Elizabeth, the child who was never meant to be Queen, reigned longer than any other British monarch, including her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. She spent three score years and more on the throne, presiding, as serenely as possible, over a kingdom lacerated by economic turmoil, social dissension and diminished status – from wartime rationing to pandemic lockdown, precarious recovery and global climate crisis.
Her father, George VI, was at the helm during the Second World War, when Britain was fighting for its imperial heritage and its survival as a democratic nation. Elizabeth’s job was to oversee the aftermath. She embodied duty, resilience and equanimity as she tried to modernize the monarchy while retaining its mystique.
The catalogue of challenges she faced as Queen included the Suez Crisis in the Middle East, a redefined Commonwealth of Nations (which now numbers 54 independent countries), the fractious rush to independence by many of her former colonies, Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community and its departure from the European Union nearly half a century later under Brexit. She was on the throne during the Cold War, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, questionable conflicts in the Falklands and Iraq, military interventions in the former Yugoslavia and the war in Ukraine. A monarch through good and bad times, she reigned during the lure of North Sea oil, the devolution of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and intermittent economic, humanitarian and sectarian crises – and not least, the headline-grabbing antics of her children and grandchildren.
As a constitutional monarch, the Queen was head of state in each of her 15 realms, not head of government, giving her symbolic authority but not executive power. She presided, but she did not rule. She appointed governors-general on the advice of her multitude of prime ministers, opened Parliaments, read Throne Speeches as asked, and dissolved Parliaments when the government of the day lost the confidence of the House or decided the time was ripe for an election.
In her continuity, her dignity and her deep understanding of the machinations of power and the swells of historical movements, she posed a sterling rebuttal to republican forms of government, in which an elected president is also head of state. Such a system gives a duly elected rogue the power to ravage simultaneously the prestige of both the executive and ceremonial offices.
The first monarch of the telecommunications age, Elizabeth embraced jet travel to visit the far-flung peoples of her increasingly independent realms, and used radio, television, e-mail and even Twitter to connect with her subjects. Her coronation was televised, a decision she made over then-prime minister Winston Churchill’s objections, and she broadcast a Christmas message – initially on radio and later on television – throughout her reign except for 1969 when the BBC’s now-mothballed Royal Family documentary was aired instead.
On a personal level, she married a dashing but penniless prince for love rather than political expediency, creating a union that endured for more than 70 years. Publicly, Prince Philip walked behind her; privately, he was her mate and her sounding board, especially when it came to rehearsing special broadcasts such as her annual Yuletide address.
She sent her children to boarding school and then to university so that they could have a less sheltered education and enjoy a wider social circle than she had experienced. Finally, she helped abolish the system of male primogeniture, by which female heirs, such as her second child, Princess Anne, were displaced by their younger male siblings in the line of succession, and she abolished the ancient provision whereby marrying a Roman Catholic automatically disqualified somebody from the line of succession.
The longer she reigned, the more her hereditary power eroded, but her influence grew. The last time she exercised her prerogative to appoint a U.K. prime minister was Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1963, when the leadership of the ruling Conservative Party became vacant without a mechanism for choosing a successor.
She wasn’t adored like the Queen Mother, who topped the polls as everybody’s favourite member of the Royal Family until her death, at the age of 101, on March 30, 2002, but the Queen earned increasing affection and fidelity because of her institutional memory and her lively, intelligent curiosity about people and the world around her.
The hardest lesson she learned on the job was opening the curtains on her public stoicism to reveal her private emotions. Ritual and mystery, camouflaging her natural reserve, were essential to preserving the idea of the monarchy in the psyches of her subjects.
Too much familiarity, as in the behind-the-robes documentary on the Royal Family, was a mistake, and she made sure it was never rebroadcast on public television in her lifetime, although it has been available at times to those seeking it out on YouTube.
Too much reserve was equally precarious, as the Queen also learned after she was publicly criticized when she waited eight days to visit the Welsh town of Aberfan in 1966, after a heap of mining slag collapsed and buried a local school, killing 144 people, 116 of them children. Welsh broadcaster John Humphrys described the horrific scene as he watched villagers, “their faces still black – save for the streaks of white from the sweat and the tears as they dug and prayed and wept. Most of them were digging for their own children.”
