Queen Elizabeth II: Britain’s longest reigning monarch

Constant Queen

As the UK’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II has seen Britain change dramatically over the years. Yet she has remained a constant presence in the lives of the people of the UK and Commonwealth.

Duty and family are very important to her. As a child during the Second World War she inspired the nation. The lessons she learned during these formative years helped her ensure the Royal Family remains a symbol of tradition in the 21st Century.

21 April 1926

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary born

Princess Elizabeth was born in 1926. Her father Albert – Bertie to family – was George V's second eldest son and did not expect one day to be king.

Elizabeth's mother and father took their royal duties seriously. Though loving parents, they kept with the tradition of not taking their children on royal tours. They left the baby Elizabeth behind when they embarked on a six-month tour of Australia. It was duty first for the young Royal Family.

Andrew Marr discusses Princess Elizabeth's family and early life. The Diamond Queen (BBC One, 2012).

28 August 1930

A growing family

Elizabeth was four when her sister Margaret was born. The family lived at 145 Piccadilly and the two girls were educated at home.

The young Princess Elizabeth – called Lilibet by her family – often visited her grandfather King George V at his home, Buckingham Palace. They were close, and on one occasion the press attributed George's recovery from a serious illness to spirit-raising visits from his young granddaughter.

Princess Elizabeth and her mother, Queen Elizabeth, with baby Princess Margaret.

1936

The Year of Three Kings

Elizabeth's life changed forever when King George V died to be succeeded to the throne by her uncle Edward who then abdicated shortly afterwards.

Elizabeth's father became King George VI, and the young princess first in line to the throne. The family had to move from their home in Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace. George V had disapproved of his eldest son Edward, and hoped that Elizabeth would one day be Queen. George VI has been described as a reluctant king. The day before he accepted the throne he wrote in his diary "I broke down and sobbed like a child."

Andrew Marr explains how Princess Elizabeth became heir to the throne in 1936. The Diamond Queen (BBC One, 2012).

13 October 1940

Elizabeth's broadcast to the children

During World War Two Princess Elizabeth did her part to boost public morale. In 1940 she made a broadcast to Britain's children.

Taking on solemn duties at an early age had a profound effect on her. She made public appearances on her own, representing her father the King. She also served in the auxiliary territorial service, a role she was keen to take up in order to make a contribution to the war effort. During the war years she was also in correspondence with a young naval officer, Philip of Denmark and Greece.

Princess Elizabeth delivers her first radio speech at age 14. BBC Radio (1940).

1945

Celebrating VE Day amongst the people

On the day the war ended in Europe, Elizabeth and her sister Margaret mingled anonymously with the crowds outside the palace.

Elizabeth convinced her parents to let her and Margaret join the VE day celebrations. Elizabeth was wary of being recognised but later said it was one of the most memorable nights of her life. This was a rare moment when she was able to join the public – her subjects to be – which would eventually be impossible for her. World War Two cemented cemented two principles the Queen would support for the rest of her reign: a commitment to the Commonwealth, and the importance of remembrance.

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret mingled anonymously with crowds outside Buckingham Palace.

1947

Elizabeth's first tour abroad

On her 21st birthday Elizabeth went on an official tour of South Africa, delivering a speech dedicating herself to the service of the Commonwealth.

Elizabeth's father King George VI was suffering from poor health. Elizabeth continued to take on royal duties, and over the next few years she played a greater public role as her father's health declined. She had her own private secretary and was given access to Foreign Office telegrams, which arrived in boxes dedicated to her and read daily parliamentary reports.

Princess Elizabeth playing deck games on board a Royal Navy ship.

20 November 1947

A royal wedding

Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten were married at Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947. She wore a dress she'd paid for with ration tokens.

Although Elizabeth and Philip were in love, the young princess’s husband was a controversial choice. He was foreign born, with no financial standing and no kingdom. He had sisters married to Nazis, who were not invited to the wedding. Philip gave up his Greek and Danish titles and changed his religion to marry Elizabeth. Now married for over 65 years, the Queen has had the longest marriage of any UK monarch.

The Queen marries Prince Philip in Westminster Abbey. How Princess Elizabeth met her Prince (BBC One, 2006).

1948

Starting a family

Elizabeth's first child, Charles. was born in 1948. Anne followed two years later.

Elizabeth had been tutored privately when she was young but she and Philip decided their children should attend boarding school as Philip had done. Like her parents before her, Princess Elizabeth left her children for several months to fulfil royal duties. The royal couple also lived together for periods without their children at Philip’s naval base in Malta. As a young royal, Elizabeth's life was one in which family life had to be balanced against public duties.

Queen Elizabeth II with Charles Philip Arthur George.

6 February 1952

Elizabeth becomes Queen

King George VI had been in poor health for years. For some time Elizabeth's secretary had been carrying accession papers for use when the King died.

The King passed away while Elizabeth was touring Kenya. The young princess became Queen while visiting a treetop hotel. One of her aides told Prince Philip the news. Philip looked "as if the world had been dropped on him." Philip then told the new Queen of her father's death. The next day Elizabeth requested no photographs be taken, though one journalist said he could feel her sadness as she passed and waved to them.

The broadcast made by the BBC on the King's death. An Unforgettable Coronation (BBC One, 2003).

