As Her Majesty celebrates her 90th birthday this Thursday, a look back at her life reveals a surprising glimpse of Elizabeth II as a young princess, mother, risk-taker, and Bond Girl.
Left: A portrait of a one-year-old Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, in June 1927. Picture Post | Hulton Archive | Getty Images Right: Queen Elizabeth II photographed during a state banquet at the Schloss Bellevue Palace in Berlin, Germany, in June 1915. Chris Jackson | WPA Pool | Getty Images
Reaching the age of 90 is a major milestone for anyone, but as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth marks this special milestone this Thursday, we can only stand back and admire such a devoted figurehead who at this great age is still on the saddle … literally!
Our vision of Queen Elizabeth is of a smiling elderly lady wearing those familiar statement pieces: brightly colored dresses with matching hats and coats, her sensible black bag and shoes, and a steady, constantly gloved wave as she greets the crowds. It’s such a familiar image and perhaps one we take for granted, but behind this reassuring global figure who is the epitome of elegance and grace, is a woman who wears many hats—including a priceless crown. She’s a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, a hugely successful career woman, church-goer, and friend. She loves animals, photography, has traveled way more than most, and has an eye for fashion. She encapsulates all that is great in a woman, and as her grandson Prince William stated in a documentary to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2013, Our Queen, she “shows the strength of women at the top.”
Queen Elizabeth II arriving at Sydney Russell School in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham in July 2015. Max Mumby | Indigo | Getty Images
However, behind the palace walls, is a story of a little girl who was never meant to be Queen, let alone the longest ever reigning British monarch. Up until the age of 10, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary lived a privileged and blissful childhood on royal estates, educated at home by a governess and her mother. Her younger sister Margaret was her constant companion. Her family was extremely close-knit, which was quite unusual among the royals at that time, her mother describing them as “we four.”
Princess Elizabeth riding her pony in Windsor Great Park in the 1930s. Ann Ronan Pictures | Print Collector | Getty Images
This all changed, when in 1936, Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson. A very young Lilibet, as she was affectionately known, became heir apparent and her family moved into the huge, drafty, and pretty daunting Buckingham Palace, something they had not been prepared for at all. Her father, who had taken over his brother’s position to become King George VI, was a man of duty and started preparing his young daughter for her future role as Queen.
Sadly this came sooner than expected; she was just 25 when her father died, making her Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. What is incredible to imagine is that a woman so young, although married with two children, could take on such responsibility at a time when society was still so male-dominated. She had to face weekly meetings with seasoned male politicians who generally had a political agenda of their own. Where some could have buckled under the pressure the young Elizabeth went from strength to strength. She was a young woman with incredible commitment and an unswerving sense of duty and service to God, country, and her family. This has never faltered.
Her cousin and old playmate, Margaret Rhodes, with whom she remains close, described her as “a jolly little girl, but fundamentally sensible and well-behaved.” This was also echoed by the late Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said at just the age of two she was “a character. She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.” Therefore, despite becoming Queen simply because her uncle had fallen in love with the wrong woman, she luckily had the natural qualities for the job.
Queen Elizabeth II on her way to her first State Opening of Parliament as monarch, November 4, 1952. Douglas Miller | Hulton Archive | Getty Images
These qualities have allowed her to show terrific strength, grace and virtue, while experiencing tragedies, joy, and disappointment—familiar to all of us to some degree—but under the scrutiny of a very public eye. We could ask what keeps her going, especially at this incredible age. Perhaps it is the love of her country and its people, her family, her God, or her lifelong love—Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Perhaps a combination of them all.
A princess in love
At just 13 the Queen met a very handsome 18-year-old Navy cadet at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, England, just before the outbreak of World War II. Although they met up very occasionally over the following years, this was the man she would go on to marry, and with whom she’d have four children. Her cousin Margaret Rhodes told the Telegraph, “He had absolutely god-like good looks … From the day Princess Elizabeth met him … when she was 13, I don’t think she ever, ever, ever looked at, or thought about, another man. At that age, one didn’t seriously think about being married but one always knew that she had a yen for him.” This went slightly against her parents’ plans, for “Queen Elizabeth [the Queen Mother] had made no secret of her preference for one of her daughter’s aristocratic English friends from a family similar to her own English-Scottish Strathmores … Philip could boast none of their extensive landholdings, and in fact had very little money.”
But Elizabeth was a determined and besotted princess, and with her handsome prince they built a marriage on love and mutual respect. A young Prince Philip once wrote “[she was] the only ‘thing’ in this world which is absolutely real to me, and my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.”
