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Queen Elizabeth II: A legacy like no other

After inheriting the throne at just 25, Queen Elizabeth II gave a lifetime of service to the job, providing a bedrock of stability for the monarchy as the world shifted around her.

Through 1,200 years of war, death and empire-building, succession in the British monarchy has rarely been a straight line. 

The crown has zigged and zagged through 37 generations, landing on the heads of an anointed few. 

Some inherited it upon their father's final breath. Others conquered armies and murdered rivals to grab it for themselves. 

But for one little girl, that intricate crown of gold, ermine and 440 precious gems found its way to her through a royal scandal. 

Weighing 2.3 kilograms, St Edward's Crown was placed upon Queen Elizabeth II's head for a mere moment during an ancient ceremony that transformed her from Lilibet Windsor into the sovereign. 

The most sacred of Britain's treasures was then carefully packed away for her eventual successor. 

But every monarch bears the weight of that brief moment for the rest of their reign. 

Upon Elizabeth's shoulders, she carried her kingdom's hopes, her people's love, their imagination and their expectations. Sometimes she even bore their disappointment in her. 

But throughout her seven-decade reign, Elizabeth upheld the vow she once made as a young princess. 

"My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service." 

Her life was far longer than she perhaps expected, but her devotion never wavered.

Defying the expectations of her birth

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born on April 21, 1926, during the reign of her grandfather, King George V, the man she called "Grandpapa England".

She was third in line to the throne, behind her uncle David and her own father, Albert, the Duke of York.

The Princess of York was then just a decorative object in the House of Windsor, one that would gather dust and obsolescence when her uncle and father produced prized male heirs. 

Even as a minor royal, there was something about little Elizabeth. It was as if only the toddler herself knew what fate had conspired for her. 

"She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant," Winston Churchill said of the two-year-old Elizabeth, describing her as a "character".

Decades later, when he was 77 and she was 25, Churchill was the first of 13 prime ministers to serve under Elizabeth.

Forbidden love would change her destiny. 

When King George V died in 1936, the charming David took the throne as King Edward VIII, only to renounce it within a year to marry his lover, American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

His decision to choose love over the Crown plunged the monarchy into crisis. He abdicated, and Albert was proclaimed King George VI.

Ten-year-old Elizabeth, dubbed Lilibet by her family was suddenly heir-presumptive to the throne.

It was up to the quiet Albert and his dutiful daughter to save the crown. 

Fifteen years later, Lilibet would become Her Majesty — but not before she fell in love, survived a war and endured a great loss.

Evacuating during the Blitz and joining the war effort

Elizabeth once described her ascension as "very sudden", but she had been training for the role most of her life.

Under the watch of private tutors, the princess studied everything from geopolitics and constitutional history to religion, law and languages. She read official papers with her father and met informally with heads of state.

Raised in a loving and private family called We Four by their father, Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret also found time for play.

"Lilibet is my pride; Margaret is my joy," King George would often say of his solemn heir and rebellious spare. 

They rode horses and kept pets — including the first of more than 30 corgis Elizabeth would own in her lifetime.

Elizabeth was 13 in 1939, when World War II broke out and the shadow of Nazism fell over Europe.

Her mother, the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was determined to keep the family in Buckingham Palace as German bombs rained down on London, declaring: "The children won't go without me. I won't leave without the King, and the King will never leave".

As the war intensified, however, the sisters were evacuated to Windsor Castle. The following year, at 14, Elizabeth made her first radio broadcast.

"We know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all," the princess said, in a message of hope for the children of Britain who had been evacuated and separated from their families.

In 1945, after months of pleading with her father, 18-year-old Elizabeth joined the war effort. She trained as a driver and mechanic in the women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, though the war ended before she could make practical use of her skills.

"One of her major joys was to get dirt under her nails and grease stains in her hands, and display these signs of labour to her friends," Collier's Magazine wrote a few years later.

A royal romance

In 1947, 21-year-old Elizabeth married the man she had been smitten with for years — Greek-born British naval officer Philip Mountbatten, a distant cousin.

They had first met at a wedding in 1934 when Elizabeth was just eight. But it wasn't until 1939, when she was 13 and he 18, that the first flames of romance were kindled.

