Originally third in the line of succession, Elizabeth’s life changed forever when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson, and Elizabeth’s father ascended the throne as George VI in 1936. In the absence of a son, and as the eldest daughter, Elizabeth became heiress presumptive that same year.
When World War II broke out, senior politicians urged the king and queen to send Elizabeth and her younger sister, Margaret, to Canada but the queen declared the children would not leave without her and she would not leave her children. The royal couple also felt it was important to remain in London at Buckingham Palace to show a united front but they spent their nights at Windsor Castle.
In 1940, Elizabeth made her first radio broadcast during Children’s Hour reassuring children who had been evacuated from the cities that everything possible was being done to ensure the war would soon be over. Elizabeth was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of the Grenadier Guards in 1942, and the following year she made her first solo public appearance when she visited them. On VE Day, Elizabeth and her sister celebrated amongst the crowds in London and were not recognised.
In July 1939, Elizabeth met her future husband, Philip of Greece and Denmark, at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth and they began to correspond regularly. When the couple became engaged in July 1947, many government ministers did not think Philip was good enough for Elizabeth as he was a prince without status and he had sisters who had married German noblemen with links to the Nazi party. Before the marriage, Philip dropped his Greek and Danish titles, converted to Anglicism, and took the name Mountbatten from his mother’s side of the family. Philip was also created Duke of Edinburgh and styled as His Royal Highness.
The wedding took place on 20 November 1947 at Westminster Abbey and the couple received 2,500 gifts from around the world. As Britain was still suffering the deprivations of rationing, many women sent the princess clothing coupons to help purchase the material for the wedding gown, however they had to be returned as it was illegal for them to be used by another. Since anti-German sentiment was still running high, Philip’s sisters were notably absent, as was Elizabeth’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor.
On 14 November 1948, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, Charles, and George VI issued letters patent allowing his future grandchildren to use the style and title of a royal prince or princess, to which they otherwise would not have been entitled as their father was no longer a royal prince. A daughter, Anne, was born on 15 August 1950, followed by two more sons, Andrew, on 19 February 1960, and Edward, on 10 March 1964.
Elizabeth and Philip set up residence in Clarence House, London, but since Philip was still active in the British Navy, they often lived abroad at the Villa Guardamangia, Malta, which was the rented home of Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten.
In 1951, Elizabeth began to undertake more royal duties as her father’s health declined, touring Canada and visiting Washington DC, while carrying a draft accession declaration in the event of George VI’s death. In 1952, Elizabeth and Philip were visiting Kenya, while en route to Australia, when news of George VI’s death reached them and Elizabeth was proclaimed queen. The royal couple abandoned their tour, returning to London, where they moved into Buckingham Palace. Since Elizabeth ascended the throne as a married woman, the royal household should have bore Philip’s surname Mountbatten, but Queen Mary and Winston Churchill were in favour of retaining the House of Windsor. After Queen Mary’s death in 1953 and Churchill’s resignation in 1955, the name Mountbatten-Windsor was adopted for Elizabeth and Philip’s male descendants without royal titles.
The coronation took place on 2 June 1953, despite the death of Queen Mary three months prior, at Westminster Abbey and the ceremony was televised for the first time in history. The coronation gown was commissioned from Norman Hartnell, Elizabeth’s favourite designer, and embroidered with the floral emblems of the Commonwealth countries, including the English Tudor rose, the Scots thistle, the Welsh leek, and the Irish shamrock.
Following the coronation, Elizabeth embarked on a six month world tour, becoming the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and New Zealand, where large crowds welcomed her. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth has continued to make state visits to foreign countries, and has toured the Commonwealth countries on a regular basis, so much so she is the most travelled monarch in history.
