg of prawns.
The Queen has owned more than 30 corgis during her reign. The first, Susan, was given to her as an 18th-birthday present in 1944. It has been reported that Susan accompanied the Queen on her honeymoon – to Broadlands, Hampshire, and Birkhall on the Balmoral Estate – in 1947. Many of the corgis since owned by the Queen were direct descendants from Susan.
Elizabeth’s love of dogs is similar to that of her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, who owned a number of German dachshunds and later in life Scottish collies, which she gave the name of Noble.
Elizabeth has launched 23 ships during her lifetime, the first being HMS Vanguard on 30 November 1944, in Clydebank, Scotland, when she was Princess Elizabeth.
The first ship Elizabeth launched as queen, on 16 April 1953, was the Britannia, which was also from Clydebank. Other ships launched by the Queen include Elizabeth 2 in 1967, and Queen Mary 2 in 2004.
For a bill to become an act of law, it must first be passed by both the houses of Lords and Commons, and then receive royal assent from the Queen.
Since 1952, the Queen has given royal assent to more than 3,500 acts of parliament.
The queen has, over the course of her reign, held regular evening meetings with 12 British prime ministers: Winston Churchill (1951–55); Sir Anthony Eden (1955–57); Harold Macmillan (1957–63); Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963–64) and Harold Wilson (1964–70 and 1974–76).
The Queen also met regularly with Edward Heath (1970–74); James Callaghan (1976–79); Margaret Thatcher (1979–90); John Major (1990–97); Tony Blair (1997–2007) and Gordon Brown (2007–10). The tradition continued with prime minister David Cameron (2010–2016) – the pair usually met on a Wednesday evening.
Tony Blair was the first prime minister to have been born during Elizabeth’s reign – in May 1953, just a month before the Queen’s coronation.
Interestingly, there have also been 14 US presidents during the queen’s reign: Harry S Truman (1945–53); Dwight D Eisenhower (1953–61); John F Kennedy (1961–63); Lyndon B Johnson (1963–69); Richard Nixon (1969–74); Gerald Ford (1974–77); Jimmy Carter (1977–81); Ronald Reagan (1981–89); George H W Bush (1989–93); Bill Clinton (1993–2001); George W Bush (2001–09); Barack Obama (2009–2017); Donald Trump (2017–2020) and Joe Biden (2020–present).
Elizabeth II is the 40th monarch since William the Conqueror obtained the crown of England on Christmas Day 1066. She is also the oldest monarch to have celebrated a Golden Jubilee (in 2002 at the age of 76) – the youngest was James VI and I, at the age of 51. Elizabeth was also the first British monarch to celebrate her diamond wedding anniversary, on 20 November 2007, and her platinum wedding anniversary on 20 November 2017.
Only five other kings and queens in British history have reigned for 50 years or more. They are: Victoria, who reigned for 63 years; George III (59 years); Henry III (56 years); Edward III (50 years) and James VI and I (58 years).
Facts courtesy of The Royal Family website, Time magazine, Vanity Fair and the Independent
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in September 2015