It is hard to imagine life without Her Majesty. After surpassing her great grandmother Queen Victoria to become the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch, the Queen’s death marks the end of the Second Elizabethan era. Buckingham Palace announced her death on Thursday evening saying: 'The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon.'
For an entire generation the Queen is the only Sovereign they have ever known. A mother, grandmother and great grandmother, the Queen has played many roles in her life. But when she became the Sovereign she was required to fulfil three rights; ‘the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn’. Throughout her seven decades on the throne she has fulfilled her role as a constitutional monarch flawlessly. Indeed she has given her whole life to duty, playing her part in upholding the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth during wars, natural disasters and most recently, the global pandemic. The loss of Her Majesty will be felt deeply because our 96-year-old Queen has long held a global fascination.
Christmases without the monarch’s annual message of hope, reflection and forward thinking will feel very different from now on as will those grand set pieces which have punctuated our calendars; from investitures to the State Opening of Parliament, summer garden parties at Buckingham Palace, Trooping the Colour and Royal Ascot.
Elizabeth II was a record breaking Queen and the only UK monarch to have celebrated a Silver, Golden, Diamond, Sapphire and Platinum Jubilee.
Her 70-year-long reign has spanned 15 British Prime Ministers, 14 American Presidents and seven popes.
Ironically our greatest ever monarch was never born to be Queen; the abdication of her uncle Edward VII changed her and her father’s lives forever, but when duty called Princess Elizabeth dedicated her life to her people. On her 21st birthday she dedicated herself to the people of the Commonwealth and called on her subjects to join her in an ambition – to 'give nothing less than the whole of ourselves' to create a country and a Commonwealth that was in her words, 'more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world'.
Since making that pledge she has led by example. In an age when to be royal was different to being simply famous, she was stellar. She was most famous person on the planet, the ultimate global icon, yet while many felt they ‘knew’ the Queen very few truly did. Shy by nature and determined to preserve the mystique of the monarchy the Queen never gave an interview. Perhaps the closest we got to see of her real personality was the rare moments we saw her with her family, with her dogs and with her horses and driving around her beloved Balmoral estate.
As a young queen she was nicknamed the World’s Sweetheart and in the words of contemporary British historian Sir Charles Petrie: ‘She was the subject of adulation unparalleled since the days of Louis XIV.’ Her face was on Britain’s stamps and its money, and, since the technological advance which had seen the televising of her Coronation continued apace, Elizabeth was also queen of the airwaves, too. She connected with subjects in the furthest corners of her Commonwealth through the radio and TV, and she made a point of going to see them in person, too. The royal visit became her leitmotif. ‘I have to be seen to be believed,’ she once said, and she made sure she was both.
A post-Coronation tour took her across Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East and the Caribbean. It spanned 174 days, between 1953 and 1954 and made history with the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast from a foreign country. She recorded her good wishes in a strapless evening dress and diamonds at Government House in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1953.
She was also the original style icon, her sense of fashion emulated around the world.
As a young and beautiful Queen she was compared to Grace Kelly and favoured elegant designs by Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell who had created her wedding and coronation gowns. She chose bright, block colours which meant she could be seen in a crowd and hats which framed, never covered, her face. She was unafraid of lace and jewels for daytime and at night the passion for elaborate embroidery she still displays today was given free rein.
The Queen was one of the world’s first power dressers, her outfits designed to pay homage to another nation by employing a national colour or an appropriate motif.
Her reign has been the most extraordinary journey from the struggle of the post-war '50s to the swinging '60s when she celebrated England’s men's World Cup triumph and man’s first steps on the moon (which the Queen watched on the television along with Prince Philip and their family.) The Queen reigned supreme during the 1970s when she celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977 and the 1980s which saw two royal marriages – and four royal babies. The 1990s was to prove the toughest decade of her reign with the break down of three of four of her children’s marriages, the fire at Windsor Castle and the death of Princess Diana – a tragedy which was to become the greatest crisis of the Queen’s reign. For the first time her public turned against her, leading the Queen (who had been at Balmoral with Princes William and Harry) to return to London and address her people from Buckingham Palace in a moving and historic address.
‘That speech was a watershed moment,’ says Charles Anson, the Queen’s former press secretary. ‘Her tribute to Diana was so heartfelt, especially when she said, "I’m speaking not only as your Queen, but as a grandmother." I know there was some advice in that, suggestions and so on, but it broke some new ground. She spoke in an informal way and people were very touched by that.’
It also showed that despite the criticism she had received for being absent and not flying the flag at half mast (because of protocol) the Queen was in touch with her people. According to Charles Anson her calm nature meant she was able to handle the tragedy and the escalating crisis it posed to her reign.
