The 96-year-old monarch acceded to the throne in 1952 at the age of 26. Revered by the British public, she was an unemotional sovereign who left a lasting imprint on the monarchy.Deleted: Deleted: She appears in the marquee on the lawn of the British High Commission. The guest freezes. The sovereign is smaller than you might imagine. Her handshake is limp and her voice nasal, the ends of her sentences trailing off. And yet she exudes a natural authority. She looks her guest up and down with the faintest hint of a smile. Conversation is limited to two banal questions. A short silence ensues. The queen disappears. The monarch excels at this role: appearing at once accessible and inaccessible. She is a true queen, as former French president François Mitterrand once declared admiratively.
One always had the impression of having already seen Elizabeth II in a wax museum like at Madam Tussauds in London. The queen, who died on Thursday, September 8, at the age of 96, was a living page of history who worked with no fewer than 15 British prime ministers, 13 American presidents and all the heads of state of France’s Fifth Republic. She held audiences with political personalities from all over the world, from Churchill to de Gaulle, to Kennedy and Nehru.
She was also a symbol. Under her reign, the United Kingdom saw the joys of success and the pangs of defeat, demonstrating that the monarchy could be the connecting thread between the old, broken order and a new one yet
Courteous and unflappable
The most photographed and painted monarch in the world, Elizabeth II was perhaps more of a living computer. Had she not been Queen, walled up in the silence and dignity that befits not only a head of state and head of an Empire – now a Commonwealth – but also the head of the army and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, what a writer of memoirs she could have been! It makes you wonder, though, if this small, shy, poorly-educated woman secretly hated her role all her life. No one was ever able to read on her impassive face the secrets that she took to the grave.
HM Queen Elizabeth II pictured in 1964 at Sandringham, stroking her favorite horse ‘Betsy.’ Godfrey Argent / CAMERAPRESS / GAMMA-RAPHO
Little touched by literary or artistic concerns, Elizabeth II was instead the very essence of the English landed gentry, devoted to the cult of animals. When not carrying out her official visits, she was always surrounded by her beloved corgis, who were treated with the utmost care.
There was always the same composure in the most dramatic situations, the same sense of control when faced with trying events. The photo showing her sitting alone at a pew in the chapel of Windsor Castle, dressed in black in front of the coffin of her husband Prince Philip at his funeral on April 17, 2021, sums up her stoicism. Courteous and unflappable, she never blinked at the tabloid press’ cruel attacks on her family, especially during the crisis caused by Princess Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997.
The Queen remained inscrutable, even during the dramatic rupture that her grandson Harry and his wife Meghan Markle made with the rest of the royal family in 2020, as well as by their accusations of racism against the Windsors – accusations, however, that didn’t include the sovereign. Instead, she only released a statement in an attempt to ease tensions. Similarly, she expressed nothing when her son Andrew was accused of sexually assaulting a minor, but removed his military titles and charity patronages in January 2022. Even to her few friends, Elizabeth II did not give herself away.
When she was born in London in the elegant district of Mayfair on April 21, 1926, nothing indicated that Elizabeth Mary Windsor would one day accede to the throne. She was the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York. The Duke was the second son of King George V, who was succeeded on January 20, 1936, by Edward, Prince of Wales. As the niece of the future king, she was set to become simply a minor member of the royal family.Deleted:
Horses: Her life’s passion
Her childhood was idyllic. But on December 10, 1936, following her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication, her father acceded to the throne as King George VI. Elizabeth became Crown Princess at the age of 10 and found herself, along with her parents and younger sister Margaret, thrust into the spotlight overnight.
She quickly started to receive training in her duties as princess. While Margaret was known for her whimsical nature, Elizabeth was characterized by her seriousness and diligence. Her governess Viscountess Marie-Antoinette de Bellaigue taught her French. The princess made her first official speech in French when she was 13 years old at President Lebrun’s state visit to London in 1939.
Elizabeth didn’t go to school. Private tutors taught her German, a language in which she was soon able to hold a conversation, as well as history and a rudimentary introduction to state affairs. The princess learned to ride horses, a sport that would remain her great passion. She loved horseracing and had her own stable in her colors. Family life was calm and balanced, if a little stilted under a rigorous set of rules.
Her beloved father George VI was a shy man, fundamentally kind, but afflicted by a terrible stammer. He was tormented by his new role, which he had neither sought out nor wanted. When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the King wanted to send his wife and two daughters to Canada, following a suggestion by then-prime minister Winston Churchill. But the queen refused to leave, so the princesses stayed at Windsor Castle, outside London, rather than at Buckingham Palace, which was considered too vulnerable. To raise national morale, “Lilibet,” as Elizabeth was nicknamed, made even more public appearances, wearing her Grenadier Guard’s uniform or the ambulance driver uniform she wore while learning to drive at the Aldershot military camp. At the end of 1944, Elizabeth got her driver’s license, qualifying under the number 230873, and joined the army reserve as an ambulance driver. She would often speak on the radio to her future subjects.
Queen at the age of 26
With peace restored, Elizabeth accompanied her parents on their travels in the UK and the Commonwealth and made her first speeches. On November 20, 1947, she married a distant cousin, Philip Mountbatten, who was a member of the Greek royal family. The wedding was one of the first televised events to be broadcast throughout Western Europe. This loving marriage brought Elizabeth both happiness and stability and would produce four children: Charles (1948), Anne (1950), Andrew (1960) and Edward (1964). They would go on to give Elizabeth and Philip eight grandchildren. But meanwhile, the health of Elizabeth’s father, who was suffering from cancer and exhausted by the heaviness of the Crown, began to falter.
