By Jan White
On September 19, the monarch who ruled the United Kingdom for seven decades was laid to rest. Many people alive today can’t remember a time when Queen Elizabeth II wasn’t the head of the British Commonwealth.
But did you know that Elizabeth wasn’t supposed to have been Queen at all?
Before 1917, members of the British Royal family didn’t have a surname but were members of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It was Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, who announced that he and his family would adopt Windsor as their last name.
Upon the death of King George V, his oldest son, King Edward VIII, became heir to the throne. But only a few months into his reign, Edward chose to abdicate his position in order to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. Because Edward’s title would have ostensibly made him head of the Church of England, which at the time disapproved of remarriage after divorce, he would not have been able to marry Simpson and remain on the throne. So after only 326 days, King Edward VIII left the throne and was succeeded by his younger brother, George VI.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, born April 21, 1926, was the eldest daughter of King George VI and, therefore, presumptive heir to the throne. On November 20, 1947, Elizabeth married her cousin Philip Mountbatten, who had to renounce his title of Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and become a British subject in order to marry Elizabeth.
From the beginning, Elizabeth proved to be a strong-willed woman of principle. She did not adopt the tradition of taking her husband’s last name. After acceding to the throne upon her father’s death, Elizabeth announced that she and her children would be known as the house and family of Windsor “and that my descendants who marry and their descendants shall bear the name of Windsor.”
During her seventy years as reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II was part of many significant events in history. Here is a compilation of a few of her most famous moments.
1.Elizabeth’s coronation was the first to be broadcast on live television. Held at Westminster Abbey, the event was watched by twenty-seven million people, and more than eleven million listened by radio.
2.In 1965, Queen Elizabeth ventured on her first visit to West Germany, marking the 20th anniversary of the end of the World War. It was the first official visit there by a British royal since 1913.
3.On October 21, 1966, an elementary school in Aberfan, a village in South Wales, was buried under an avalanche of mud, water, and debris from a local coal mine. One hundred sixteen children and twenty-eight adults lost their lives in the disaster. Prince Philip visited the town on the day of the disaster. However, because she was afraid that the publicity of her arrival would supersede recovery efforts, Queen Elizabeth waited several weeks before visiting the village, a decision she later regretted, saying she feared it showed a lack of sympathy on her part, which was far from the truth.
4.During her tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1970, Queen Elizabeth defied centuries of royal tradition when she took to the streets to greet the crowds in person, rather than waving at them behind the protective glass of a secure vehicle.
5.In 1977, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip rode from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the State Coach to celebrate her 25th year on the throne. The Queen, who by then was becoming known for wearing colorful outfits, donned a bright pink ensemble and a hat trimmed with twenty-five fabric bells. During her 25th Jubilee speech, she repeated her vow to devote her life to service. “Although the vow was made in my “salad” days when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”
6.In 1986, Elizabeth became the first British monarch to visit the Chinese mainland. Although a matter of great diplomatic importance, her visit was overshadowed by press reports of Prince Philip’s inappropriate comments, like calling Beijing “ghastly” and telling a group of British students they would get “slitty eyes” if they stayed in China too long.
7.1992 was, in Queen Elizabeth’s words, ‘annus horribilis,’ Latin for “a horrible year.” Charles and Diana’s marriage had deteriorated and they had announced their separation. Prince Andrew and his wife, Sarah Ferguson had also separated, and Princess Anne divorced her husband, Mark Phillips. A fire broke out in Windsor Castle, destroying more than a hundred rooms. The year, which marked her 40th anniversary as Queen, turned out to be a very unhappy one for Elizabeth.
8.In 2002, Queen Elizabeth was the first British monarch to celebrate a Golden Jubilee, but the event was marred by the loss of both the Queen Mother, and her younger sister, Princess Margaret – who died within weeks of each other.
9.2013 saw the birth of the Queen’s first great-grandson, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, the offspring of Prince William and Kate Middleton, who married in 2011. George is the second in line of succession after his father, and is widely expected to someday be king. His birth marked the first time since Queen Victoria’s reign that three generations of direct heirs to the British throne were alive simultaneously.
10.On April 9, 2021, Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband of seventy-three years, died at the age of 99. For more than half a century, Philip supported his wife in her royal duties. His funeral was held on April 17, but because of Coronavirus restrictions, on thirty guests were invited to attend. Pictures of the Queen, sitting alone in St. George’s Chapel was the symbol to many of her loneliness and grief.
11.The Queen celebrated her Platinum Jubilee in June of 2022. The event that marked her seventy years on the throne featured a military parade, musicians, a Royal Air Force flyover, and an 82-gun salute. A section of London featured a parade of thirty Corgis, Elizabeth’s favorite breed of dog, that marched in procession. Despite just having recovered from Covid, the Queen dressed in pearls, a light blue dress, coat, and hat and greeted wellwishers with a smile from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
Although many might think of the Queen as “stodgy,” those closest to her knew her to be charming and clever, with an unexpected sense of humor and a passion for her role as monarch to the British people. During the War, Elizabeth joined the army and became a truck driver and mechanic. When she married Philip, her dress was paid for with clothing ration coupons to show her solidarity with those struggling through the hard times. Many viewed her as a “middle class mum” rather than a distant figurehead.
“She was my queen for my entire life,” said Sir David Hurley, Governor General. “I think of her majesty’s dignity and compassion. She had a great sense of humor…a deep curiosity about life.”
Scott Morrison, former Prime Minister, said, “She was the sovereign. She was our monarch. She was Her Majesty. But at the same time, in her presence, she made you feel just very warm and welcome.”
There were moments when the Queen’s mischievous side showed, like her stunt with Daniel Craig, where the two met a the palace and supposedly parachuted out of a helicopter together into Olympic Stadium. And her tea with Paddington Bear, when she pulled a marmalade sandwich out of her handbag and stated that, like Paddington, she kept one for emergencies.
Although her British subjects knew she would not be with them forever, Queen Elizabeth’s passing was still quite a shock to the nation. As Daniel Craig said when he heard the news of her death, “I, like so many, was deeply saddened by the news today, and my thoughts are with The Royal Family, those she loved, and all those who loved her,” he said. “She leaves an incomparable legacy and will be profoundly missed.”