Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest reigning monarch, died on 8 September 2022 at the age of 96. Incredibly, she was still working right up until 2 days before her death. Her State Funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 19 September 2022 – this and the associated ceremonial arrangements were an incredible display of British pageantry and paid tribute to the Queen’s extraordinary reign and her life of service as Head of State, Nation and Commonwealth.
Lots has been written about Queen Elizabeth II’s remarkable life, reign and times, though in our Book of the Month for December 2022 – Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait – Gyles Brandreth tells the story from his perspective as someone who knew her husband well, and had met her, talked with her and kept a record of those conversations.
Whilst we clearly didn’t know Elizabeth as personally as Gyles did, here we explore some of the lesser-known facts about her that may surprise you.
Her birthplace is now a fancy Cantonese restaurant
The Queen’s birthplace – a London townhouse at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair (the home of her maternal grandparents) – is now a world-famous Cantonese restaurant called Hakkasan.
Her first horse was called Peggy
The Queen’s first horse was a Shetland pony called Peggy, given to her by her grandfather King George V when she was aged 4. She rode horses ever since.
She became a homeowner aged 6
The Queen was gifted a miniature thatched Wendy-house cottage by the people of Wales on her 6th birthday. It was named Y Bwthyn Bach, which means ‘little cottage’, and was placed in the grounds of Royal Lodge in Windsor. The house was modelled on a typical Welsh cottage and contained a miniature radio, china set, portrait of the Queen’s mother, books, pots, pans, brooms and a working telephone, all made to scale.
The Queen could speak fluent French
After her father became King in 1936, Princess Elizabeth began studying constitutional history and law. She also studied French, German and music while educated at home by her tutor and governess, Marion Crawford. In later years, when visiting France, the Queen would always speak in French.
She volunteered as a truck driver and mechanic during World War Two
Despite the risks, Elizabeth joined the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a truck driver and mechanic in 1945, when aged 18 years old. This made her the first female member of the royal family to serve in the military. Until her death, she was also the only living head of state who had officially served in World War Two.
Her diamond tiara snapped on the morning of her wedding
Whilst it’s well-known that the then-Princess Elizabeth bought the material for her wedding dress with ration coupons (and a 200-coupon supplement from the government) due to post-war austerity measures, less well-known is that her diamond tiara snapped on the morning of her wedding in 1947 as it was being secured to her veil.
With only two hours to go, the tiara was rushed to the royal jewellery house workshop (Garrard) under police escort, where it was quickly welded back together. The tiara contained a halo of diamond-studded spikes, and had been created in 1919 for Elizabeth’s grandmother Queen Mary.
4 out of 5 UK residents weren’t alive when the Queen ascended the throne
Before her death, most British people hadn’t known another monarch besides Queen Elizabeth II: according to data shared by the UK Office of National Statistics in 2017, 81% of UK residents weren’t alive when she ascended the throne upon the death of her father in 1952.
She technically owned all the dolphins in the UK
As monarch, in addition to owning all of the country’s dolphins, the Queen also owned all the sturgeon and whales due to a still-valid statute from the reign of King Edward II in 1324. This states that, “Also the King shall have … whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm”. Most aquatic creatures are technically labelled ‘fishes royal’ and are claimed on behalf of the Crown.
In the 12th century, the British monarchy also laid claim to “all mute swans” in the country, which back then were considered a delicacy and eaten at feasts. The Queen also owned an elephant, two giant turtles, a jaguar and a pair of sloths – though these were all presents from other countries, and were all sent to be cared for at London Zoo.
The Queen owned over 30 Corgis and invented a new breed of dog
Elizabeth’s father brought home the royal family’s first corgi in 1933. On her 18th birthday, Elizabeth was gifted her own corgi named Susan. Many of her subsequent corgis descended directly from Susan, with the Queen owning over 30 corgis across her life, which were apparently all very well controlled and obedient.
One of the Queen’s corgis once mated with a dachshund (‘Pippin’) that belonged to Princess Margaret, thus creating the ‘dorgi’ dog.
The Queen first sent an email back in 1976
The Queen posted her first ever tweet to the @RoyalFamily account in October 2014, and published her first Instagram post in 2019.
As Princess Elizabeth, the Queen made her first public speech on 13 October 1940, with a radio address to the children of the Commonwealth, many of them living away from home due to war. Her first televised Christmas Broadcast was in 1957.
Since 1989 the Queen wore only one shade of nail polish
The Queen reportedly wore the same nail polish since 1989 – Essie’s classic pale pearly pink shade ‘Ballet Slippers’. The nail varnish is surprisingly cheap, retailing for around £8.
Essie says that, in 1989, Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser wrote a letter to nail polish-mogul Essie Weingarten requesting a bottle of the classic shade, after which the Queen refused to wear any other colour.
She had many hobbies
These included horse riding and pigeon racing. Apparently the Queen also took an interest in football – and is rumoured to have been an Arsenal supporter.
It is claimed she could imitate the sound of a Concorde jet landing
The Queen was known to have a great sense of humour, yet less well-known is that she apparently also had a talent for mimicry. According to the Queen’s chaplain Bishop Michael Mann, “the queen imitating the Concorde landing is one of the funniest things you could see.”
Her drink of choice was gin
The Queen was said to enjoy gin mixed with Dubonnet (a fortified wine) and a slice of lemon on the rocks every day before lunch. She sometimes drank wine with lunch, sometimes later a dry martini and also reportedly had a glass of champagne every evening.
However, in her later years the Queen was advised by doctors to give up her alcoholic drinks in favour of water and juice.
During her reign, the Queen is said to have carried out more than 21,000 engagements
She also sat for over 200 official portraits, sent around 50,000 Christmas cards and travelled to more than 115 countries. (She visited Canada 22 times and France 13 times – more than any other country in Europe, possibly due to her fluency in French.)
The Queen’s wreath paid tribute to Prince Philip
The wreath that sat on top of the Queen’s coffin was made from some of her favourite flowers including sweet peas, picked from the Balmoral Estate. This was thought to be a tribute to Prince Philip as after he died in April 2021, the Queen had also picked out sweet peas for his funeral wreath. Sweet peas are often associated with the idea of goodbyes.
Flights were cancelled over London to ensure quiet during the Queen’s funeral
On the day of the Queen’s funeral (Monday 19 September 2022), flights that were due to pass over central London were cancelled to ensure the skies were silent, as a mark of respect.
Gyles Brandreth is a British author, presenter and former politician, with a reputation as an accomplished raconteur and public speaker. His book, Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait is our Book of the Month for December 2022. It is published by Penguin Michael Joseph, and available to buy now.