The Queen, herself a mother of young children, felt she might be a distraction from the rescue effort, or worse, give way to her emotions, according to royal biographers. She changed her mind after both her husband and Lord Snowdon, her brother-in-law, visited the disaster. After eight days, she made a solemn visit, listening carefully and saying little, other than to make a promise that she would never forget Aberfan, a pledge she kept by returning to the village several times over the years.
Another tragedy – the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – provided an abject public lesson in abandoning protocol to respond to the emotional needs of her subjects. Diana was 36 when she and her companion, playboy Dodi Fayed, died on Aug. 31, 1997, after sustaining fatal injuries in a high-speed car crash in Paris’s Pont de l’Alma tunnel while trying to evade a horde of paparazzi.
The accident, which occurred almost a year after Diana’s divorce from the Queen’s heir, the Prince of Wales, and the consequent loss of her designation as Her Royal Highness – unleashed paroxysms of public grief, much of which was redirected as overt criticism of the Queen as cold and unfeeling. On the contrary, she felt Diana’s death was a private family tragedy to be mourned behind palace walls.
As a monarch determined to cloak her emotions underneath an imperturbable demeanour, the Queen was canny enough to recognize a public-relations crisis, especially after it was pointed out to her by then prime minister Tony Blair.
She agreed to the tradition-defying public demand for a lavish royal ceremonial funeral to mark the passing of the princess who aspired to be the “queen of people’s hearts” and made a televised statement – not quite a eulogy, but personal and flattering – about her former daughter-in-law on the eve of the funeral.
On the day itself, in an extraordinary break with royal protocol, she ordered the flag at Buckingham Palace to fly at half-mast. Then, in another attempt to assuage the massive outpouring of emotion, she stood, dressed in a black suit and hat, outside the gates of her official residence and stiffly bowed her head to the coffin as the cortège passed.
She had tried to shield her beloved grandsons William and Harry from the public glare following Diana’s death by keeping them at Balmoral, her Scottish estate, where they could mourn in a semblance of privacy, but once again her implacable sense of duty intervened. Her people wanted pomp and ceremony for Diana and the Queen obliged, which meant she had to watch the boys, who were only 15 and 11, solemnly march behind their mother’s coffin through the streets of the capital. Both William and Harry have complained about the emotional toll of that public display of stoicism.
There was more to endure in the blistering eulogy that Charles, Earl Spencer, delivered at Westminster Abbey in memory of his sister. The Queen sat rigidly while he thundered on about the legacy of the Spencer family’s royal blood (which predates the upstart House of Windsor) and vowed to protect his nephews from the horrors their mother had endured. After he finally wound down, the crowd outside the Abbey roared its approval with a round of applause, a refrain that was echoed inside the church. If the Queen was not amused at being publicly upbraided by a courtier who also happened to be her godson, she maintained a solemn face, the public mask that she had long since perfected.
There was the life she may have wanted and the one she was given. Privately, she preferred the country to the city, watching television or films to attending the opera, and honing her skills as a photographer rather than being the target of flashing lights and telephoto lenses. She was also a shrewd breeder of horses and dogs, with an idiosyncratic fondness for Welsh corgis.
Her dedication to duty never wavered from the moment she vowed, in a broadcast to the Commonwealth from Cape Town, South Africa, on the evening of her 21st birthday, that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”
She rose to that challenge and earned the respect and devotion of her subjects, especially as she carried on alone after Philip, her husband of 73 years, the prince who had lived up to his promise at her coronation to be her “liege man of life and limb,” died at age 99 on April 9, 2021.
In her first year of widowhood, which coincided with her platinum jubilee as monarch, the Queen began tidying up some succession issues in advance of her own inevitable death. She issued a statement saying that when her son Charles becomes king, she wants his wife, Camilla (once ostracized as “the other woman” during his marriage to Diana), to be known as Queen Consort, fulfilling a role that the Queen said both her husband and her mother had performed willingly and unselfishly. This honour, along with Camilla’s subsequent installation as a Royal Lady of the Garter, marked official acknowledgments of Camilla’s loyal service to the Crown and of her position as Charles’s “darling wife.”
