On Thursday 8th September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth died. She was Britain’s longest-lived and longest-reigning monarch, and the longest serving female head of state in the world. As a Brit and a historian with an interest and knowledge of royal history, it felt only fitting to write something about her life.
Elizabeth was born on 21st April 1926 in Mayfair, London. Her father was Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York and second son of the reigning monarch, King George V. Her mother was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. As a girl, and the daughter of the second son, Elizabeth’s birth brought joy, but she was not expected to take a key role in affairs.
Even as a child, though, Elizabeth began to draw attention. At two years old she was described by Winston Churchill as having “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant” and during her grandfather’s serious illness in 1929 the British public and press praised her for raising his spirits with her visits. She called him ‘Grandpa England’. With his death in 1936 her uncle became King Edward VIII, but he abdicated later that year because of his desire to marry Wallis Simpson. Suddenly, Elizabeth’s father was George VI and she was heir to the throne.
Elizabeth’s education took a new direction to prepare her for the possibility of becoming queen. Soon, though, international events changed her course. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, she and her sister Princess Margaret were taken to Balmoral Castle in Scotland, though a proposal to send them to Canada for their protection from German bombing was rejected by their mother. They eventually were taken to Windsor Castle where they lived for most of the war.
Again, despite her youth, Elizabeth was used to boost public moral. In 1940, aged 14, she made her first ever radio broadcast during the BBC’s Children’s Hour in order to speak directly to children who had been evacuated. A few years later, in 1943, she was photographed looking after her allotment at Windsor Castle to promote the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. As she became an adult she quickly took on a more official role, being made Colonel of the Grenadier Guards and appointed as one of five counsellors of state. In 1944, aged 18, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the women’s branch of the British Army during the war.
During her time in service, Elizabeth trained as a driver and mechanic. Unmarried women under 30 had been conscripted into the service, which also accepted volunteers aged between 17 and 50, and Elizabeth was keen to get involved more with the war effort and serve alongside 250,000 of her fellow countrywomen. She was not given special treatment for her position, and she started as a Second Subaltern, a junior rank.
As a mechanic and driver, she had to take a course as everyone else did, and she qualified in April 1945 – leading her to be dubbed as ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’ in the press. The only exception her rank afforded her was that she returned to Windsor Castle every night to sleep, rather than stay in the camp. Princess Elizabeth got her first proper taste of a royal visit when her parents came to see her at the Mechanical Transport Training Section in Surrey. Elizabeth remarked, “I never knew there was quite so much advance preparation [for a royal visit]”. She had now learnt about a part of the role of monarch she would fulfil countless times over the coming decades.
Elizabeth’s time in the Auxiliary Territorial Service lasted up to the end of the war – and at its end it allowed her a brief glimpse of ‘normal’ life. When the war was declared over, she took to the streets in her uniform with her sister Margaret, incognito, to enjoy the celebrations with everybody else. In later years, now queen, Elizabeth described her fear that she would be recognised, and how she pulled her uniform cap over her eyes to hide her identity. She described the joy and how there were people linking arms in the street, reflecting, “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life”.
Throughout the war, Princess Elizabeth had been corresponding with her cousin (both second cousins once removed, and third cousins) Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. The pair had first met in 1934 when Elizabeth was just eight years old and Philip was thirteen. Just before the outbreak of war, Elizabeth and Philip had met for the third time, where Elizabeth fell in love with him. Now that the war was over and the pair were both adults, their love had grown. In the summer of 1947, the 21-year-old princess formally announced her engagement to the foreign prince.
But though Elizabeth was in love, her status held bars to her plans. She was not a common woman who could marry who she wanted, but a future queen. Her choice in husband would affect the entire realm, and Philip was not seen as a suitable choice. Though he was a prince, his family had been exiled from Greece when he was just 18 months old, and he had been brought up in several countries under the care of numerous relatives. He had no money to bring to the British monarchy, and his family had strong connections to Germany, his four sisters having all married German princes, and other members of his family being members of the Nazi party. With the long Second World War still being a source of pain in the country, a man with such strong ties to the enemy was not an acceptable husband.