The quiet, reserved princess and the boisterous Philip enjoyed a game of croquet together, after which, as Elizabeth's cousin Margaret Rhodes once recalled, "she never looked at anyone else".

Philip, who said he had "fallen in love completely and unreservedly", wooed the future Queen through love letters. The pair were engaged in 1946 — though that was kept secret until Elizabeth came of age in 1947.

They were married in Westminster Abbey in November that year.

Elizabeth was so popular with Britons that many donated their ration cards to help pay for the ivory satin to make her wedding dress.

The wedding cake, which stood 2.7 metres high and weighed just more than 220 kilograms, was made with dried fruit donated by the Australian Girl Guides.

Prince Philip cut the towering masterpiece with his sword, and one layer was sent back to Australia as a thank-you.

The pair were married for more than 73 years, and the Queen often spoke of Philip as her "strength and stay".

"[I] owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know," she said in her golden wedding anniversary speech in 1997.

Their strong bond would be tested, but also help them through dark times, from the "annus horribilis" of 1992 to the death of Princess Diana five years later.

From a princess to a Queen

The year after the wedding, their first son Charles was born. Daughter Anne came two years later, in 1950.

As newlyweds Elizabeth and her husband spent time living in Malta, where Philip served in the Royal Navy. She immersed herself in shopping, sightseeing, picnicking and dancing the samba.

But Elizabeth's time as a naval wife — perhaps the closest she would ever come to an ordinary life — was cut short in 1952.

Elizabeth was more than 7,000 kilometres from home when she, as the story goes, went up a tree a princess, and came down a Queen.

She and Prince Philip were in Kenya at the Treetops hotel, beginning a five-month tour of Africa and Australia.

She spent the day capturing cine films of elephants before returning to her cabin high in the trees. That night King George VI, whose health had been failing, died in his sleep of lung cancer.

The news took some hours to reach her remote location, and it was Philip who eventually told her she was now Queen.

She is said to have reacted stoically and with grace; putting aside her sadness to write letters apologising for cancelling the rest of her tour.

Days later in London, she spoke to the thousands of people who turned out for her proclamation.

"My heart is too full for me to say more to you today other than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over," she said.

And work she did. She came to the throne as a 25-year-old mother-of-two, and gave a lifetime of service to the job.

At her request, Elizabeth's coronation in 1953 was the first to be broadcast on television.

Britain was still recovering from World War II, and the coronation united the millions of people who tuned in to watch the pomp and spectacle.

"I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust," the Queen told the nation.

The enthronement was marked by an unprecedented outbreak of 'coronation frenzy' among the 650 million members of the Commonwealth, and the world beyond.

The fever reached such heights that even loyal royal biographer Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd described it as a climate of "almost embarrassingly excessive euphoria".

Forty years after the Elizabethan age dawned, the Queen reflected on the role she was thrust into.

"It's a question of just maturing into what you're doing and accepting that here you are and it's your fate. I think continuity is very important. It is a job for life," she said.

An early trip Down Under

In 1954, accompanied by her husband, Elizabeth became the first reigning monarch to set foot on Australian soil.

Television in Australia was still two years away, so Australians had to turn out in person to see, for the first time, the Queen's now familiar wave.

And turn out they did. An estimated 75 per cent of the population flooded the streets, with more than 1 million people assembling in Sydney alone — the peak of royal adulation in Australia.

"I am proud indeed to be at the head of a nation that has achieved so much," the Queen told the crowd.

During the 58-day visit, the royal couple took 33 flights, 207 car trips and several train journeys to visit every capital — except Darwin — and 70 country towns.

Queen Elizabeth met Indigenous Australians, including artist Albert Namatjira and the Timbery family of La Perouse, who threw boomerangs for her in Wagga Wagga.

She graced the cover of Women's Weekly for eight weeks in a row.

In all, the Queen came to Australia 16 times.

Each time she was met by flag-waving, cheering crowds in cities and towns from the nation's coast to its arid centre, which held a special place in her heart.

"It has a magnetic effect upon those who want more out of life than humdrum security and the tidy rules of a comfortable suburbia," she said of Central Australia in 1963, on her second visit.