The Queen has been given short shrift as a mother, as she seemed always to put duty, including travel to distant parts of her realm, ahead of quality time with her four children, especially her heir Charles and his sister Anne. As a grandmother, she seemed much more relaxed, probably because by then she had learned some tough lessons from the problems her now grown children had faced in their personal relationships, especially her son Charles in his disastrous marriage to the virginal Lady Diana Spencer.
How much easier and happier life might have been if he had been allowed, as his mother had been, to marry for love rather than succession. She had come to the throne as a glamorous young mother, but she ended her reign 70 years later as a granny not only to her own family but as a symbolic one to her subjects as she grew in their affections even as she became physically frailer.
Her mobility issues forced her to miss several events celebrating her platinum jubilee, which made the ones she did attend more momentous, including her surprise appearance, at the close of the planned celebrations, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with Prince Charles, Prince William, their wives and her great grandchildren Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. The crowd spontaneously sang God Save The Queen and later Her Majesty issued a statement saying she had “been humbled and deeply touched that so many people have taken to the streets to celebrate my Platinum Jubilee.” She ended with a promise that echoed the vow she had made on her 21st birthday 75 years earlier. “While I may not have attended every event in person, my heart has been with you all; and I remain committed to serving you to the best of my ability, supported by my family.”
And with those words, the Queen acknowledged that the sun was setting on the modern Elizabethan era.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, the elder daughter of Albert, Duke of York, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Bowes-Lyon), was born in London early in the morning of April 21, 1926.
Her father, the second son of King George V and Queen Mary, unexpectedly became King when she was 10 and her younger sister, Margaret Rose, was 6, thereby transforming the girls’ lives from privileged, but nominally private ones, into public spectacles.
Elizabeth’s mother, the Duchess of York, was furious when her shy, stuttering husband’s older brother, David, who became Edward VIII on the death of his father George V in January, 1936, abdicated 11 months later to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.
The Duchess took to her bed with flu in the final agonizing days of her brother-in-law’s tortuous vacillation over whether he should give up the throne for the woman he loved, a drama that created both a constitutional crisis for the country and a personal and financial one for the Royal Family.
Not only did the Yorks have to ascend the throne, they had to pony up a considerable sum to buy back two large family estates – Balmoral and Sandringham – from the departing King, according to Robert Lacey in Royal, his 2002 biography of the Queen. The country properties, which had been bought privately by Queen Victoria, had been handed down for generations to the eldest son, but David intended to keep them as his private domain unless his younger brother could meet the price he had set.
The abdication was like a bitter divorce that devolved into sordid family squabbling about money and created a lifelong enmity between the two brothers and their wives. The “unconcealed family dispute,” affected “Princess Elizabeth for the rest of her life,” Mr. Lacey wrote.
The stripping of HRH from Diana echoed the earlier decision to deny Wallis Simpson the royal designation after her 1937 marriage to the exiled and newly styled Duke of Windsor, as did the removal of Prince Harry’s honorary military appointments and royal patronages after his insistence, early in 2021, that he and his wife, Meghan Markle, would not be returning to the fold as senior working members of the Royal Family.
“Following conversations with the Duke [of Sussex], the Queen has written confirming that in stepping away from the work of the Royal Family it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service,” was the terse announcement from Buckingham Palace on Feb. 19, 2021. Nobody knew better than the Queen that privileges must be earned, but she did not officially rescind his HRH designation and she ended her announcement with a rare public softener for her dearly loved grandson: “While all are saddened by their decision, the Duke and Duchess remain much loved members of the family.”
And then, once again, it was back to work for the Queen and her diminished circle of senior members of “the firm,” as it had been for her parents more than eight decades earlier.
After a settlement had been reached with the former King Edward VIII, his younger brother, who never thought he would wear the crown, and his loyal wife, put their shoulders to the wheel and carried on in the serious business of resurrecting the monarchy in the hearts and minds of the public. Their most apt pupil was their daughter Elizabeth, heiress presumptive to the throne (as at that time she could be supplanted by a younger brother), whose role in the family dynamic, according to Mr. Lacey, was to put duty before personal pleasure in order to redeem “Uncle David’s sins.”
