Queen Elizabeth II: a long life of duty and service
The Queen's reign spanned Britain’s journey from empire to Brexit, from the wireless to the smartphone. The FT reviews the important moments in her life
Produced and written by Josh de la Mare and Joe Sinclair. Narrated by Janina Conboye. Based on words by Sue Cameron, Gordon Cramb and Henry Mance. Additional research by Simon Greaves. Commissioning editor: Veronica Kan-Dapaah
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The reign of Queen Elizabeth II spans Britain's journey from empire to Brexit, from the wireless to the smartphone. She was seen by many as a figurehead able to hold together her people. But the Queen also faced her critics about the role of the royals as the attention of the media became ever more intense. Yet while she was one of the most recognisable women in the world, almost nothing was known about her private views, an approach she thought fitting for a constitutional monarch.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born in London on April the 21st 1926. The eldest child of the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Prince Albert. Known as Bertie in the family, he was the second son of King George V and expected his elder brother, known as David to the family, to become king. Right from the outset Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret attracted great attention. They were educated at home which allowed them plenty of time for riding lessons, instilling a lifelong passion for horses.
In 1936, King George V died and David became King Edward VIII. But his decision to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson soon forced his abdication. And so Princess Elizabeth's shy, stammering father became King George VI. And from then on, Elizabeth was heir to the throne.
Gradually she was introduced to public life. During the second world war she volunteered to work as a military driver and a mechanic on the home front. On her 21st birthday she made a defining speech to the Commonwealth, broadcast from South Africa.
I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
Her life was indeed to be long, and much of it she spent with Philip, the distant cousin to whom she became officially engaged at 21 that same year in 1947. Philip was the son of Prince Andrew of Greece. But the former Royal Navy lieutenant was also descended from Queen Victoria, just like Elizabeth, and so was essentially British. To further ensure he was eligible he renounced his Greek royal title and was created Duke of Edinburgh.
Princess Elizabeth was only to lead something of a more ordinary life with Philip for a short time. In 1952 the couple were in Kenya when they were given the news that Elizabeth's father, King George VI, had died. Suddenly, aged only 25, she was Queen. By that time, Prince Charles had been born in 1948, then Princess Anne in 1950. And while Queen she had two more children, Princes Andrew and Edward.
Elizabeth was now Queen, not just of the United Kingdom but also of the Commonwealth, of Canada, Australia, Jamaica, and other former colonies. And she saw this as a vital part of her mission as monarch. What became rapidly clear was the Queen's sense of duty and appetite for the job, qualities that helped the monarchy survive in a fast-changing world.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 underlined Britain's loss of empire. And at home social attitudes were shifting, in particular about divorce since the crisis over the King's abdication in 1936. Many thought the Queen had been too harsh about her sister Princess Margaret's relationship with divorcee and commoner Group Captain Peter Townsend. Under great pressure to observe her duty to the throne, Margaret abandoned her plans for marriage.
She has made her choice as befits a member of the royal family.
By the end of the 1960s the Queen recognised the royal image needed to change. She allowed a BBC crew into Buckingham Palace in 1969 to make a documentary. It raised the popularity of the Windsors but also opened the door to constant interest from the media.
Then the Queen arrived, to be greeted by Number 10's present tenant...
But when it came to politics she had always shown skill as a constitutional monarch in remaining impartial in the eyes of the media. Confidentiality surrounded her relationship with a long succession of prime ministers. Labour's James Callaghan said she offered her prime ministers "friendliness but not friendship".
And I'm amazed that she's been brave enough to take me on.
And I suppose, in love?
Whatever in love means.
It was when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 that media attention snowballed. The ceremony was watched by 750mn people around the world. And what nobody had bargained for was that Princess Diana quickly became an international celebrity. The Queen and Charles seemed to expect Diana to accept the traditional role of putting duty first and hiding any unhappiness. But the Windsors had misjudged her.
The next few years were among the hardest of Queen Elizabeth's reign. 1992 became the Queen's "annus horribilis", or horrible year as she called it, during a Guildhall banquet to mark her 40th year on the throne.
1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my most sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an "annus horribilis".
The Queen's favourite royal home, Windsor Castle, had been badly damaged by a fire. The marriages of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew had ended. The perilous state of Charles and Diana's marriage had been revealed in a biography, and by December they had announced their separation. Worse was to come.