She was greeted with admiration in all corners of the country, and inspired everyone from children to Robert Menzies, who famously quoted 17th century poet Thomas Ford and proclaimed: "I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die".

Tackling a constant workload with grace

In 1960, 11 years after Charles was born, and nine years after Anne, another son arrived in the form of Prince Andrew. Four years later, Edward was born.

The Queen's schedule remained largely unchanged over several decades.

Every day brought more paperwork — a steady stream of correspondence, cabinet minutes and state papers that arrived in the famous Red Boxes.

In the afternoons the Queen turned her attention to official engagements, clocking up hundreds of appearances each year. Tuesday evenings were reserved for the prime minister.

The Queen was said to have capped each day with a gin, with a dash of Dubonnet. But such times of rest were fleeting.

The constant workload meant Elizabeth had more in common with working mothers than perhaps any monarch before her.

"Most people have a job and then they go home," she told the BBC in 1992.

"And in this existence, the job and the life go on together because you can't really divide it up."

At a time when women were meant to be seen, not heard, Elizabeth was the head of a kingdom and her own family. 

There were difficult times. Philip initially struggled with life in the Queen's shadow, always walking a few steps behind, and felt his considerable energy was wasted.

Tensions also arose over Margaret's wish to marry her father's equerry, divorcee Captain Peter Townsend.

The pair's romance captured the public's imagination, but at the time it was still unthinkable that a royal could marry a divorcee. For years the Queen, who by law had to approve the marriage, was caught between the wishes of her sister and those of the government and church.

Margaret was eventually told she would have to renounce her claim to the throne to marry Captain Townsend, and she, "mindful of the church's teaching", gave up the man she loved.

The end of Empire

When she came to the throne, Queen Elizabeth II oversaw a British Empire that still governed vast swathes of land in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere around the globe.

During her reign she witnessed its dismantling — a process that had begun with independence for India in 1947, and ended with the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to China.

From the ashes of the Empire rose the Commonwealth of Nations, which grew from a handful of nations to 53 members, Australia among them.

The Commonwealth was regarded by Elizabeth as one of her greatest achievements, and "one of the true unifying bonds in this torn world".

"The Commonwealth is not an organisation with a mission. It is rather an opportunity for its people to work together to achieve practical solutions to problems," she said in 2009.

It's not clear how the Queen's beloved Commonwealth will fare without her at the helm. Even before she died, several member countries began the process of removing her as their head of state. 

At times, the Queen may have contemplated her own demise.

In 1981, six blanks were fired at her at close range during the Trooping the Colour ceremony in London's Mall. The shots spooked the horse but not the rider.

In a bizarre incident the next year, the Queen awoke at Buckingham Palace to find an intruder sitting at the foot of her bed. She reportedly chatted with him for 10 minutes, then, on the pretext of getting him some cigarettes, went to the door and summoned help.

During her reign, Elizabeth travelled to 129 countries, meeting countless leaders, public figures and famous faces.

"There is nowhere on this planet that I can think of that she hasn't been in the last 90 years," her grandson Prince Harry said in 2015.

The Queen's calm exterior was never ruffled, though it was at times tested — including by her own family's woes.

'Annus horribilis' and Diana's death

By 1992, the royal family was in turmoil.

Prince Charles' rocky marriage to Princess Diana fell apart and the pair separated that year after a series of damaging exposes of extra-marital affairs.

Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced their split after the publication of photographs showing a topless duchess having her toes sucked by her American lover.

Princess Anne also divorced from Captain Mark Phillips, though their separation was discreet and without scandal.

After a fire destroyed part of Windsor Castle in November, causing 50 million pounds worth of damage, Queen Elizabeth lamented: "1992 is not a year I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis."

But one of her most testing times as monarch was yet to come.

When Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, the world was stunned.

The Queen, apparently driven by a desire to protect her grandsons and a deeply ingrained commitment to royal protocol, made two grave errors. 

She declined to cut short their trip to Balmoral, and she did not lower the flag over Buckingham Palace to half-mast. 

For the first time in her long reign, she faced a howl of outrage from her subjects who mourned the incredibly popular "People's Princess".

"Has the House of Windsor a heart?" asked the Daily Mail, while The Express boomed: "Show us you care". The Sun's headline read: "Where is our Queen? Where is her flag?".