After her father’s coronation in 1937 and the family’s move to Buckingham Palace, the princess studied constitutional history privately with Henry Marten, vice-provost of Eton College, practised her French with a series of governesses imported from across the channel and even became part of a special Buckingham Palace troop of Girl Guides.
During the Second World War, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose lived mainly at Windsor Castle, outside London. That’s where she made her first radio broadcast in October, 1940, sending a message of sympathy and encouragement to children who had been evacuated during the Blitz. Two years later, in February 1942, she conducted her first official public function: inspecting the Grenadier Guards, the most senior regiment in the British Army. She had just been named Colonel and would become Colonel-in-Chief as monarch.
In February, 1945, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service as an honorary Second Subaltern, trained as a driver and a mechanic, and drove a truck – the beginning of a lifelong passion for driving over cross-country terrain at a fast clip. She was barely qualified when victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945, but she did get to appear in her uniform on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to wave to the cheering throngs massed in the streets below.
In the euphoria, her parents relaxed their rules and allowed Elizabeth and Margaret Rose to go out on the streets with a selection of younger officers and mingle with the crowds. They linked arms with other revellers, sang wartime songs such as Roll Out the Barrel, and, most unlikely of all, stood like a couple of anonymous figures in the crowd, shouting “We want the King, we want the King,” until her own father and mother appeared on the same balcony where the two sisters had stood earlier in the evening.
Marriage and family
By war’s end, the princess had already met the man she would marry. Philippos Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg was a dashing, tall, blond naval officer. The fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, he was born on June 10, 1921, on the Greek island of Corfu in a country riven by civil war. Through his mother he was a nephew of Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, and a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. He was thus in line of succession to the British Crown, although his chances of succeeding to the throne were decidedly faint.
Philip grew up stateless and poor in a splintered family. One of his disaffected parents frequented an asylum and the other sought solace in the arms of a mistress and the gaming tables at Monte Carlo. He and Elizabeth first met at the wedding of her uncle, the Duke of Kent, to his second cousin, Princess Marina of Greece, at Westminster Abbey on Nov. 29, 1934. She was 8 and he was 13.
Another five years passed before they really took notice of each other, aided by the machinations of his uncle, Lord Mountbatten. He contrived to have the princess visit the Naval College at Dartmouth on a weekend in 1939, and to have his nephew, Philip, who had just won the King’s Dirk as outstanding cadet, serve as her designated escort.
The princess was smitten, according to her former nanny Marion Crawford, who wrote the gossipy memoir The Little Princesses. The couple exchanged letters during the war when Philip was serving in the Royal Navy, but it wasn’t until July 9, 1947, that King George VI announced their engagement. Her platinum and diamond engagement ring was made of diamonds taken from a tiara that had belonged to his mother – a tradition William would follow when he gave his mother’s engagement ring to his betrothed Catherine Middleton in 2010.
Philip had become a naturalized British citizen in February, 1947, dropping his family name, Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, and adopting Mountbatten, his uncle’s surname, as his own. The love match was controversial: Philip was Greek Orthodox, four of his sisters had married Germans, three of their husbands had joined the Nazi Party, and he was known to large segments of the public as “Phil the Greek.”
The princess and her tall beau made a glamorous couple in war-ravaged England, a country in need of cheer. In her salad days, Elizabeth was as much of a draw as Diana, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle would be decades later.
Her wedding was celebrated at Westminster Abbey on Nov. 20, 1947, in front of 2,000 guests. The bride wore a gown designed by Norman Hartnell, woven from thread produced by Chinese silkworms at Lullingstone Castle – the princess had saved up her ration coupons to pay for the fabric, which cost 300 coupons, or about £1,200. Her veil was made of tulle and held by a tiara of diamonds that had been made for her grandmother, Queen Mary, in 1919 and given to the princess’s mother during the abdication crisis in 1936.
The bridegroom, who had quit smoking that morning to please his bride, fortified himself with a gin and tonic and donned full-dress naval uniform. He set off for Westminster Abbey carrying the weight of the titles the bride’s father had just bestowed on him – Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, and officially a Prince of the United Kingdom and First Gentleman of the Realm.