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Despite the disapproval of the country, and the reservations of Elizabeth’s own mother, Elizabeth was permitted to proceed with the match. Philip made strong efforts to prove his loyalty to Britain – he having already served in the Royal Navy during the war – by renouncing his Greek and Danish titles and converting to Anglicanism. He also took on the surname of his mother’s British family, the Mountbattens, to emphasise his English connections. He was created Duke of Edinburgh, and granted the style His Royal Highness. Finally, he was deemed suitable, and the couple could wed.
Princess Elizabeth and Philip were married at Westminster Abbey in November 1947. Elizabeth’s wedding dress was designed by Elizabeth’s mother’s dressmaker, Norman Hartnell, who would continue to provide gowns to the royal family throughout his life. The couple were celebrated across the world, and they received thousands of wedding gifts. Though Philip had been begrudgingly accept, his family were pariahs in the country and not allowed to attend. Elizabeth’s uncle, the abdicated King Edward VIII, was also not invited. A year after their wedding, Princess Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, a boy called Charles (who has now, with her death, acceded to the throne as King Charles III).
The happy couple took time to themselves to enjoy newly married life and that of parenthood. They spent two years living in a house near Elizabeth’s fond home of Windsor Castle, then moved to Clarence House in London. Though a princess, Elizabeth followed many women of her time by standing by her husband in his work. Philip was still in the Royal Navy and was stationed in Malta – then a British Colony – and so needed to be away from England for long periods of time. Elizabeth joined her husband for months at a time on the island across the next few years. She gave birth to a second child, her only daughter, Princess Anne, in 1950. When Elizabeth and Philip were in Malta, their two children remained behind in England.
As much as Elizabeth desired a quieter life for a time, from 1951 her father’s health grew significantly worse. Elizabeth was required to stand in for him at public events, and she was thrust further into the limelight. In the autumn of 1951 she toured Canada and visited the President of the USA, then in spring 1952 she was joined by Philip to undertake a tour of Australia and New Zealand, stopping off in Kenya. It was in Kenya on the 6th February 1952 that life-changing news reached the couple: King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, was dead. Elizabeth was now Queen Elizabeth II.
Elizabeth and Philip immediately returned home to Britain, and their lives swirled with plans for the King’s funeral and Elizabeth’s coronation. To allow time both for a suitable mourning period, and for the extent of preparations required, the coronation was set for summer the following year. On 2nd June 1953, Elizabeth was crowned in Westminster Abbey. For the first time ever, parts of the ceremony was broadcast live on television. Following her coronation, Elizabeth and Philip embarked on a seven-month tour of the world in order to visit parts of the Empire and beyond.
Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Platinum Jubilee just earlier this year, marking 70 years since she came to the throne. Her rule, spanning the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, saw incredible changes to the state of the world. When she came to the throne, the British Empire was still going, and she witnessed its dismantling and transformation into the Commonwealth. Her reign witnessed the first person in space, the moon landing, the invention of computers and the internet and other significant leaps forward in technology. There were huge changes in human rights – when she became queen it was still illegal to be a man in a same-sex relationship, and segregation still existed across the Empire and beyond – and rationing from the Second World War was still in place.
Elizabeth’s reign saw many controversies, both in acts of atrocity committed by the British Empire and scandals within the Royal Family itself. In an increasingly “modern” world, there have been repeated calls for the abolition of the monarchy, it being seen as an antiquated establishment not suitable for today. Despite this, as a person and a figurehead, Elizabeth largely remained very popular throughout her life, even from those who disliked the monarchy as an institution. Regardless of opinion, her death is a pivotal point in British history. On her 21st birthday, Elizabeth addressed the British Commonwealth and Empire from Cape Town: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”. She most certainly fulfilled this promise to its fullest.
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