A week later, dragged into a new world of public emotion, Elizabeth gave her first live televised address in 38 years.

"It is not easy to express a sense of loss since the initial shock is often succeeded by a mixture of other feelings — disbelief, incomprehension, anger, and concern for those who remain. We have all felt those emotions in these last few days," she said.

The Queen's popularity took a beating after Diana's death, and more pain lay ahead.

Two blows in two months

"Grief is the price we pay for love," the Queen said in 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York stunned the globe.

The next year, she suffered two shattering losses in quick succession.

Her sister Princess Margaret, known for being more of a fun-loving free spirit than other royals, died aged 71 following a stroke.

The Queen had lost one of her most intimate companions.

Known for exercising rigid control over her emotions, she sat diminished at the funeral, overwhelmed by grief.

Just seven weeks later, the Queen Mother died in her sleep at the age of 101, with Elizabeth at her bedside.

That year the Queen spoke of her sorrow.

"Many of you will know only too well from your own experience, the grief that follows the death of a much-loved mother or sister. Mine were very much part of my life and always gave me their support and encouragement," she said.

The events threatened to overshadow the Queen's Golden Jubilee, which celebrated her 50 years on the throne.

But there were large-scale celebrations, which Elizabeth credited with tempering her sadness, and her popularity surged again.

Despite the occasional call to step aside for Prince Charles, Elizabeth remained steadfastly on the throne.

Though a stickler for tradition, she showed quiet signs of softening, and in 2005 sanctioned Charles' marriage to his long-time lover, divorcee Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Great-grandmother 'Gan-Gan'

To a whole generation of children, the Queen was much more than a formidable public figure.

Her official title was Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. But to her four children she was simply "Mama".

Charles has early memories of Elizabeth balancing motherhood and the monarchy. As a four-year-old, he watched his young mother practising wearing the heavy St Edward's Crown ahead of her coronation.

"I remember my mama coming up when we were being bathed as children, wearing the crown. It was quite funny — practising," he told the BBC in 2012.

The Queen mellowed further with the arrival of her grandchildren. She often joked with Prince Harry and was credited by William with helping him through the loss of his mother and preparing him to one day be king.

"I think in the Queen, I have an extraordinary example of somebody who's done an enormous amount of good and she's probably the best role model I could have in front of me," he told the BBC.

To another, much younger royal, the Queen was simply "Gan-Gan".

Prince William's wife Catherine painted a picture of Elizabeth as a doting great-grandmother.

"George … calls her Gan-Gan. She always leaves a little gift or something in their room when we go and stay and that just shows her love for the family," she revealed in 2016.

Two bombshell interviews shake the House of Windsor

After the turmoil and scandal of the 1990s, the next generation of royals ushered in a brief era of relative stability. 

As with royal weddings in years past, William and Catherine's marriage in 2011 was a boon for the monarchy, returning the family to the front pages as it worked to find new relevance in the modern era.

William's brother Harry married Meghan Markle in 2018 in a ceremony which also helped cement their status as 21st century celebrities.

But after steering the monarchy to calmer waters, the Queen soon found herself in a squall. 

Two prime-time television interviews threatened to sink the royal family. 

The first involved her favourite son Prince Andrew and his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. 

When the former financier was found dead in his jail cell in 2019, their connection could no longer be ignored. 

Prince Andrew invited the BBC to Buckingham Palace — perhaps with the Queen's knowledge — in an ill-fated attempt to clear his name. 

Over 49 excruciating minutes, the bumbling duke denied knowledge of Epstein's crimes, claimed he was physiologically incapable of sweating, and failed to express sympathy for the victims. 

While he was forced to step back from his duties after the calamitous interview, it was not until three years later that the Queen finally stripped him of his beloved HRH title. 

But Andrew was not the only member of the House of Windsor to retreat.

The inclusion of Meghan in an ageing white institution with a long history of inflicting colonial pain on the world was an opportunity quickly squandered. 

A year into their marriage, she and Harry announced they "were stepping back" as senior royals. 

As the couple fled first to Canada and then Meghan's hometown of Los Angeles, the British tabloids were apoplectic. 