‘Even during some of the most difficult times, I was struck by the Queen’s calmness,’ he says. ‘I can’t remember a single occasion when I would see the Queen lose her cool. She had an incredible way of internally taking it on and being very practical. She would say, "Right, what have we got to decide to do now? What’s the next step?"'
Her unflappable nature – and devout faith in God – ensured she was able to weather the many storms of her life. Over the decades she has fallen in and out of favour with the press and endured having her life and familial relationships played out on the stage and screen. She never succumbed to the temptation to watch how she was portrayed on the hit TV series The Crown saying to one confidante: ‘Why would I? Watching it would be terribly strange indeed.’
Yet she was willing to allow the cameras into her home for the 1969 Royal Family film and the film Elizabeth R back in 1992 to celebrate her Ruby Jubilee and 40 years on the throne. She was famously willing to take part in perhaps one of the greatest TV stunts in history when she ‘parachuted’ out of a helicopter for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics during her sparkling Diamond Jubilee Year. And who can forget that moment with Paddington at her Platinum Jubilee?
Always keen to learn about technology and innovation the Queen recognised that in order for the monarchy to survive and thrive it needed to keep up with the times. It is why she embraced the digital age joining Facebook and sending her first tweet. During the Covid-19 lockdowns the Queen of the Walkabout became Queen of Zoom. The royal family now has its own Instagram and YouTube account, although the Queen refused to ever do a ‘selfie’ there was the occasional photobomb.
At the turn of the century she embraced the Millennium showing that the monarchy, loved for its heritage and traditions, could also embrace change, modernity and feminism. Having abolished the presentation of debutantes in the 1950s, in 2011 she made changes to the laws of succession to ensure that first born daughters took precedence over younger male heirs meaning Princess Charlotte will retain her position line to the throne for now.
Her role as a global diplomat cannot be underplayed. The Queen made history with her handshake with the leaders of Sinn Fein when she visited Northern Ireland becoming the first monarch in over 100 years to visit the country in 2011 with the Duke of Edinburgh.
That soft power diplomacy was also evident during the Scottish Referendum in 2014.
While she always remained above politics, the Queen’s quiet intervention when she urged the Scottish people ‘to think carefully’ ahead of the referendum may very well have influenced Scotland’s decision to keep the Queen as its head of state in 2014.
The Queen recently admitted to not feeling old - even though she was 95 at the time. Turning down the Oldie of the Year award the monarch said; ‘you are as old as you feel’ and that she did not feel she met the criteria for the ‘Oldie’ award. Not only was she feeling fit as a fiddle, she was also still pin sharp.
That mental and physical agility was largely down to the fact that in her nineties she regularly rode out at Windsor on her fell pony Emma and walked her dogs every day, but a knee complaint made walking hard. In early 2022 she began to miss some events - such as the state opening of Parliament - due to what Buckingham Palace called 'episodic mobility problems'. And in her last public appearance, welcoming the new Prime Minister Liz Truss at Balmoral, she was seen leaning on a walking stick.
While she was never a big drinker the Queen was also advised to cut out her evening martini so that she could be in the optimum health for her Jubilee.
Nonetheless she kept a busy diary. While she had scaled back her international travel some years earlier the Queen remained fully active and engaged during the twilight years of her reign.
Unlike Queen Victoria who mourned Prince Albert’s death until her own, the Queen was determined to make the most of the rest of her life when Prince Philip died and when Covid restrictions were lifted at the end of summer 2021, she was thrilled to get back to work. She travelled around the UK, opening the Scottish Parliament, addressing the Welsh Parliament, hosting US President Joe Biden and his wife at Windsor Castle and attending a global climate summit showing off the energy of a woman 20 years younger.
The Platinum Jubilee was a milestone she greatly looked forward to. A jubilee is by its nature a chance to reflect and look back, but it is also an opportunity to look towards the future – as epitomised by the Queen’s closing balcony appearance alongside just Charles, Camilla, the Cambridges, and their three children. This one, celebrating her historic 70 years on the throne, was a record-breaker, and it’s unlikely any other monarch will mark such a milestone – and surely not with such a uniquely British mix of pageantry and affectionate whimsy (who can forget the corgi picked out by lighted drones in the sky).
The Queen’s death means important issues – such as whether Charles will one day hand the reins to his eldest son Prince William so that the UK can have a younger monarch; what kind of monarchy we want (if any at all) - are at the forefront of the nation’s mind.
For now, we must celebrate the great life and reign of the most remarkable monarch to ever rule over this land.