A Life in Pictures: The Defining Moments of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-Year Reign
Queen Elizabeth II (1926 - 2022) and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (1921 - 2021) with their children Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward at Buckingham Palace in London on their Silver Wedding anniversary, UK, 20th November 1972. Photo: George Freston/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The defining moments of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign have
been well documented by historians and monarchists, but as these
news photographs show, the images speak volumes.
Seventy years ago, this iconic image captured Queen Mary (Queen Consort), Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), and Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen) outside St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Britain’s wartime king was just 56 when he died on Feb. 6, 1952.
The picture – which came to be known as “Three Queens in mourning” – is a haunting photograph: It is a trio of grief, with the King’s mother, wife and daughter draped in their veils, three generations representing the stability and continuity of the British monarchy. Although photos exist of the three queens together, nearly all of them are official portraits. This news photo revealed a rarely seen side of royalty, as humans, with emotions. The next day, it made the front pages of every single national paper, and subsequently became one of the most widely distributed British images of the 20th century. For Elizabeth, who would be crowned a little more than a year later, the photo is an enduring reminder of the vicissitudes of life. Had her uncle Edward VIII never abdicated, her father would never have been the monarch and she would never have ascended the throne.
When Prince Philip and the newly crowned Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II landed in Bermuda in 1953, it kicked off an epic, six-month tour of the Commonwealth. More than that, it was a harbinger of a queen in perpetual motion, as Elizabeth would become the most widely travelled monarch in history, covering more than a million miles by land, air and sea.
While the monarchy had long loomed over disparate parts of the world, someone like Queen Victoria, for instance, had her name and likeness papered all over Canada without ever actually setting foot in the country. Queen Elizabeth, meanwhile, has been everywhere – where she ruled, and where she did not – travelling to 116 countries to date. She was the first to go to the Vatican. The first to set foot in Moscow’s Red Square. The first to travel to Saudi Arabia. In Canada, alone, there have been 22 official visits.
Tears of a Queen
In a lifetime defined by the old British adage, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” one of the more harrowing moments for Elizabeth came in 1966, following the tragic mining accident in Aberfan, South Wales. After rain-soaked coal waste rushed down a mountain and buried a primary school in its path – killing 116 children and 28 adults – Her Majesty did not immediately travel to the village, sparking criticism in the press and beyond. Eight days later, she relented, paying a visit that remains memorable, largely because she was visibly rattled. Four decades later, the Queen – in a rare moment of candour – admitted that not visiting Aberfan sooner was her “biggest regret.” Sir William Heseltine, who worked in the royal press office at the time of the tragedy, once surmised, “It was a sort of lesson for us that you need to show sympathy and to be there on the spot, which I think people craved from her.”
She must be seen.
Thatcher and Me
From 1979 to 1990, a worthy candidate for the greatest show on Earth may have been the spectacle of seeing the United Kingdom fronted by two women, powerful in different ways: Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister, and the Queen, then well into the middle decades of her reign. Born just six months apart, but in wholly different circumstances – Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter; Elizabeth, the very essence of to the manner born – their personalities often collided: The Queen’s “dry wit,” for one, versus the stony bravado of the so-called Iron Lady.
And while the monarch always tiptoes around anything overtly political, a memorable exception occurred when, behind the scenes, the Queen pushed for sanctions against South Africa over apartheid, which did not end until 1994, while Thatcher opposed them. Despite their differences, the Queen attended Thatcher’s funeral, even though, according to tradition, the monarch does not usually attend such services because it causes too much disruption.
Elizabeth and Philip and Jack and Jackie. This photograph – taken during a dinner the Windsors held for the Kennedys at Buckingham Palace in June 1961 – is all the more striking because Elizabeth is the last living member of this quartet. For the glamorous evening – royals meeting royals, you could say – Jackie was sleekly modern, wearing an ice-blue silk Chez Ninon gown, while the Queen pulled out all the stops, relying on her long-time couturier, Norman Hartnell, to provide a much more traditional A-line tulle dress in cobalt blue. Both completed their looks with long, white gloves.
The Queen played her part in facilitating what is sometimes called the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K., and this photo reminds us Her Majesty has seen 12 American presidents come and go during her reign (not to mention 14 British and 13 Canadian prime ministers). Indeed, the Queen – the living, breathing personification of the monarchy – has witnessed so much cultural history in her lifetime that she is one of the few people who has met everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, to The Beatles, Elton John and Lady Gaga.
Times change, and so has the monarch’s style, but while the coats have become narrower and the hemlines longer, the shoes are timeless. Her classic black numbers, made from the finest calf leather – usually adorned with a clasp or small bow – are made by Anello & Davide of Kensington. (They cost the equivalent of $1,600 a pair, but the Queen uses the same pair for years, re-heeling them when they wear out!)
Since the coronation, the fashion items most synonymous with the Queen are the gloves she dons for engagements, her brightly coloured frocks (all the better for spotting her at public affairs), and her beloved Launer London handbags. (It’s said she uses these to send subtle signals to staff. For instance, if she moves the bag from her left arm to the right, it means she wants to move along.) Style watchers might remember her turbo-’70s fashion phase, evidenced by this moment-in-time image from a stop in New Zealand. The shades! The turban!
If there has been one central relationship in the Queen’s life, it might be the one with her sister, Princess Margaret, who understood Elizabeth better than anyone else. Margaret could be exceptionally frank with Elizabeth, but her destiny as second in line to the throne relegated her to a perpetual supporting role. It was a dynamic that inevitably prompted an emotional see-saw between the two, particularly when Margaret, a rebel princess long before Diana or Fergie, showed flickers of indiscretion, or moved the world of the royals into the jet-set realm.