On August 31st 1997, a nation awoke to the news that Diana, Princess of Wales, had died in a car crash in Paris. Her popularity had soared since the break-up of the marriage and the outpouring of public grief was unprecedented. So, too, within days was the criticism of the Queen for what many saw as a cold reaction. Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister, had paid fulsome tribute to the "people's princess".
I feel like everyone else in this country today. Utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana's family, in particular her two sons, the two boys.
But the Queen remained silent and chose to remain in Scotland with her bereaved grandsons, William and Harry. Then six days later she did return to London and decided to break tradition by ordering the royal standard over Buckingham Palace to be flown at half-mast. She met some of the thousands who were laying flowers in memory of Diana.
I, for one, believe there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death. I share in your determination to cherish her memory.
The Queen had finally shown she was willing to listen, but her tight-lipped response to Diana's death marked a low point in her relationship with the public and the media. That followed a slow but steady return to greater popularity for the Queen and for her family. She met some of the growing demands for the House of Windsor to abandon its costly pomp. And she, herself, eventually started to pay income tax, though it was seldom clear how much.
In the millennium year her mother's 100th birthday reinforced support for the monarchy. So, too, did a new generation of unstuffy younger royals. While Prince Charles seemed to be no great moderniser, his two sons by Diana, William and Harry, returned a more popular image to the royal family, epitomised in 2011 by Prince William's Westminster Abbey marriage to Kate Middleton. And the Queen herself seemed to want to show she was not nearly as stern and serious as she often appeared in public.
For the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, she was filmed in a cameo with the actor Daniel Craig reprising his role as James Bond. In 2015, her reign overtook that of Queen Victoria, and at 89 she became Britain's longest-serving monarch.
Inevitably, a long life can pass by many milestones. My own is no exception. But I thank you all and the many others at home and overseas for your touching messages of great kindness.
In her ninth decade she showed little sign of slowing down, only gradually handing over some of her lesser duties to Prince Charles. And her family continued to pose challenges. Serious allegations relating to Prince Andrew's friendship with financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein ended in his humiliation. He pulled out of all public duties and was stripped by the Queen of military titles and royal patronages.
Later, Prince Andrew made a multimillion-pound settlement out of court in a sexual abuse lawsuit, and so was spared a trial that threatened to heap further embarrassment on the royal family. The prince denied any wrongdoing.
For many the wedding of her grandson, Prince Harry, to the American actress Meghan Markle in 2018 was a signal of hope and change. But the couple announced their resignation from public duties after months of unhappiness in the public eye. They stepped down permanently as working royals and moved to California. In an interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey they aired allegations of racism within the royal institution. For the Queen herself though, there were only warm words.
On the global stage the Queen continued to play host to world leaders, including US presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden; the Pope and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping; as well as making a groundbreaking state visit to Ireland and addressing the president of Germany.
In our lives Mr President, we have seen the worst but also the best of our continent. We have witnessed how quickly things can change for the better. But we know that we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the postwar world.
And in that post-war world, she had seen progress, although never smooth, on some of the things it is said she felt most strongly about - reconciliation in Ireland and the UK's ability to hold together. The kingdom she left was still united with its parliamentary traditions just about intact, although under great strain from calls for Scottish independence and from the protracted process of Brexit.
In 2019 the Queen was asked to suspend parliament by prime minister Boris Johnson, a request later ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. And the many trials she'd faced in her reign were not over. When the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world the queen looked to boost the nation's morale. On the 75th anniversary of VE or Victory in Europe Day, she made a rare televised broadcast. She praised the National Health Service and the nation's response to the crisis.
When I look at our country today and see what we are willing to do to protect and support one another, I say with pride that we are still a nation those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen would recognise and admire.
The Queen's husband Philip died in April 2021 at the age of 99. She had described him as her "strength and stay". The image of her at his funeral, mourning alone in the chapel because of Covid restrictions, was a reminder of her humanity. She, herself, was becoming more fragile. And in the continued transition of royal duties Prince Charles took the place of the 96-year-old Queen in 2022 to read her speech to parliament on the government's legislative plans.
Her Majesty's government's priority is to...
It was the first time she was unable to attend the state opening of parliament in almost 60 years. But the Queen believed in remaining monarch for the rest of her lifetime. In February 2022, she had become the first monarch to reach 70 years on the throne. And to many the Platinum Jubilee was a moment to celebrate the tradition and dignity she had brought to a country that had endured much under the pandemic.
Queen. Figurehead. Mother. Grandmother. Widow. She was admired even by critics of the monarchy for her sense of duty and service to the nation.