2 June 1953

The first televised coronation

In an era of austerity, the Queen was crowned in an embroidered satin dress.

The coronation was a huge public spectacle and the first such event to be televised. It's been estimated over 20 million people tuned in around the UK, with each set watched by an average of nine people. News that Edmund Hillary had climbed Everest arrived in Britain on the same day, and the public was in a jubilant mood. Yet from that moment, Queen Elizabeth would have to learn to manage the media as no monarch had before her.

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (ITN Source/ITV Studios, 1952).

1965

International stateswoman

By 1965, the Queen had reigned for over a decade and made frequent overseas visits. She had also given birth to two further sons: Edward and Andrew.

At home and abroad, the Queen had to maintain political neutrality, but she was making her own mark on the role of monarch. She made a number of historic visits, including the first to Berlin of a British monarch since before World War One. She also delivered a speech at the United Nations in New York, representing the UK and the Commonwealth. Ensuring the unity of the Commonwealth has been an enduring passion for her.

20 years after World War Two, the Queen pledged support for West Berlin and received rapturous applause. The Queen in Germany (BBC One, 2006).

1970

Commonwealth Queen

The Queen became the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and New Zealand.

In 1970 she invented the royal 'walkabout', to meet local people as well as dignitaries on her tours. This has since become a popular royal tradition. She is head of the Commonwealth, a title created by her father as countries left the Empire but wished to retain links with the UK and the monarchy. The Queen has visited all 53 Commonwealth nations except two recent joiners, Cameroon and Rwanda.

Queen Elizabeth II meeting crowds in Hobart, Tasmania in 1970.

1977

Silver Jubilee

Britain was rocked by riots and unrest but at the same time celebrated with thousands of parties for the Queen's jubilee.

The country was suffering political turmoil, with an unpopular government, and many suffering economic hardship. During the Jubilee celebrations the Sex Pistols climbed the charts with the anti-monarchist God Save The Queen and were arrested after performing it on a boat on the Thames. Yet the Queen remained largely untouched by this outbreak of anger against the government and the state of the country. She still walked amongst admiring crowds.

The Sex Pistols during the Silver Jubilee

1981

Queen under threat

A man fired six shots at the Queen while she was riding down The Mall. The shots turned out to be blanks.

Though shaken, the Queen retained control over her horse. The man, Marcus Serjeant, was tried and sentenced to five years in prison under the treason act. This attack came the month before Charles and Diana's wedding, so royal security was stepped up in preparation. The following year, another man broke into the Queen's bedroom in a startling breach of security at Buckingham Palace.

The Queen, riding side saddle on her horse Burmese during Trooping the Colour, moments before the attack.

1992

Elizabeth's annus horribilis

The Queen called 1992 her Annus horribilis ‒ horrible year ‒ in a speech made after a series of unpleasant events.

The marriages of two of her children, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, broke down. A best-selling book was published detailing Princess Diana's unhappiness and collapsing marriage. There was also a large and damaging fire at Windsor Castle, the Queen’s private home. Public support for the Royal Family dipped, though the Queen remained dignified and constant figure.

A fire at Windsor Castle during 1992, the Queen's 'Annus horribilis'

1997

Princess Diana dies

Princess Diana died in an accident in 1997. Amid the mourning, the Queen faced a critical dilemma.

Initially, the Royal Family grieved privately. However, the public reaction to Diana's death led to accusations the Queen was unresponsive and out of touch with the public mood. A Daily Express headline declared, ‘Show Us You Care.’ That evening, the Queen made a broadcast paying tribute to Diana as an "exceptional and gifted human being". The swell of anger had shocked the Queen and she admitted there were "lessons to be drawn from her life and the extraordinary public reaction to her death".

John Simpson reports on the return of the Queen to Buckingham Palace after Diana's death. BBC News (BBC One, 1997).

2002

Death of her mother and sister

Fifty years after her father's death, both the Queen's mother and sister died within two months of each other.

However, popular support for the Queen was increasing after the difficult 1990s. Throughout her reign, the Queen represented continuity and surety, though she accepted the monarchy must attempt to renew itself. She undertook a 40,000-mile tour of the Commonwealth. She said her own "association with the Commonwealth has taught me that the most important contact between nations is usually contact between its peoples."

Golden Jubilee party at the Palace. The Royal Year with Jennie Bond (BBC One, 2002).

2012

The Olympics and a Diamond Jubilee

In a year of celebration the Queen joined the Olympic opening ceremony, appearing in a James Bond spoof in her first acting role.

In the same year she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, only the second achieved by a British monarch. She did not travel the world for this celebration. Instead her children and grandchildren made trips on her behalf. The Queen chose to tour the UK over several months. In 2012 her approval rating hit 90% – the highest it had been since she came to the throne in 1952.

The Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee

2015

Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest reigning monarch

On 9 September 2015 Elizabeth II overtook Victoria to become Britain’s longest reigning monarch.

By this point she had been Queen to twelve Prime Ministers, and still met David Cameron weekly to receive reports on his government and to offer her counsel and advice. In 2013, the law was changed so the monarch’s eldest born child has the right to the throne, rather than the eldest boy. It is fitting that this occurred during the rule of Elizabeth II, our longest reigning and perhaps most successful monarch in history.

The Queen attending a ceremony for ANZAC day at the cenotaph in 2015.