In 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee while visiting most of the Commonwealth countries, many of whom had arranged special events to mark the occasion, helping to re-affirm the popularity of the monarchy despite the rise in republicanism in countries like Australia and Canada. The Seventies also brought personal tragedy to the royal family when Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, was murdered by the Irish Republican Army. Elizabeth would feel the chill of an attempted assassination herself in 1981 when a seventeen year old shot at her during the Trooping of the Colour while she was on horseback. The Queen maintained her composure throughout the ordeal, receiving praise for her presence of mind while calming her mount. The assailant who was subsequently discovered to have fired blanks, received a five year sentence.
During the Eighties, the Queen had to adapt to a changing world when the royal family came under intense media scrutiny, especially after the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, to Lady Diana Spencer. While most of the controversial stories were untrue, it didn’t deter the public from believing them or curb their appetite for more. The most popular topic seemed to be the deteriorating state of Charles and Diana’s marriage, both of whom were not above manipulating the press to their own advantage. When things started to get out of hand, the Queen was forced to intercede to encourage the couple to seek a divorce in December 1995. The Queen was further saddened when lurid photos of Sarah, Duchess of York, were published and the Yorks subsequently announced their intention to end their marriage as well.
On 31 August 1997, the Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris while her sons were staying with their grandparents at Balmoral. Believing the boys were better off away from the media spotlight, the Queen decided to stay with them in Scotland, but her silence angered the public and she returned to London to give a live broadcast, expressing her admiration for Diana and her sorrow for her grandchildren.
In 2002, the Golden Jubilee celebrations were dampened by the deaths of Princess Margaret in February and the Queen Mother in March, however the Queen decided to go ahead with her scheduled tours and the Jubilee was widely celebrated throughout the realms. A special three-day event in London was greeted with enthusiasm and better attended than the press had predicted, proving the Queen was as popular as ever despite the negativity shown in the media. Throughout the decade, the Queen continued to travel, becoming the first British monarch to make a state visit to the Republic of Ireland in May 2011. Once again, the Queen travelled to Canada in 2010 and Australia in 2011, however the press dubbed them as her farewell tours due to her advancing age.
On the personal front, the engagement of Prince William to his long-term girlfriend, Kate Middleton, was announced in November 2010, which was followed by the birth of the Queen’s first great-grandchild, Savannah Phillips, on 29 December 2010. William and Kate were married on 29 April 2011 in Westminster Abbey with royal favour at an all time high, and the birth of their first child, George, on 22 July 2013, meant there were three male heirs in the direct line of succession for the first time since Queen Victoria’s reign.
As the longest serving monarch since Queen Victoria, the Queen marked her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 by touring the United Kingdom extensively, while her children and grandchildren toured the Commonwealth on her behalf. The Queen released a special message on Accession Day, renewing her declaration to serve her subjects and commemorating the years of her reign. A series of jubilee beacons were lit throughout the world to mark the day.
Later that summer, the Queen became the first head of state to open two Olympic ceremonies in two different countries (the previous one being Montreal in 1976), when she officially opened the Olympic Games in London. The Queen almost stole the show when she took part in a short film where James Bond escorted her to the Opening Ceremony by helicopter and she appeared to parachute into the stadium before taking her official seat.
In 2013, the Queen finally began easing up on her royal duties, relying on Charles, Prince of Wales, and his son, William, Duke of Cambridge, to represent her at many state occasions. On 9 September 2015, Queen Elizabeth surpassed her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, as the longest reigning monarch in British history. On 6 February 2017, she became the first British monarch to celebrate a Sapphire Jubilee and is the world’s longest-reigning queen regnant and female head of state, as well as the oldest and longest-reigning current monarch and the longest-serving current head of state.
On 9 April 2021, the Duke of Edinburgh, aged 99 years, passed away at Windsor Castle and was interred in the Royal Vault in St George’s Chapel a week later. He was the longest-serving royal consort in British history.
Queen Elizabeth II is a great-great grandchild of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a descendant of Edward VII, the eldest son of Victoria and Albert. Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was also a great-great grandchild of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as his mother, Alice of Battenberg, was the granddaughter of Princess Alice, Victoria and Albert’s second daughter.