Princess Elizabeth and naval Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten photographed for the first time since the announcement of their engagement, July 10, 1947. Central Press | Hulton Archive | Getty Images
The Queen, always resolute in her decisions, had made the perfect choice. Throughout their married life, Prince Philip has been a constant support, even when it might have been physically exhausting. During the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, at the age of 90, he accompanied his wife, standing up, on an 80-minute boat trip down the River Thames in the rain. It was no surprise that he was hospitalized soon after. In Our Queen, Elizabeth II describes him as “my strength and stay all these years,” showing complete loyalty. What is truly beautiful is that their grand-children recognize this strength, Prince Harry describing his grand-father’s “phenomenal support.” What a wonderful example to set for the family and nation.
As a mother to Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward, the Queen has come under fire for her maternal role. In the past, Prince Charles spoke of being “emotionally estranged” from his parents due to the lack of time they spent together. But in reality the Queen was just ahead of her time. She became a mother at a time when most women were stay-at-home moms. She was in fact breaking the mold, juggling her role as a working woman while being a loving parent—all in the spotlight of a hungry press. It is a constant inner-battle that working mothers deal with today, never feeling they have enough time to spend with their children. The Queen recently asked the actress Kate Winslet if she enjoyed being an actress, to which she answered “I love being a mum more.” To which the Queen replied: “That’s the only job that matters.”
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with their two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, spending some family time on the grounds of Clarence House, London, in 1951. Fox Photos | Getty Images
Although we know very little about the Queen’s private family life, Prince Charles recently released a video via the Clarence House (his official London residence) twitter account on Mother’s Day showing an impeccably dressed Queen enjoying some tender, loving moments with the young Prince Charles. Perhaps he has come to appreciate the permanent struggle of being a good mother, wife, employee, and for some … Queen.
The grandmother …
“Granny” to eight and “Gan-Gan” to five great-grandchildren, Queen Elizabeth has a multitude of experience and stories to share. Like most grandmothers she likes to dote on the new generations. Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, recently revealed in Our Queen that “Gan-Gan” leaves little gifts for her children, George and Charlotte, when they go to stay. She is attentive to the slightest detail and loves to share her own passions with her younger family members. Not only have her grandchildren shared her love of horses, with her granddaughter Zara Tindall winning silver at the London Olympics on the Equestrian Team, but now Prince George at the age of two is also said to be continuing the horseback riding tradition.
These shared passions are integral in bringing families closer together, and perhaps that is why the Queen tries to encourage these family pastimes. But she is also fiercely protective of her younger family members. When Princess Diana died in 1997, Elizabeth stayed with her grandchildren William and Harry in Balmoral, Scotland, away from the frenzy of the world’s media and the gathering crowds in London. While she was criticized for not returning to London to publicly express her sorrow, she did what any grandmother would have done. She wanted to protect these two young boys, wrapping them in cotton wool and shielding them from the outside world, while they absorbed the shock of their loss. She was grandmother before being Queen.
The Queen with Prince William and Prince Harry in the Royal Box at Guards Polo Club, Smiths Lawn, Windsor. Tim Graham | Getty Images
This role of loving grandmother is apparent with her support of Prince William as he tries to manage his own young family. The Queen supports William and Kate’s decision to keep their children out of the public eye as much as possible. She has an obvious fondness for William and wants him to enjoy his family life away from the public eye while he can.
Like any good grandmother, the Queen not only offers support but advises her grandchildren. Prince William shared a conversation he’d had with his grandmother on the run up to his wedding in 2011, again in Our Queen. On receiving the proposed list of 777 guests from royal courtiers, none of whom were known to William or Kate, he immediately rang his grandmother for advice. The very modern royal, or perhaps just a loving grandmother, told him, “It was ridiculous” and that he should “start with his own friends.” Her advisory role also included telling William what color tunic he should wear to his wedding, opting for the the bright red military uniform of the Irish Guards. As Prince Harry said, “She was right, as she always is.”
Rebel and risk-taker
The word “rebel” may be a little strong, as the duty-bound Queen has never really strayed far from her role. Yet there have been a couple of incidences that also reveal Elizabeth as a passionate and highly determined woman.
As a young princess, she pleaded with her parents to let her join in the street celebrations to mark the end of World War II. She and her sister were actually allowed to put on a disguise and run out in a large group to soak up the atmosphere and join in the celebrations that were flooding the streets. Going incognito was a rare taste of freedom away from the palace confines. On her way back home, she pressured her parents to step out onto the famous Buckingham Palace balcony to join in the celebrations. The Telegraph quotes: “We were successful in seeing my parents come out on the balcony,” the Queen said, before sheepishly admitting: “But we had cheated slightly, as we had sent a message inside the house saying we were waiting outside.”