Meghan, always cast as an angry black woman, was accused of making her sister-in-law cry before her wedding, demanding certain tiaras from the family collection, and daring to text her employees before 9am. 

A tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey soon followed, during which Meghan revealed that the relentless bullying by the tabloids and the royal family's apathy to her plight left her suicidal. 

Both Harry and Meghan stressed that the Queen had been nothing but kind to them. 

But in the end, a monarch's kindness was not enough to keep them in the confines of an ancient institution. 

Their children Archie and Lilibet, the first biracial royals born into the House of Windsor, are growing up far away from their family's kingdom.


The end of a great love

Like all great love stories, the long union between the sovereign and her prince wasn't always easy. 

In 1954, an Australian news crew preparing to film the visiting couple was astonished to see Philip flee their bungalow followed by a hail of tennis rackets and shoes. 

Ever the diplomat, the young Queen convinced them to stay quiet about the marital spat they had just witnessed. 

They were dogged by rumours of infidelity and resentment, something Prince Philip always denied. 

However he did make one admission: "Tolerance is the one essential ingredient in any happy marriage." 

"You can take it from me; the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance," he said. 

Every marriage is a foreign country with only two citizens familiar with its language, customs and topography. 

Whatever happened between them, they were bound by love and duty. 

Elizabeth was his Queen, but also the woman to whom he lovingly bestowed the pet name "Cabbage". 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed disease and uncertainty across the planet. 

But for the ageing couple celebrating their platinum anniversary, the crisis brought an unforeseen gift: It allowed their world to become small again. 

Their marriage began in relative privacy and simplicity on the island of Malta, and it ended at their favourite home, Windsor Castle. 

As his life drew to a close, the prince sat in a chair in the sunshine with a blanket over his knees and his love by his side. 

He died in April 2021, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday. 

The Queen, wearing a face mask to protect against COVID, sat alone in a pew of St George's chapel. 

At that moment, she was not a monarch, but simply a grieving widow saying her final farewell. 

A woman of mystery 

The years tumbled like precious gems from a jewellery box. 

In 2012, the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, with more than 1 million people taking to The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. 

Five years later Elizabeth marked her Sapphire Jubilee — the only British monarch in history to do so.

By the time she reached her Platinum Jubilee in 2022, she was an ageing Queen no longer capable of standing for great lengths of time. 

As her mobility issues increased, she began to retreat from public view, allowing her heirs to slowly take her place. 

It was an appropriately austere goodbye from a woman who remained something of a mystery for nearly a century. 

She was with us through the Cuban missile crisis, the Moon landing, the demise of apartheid, the fall of tyrannies and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

And yet, we hardly knew her. 

There was no wall higher than the one around the privacy of the Queen, who shied away from the spotlight and rarely gave interviews to the press.

We knew little of her personal life: she shunned grandeur in favour of simpler pleasures, and found joy in the great outdoors.

She was said to have felt the most free when at Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands, where she could retreat, though not escape entirely, from the pressures of the monarchy.

She was scrupulous about keeping her views private, and stayed above the fray of politics, but had a generous human touch and a direct relationship with her people.

Queen Elizabeth II met, if only briefly, millions across the globe. She answered at least 3.5 million items of correspondence, and sent at least 100,000 telegrams to centenarians. She amassed a legion of fans, and carved out a place in pop culture.

A source of strength and inspiration, many saw Elizabeth as the mother — or grandmother — of the Commonwealth.

She was, in many ways, a blank canvas onto which people projected their ideals of happiness and hope, patriotism and pride.

As the world changed around her, the Queen combined tradition and progress, and, in the words of Prince William, "managed to get the family to move with the times".

Elizabeth supported ending the rule on male primogeniture and the ban on her successors marrying a Catholic. Under her watch the royal family cut costs, and moved closer to the people than ever before.

"Change has become a constant; managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future," she said in 2002.

The reign of her namesake, Elizabeth I, was known as England's "Golden Age" for its decades of peace and prosperity. 

As the world exits its second Elizabethan era, it is too early to say how it will be remembered. 

It featured moments of great joy and stability. But there was also despair and pain. 

Through it all, the little girl who was never meant to rule held true to the promise she made as a young princess.


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