The newlyweds spent their wedding night at Broadlands in Hampshire, home of Philip’s uncle Lord Mountbatten, and then travelled to Scotland to stay at Birkhall on the Royal Family’s Balmoral Estate. While Philip was stationed in Malta between 1949 and 1951, his wife visited him for months at a time at the Villa Guardamangia, a house Lord Mountbatten had purchased in 1929.
The couple’s first child, Prince Charles, heir to the throne, was born on Nov. 14, 1948, at Buckingham Palace, followed less than two years later by Princess Anne on Aug. 15, 1950, at Clarence House. Their third child, Prince Andrew (Feb. 19, 1960), and their youngest, Prince Edward (March 10, 1964), were both born at Buckingham Palace.
As a mother, Elizabeth was reserved in public and calm and judicious in private, unlike her husband, who was said to be authoritarian and something of a bully – especially with his eldest son Charles – and to favour his daughter, Anne, who, like him, is horsey, workaholic, forthright and sometimes surly.
Charles, heir to the throne, defied his father only on two major occasions – the royal ceremonial funeral for his former wife, Diana, and the marriage to his long-time mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Each time he won the day. Both decisions were applauded by the public, although it took longer for Camilla to be accepted and eventually appreciated.
Even the Queen could not tolerate the seemingly relentless soap-opera shenanigans between her son and Diana. She maintained her famous reserve throughout her son’s liaison with Ms. Parker-Bowles, her daughter-in-law’s retaliatory affairs both before and after the couple’s official separation in 1992, the publication of tell-all biographies – Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton and The Prince of Wales: A Biography by Jonathan Dimbleby, even her son’s appearance on television in which he discussed his infidelity.
What was too much was Diana’s secretly televised interview with Martin Bashir for the BBC news program Panorama in November, 1995. More than 23 million viewers in Britain alone watched and heard the princess say, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it got pretty crowded,” about Ms. Parker-Bowles, whom she had earlier dubbed the Rottweiler.
A month later, the Queen wrote to her son and daughter-in-law asking them to negotiate “an early divorce.”
The Queen’s own marriage did not escape gossip. It is certainly true that Philip loved the company of women, a comfort zone that may simply be a result of having grown up with four doting older sisters. Actress and musical star Pat Kirkwood, whose legs were once described as “the eighth wonder of the world” by the late theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, spent an evening dancing cheek to cheek with him in a nightclub in 1948 (when his wife was seven months pregnant with their first child) and spent the next 60 years denying any impropriety.
Despite tabloid rumours about philandering and the usual domestic disputes about children – their social behaviour, their careers, their mates – the long marriage of the Queen and Prince Philip was a close and happy union. Early on, they reached an accommodation that while she exercised the royal prerogative on matters of state, he ruled the roost when it came to domestic affairs and decisions about schools for the children. Or, as one wit suggested: Elizabeth wore the crown and Philip the trousers.
Although he always took an official back seat and walked one step behind her in public, she did her best to include him on ceremonial occasions. “My husband and I,” was such a frequent opening in her speeches that it became an iconic joke. Knowing her husband’s frustration that none of his children carried his (adopted) family name, she declared in 1960, before her third child, Prince Andrew, was born, that her descendants (other than her own titled children) would henceforth carry the name Mountbatten-Windsor.
The couple didn’t always sleep together, as became obvious when Michael Fagan, an unemployed father of four, broke into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace in 1982 and sat on the edge of her bed for about 10 minutes. The Queen rang twice for the policeman stationed outside her door, but he didn’t hear the alarm as he was out walking her dogs. She maintained her formidable calm, even calling a maid to bring cigarettes for her intruder. It was only after the maid didn’t return to her station that the Queen’s footman twigged that something was up, went to investigate and alerted the palace police, who apprehended Mr. Fagan. The Queen was said to have commented later that the intrusion hadn’t fazed her because she was used to dealing with awkward people.
The monarch and her consort celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in November, 2007, at the Guildhall in London. In her speech, she described her husband as “someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments, but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I and the whole family, in this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim or we shall ever know.”
As for Philip, he replied: “I think the main lesson we have learned is that tolerance is the one essential ingredient of any happy marriage. You can take it from me that the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance.
