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Queen Elizabeth’s remarkable 70-year reign

“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

These were the words of Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday in 1947, while on a state visit to South Africa with her parents.

Less than five years after this speech, she would become Queen Elizabeth II following the unexpected death of her father George VI.

A young Elizabeth with her mother, Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother

This year, she marked her Platinum Jubilee, 70 years on the throne, and the promise she made at the age of 21 was kept as she went on to become the longest reigning monarch in British history.

The queen passed away today, a statement from Buckingham Palace said, just over a year after the death of her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. She was 96.

She leaves behind a Britain in mourning and much changed – in many ways unrecognisable – from the post-war country in which she took the throne in 1952.

But support for the monarchy has been, and continues to be, consistently high. Elizabeth has been a popular figure at the helm of the royal family throughout personal tragedies and national crises over many decades.

Abdication

Queen Elizabeth II leaves a strong and storied legacy in her wake but, when the monarch was born on 21 April 1926, it was never envisaged that she would one day be queen.

The abdication of her uncle Edward VIII, when she was just 10 years old, changed that. He wanted to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, prompting a constitutional crisis that was settled when Elizabeth’s father became King George VI.

In 1947, she married her distant cousin, Philip Mountbatten. Prince Philip would go on to be the longest serving royal consort until his death in April of last year, at the age of 99.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on their honeymoon

The royal couple had four children. Prince Charles and Princess Anne were both born before their mother became queen, while Prince Andrew and Prince Edward are the only children to be born to a reigning monarch since Queen Victoria.

Elizabeth received the news of her father’s death while on a tour of Kenya in February 1952. She had left England a princess but returned queen-in-waiting, with her coronation taking place in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953.

Queen Elizabeth’s reign spanned eight decades and saw the transition from Empire to Commonwealth of which she was head. She was Queen of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as the United Kingdom.

Queen Elizabeth with heir to the throne, Prince Charles, in Balmoral

Her legacy will not only be her remarkable longevity, but also stability throughout periods of turmoil. She witnessed the Suez Crisis, wars in the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq, devolution, the departure from Europe and the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘A Uachtaráin agus a chairde’

From an Irish perspective, much of the queen’s reign was dominated by the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The conflict claimed thousands of lives, and the royal family was not immune from the violence. Elizabeth’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in Co Sligo in 1979. It was a personal tragedy that struck at the heart of the royal family. Her son Charles gave a reading at his funeral.

The Troubles raged for decades, and it was both the recent and lengthy history of Anglo-Irish relations that made her visit to Ireland in 2011 one of the most significant acts of her reign.

It was announced in a typically nondescript fashion. A statement simultaneously released by Buckingham Palace and Áras an Uachtaráin revealed that the queen had accepted an invitation from the President to pay a State visit to Ireland in the coming months.

The first such visit by a reigning British monarch to the Irish Republic, however, was always going to be anything but low-key. In the context of all that had gone on before, her visit was set to be significant. It would be viewed as a major gesture of reconciliation.

The first meeting between a British monarch and an Irish head-of-state took place in 1993, when President Mary Robinson visited Buckingham Palace.

Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Martin McGuinness in Belfast, June 2012
President Michael D Higgins with Queen Elizabeth in Windsor Castle

Personal turmoil

Immortalised in film and literature, while endlessly covered by the media, the queen’s life has been subject to intense scrutiny. This was particularly the case in times of personal tragedy.

The year of 1992, she famously declared, was her “annus horribilis” as the marriages of three of her children – Charles, Anne and Andrew – broke up, while a great fire destroyed parts of her beloved Windsor Castle.

Queen Elizabeth surveys the damage to Windsor Castle following a fire in 1992

In 1997, a huge outpouring of public grief accompanied the death of Princess Diana as the country was plunged into mourning. The queen was criticised for her handling of matters in the aftermath of Diana’s death in Paris, and particularly for not properly judging the mood of the nation. She would eventually pay tribute to the princess in a live address to the nation before her funeral.

“No-one who knew Diana will ever forget her,” she said. “Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her.”

In 2002, the year that marked 50 years on the throne, the queen’s sister Princess Margaret and her mother died in quick succession.

Her youngest son, Andrew, was forced to resign from public roles in 2020 amid accusations of child sexual abuse.The following year he surrendered his military titles and royal patronages.

Earlier this year, having failed to dismiss the US lawsuit, he reached an out-of-court settlement with alleged victim Virginia Giuffre, for an undisclosed sum.

Queen Elizabeth visits Norfolk during her sapphire jubilee, February 2017

Turbulent and changing times

On 9 September 2015, she became the longest serving monarch in British history, surpassing the previous record held by her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria. In 2017, at the age of 90, Queen Elizabeth became the first British monarch to commemorate a Sapphire Jubilee, a reign of 65 years. Then came an historic Platinum Jubilee in 2022.

During her 70 years on the throne, 15 prime ministers have served under her – from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss.

The Queen with six former UK Prime Ministers

She witnessed the ending of the Cold War, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the demise of the British Empire and its evolution into the Commonwealth.

During her lengthy reign, Queen Elizabeth saw Britain enter and leave the European Union, and the UK struggle under the Covid-19 pandemic, all of which dominated the later part of her monarchy.

As the Covid pandemic gripped the world, the queen found herself cocooning with her husband of more than seven decades, Prince Philip, in Windsor Castle. They spent almost a year together at the castle before Prince Philip died in April last year, two months short of his 100th birthday. She described him as her “strength and stay”.

Queen Elizabeth at the funeral of Prince Philip, April 2021

Public affection

The public esteem which is held for Queen Elizabeth II in Britain cannot be overstated. She has been at the helm of a changing Britain for 70 years. The royal family has been and remains a continued source of admiration, and also as a source of intense interest. The queen made as many headlines in her 90s as she had in her 20s.

And the perception of the queen as a strong, perceptive personality, keeping a steady hand on the tiller, is an image only strengthened by portrayals in TV shows such as The Crown.

She was also well aware that the world was changing around her, and changing quickly, but maintained that the examples of the past should help inform the future. As she said in her Dublin Castle speech: “The lessons from the peace process are clear; whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be all the stronger for working together and sharing the load.”

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