Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth and Queen of 16 countries, was crowned on 2 June 1953. The Queen ruled for longer than any other monarch in British history, and was a much loved and respected figure across the world. Her record-breaking reign also came to define an era of great change, echoing her predecessors Victoria and Elizabeth I.
Here are 10 facts about her life leading up to becoming Queen.
1. Her ascent to the throne was unexpected but seamless
Like Victoria before her, Elizabeth was far from first-in-line to the crown when she was born, and received the throne aged 27.
She was born in 1926, the eldest daughter of Prince Albert, the Duke of York, who, as the king’s second son, was never expected to inherit the throne. However, the course of Elizabeth’s life changed forever when her uncle Edward VIII shocked the nation by abdicating the throne in 1936, meaning Elizabeth’s mild-mannered and shy father Albert unexpectedly found himself King and Emperor of the world’s largest empire.
Elizabeth was something of a family celebrity by the time of the accession of her father. She was well-known as George V’s favourite before he had died, and for her air of mature seriousness, which many commented upon.
2. Elizabeth was forced to grow up quickly when Europe was convulsed by war in 1939
With German air-raids anticipated from the outset of the war and many children already being evacuated to the countryside, some senior councillors called for Elizabeth to be moved to Canada. But her mother and namesake stood firm, declaring that the whole royal family would stay as a symbol of national unity and endurance.
3. Her first solo action was the issuing of a confident radio broadcast on the BBC’s ‘Children’s Hour’
The Queen-in-waiting took on the morale-boosting responsibilities of the royal family much earlier than she might have expected. Her first solo action was the issuing of a confident radio broadcast on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, which sympathised with other evacuees (she had been moved to the less-than-secure Windsor Castle) and ended with the words “all will be well.”
This mature display was evidently a success, for her roles grew in regularity and importance as the war continued and its tide began to turn.
4. After turning 18 in 1944 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service
During this time, Elizabeth trained as a driver and mechanic, eager to show that everyone was doing their bit towards the war effort.
5. Elizabeth and her sister Margaret famously joined London’s celebrating crowds anonymously on VE Day
The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945 – VE (Victory in Europe) Day. Millions of people rejoiced in the news that Germany had surrendered, with relief that the strain of war was finally over. In towns and cities across the world, people marked the victory with street parties, dancing and singing.
That night, Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret were given permission by their father to leave Buckingham Palace and go incognito to join the crowds of ordinary people on the streets of London.
Now the extraordinary circumstances of her teenage years had calmed down, Elizabeth must have expected a long and mostly harmonious apprenticeship and preparation for her role as Queen. After all, her father was not yet 50 years old. But it was not to be.
6. In 1947 Elizabeth married Prince Phillip of Greece and Denmark
Her choice was controversial at the time; Phillip was foreign-born and had no concrete standing amongst Europe’s nobility. Philip became a British subject on 28 February 1947 in preparation for the marriage, renouncing his right to the Greek and Danish thrones and taking his mother’s surname, Mountbatten.
The charm that had first attracted Elizabeth – combined with a fine military record during the war – won most people round by the time of the marriage.
Phillip was frustrated at having to give up his promising naval career in order to perform the ceremonial role of consort, but he has remained by his wife’s side ever since, only retiring, aged 96, in August 2017.
7. By 1951, Elizabeth began to take up the burden of King George VI’s royal tours
By 1951, the decline in King George VI’s health could no longer been hidden, so Elizabeth and her new husband Philip took on many royal tours. Elizabeth’s youth and vigour helped to revive a country still coming to terms with the devastation of World War Two and the process of losing a once-great empire.
Indeed the couple were staying in Kenya when news arrived of her father’s death on 6 February 1952, making Elizabeth the first Sovereign in over 200 years to accede while abroad. The royal party headed home immediately, with their lives changed unalterably overnight.
8. Choosing her regnal name
When it came to selecting her regnal name, the new queen, remembering her illustrious predecessor Elizabeth I, chose to remain “Elizabeth of course.”
9. Her coronation had to wait for over a year
Meteorologists fussed about finding the perfect conditions for the new phenomenon of a televised coronation – an idea of Phillip’s. They eventually settled on 2 June as it had historically enjoyed a higher chance of sunshine than any other day of the calendar year.
Predictably, the weather was foul all day and bitterly cold for the time of year. But the televised spectacle was an enormous success regardless of the weather.
The Queen was crowned in Westminster Abbey, the setting for every Coronation since 1066, with her son, Prince Charles the first child to witness his mother’s coronation as Sovereign.
10. The Coronation of 1953 was the first ever to be televised
It was watched by 27 million people in the UK alone (out of the 36 million population), and millions more around the world. For most people, it was the first time they had watched an event on television. Millions also listened on the radio.
Elizabeth’s reign was not straightforward. Almost from the off she had to deal with family troubles as well as the symptoms of Britain’s terminal imperial decline.
Nevertheless her adept handling of the great events throughout her reign ensured that, despite a few hiccups and occasional republican mutterings, her popularity remained high.