Princess Elizabeth made the transition from heiress presumptive to monarch when she was 25. A slim, raven-haired mother of two small children, she was literally up a tree in Kenya at an exclusive lodge called Tree Tops when her father, King George VI, died on Feb. 6, 1952.
As her father battled lung cancer in the year before his death, the princess had taken on an increasing share of the monarch’s duties at public events including Trooping the Colour.
She visited Greece, Italy and Malta, where her husband, Philip, was stationed, toured Canada with him and visited U.S. president Harry S. Truman in Washington. It was Philip who insisted they fly rather than sail across the ocean, in case they needed to return quickly if the King’s health worsened.
In January, 1952, they set off on a tour of Australia and New Zealand, stopping along the way at Sagana Lodge in Kenya. As she had on her trip to Canada the year before, the Princess travelled with a complete mourning outfit. This time she needed it. After Philip broke the news of her beloved father’s death, he became her subject as well as her husband. It was a difficult transition.
They spent three months in full mourning and then moved with their children from Clarence House to Buckingham Palace. She tried to make official life easier for her husband by issuing a royal warrant that September that he had “place, pre-eminence and precedence” next “to herself” on all occasions and in all meetings, “except where otherwise provided by Act of Parliament.”
The Queen presided over her first opening of Parliament on Nov. 4, 1952. Her coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, a public spectacle that coincided with the announcement of the ascent of Mount Everest by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Her coronation gown, commissioned from Mr. Hartnell, who had also designed her wedding dress, was embroidered with the floral emblems of the countries of the Commonwealth: the Tudor rose of England, the Scots thistle, the Welsh leek, shamrock of Ireland, wattle of Australia, the Maple Leaf of Canada, the New Zealand fern, South Africa’s protea, two lotus flowers for India and Ceylon, and Pakistan’s wheat, cotton and jute.
Her husband was not crowned or anointed at the ceremony, which was watched by more than 8,000 guests in the abbey and an estimated 20 million viewers around the world – either in local cinemas or, for the first time in their lives, on television.
Instead, her consort was the first subject to pay homage to the newly crowned monarch by kissing her and stating: “I, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.”
And then, in a private, but widely circulated aside, he turned to his wife, weighted down by all her regalia, and asked: “Where did you get that hat?”
Private jokes aside, Philip was true to his promise. He accompanied her on almost all of her Commonwealth tours and state visits, including her six-month around-the-world tour of the Commonwealth from November, 1953, to May, 1954, travelling a distance of more than 70,000 kilometres on that tour alone. She was one of the most widely travelled heads of state in history, having made official visits to Australia 16 times, Canada 22 times, Jamaica six times and New Zealand 10 times.
She was in Canada for most of the significant events in the country’s modern history – the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the celebration of Canada’s centennial in 1967 and the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. The Queen was also on the beaches of Normandy with surviving veterans in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings. This was one of the few occasions when her eyes welled up in public; another time was the decommissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia at Portsmouth in 1997.
But not everyone welcomed her. Her visit to Charlottetown, Quebec City and Ottawa in 1964 was supposed to commemorate the centenary of the historic meetings in those cities to negotiate Confederation. Even before she arrived, there were reports that violent separatists were planning to assassinate her and kidnap the son of Quebec premier Jean Lesage. Undeterred, she came anyway.
All went well, until she arrived in Quebec City. She delivered a conciliatory speech to the legislative assembly in French and English about Canada’s two “complementary cultures” and the strength of its founding peoples. Nevertheless, as her motorcade passed along its preordained route, many demonstrators pointedly turned their backs, while others booed and shouted separatist slogans before marching through the streets. The police reacted quickly, arresting more than 30 people, including some who were there to express their loyalty to the Crown and the Queen.
It was on a tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1970 that she and Prince Philip initiated the practice of wandering among tightly controlled crowds, in what came to be called the “walkabout,” to meet as many people hanging over the barricades as possible.
Throughout her reign, the Queen spent an average of three hours a day “doing the boxes,” which meant reading the official documents sent to her by various government and state offices. She also met weekly with the British prime minister when Parliament was sitting. She knew better than anybody the progress of public affairs and how individual prime ministers had responded to particular situations and crises.
