IF ANYONE can be said to have had greatness thrust upon her, it was Queen Elizabeth II, who has died at the age of 96, just three days after receiving her 15th Prime Minister.
She became the unexpected heir to the British throne in 1936, at the age of 11, when her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated, and her father, King George V’s second son Bertie, became King George VI. When he died in 1952, she became Queen at the age of only 25.
The accidental monarch was to go on to have the longest reign in British history, 70 years, surpassing even that of Queen Victoria who had given her name to an age. Queen Elizabeth did not manage that, despite extravagant claims at the time of her Coronation in 1953 that a new Elizabethan Age had been ushered in, but she nonetheless leaves a huge legacy and the respect and affection of her subjects and countless millions around the world.
In her first broadcast to the country, dressed in mourning, the young monarch dedicated herself to her country. It was a pledge she kept for the rest of her long life and through the many turbulent episodes the monarchy went through during that time. She was to repeat her pledge of service on her Silver Jubilee in 1977, quoting a much earlier Queen from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: ‘Although that vow was made “in my salad days when I was green in judgment”, I do not regret or retract one word of it.’
This sense of duty never faltered, and it resonated with the public, never more so than in the final chapter of her life after the death last April of her beloved husband, Prince Philip, when after a brief period of mourning she resumed her royal activities with a ready smile and extraordinary energy for a nonagenarian.
Her sense of duty was obvious from an early age. Born on April 21, 1926, the young Princess Elizabeth had difficulty in saying her name and called herself ‘Lilibet’. It became a loving family nickname. She was always an obedient child, unlike her wayward sister Princess Margaret. Her one act of teenage rebellion was to declare at the age of 13 that she would one day marry Philip Mountbatten, a dashing Gordonstoun schoolboy five years her senior. Her mother tried to talk her out of it, deeming the penniless young man a poor match, but Elizabeth had her way, marrying Philip when she was 21.
Her love for him never faltered. When he died aged 99, they had been married for 73 years.
She was 13 at the outbreak of the Second World War, which helped to shape the rest of her life, as it did the whole of her generation. Sent with Margaret to Windsor Castle after Buckingham Palace was bombed, she made her first broadcast in 1940, offering sympathy to the thousands of other children evacuated to the countryside.
In 1945, as soon as she was 18, she insisted on joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the Army, and trained as a vehicle mechanic.
Arguably, wartime austerity and comradeship influenced her deeply. She remained frugal, switching off lights in Buckingham Palace, heating her drawing-room with a one-bar electric fire and declining to replace threadbare carpets. And the most important day of the year was always Remembrance Sunday and the Cenotaph ceremony.
Perhaps the key to her long-lasting popularity was her success in maintaining the mystique of the monarchy while projecting the image of an ordinary Englishwoman, albeit upper-crust, never happier than when inspecting her horses, riding them out and watching them race. Her abiding image is of a tiny figure in a plain raincoat and a headscarf that would not have looked out of place in Coronation Street. She never gave a media interview and kept her political opinions largely to herself. She was a cautious moderniser, making a state visit to West Germany in 1965, the first since 1913 and a significant act of post-war reconciliation, in 1970 engaging in the first royal ‘walkabout’ in Australia, in 1986 becoming the first British monarch to visit mainland China, and going to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, the first such visit in a hundred years.
Her media performances were largely reserved for her annual Christmas television and radio broadcasts, when her simple homilies of faith, hope and reassurance for the future reached an appreciative post-lunch audience year after year.
Her greatest political loyalty was to the Commonwealth, transformed during her reign from the Empire into which she was born into a free association of like-minded independent countries. She loved attending their regular get-togethers, and the Commonwealth leaders gave every sign of enjoying meeting her just as much.
If the first three decades of her reign were uncontroversial, she hit choppier waters in the 1980s with reports that she did not see eye to eye with the country’s first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, though the theory was belied by the Queen’s attendance at Baroness Thatcher’s 70th birthday celebration.
It culminated in her ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992 when fire seriously damaged her beloved Windsor Castle, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew separated from their wives and Princess Anne was divorced.
For the Queen, titular head of the Church of England and dedicated to the institution of marriage, these were bitter blows.
Things were to get even worse with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, when the Queen’s usually assured touch in a crisis seemed temporarily to desert her as she remained silently at Balmoral and refused at first to heed the growing clamour led by the tabloid press for her to return to London, with some over-excited commentators even claiming that the monarchy itself was in danger of collapse. The explanation privately given on her behalf was that she wanted to shield Charles and Diana’s two young sons, William and Harry, who were with her in Scotland, from the febrile atmosphere of the capital, but in the end the pressure was too great. She made a TV broadcast, addressing her subjects ‘as your Queen and as a grandmother’, acknowledging Diana’s gifts and hoping that her funeral would be ‘a chance to show to the whole world the British nation united in grief and respect’.
It was enough to keep the critics at bay and as the years passed the Queen regained any ground that she had lost.
Her sense of duty was of prime importance and sometimes clashed with her roles as mother or grandmother. She adored her second son Prince Andrew and her grandson Prince Harry, but insisted Andrew stepped back and lose his patronages because of his connection with a paedophile. Harry had to lose his too, much to his disappointment, when he and his wife Meghan Markle chose to move to America in March 2020 and step away from being working royals.
Elizabeth II’s legacy will undoubtedly be the very survival of the monarchy in an era of unprecedented and fast-moving change. The succession, through Prince Charles, now King, to Prince William and then to Prince George, appears assured. The young princess who had dedicated a lifetime of service to her country left the stage as a record-breaking sovereign who had fulfilled her duty impeccably.