It was, as she said, “one of the most memorable nights of my life.”
On a more practical level, Elizabeth travels without a passport and drives without a license or car plates—as Monarch she is not required to have them. But, unusually for someone in her position, she can change also a tire and a spark plug, all skills learned during the war. Impressively she can still be seen driving herself around at the age of 90. She is truly an independent woman.
Queen Elizabeth II watching the International Driving Grand Prix in Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, May 1971. Fox Photos | Hulton Archive | Getty Images
Yet it is the Queen’s love of horses which sees her at her most rebellious. Unbelievably she still rides without a hard hat, opting for a silk scarf instead. When questioned on the matter by her racing trainer Ian Baldwin, she reportedly said: “I never have and you don’t have to have your hair done like I do.” Many women can appreciate the issue of a great blow-dry being destroyed by wind, the rain, a hat, let alone a helmet.
The ultimate Bond Girl
She may not be Raquel Welch or Halle Berry, but Elizabeth proved that even a woman in her 80s can keep James Bond, or Daniel Craig, in line. For the opening of the London Olympics in 2012, Her Majesty, escorted by Mr. Bond himself, appeared to parachute out of a helicopter (with her famous black bag in hand) to arrive at the stadium—much to the delight of the crowd, the entire world, and her grandchildren, who were heard shouting “Go Granny!”
Planned months in advance, the Queen kept her fake parachute jump completely secret from most of her family and had obviously practiced the delivery of her line: “Good evening Mr. Bond” to perfection. With this one act the Queen fulfilled her royal duties, displayed her slightly mischievous side, impressed her grandchildren, and perhaps more importantly, got to fulfill every woman’s dream—to become a Bond girl.
In her role as Queen, Elizabeth II has played host to countless heads of State, politicians and influential people from around the world. She has helped build bridges between nations, and helped smooth over political discord. Barack Obama recently paid tribute to this “inspirational” woman and spoke of her crucial involvement in American-Anglo relations: “We often speak of the deep and enduring partnership between our two countries. It is indeed a special relationship. And Her Majesty has been a vital part of what keeps our relationship so special.”
Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President Barack Obama arrive for a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace in May 2011 in London. Rota | Anwar Hussein | Getty Images
Indeed, she really is the “queen” of diplomacy. When Michelle Obama inadvertently broke with royal protocol—placing her arm around the Queen—whilst royal watchers gasped in disbelief, Her Majesty gently placed her arm around America’s First Lady. A complete natural, she is adept at putting people at ease and like any matriarch, this role is probably never more crucial than within her own family.
Like many modern women, the Queen is adaptable and forward-thinking—even at 90. She appreciates that she is more than an individual, but an institution. And as the royal family adapts to an ever-changing society, it is fortunate to have at its head this “trailblazer.”
The Queen doesn’t shun change but tends to grasp it with both hands. As Head of the Church of England, she spearheaded the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act, enabling royals to marry Roman Catholics without losing their place in line of succession to the throne. It also gives princesses the same rights as princes to inherit the throne—gone are those ancient male-dominated traditions, and who knows if one day there will be an equally strong and skillful Elizabeth III!
And even as we marvel at what she has achieved we still have the impression that there is more to come from this global grandmother. She never seems to stop and is as present as ever.
Her Majesty has said of herself that she “must be seen to be believed” and that brightly colored figure never seems to disappoint. As all the dramas her family has so publicly endured over the decades seem to subside, that little twinkle in her eye seems that little bit shinier, and her beautiful smile seems that little bit broader.
Surprising facts about the Queen
The Queen is a fluent French speaker… vive la reine!
According to TV presenter Kirsty Allsop, Her Majesty is not frightened to get her hands dirty, picking up garbage where she sees it. This has inspired the campaign “Clean for the Queen,” in honor of her 90th birthday.
She loves “Downton Abbey,” according to the Telegraph, and has a keen eye for noting historical errors.
The Queen, as well as other royals, are said to be big fans of all things “eggy,” according to the Guardian.
She is a big Tupperware fan. In various documentaries, you can see Tupperware boxes filled with cereals on a sideboard.
The Queen really does have someone walk in her shoes. Her stylist, Stewart Parvin, explained that to avoid any discomfort, she has an assistant wear-in the leather of her shoes.
During her reign, there have been 12 U.S. presidents, 7 Roman Catholic Popes, and 12 British prime ministers.
The Queen and her husband have sent over 37,500 Christmas cards during her reign.
She has 30 godchildren.
Queen Elizabeth has owned over 30 corgis during her lifetime, and even demoted one of her footmen for giving one of her pets whiskey.
Her Majesty joined Facebook in 2010—but no poking please!
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