While Elizabeth was able to marry the man of her dreams – the dashing Greek naval student she was married to for more than 70 years – Margaret, of course, was denied her original love. Captain Peter Townsend, a one-time pilot who was an equerry inside Buckingham Palace, was off limits because he was divorced. Facing pressure to call off their engagement from all sides, particularly from the Church of England – of which Elizabeth is the titular head – duty triumphed over sisterly bonds inside “The Firm.”
Keeping Up With The Windsors
The documentary that only aired once is presumably sitting in a vault somewhere, and constitutes one of the most interesting chapters in British royal history: A TV special, dubbed Royal Family, that ran in the spring of 1969. Filmed over the course of a year for the BBC by Richard Cawston, with all scenes agreed to by a committee chaired by Prince Philip, the premise for it, presumably, was to let the public into the life of the modern royal court just as interest in the royals was beginning to wane during the Swinging Sixties.
There were scenes ranging from the truly quotidian to the pretty exceptional: The family was shown eating breakfast at the palace, while the Queen bought one of her children an ice cream, exploding the myth that she never carries money. Voyeuristic to the max, the production was watched by a third of the U.K.’s population when it aired, but had many traditionalists in a snit because they were afraid it might take the varnish off the monarchy.
The Queen herself was not amused, hence the reason the documentary was never seen again. The film popped up on YouTube in 2021, before it was quickly taken down “due to a copyright claim.” Ironically, it foreshadowed increasing interest in the private lives of her children, and even opened the palace doors to the tabloids as well, since it had already invited cameras inside the royal corridors.
With the stroke of the pen in 1982, Queen Elizabeth II unyoked Canada from Britain after 115 years of nationhood. It was a rainy day in April when she arrived on Parliament Hill, where, in the presence of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, she signed the historic patriation of the constitution.
With all the pomp usually associated with royal coronations or weddings, the 33-minute signing ceremony was preceded by the Queen and Prince Philip, riding to the Hill in a century-old, open landau drawn by four matching black horses, escorted by 47 Mounties on horseback. Dressed in a blue coat and matching hat, offset by three strands of pearls, she waved to enthusiastic crowds lining Wellington Street. After the ceremony, the royal duo even waded into the crowd to greet people, with affection radiating from all sides. It was evidence this was not as much a divorce between Canada and the United Kingdom, as it was a change in living arrangements.
A Matter Of Race
Her life’s work has been the Commonwealth, 54 “free and equal” member states of mostly Black and brown people. And an interlude early in her reign demonstrates the monarch’s capacity to send messages of reconciliation and friendship — the night in Ghana in 1961 when she danced with its president, Kwame Nkrumah to “highlife” (a local style of dance music that combines
jazz with West African rhythms).
The image of the Queen and Nkrumah, an anti-colonialist with ties to the Soviet Union who led the country to independence from Britain four years earlier, was an unforgettable Cold War mise-en-scène. It was a moment set against the backdrop of continuing tensions with the Commonwealth and, of course, the larger British history of colonialism and race.
Famously friendly with the late South African anti-apartheid icon, Nelson Mandela, in more recent times the Queen has signalled a path forward by flouting custom. When, in 2009, the first African American First Lady Michelle Obama, known for her charismatic spontaneity, put her arm around the Queen, Her Majesty simply returned the gesture — averting what otherwise could have been a protocol faux pas. And then, in 2018, despite the monarchy usually moving at a glacial pace, she invited her biracial granddaughter-in-law, Meghan Markle, to their first joint solo event, only a month after she married Prince Harry (to open a bridge!).
The Sussexes would go on to accuse the Royal Family of racism — but on that day the history and hopeful symbolism spoke for itself.
Having been going “viral” before viral was a thing, the monarch has shown her prowess even in the most recent decade of her life and deftly uses Brand Britain and her meta role in it with wit and purpose. Take her 2012 London Olympic moment when she teamed up with a tuxedo-clad James Bond, actor Daniel Craig, for an ironic sketch screened during the opening ceremonies. The video shows Bond picking up the Queen at Buckingham Palace — the corgis have a cameo — and ostensibly escorting her to a waiting helicopter that flies across the city, where stunt doubles dressed as the duo skydive into the Olympic Stadium. Cut to the real-life Queen pretending to straighten her ensemble as she takes her seat of honour and bingo: Her Maj was again parachuted into the pop-culture canon. More recently, in April 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, stricken with the virus, fought for his life in a hospital bed, the Queen made a poignant address from Windsor Castle to rally her nation. Urging unity and hope, she drew allusions to the country’s hardiness during the Second World War and, powerfully, her own wartime service as a young woman. Compared by many to Churchill’s “finest hour” speech, it was watched by 24 million in the U.K., five million on Twitter alone, and millions more on YouTube and Instagram.
When Prince Philip was laid to rest in 2021, after a scaled-down funeral procession, this photograph of his widow sitting alone inside St. George’s Chapel became an iconic, pandemic-age image.
The reality hit that the Queen, dressed in black and wearing a face mask, had lost her partner of 73 years, but it also underlined the extent to which she has always been a solo flyer. With no real peers to speak of, and a lifetime
devoted to service and duty that often put her at odds with her nearest and dearest, the Queen has been forever socially distanced.
A version this article appeared in the June/July 2022 issue with the headline ‘A Life in Pictures’, p. 46.
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