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Queen Elizabeth II: A giant among British royals


Descending the stairs of the royal plane at London Airport on 7 February 1952, the former Princess Elizabeth took her first steps on British soil as queen. She was 25.

Only days earlier, her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with her sister, Princess Margaret, had joined a crowd 3000-strong to bid farewell to their eldest daughter and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, as they prepared to depart for a five-month tour of Australia and New Zealand. Due to her father’s declining health, Elizabeth had already represented him at a number of public engagements, and had only recently returned from a tour to Canada on his behalf, but in early 1952, as the king’s condition showed signs of improvement, it was decided that he was well enough for the young princess to embark on a tour that would see her travel 30,000 miles across four continents.

After sharing a private goodbye on board the aircraft, the royal family returned to the tarmac. With a final wave from the king, the door closed and the plane began its taxi. It was the last time Elizabeth saw her father. Six days later, on 6 February, during the couple’s stay at Treetops Hotel in Kenya, the first stop on the tour, a Reuters press flash alerted the accompanying media that the king had died in his sleep at Sandringham early that morning. He was 56.

At 2.45 p.m. local time, once the princess’ private secretary, Martin Charteris, had confirmed the news, Prince Philip informed Elizabeth of her father’s death. Following a nineteen-hour flight, the royal plane landed back at London Airport where a small group of Elizabeth’s ministers, led by her uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, waited to greet her. The royal couple drove to Clarence House in a car bearing the Sovereign’s Arms, and the next day, 8 February 1952, the accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was proclaimed.

At the time of her birth Princess Elizabeth was never expected to ascend the throne. Were it not for the 1936 abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, the monarchy as it exists today would be very different indeed. Edward was never crowned and his reign lasted a mere 325 days. Had he fulfilled his kingly duties he would have been required to marry and provide an heir and a spare, but his infatuation with twice-divorced American socialite, Wallis Simpson, and subsequent abdication led to an unprecedented and dramatic shift within the House of Windsor. As his brother’s successor, King George VI renewed the general populace’s faith in the centuries-old institution, which had been badly shaken as a result of Edward’s actions. In turn he proved himself to be far better suited to the role of kingship than his elder brother. Re-establishing a sense of national unity, he led his country through the war years, and his popularity in life gave way to public affection for Elizabeth upon his death.

Most Britons alive today have never known any other sovereign, and with more than seventy years as head of the world’s most famous family, it is hard for many to imagine a Britain in which Elizabeth II is not the head of state. She is the nation’s fortieth monarch and only the sixth queen since William the Conqueror took the crown more than a thousand years ago. As Britain’s longest reigning monarch – having surpassed Queen Victoria’s record on 9 September 2015 – she is also the country’s longest-lived monarch, as well as the world’s oldest-serving sovereign. In addition to the UK, she was head of state to fifteen other nations known as the Realms and serves as the symbolic leader of the fifty-three-member Commonwealth of Nations. Unlike her mother, she has never been viewed as the nation’s favourite ‘twinkly eyed granny’. 

Elizabeth’s reign has granted the country stability and continuity; she presided over many of the greatest socio-economic changes of the twentieth century. Her rule spanned fifteen British prime ministers, fourteen US presidents and seven popes. At the request of her government she had dealings with countless global leaders and political heroes and villains including presidents Gorbachev, Eisenhower and Mugabe, South African leader Nelson Mandela, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and IRA commander Martin McGuiness. Over the course of the twentieth century she signed documents giving independence to hundreds of millions of citizens across the world, and yet it is on the domestic front that she oversaw many of the monarchy’s most significant reforms. During her sovereignty the royal family overhauled its personal finances, resulting in a 1992 agreement for he queen to start paying income tax. In 2011, Elizabeth approved changes to the laws to succession, allowing first-born daughters to take precedence over younger-born brothers, as well as permitting future heirs to marry Roman Catholics (even if they themselves may not convert to Catholicism). These sweeping modifications, long overdue in the eyes of many critics, put an end to laws dating back over 300 years. In 2013, before a global press, Elizabeth signed the historic Commonwealth Charter – a single document unanimously approved by members of the Commonwealth – setting out the core values of the organisation and demanding equality for all. 