“Anyone who imagines that [these meetings] are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience,” former prime minister Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs. Those views were echoed by the late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who wrote in his memoirs that he “was always impressed not only by the grace she displayed in public at all times, but the wisdom she showed in private conversation.”
She outlasted scores of elected leaders of other current and former Commonwealth countries. If she objected when Mr. Trudeau executed his mocking (and rehearsed) pirouette behind her back at the G7 summit in London in May, 1977, she kept her pique to herself. Although she was said to have worried about Mr. Trudeau’s anti-monarchist sentiments, she travelled to Canada so that she could personally sign the patriated Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, the document that essentially severed legislative ties with the mother country.
The Queen had a much closer relationship with Mr. Trudeau’s loyal colleague Jean Chrétien, who was justice minister in 1982. He made his sovereign laugh during the signing ceremony when he muttered “merde” after Mr. Trudeau accidentally snapped the tip of the nib on the ceremonial pen, leaving Mr. Chrétien, the third signatory, with a broken implement at one of the most symbolic events in Canadian history. The two met many times during his tenure as prime minister from 1993 to 2003; after he retired from politics, she made him a member of the Order of Merit, a personal gift of the sovereign that is limited to 24 living individuals from her realms, at a private ceremony in Buckingham Palace in October, 2009.
Her most politically significant state visit, as a Queen of reconciliation, was the four-day trip she and Prince Philip made to the Irish Republic in May, 2011. An occasion that began with tension and overwhelming security ended in spontaneous cheers and a walkabout four days later. The first time a reigning monarch had set foot on the Emerald Isle in more than 100 years, she arrived, wearing a symbolic green outfit, as a guest, rather than a ruler and laid wreaths at the monuments not only to those who died fighting the British for independence, but also to those who fought for the British in two world wars.
Adorned with much of her regalia, including sparkling tiara, necklace and earrings, she began her speech at the state banquet at Dublin Castle with a greeting in Gaelic. Describing the fractious and bloody relationship between England, the colonizer, and Ireland, the colonized, the Queen said: “It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss.”
Referring at least in part to Lord Mountbatten’s murder by the IRA in 1979, she said: “These events have touched us all, many of us personally, and are a painful legacy.” She concluded by saying, “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy.”
The response to her speech was best summed up by Irish president Mary McAleese, who mouthed “Wow” at least twice in wonderment. That sentiment was echoed in the streets and from both sides of the peace process, a reconciliation that came under threat a decade later over border issues with Northern Ireland after the United Kingdom left the European Union.
As a working mother with a frequently cantankerous husband and four often wayward children, the Queen symbolized duty, stability and decorum in the midst of adultery, divorce and wilfulness. The nineties were not a happy decade for her. She dubbed 1992 the annus horribilis after two of her sons, Charles and Andrew, separated from their wives; her daughter, Anne, divorced and remarried; a raging fire destroyed part of her beloved Windsor Castle; and she agreed under pressure to pay income tax, cover the working expenses of several family members and open the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace to the public during the summer.
There was worse to come with the public revelation of abiding rumours about shocking financial and sexual debauchery involving her second son, Prince Andrew, including nefarious arms sales, self-serving financial deals, his long-standing friendship with shady American financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and his disastrous 2019 interview on the BBC about his relationship with Mr. Epstein. While denying allegations of sex with underage girls, the Prince told interviewer Emily Maitlis that he didn’t regret his friendship with Mr. Epstein, who by then had died, presumably by suicide, while incarcerated. Indeed, Andrew declared that “the people that I met and the opportunities that I was given to learn either by him or because of him were actually very useful.”
The fallout was swift in the form of public outrage and opprobrium for the Royal Family member often considered the Queen’s favourite child. Within days of the BBC interview, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Andrew had suspended his public duties “for the foreseeable future.” By May, 2020, he had been stripped of his patronages, and had resigned his official duties. Two years later, in March, 2022, he paid an undisclosed sum, said to be in the millions of U.S. dollars, to settle an underage sex-assault civil suit brought by Virginia Giuffre, an associate of the late Mr. Epstein. Unlike his parents, who were hard at work well into their 90s, Andrew was effectively cashiered out of “the firm” in his early 60s.
