Queen Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II (1926-2022) became queen of Great Britain and Ireland upon the death of her father, George VI, in 1952. She was a popular queen, respected for her knowledge of and participation in state affairs.

Elizabeth II was born on April 21, 1926, in London, the oldest child of the Duke of York and his wife, Elizabeth. Her father became King George VI, of Great Britain and Ireland in 1936 when his older brother Edward VIII abdicated the throne. Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten in November 1947, and they had four children—Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward.

Since the 1960s, criticism of the monarchy and of the queen has been both positive and negative. Indeed, it may be said that is precisely because the monarchy has not "created a truly classless and Commonwealth court" that it has been an institution of inestimable value to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in the second half of the 20th century. Britain is not noticeably less a "deferential society" now than it was in Walter Bagehot's day, and there can be no doubt that considerable spiritual consolation can be derived from symbolic continuity with past glory in rapidly changing and often all too inglorious times.

There have, however, been subtle changes in the monarchy. The work of the monarch and the monarchy has increased, and the queen accordingly shared some of her duties with her children, upon whom more public attention was focussed. She pursued her functions along lines laid out by her father, George VI: diligence, duty, dignity, and compassion. Her involvement of the whole family in her duties also reflected the influence of her father, who used to speak of his family as "The Firm."

In addition, the queen, perhaps in part influenced by her strong-willed and perceptive husband, started some new trends toward modernization and openness in the monarchy. Her efforts were not unsuccessful. The queen and her activities commanded international attention and widespread respect. The prime ministers who served under her, notably Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, were impressed by her knowledge of state affairs—gained by conscientious reading of state papers contained in the Red Boxes, dispatch cases which followed her everywhere. Her popularity at home and abroad was indisputable.

A Popular Traveller

At least part of this popularity could be attributed to her far-flung travels as the embodiment of Commonwealth unity and British nationalism. Her interested and gracious demeanor on these travels contributed to the warmth and enthusiasm of the receptions which greeted her. Between 1970 and 1985 she had a dizzyingly full schedule. She visited France in the spring of 1972, attended the Commonwealth Conference in Ottawa in 1973, took part in the U.S. bicentennial celebrations and then headed north to Montreal to open the 1976 Summer Olympics, and travelled some 56,000 miles throughout the Commonwealth as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations. In 1979 she travelled to Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, where she was showered with gifts of dazzling (and dazzlingly precious) jewelry.

In April 1982 she made a less exotic but constitutionally more important visit to Ottawa, where she proclaimed the New Canadian constitution, which cut the last legal links between the United Kingdom and Canada. In March of 1984 she visited Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island, Mexico, California, and British Columbia. While in California, her first trip to the west coast of North America, she had some 20 public appearances, including a visit to a movie studio and a gala dinner in San Francisco. She also went to President Reagan's Santa Barbara ranch, to former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Walter Annenberg's luxurious estate, and, in a private capacity, to Yosemite National Park with Prince Philip. She went to North America again in 1984, visiting Canada for the 14th time and then, privately, to the United States to inspect horse-breeding farms in Kentucky and to the wild west of Sheridan County, Wyoming.

Changes in the queen's circumstances and events in her private life necessarily had a public impact. In the early 1970s there was considerable controversy over her request for an increase in her civil list funding. Although it was not unreasonable that she would require additional funds to carry out her public duties in the style to which her subjects had become accustomed and in an era of rampant inflation, some critics considered her request tactless because she was one of the world's wealthiest women. Even such supporters of the monarchy as Richard Crossman publicly resented the fact that her income was not taxable. Despite the critics, however (and perhaps also because of them: the public outcry over their disloyal attitude was loud), funding was increased.

In the early 1980s personal security around the queen was increased after two unpleasant incidents. In June of 1981, while the queen was riding to the Trooping of the Color in London's Mall, a bystander in the crowd fired six blanks in her direction. Thirteen months later an unemployed and disturbed man, Michael Fagan, managed to get into Buckingham Palace and, after wandering in the corridors, entered the queen's bedroom. With admirable aplomb she spoke soothingly to the intruder, who sat bleeding on her bed, and managed to summon help.

Happier events also had their public impact. On November 20, 1972, the queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a service in Westminster Abbey. One hundred couples from all over Britain who happened to have the same anniversary were invited to share in the occasion. The queen's two older children married with great ceremony and had children of their own. On November 14, 1973, Princess Anne married commoner Mark Philips and later had two children: Peter, born in 1977, and Zara, born in 1981. Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981; their two sons, Prince William and Prince Henry, were born in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Another son, Prince Andrew (made Duke of York), married Sarah Ferguson, July 23, 1986; their two daughters, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie were born in 1988 and 1990 respectively.