In 1958 the queen abolished the presentation of the debutantes, which had historically marked the start to the social season. Later she made the ‘walkabout’ the norm, embraced the world of social media and, in 1993, agreed to open Buckingham Palace to the paying public for a few months of the year. Today the monarchy, although considered aloof and out of touch by some observers, has its own website and Facebook account, not to mention a presence on YouTube, Flickr and Instagram. The announcement of Prince George’s birth in July 2013 was placed on an easel in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, as had been the tradition for previous royal babies … but not before the news was beamed around the world via Twitter. The queen was well aware that in order to remain relevant in the twenty-first century, modern communication has to be incorporated. 

Whether allowing herself to be filmed at Buckingham Palace with James Bond and corgis in tow for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, or solidifying the peace process in Northern Ireland by sharing a symbolic handshake with the leaders of Sinn Féin, the queen remained above party politics while retaining her place in the public’s affection. The chances of the world witnessing another reign as long and eventful as hers are slim. Her place in history is secure. Though many Britons are reluctant to acknowledge the inevitable day when the mantle of sovereignty will pass to her eldest son, Charles, the Prince of Wales, the queen will leave a neatly packaged monarchy for which many archaic laws have been changed, hands of friendship have been extended and popularity stands at an all-time high. 

It has been more than seventy years since the queen took her Coronation Oath in Westminster Abbey. A devoutly religious woman, she solemnly swore to ‘govern her people, cause Law and Justice in mercy to be executed, and maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel’, before the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, anointed her with oil and placed St Edward’s Crown upon her head. In commemoration of her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, speaking before both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, she rededicated herself to her role, declaring:

‘We are reminded here of our past, of the continuity of our national story and the virtues of resilience, ingenuity and tolerance which created it. I have been privileged to witness some of that history and, with the support of my family, rededicate myself to the service of our great country and its people now and in the years to come.’

 Her words offered a clear indication that she had no intention of stepping aside, and echoed the commitment she made in a radio address on her 21st birthday in 1947. In the broadcast, made to the Commonwealth during a tour to Southern Africa with her parents, she said, ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’

The world today is far less deferential than when Elizabeth ascended the throne, but through consistency, commitment and devotion to duty, she has managed to win over many ardent Republicans who have declared her to be ‘untouchable’. Even as Scottish nationalists looked to the 2014 referendum on independence, they vowed to keep the queen as head of state regardless of the vote’s outcome. In terms of her place in pop culture, Elizabeth II is one of the most instantly recognisable women in the world and has inspired countless storytellers and artists during her seven decades on the British throne. There are books lending insight into every facet of her life, from her wardrobe, palaces and jewels to the contents of her handbag. Children’s offerings include Paddington at the Palace and the slightly less reverent The Queen’s Knickers, and classic literary figures such as Christopher Robin and Alice have visited Buckingham Palace in their fictional escapades. Her likeness even appeared on the silver screen alongside Leslie Nielson in the hit comedy The Naked Gun.

Dame Helen Mirren has portrayed her so successfully – both on stage and screen – that Prince William cheekily referred to her as ‘Granny’ when he presented Mirren with the BAFTA Fellowship in 2013. There are Warhol portraits and Spitting Image puppets. Even an album cover by legendary punk band The Sex Pistols bears her image. She is featured on stamps, money, china, biscuit tins, bobbleheads and tea towels the world over, but as enticing as her global fame may seem, it has come at a significant personal cost, beginning with the death of her father.

Her formal title was: Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, but historians will remember her as the monarch, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who presided over a second Elizabethan Age – a giant among British royals.

Extracted from Queen Elizabeth II: Pocket GIANTS by Victoria Arbiter

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