After the tumult of her children’s relationships, the Queen seemed well pleased with her grandson Prince William’s choice of a bride and future consort in 2011. A commoner, Catherine Middleton was beautiful, warm and decorously behaved in private as well as public. Indeed, her lack of aristocratic antecedents was considered an asset by many who thought she would inject “hybrid vigour” into the Royal Family.
Unlike Diana, who was proclaimed a virgin bride and who barely knew her much-older husband, Prince Charles, Catherine had been William’s friend and lover for years. Their wedding, on April 29, 2011, was watched by millions around the globe and generally acclaimed as a jolly good thing. The subsequent arrival of their three children, George, Charlotte and Louis, added stability to the line of succession and plenty of photo ops for an avid public eager for news of the Royal Family.
The story was not nearly so rosy when Prince William’s younger brother Harry, who had married the American actor Meghan Markle in a lavish ceremony in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018, announced fewer than two years later, that he and his wife were taking “a step back” as senior members of the Royal Family. They moved to California with their baby son, Archie. A year later, they made their departure official, sealed with a tell-all interview about racism, lack of support for Meghan’s mental-health issues and complaints about Prince Charles’s parenting style in a prime-time television special with Oprah Winfrey that was watched by a global audience of nearly 50 million viewers.
The Royal Family was publicly muted but privately hurt, especially as Prince Philip was hospitalized with what turned out to be a fatal heart condition. According to Ingrid Seward in her 2020 biography, Prince Philip Revealed: “For Philip, whose entire existence had been based on a devotion to doing his duty, it appeared that his grandson had abdicated for the sake of his marriage to an American divorcee in much the same way as Edward VIII gave up his crown to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936.”
Harry flew back to England alone for his grandfather’s funeral, a family affair in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. COVID-19 restrictions allowed only 30 mourners to gather for the simple service with choral music and no eulogies, according to Philip’s wish that there be “no fuss.” His widow, wearing a mask and a black coat and hat, sat alone in the choir stalls, facing a future without the support of the man to whom she had been married for nearly three-quarters of a century.
Reputedly, Harry met with his grandmother twice before he returned to California and Meghan, his heavily pregnant wife. The couple, who had been unguarded, even intemperate, in their public complaints about the Royal Family and the institution of the monarchy, seemed to be trying to make amends, or curry favour, after their daughter was born on June 4, 2021. They called the baby Lilibet, a nickname the future Queen had been given by her grandfather, George V, in imitation of her halting efforts as a small child to pronounce her own name.
The name has remained a private and special endearment within the family, as the Queen indicated when she signed Lilibet on the solitary wreaths she placed on the coffin of her mother in 2002 and her husband nearly 20 years later. Her namesake, Lilibet Diana Mountbatten-Windsor, is also named after Harry’s late mother. She is called “Lili” for short.
Holding the family together, especially when a beloved member had turned his back on duty, was hard for the Queen. She knew from painful personal experience how onerous it had been for her father to assume the crown when his older brother – her Uncle David – was still hanging about, and loyalties were divided regarding which one was the real monarch.
That family trauma probably nurtured her belief that being monarch was a lifetime occupation, a promise she made publicly back in 1947 and which she reiterated on her coronation day in 1953. She made it clear that she had no intention of stepping aside in favour of her son Prince Charles, although she did let him do more of the heavy lifting with the defection of his son Harry and the disgrace his brother Andrew had brought upon himself and the family.
As she entered her 90s, she designated Charles to travel to far-flung parts of her realm for important occasions such as Commonwealth meetings and asked him to accompany her on ceremonial occasions such as the opening of Parliament in 2021, less than a month after Philip’s funeral.
The public taste for Charles, who often seemed an out-of-touch ditherer, warmed as he took on more public duties for his increasingly frail mother and his warnings about environmental calamities began to ring true.
The preponderance of her loyal subjects, however, wanted the Queen to live forever, if only to avoid the question of who or what should come afterward. Après Elizabeth, le déluge, was in the minds of many as the Queen resolutely carried on until she was finally defeated, as most of us will be, by age and infirmity.
The Decibel: More on Elizabeth’s legacy
Vicky Mochama, a Globe contributor who writes about the Royal Family, looks back at the Queen’s achievements and what the monarchy’s future might be without her. Subscribe for more episodes.