She wasn’t supposed to become queen. At birth, she was not the heir-apparent. There were others ahead of her in the line of succession. According to many historians, she was, at best, indifferent to the idea. She didn’t seek it; she didn’t especially want it; she didn’t have the personality for it. She was a private person. She didn’t want to be constantly in the spotlight as the position required; as she later confided to her riding instructor, she would have preferred to live the life of a “lady living in the country with lots of horses and dogs.”
Many believe her younger sister, Margaret, was better suited for it, at least personality-wise. Indeed Margaret relished the spotlight and probably wanted the position. But, as you will see, fate had its own plan. To paraphrase a famous expression, “man proposes and God disposes.” Thanks to a series of unforeseen events the position was thrust upon her. It is a supreme irony of history that one of the most popular, most effective and most beloved monarchs was, in reality, an “accidental” monarch, a “reluctant” monarch.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on April 21, 1926 in London. At the time, her parents were known as the Duke and Duchess of York. As a child her nickname within the family was “Lilibet.” As the daughter of King George V’s second son, she was third in the line of succession, and she was not expected to ever become queen. Accordingly, as a child, she led a relatively “normal” life. She was “trained” to live the life of a lady of the Royal Family, not that of a Queen.
However, as most of us know, fate intervened. First of all, Elizabeth’s uncle, who had succeeded George V, was forced to abdicate the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. He was then succeeded by his brother, Prince Albert, who was Elizabeth’s father. Elizabeth was now the “heir presumptive,” next in line for the throne.
Secondly, on February 6, 1952 Albert died suddenly in his sleep, making Elizabeth the Queen at the young age of 25. As a side-note, Elizabeth was in Kenya in the midst of a tour of various Commonwealth countries, and in that time of less sophisticated communications (no cell phones, no internet, spotty telephone service in Kenya) it took a while before she could be located and returned to England. Her coronation occurred on June 2, 1953 at Westminster Abbey.
Queen Elizabeth reigned for 70 years, which was the longest tenure of any British Monarch and the second longest of any monarch in history. Can you name the longest? See answer below. As Queen, she dealt with 15 prime ministers from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss with whom she met just before her death, and in excess of one dozen US presidents.
Meanwhile, in 1947 Elizabeth had married a distant cousin, Philip Mountbatten. Philip was a member of both the Greek and Danish royal families (As we know, virtually all of the royal families in Europe were interrelated in some manner.) Immediately, the newlyweds embarked on an exhausting marathon world tour encompassing 13 countries and 40,000 miles over a seven-month period. I can’t imagine doing that, even with today’s modern conveniences, but Elizabeth felt it was important to “show the flag” to all the countries in the Commonwealth. Many of those countries were newly independent former colonies, and Elizabeth was determined that they retain ties to the mother country.
The two were very much in love, but their marriage was to be rife with controversies and embarrassments. Firstly, Philip was partly German, and some of his German relatives were Nazi sympathizers. WWII had ended only two years’ prior and animosities were still very fresh, so this became a major issue. Secondly, at times Philip chaffed at his status within the hierarchy of the royal family. For example, he was outranked by his own children, an oddity which could be awkward, at times. Elizabeth tried to placate him by delegating responsibility to him with mixed results. Thirdly, Philip had a “wandering eye,” which became a major source of embarrassment.
Also, the children were a further source of various scandals, which severely embarrassed the Queen who, as I said, greatly valued privacy, propriety and decorum. For example:
- Prince Charles had a very active “social life” before he settled down and married Princess Diana. They were not a happy couple, and throughout the marriage both engaged in extramarital affairs. They divorced in 1996 after 15 rocky years of marriage. The public was in love with the beautiful and glamorous Diana and generally sided with her over Charles. Elizabeth was unhappy with Diana’s free-spirited lifestyle and all the attention of the media and paparazzi.
- Sarah Ferguson, Prince Andrew’s wife caused embarrassment when she was photographed topless by a tabloid with her “financial advisor.”
- Prince Andrew was ensnared in the Jeffrey Epstein sex scandal. Elizabeth was forced to strip him of his military and royal titles as well as his patronages.
- And, best (or worst) of all, we have the current controversies with Prince Harry and the former American actress, Meghan Markle. That matter is ongoing, and I could write an entire blog on it, but I won’t. Suffice to say, I liked Markle as an actress but not as a royal.
The foregoing are merely the highlights or, rather, the lowlights. Royal family watchers (those who follow the royal family assiduously) will likely be cognizant of many more.
As I said, Elizabeth was generally one of the most popular and respected monarchs. At the beginning of her reign she was viewed by the public and portrayed in the media as a “glamorous, fairytale Queen.” Later, as the aforementioned problems mounted, the public’s perception of the monarchy waned somewhat. The nadir came in the 1990s. By 2006, however, the monarchy’s popularity had returned in full force. For instance, at Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 polls reported her approval rating to be at 90%..
She adhered to the philosophy espoused by her mother:
- “Never complain.”
- “Never explain.”
- “Avoid the spotlight,” if possible.
She ruled through tumultuous times – wars, natural disasters, the “Troubles,” terrorism, and personal tragedies – with great grace and dignity. Through it all, she remained a symbol of strength, dignity and inspiration. For example, at the height of the COVID Pandemic she inspired the nation by reassuring the people that “if we remain united and resolute we will overcome it.” When people all around her were panicking, she remained calm and reassuring.
One of her most ardent fans is the renowned journalist Piers Morgan. Writing in the NY Post he characterized her as the GOAT, i. e. “greatest of all time,” and “a monumental towering royal colossus, who is not only the most famous person on Planet Earth, but the most respected.” Wow! Talk about hyperbole! I wouldn’t go that far, but I believe history will regard her as one of Britain’s best monarchs.
Rest in peace “Lilibet.” Your passing has created a great spiritual, inspirational, and emotional void. The British people need the new monarch to be able to fill that void. Let’s hope that King Charles III will be up to the task. “The Queen is dead; long live the King.”
Quiz answer: King Louis XIV of France who reigned 73 years from 1642 to 1715.