A Highly Respected Monarch

One of Queen Elizabeth's happier events was her Silver Jubilee in 1977, marked by an outpouring of devotion to the queen, her family, and the institution of the British monarchy in the form of innumerable sporting events, festivals, carnivals, races, concerts, commemorative stamps, and other activities in her honor. On May 4, 1977, both Houses of Parliament presented loyal addresses to her in Westminster Hall. At St. Paul's Cathedral in June the queen and her family celebrated a Thanksgiving service. The queen indicated her concern for her subjects by voicing her desire that the Silver Jubilee year be a special time "for people who find themselves the victims of human conflict," by travelling extensively to meet her subjects during the year, and by establishing the Silver Jubilee Trust Fund, headed by the Prince of Wales, which was designed "to help the young to help others." She demonstrated her interest in the jubilee through the television broadcast of two films, Royal Heritage and The Queen's Garden, the publication of a book about her private art collection, the opening of the Holbein Room at Windsor Castle to the public, and the display of some of her works of art in a special Silver Jubilee train which tracked across Australia.

Elizabeth Longford, one of the queen's biographers, has suggested that it was only after the jubilee, when she was able to see the loyalty and esteem of her subjects demonstrated, that she realized her potential as a monarch. Her inhibitions were broken down and she became more confident, more open, and more ready to reveal her keen sense of humor, strong common sense, great energy, and nearly imperturbable serenity of character.

After her accession the queen endeavored in her own way to make the British monarchy more modern, more open, and more accessible. She replaced the noxious presentation of debutantes with informal Buckingham Palace luncheons to which a variety of figures eminent in diverse fields ranging from industry to the stage to sports to Scotland Yard were invited. The guest lists at her garden parties became increasingly eclectic. She showed interest and skill in use of the broadcast media, notably in her annual Christmas television messages, in royally sanctioned documentaries such as The Royal Palaces of Britain (1966) and The Royal Family as well as the two Jubilee presentations, and in television broadcasts of Prince Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales and of the royal weddings. Perhaps the most popular of her attempts was the "walkabout," in which she left her car or entourage to meet, shake hands, and chat with ordinary people in the crowds which gathered around her. These spontaneous strolls, which she started in 1970 while on a trip to New Zealand, revealed her conviction that "I have to be seen to be believed."

Troubles Plague the House of Windsor

However, in the late 1980s, the Queen grew concerned over the state and the future of the monarchy. The British press increasingly chronicled the problems in her children's marriages. It appeared to many that Prince Charles was not interested in suceeding to the throne, preferring instead to hunt, play polo, and spend time with his longtime mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles. There were rumors that the Queen would abdicate the throne to her grandson, Prince William. Her troubles seemed to peak in 1992, and she herself called it a "annus horribilis" a horrible year.

The twenty year marriage of Princess Anne ended in divorce; Prince Charles and Prince Andrew officially separated from their wives. On the night of November 20, a good section of Windsor Castle (one of Queen Elizabeth's official residences), suffered extensive fire damage. Immediately, a public outcry arose when it was announced the castle's restoration would be paid for out of public coffers. Britons felt that the Queen, who enjoyed a tax-exempt income in the millions, should pay for the restoration. Two days later, Buckingham Palace announced that the Queen and her family would no longer be exempt from taxation. This announcement was seen as a gesture of savvy and goodwill. The year ended on a happier note, as Princess Anne remarried on December 12.

In 1995, the Queen wrote a letter to Prince Charles and Princess Diana urging them to divorce, prompted by separate television interviews where they discussed their unhappy 14-year marriage. They were divorced in 1996, as were Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Despite these very public family problems, the Queen generally remained popular.

However, her resolve was tested after the August 1997 death of her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana. Some Britons lashed out at the Queen for "being too bound up by protocol." Surprised by the backlash, she broke tradition and addressed the nation in a live broadcast the day before the funeral, paying tribute to Diana. The significance of this gesture was seen as significant, as the Queen usually addresses the nation only on Christmas Day; this was the second exception to that rule in her then 45-year reign.

Queen Elizabeth's Death

On September 8, 2022, at the age of 96, Queen Elizabeth II died in her summer home in Scotland, Balmoral Castle, after experiencing a decline in health. Seven months before her death, Queen Elizabeth II reached her Platinum Jubilee, making her the first British monarch to live 70 years as sovereign. 

Further Reading on Elizabeth II

There is a good deal of literature about Queen Elizabeth and the state of the monarchy. Of interest to those intrigued by the private life of royalty are two books by the queen's former governess, Marion Crawford: The Little Princesses (1950) and Elizabeth the Queen (1952). A well-documented, perceptive, and flattering portrait of the queen and her family is contained in Robert Lacey's Jubilee year Majesty: Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor (1977). An uncritically laudatory biography is Queen Elizabeth (1979) by Judith Campbell, which is useful only because it has a great number of interesting photographs. Of the greatest value is Elizabeth Longford's The Queen: The Life of Elizabeth II (1983), which is insightful, skillfully written, and thoroughly researched. Royal biographer Anne Edwards profiled the Queen and Princess Margaret in Royal Sisters (1990), which provides an honest account of life as a royal. In 1996, S. Badford chronicled the Queen's life in Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen (1996). Information on the Internet is also available. Unofficial Web sites on the Queen and royal family can be accessed through the search tool Yahoo, by searching for "Queen Elizabeth II." (July 29, 1997). General biographical information on the Internet can be accessed through http://www.mun.ca/library/ref/qeiifaq.html#crowned.