British monarch HM Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 1951. Baron / CAMERAPRESS / G19
At the beginning of 1952, with Philip by her side, the princess made an official visit to Kenya, in the first stage of a tour that would take her to the Indian subcontinent and Australia. On February 6, King George VI died in his sleep at Sandringham Castle. Elizabeth, as his eldest daughter, succeeded him. She was 26 years old.
At Heathrow Airport on February 7, politicians lined up behind Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was wearing a black overcoat, and greeted the slim, frail figure as she stepped off the plane from Entebbe. An officer of state, the Lord Great Chamberlain, had to write the name chosen by the new monarch on the official accession document. She could have chosen Mary III rather than risk a possible confusion with her mother, Queen Elizabeth. She opted for her first name.
At 11:15 am, on February 8, 1952, Elizabeth II was proclaimed Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces.
A new Elizabethan era
“I pray that God will help me to discharge worthily this heavy task that has been laid upon me so early in my life,” declared the 40th British monarch to rule since William the Conqueror. A memorable photo shows the three queens together – Elizabeth II, her mother Elizabeth and grandmother Mary – all wearing long, black veils around the catafalque in Westminster Hall.
With this image, the country felt immortal. The young queen represented a new link in the chain, down through the ages from Egbert of Wessex to the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family, renamed Windsor. Sixteen months later, she was crowned in Westminster Abbey, a ceremony that was one of the first celebrations to be broadcast on television.
Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation in 1953. Cecil Beaton/CAMERAPRESS / G19
Winston Churchill then evoked the beginning of a new “Elizabethan” era, in reference to the Tudor queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), who had inherited a disunited and weak kingdom and left behind her a rich and much-feared nation. At the beginning of Elizabeth II’s reign, England could still give the illusion of being a powerful country. That year, Britain became a nuclear power. But the country was economically exhausted by the hard-won victory over Nazism; the pound was falling, GDP was
In the years following her coronation, this apparently self-effacing young woman enjoyed a personal prestige that no one expected. The Queen possessed an indispensable character trait that some called determination, others authority. While she had neither the biting irony nor the severe bun of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), her great-great-grandmother who ascended the throne at the age of 17, their demeanor was the same: self-control imbued with aloofness.
She thwarted her uncle Lord Mountbatten’s attempts to bring back the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha name, which had been replaced by Windsor in 1917 owing to anti-German sentiment during the First World War. She then denied Philip the title of king consort and marginalized his mother, who was influential among the old guard at the palace.Deleted:
Elizabeth II, Queen of England, with Prince Charles and Princess Anne, chatting to Sir Winston Churchill in 1953. Central Press / Getty Images
In 1955, she vetoed her sister Margaret’s plan to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was deputy Master of the Royal Household. Twenty years older than her, he was also divorced, which made him an unacceptable choice in the eyes of the Church of England. Little by little, the courtiers appointed during the previous reign were replaced by less conservative personalities, although they were cut from the same cloth: scions of great families and career soldiers. She relied on the same pillars as Queen Victoria: the palace, the army, religion and the nobility.
The glamor of Lady Diana
In 1981, she approved the union between her eldest son and Lady Diana, which brought the British monarchy some much-needed glamor. But when, after their divorce in 1996, the scandals surrounding the royal couple threatened to destabilize the dynasty, the Queen became strongly opposed to her ex-daughter-in-law. The sovereign was a traditional woman. For a long time, divorcees had been banned from her court – the height of hypocrisy in light of the matrimonial antics of her sister and three of her children.
The way members of the royal household were recruited was tainted by sexism. The Queen, in fact, preferred to work with men. As the Colonel-in-Chief of hundreds of regiments, she was closely associated with the armed forces, with whom she shared a sense of hierarchy, but she never had a female equerry. It was not until the 1990s and a campaign led by Prince Charles that West Indians were allowed to join the grenadier regiments of her guard.
Queen Elizabeth II inspects her troops during the Trooping the Colour parade at Horse Guards Parade in central London, U.K., on June 14, 2008. Stillwell John / Stillwell John / PA Photos / ABACA
Politically, the Queen had always been scrupulous about not interfering in government affairs by making her position known. No one has ever known her opinion on Brexit. There was no question of the monarch mixing her personal convictions with the duties of her office. She never gave interviews to the media. The tone of her annual Christmas message, the only speech she would write without ministerial approval, was always harmonious with public opinion. Nothing was ever disclosed about the content of the the weekly private audience between the head of state and the tenants of 10 Downing Street.
Embodiment of the sacred
The official line is that the queen is authorized to provide encouragement, warnings and advice to her government. The sovereign embodies the sacred without holding the reins of power, ensuring the balance of democracy. Even if the head of state has access to the most secret files in the famous red boxes and a ‘privy council’ made up of the most eminent figures in the kingdom, their role in practice is one of notary, simply signing off on decisions taken by others. For example, the “Queen’s Speech” that she delivers each year is drafted by her government.
Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister Tony Blair raise their glasses as midnight strikes during the Opening Celebrations on December 31, 1999 at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich in London. Anwar Hussein / Getty Images