LONDON — Monarch since age 25, she has been served by 14 British prime ministers and met with 13 U.S. presidents. She has presided over the shrinking of the British Empire and the rise of globalization. She has anchored the country through uncertainty — and the royal family’s own dramas.
As Britain this week celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, here are some key moments from her long reign and life.
Elizabeth dedicates her life to public service
Princess Elizabeth was on a tour of South Africa, part of the British Empire at the time, when she turned 21 and made one of her earliest public addresses. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said in a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town.
Elizabeth’s path to the throne was hastened by the abdication of her uncle and the early death of her father, King George VI. She became queen in February 1952, at age 25, and was 27 at the time of her official coronation in June 1953.
The event was televised for the first time — a decision encouraged by her husband, Philip, that would catapult the royal family into people’s homes for decades to come. Millions in Britain and around the world watched the BBC broadcast from Westminster Abbey.
“Although my experience is so short and my task so new, I have in my parents and grandparents an example which I can follow with certainty and with confidence,” Elizabeth said, addressing the nation that evening. “I thank you all from a full heart.”
First state visit to America
Queen of the jet-setting age, Elizabeth has made more than 90 state visits, in addition to traveling widely in the British Commonwealth. While projecting the symbolism of the crown, she has helped to strengthen ties with allies and smooth fraught relationships in places such as India, Russia, South Africa and Ireland.
Elizabeth visited President Harry S. Truman in 1951 when she was a princess, but she made her first state visit to the United States as queen in 1957, meeting with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to mark the 350th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Va.
First televised Christmas address
Queen Elizabeth II has never given an interview. But she has found ways to connect with her subjects, including through her annual Christmas address, a central part of British holiday traditions.
As both head of state and head of the Church of England, she has mixed words of wisdom, faith and occasionally personal reflections.
“I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else, I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations,” she said in her first televised Christmas remarks in 1957.
Beatlemania comes to Buckingham Palace
Among the notable cultural moments of the second Elizabethan era was the Beatles’ visit to Buckingham Palace in London on Oct. 26, 1965. Thousands of adoring fans pressed past policemen and climbed onto palace gates and lampposts as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr arrived to meet the queen.
Wearing a pale gold gown, she bestowed medals of honor on the British pop culture icons. “She was very friendly,” McCartney said after the meeting. “She was just like a mum to us.” Four years later, Lennon would return his medal, in protest of Britain’s support of the U.S. war in Vietnam and its involvement in the Nigerian Civil War.
Aberfan mine disaster
The queen’s reign has also been marked by moments of national devastation. On Oct. 21, 1966, an avalanche of coal debris that had come loose from a rain-soaked mountain rushed through the Welsh town of Aberfan, killing 144 people, most of them children at school.
As the nation mourned the tragedy, Elizabeth drew criticism for waiting eight days before visiting the disaster site, a decision she is said to regret.
A visit from the Apollo 11 astronauts
Space exploration ranks high among the scientific and technological advances during Elizabeth’s reign. After becoming the first people to land on the moon, Americans Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin undertook a global goodwill tour, stopping at Buckingham Palace on Oct. 14, 1969.
Armstrong later revealed that he was so sick that day he considered skipping the event; instead he went and ended up coughing on the queen. Collins, meanwhile, nearly fell down the stairs trying not to turn his back on Elizabeth, Aldrin said in a 2016 tweet.
The first royal walkabout
Queen Elizabeth II broke centuries of tradition when, instead of waving from afar, she greeted people up close on a royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1970. Wearing a lemon-yellow dress, with a signature hat and handbag combination, she walked through the streets of Sydney smiling and speaking to giddy onlookers.
Since then, the “walkabout” has become a regular practice for many members of the royal family.
Charles and Diana’s marriage
One of the rockier periods of the queen’s family life began with the fairy-tale wedding of her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, to Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981. Up to a million people sought to get a glimpse of the procession in central London, while the BBC estimated that 750 million people around the world watched on television.
Although Diana was beloved as “the people’s princess,” the couple had a troubled marriage, with mutual accusations of infidelity. They separated in 1992 — a year the queen called “annus horribilis,” (“a disastrous year” in Latin), as it also involved her son Andrew’s separation, her daughter Anne’s divorce and a fire at Windsor Castle.
First British monarch to visit China
President Richard M. Nixon had gone before her. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, too. But in October 1986, Elizabeth became the first British monarch to visit China. The trip was seen as an important piece of Britain’s diplomatic effort as it prepared to return Hong Kong to Chinese control. The queen saw the Great Wall and newly unearthed terra cotta warriors. And, unlike Thatcher, she remained unperturbed when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping spat into a spittoon by his seat.
Hosting Nelson Mandela
South African President Nelson Mandela arrived in Britain in July 1996 for a four-day state visit to his country’s former colonizer. Addressing members of Parliament, he denounced racism as “a blight on the human conscience.”
On that trip, Mandela and the queen developed a lasting fondness for each other. She hosted him at Buckingham Palace and took him on a carriage ride through central London. At a party at the Royal Albert Hall, Mandela had the queen on her feet, though she “has seldom been known to boogie in public,” the Daily Telegraph reported.
Millions can still remember exactly where they were in 1997 when they learned of the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris. The moment shocked the world and put intense public scrutiny on the British royal family.
The queen faced criticism for a slow response. Days later, she spoke to the nation live from Buckingham Palace and said: “No one who knew Diana will ever forget her. Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her.” She added, “We have all been trying in our different ways to cope.”
50th anniversary of the first Christmas television broadcast
In 2007, the queen marked 50 years of her Christmas broadcast with a modern flair: She posted the speech on YouTube.
“One of the features of growing old is the heightened awareness of change,” she said. “To remember what happened 50 years ago means that it is possible to appreciate what has changed in the meantime; it also makes you aware of what has remained constant,” like family, the monarch added.
The famously staid queen surprised audiences at the 2012 London Olympic Games by appearing in a dramatic opening segment alongside Britain’s most famous spy, James Bond, played by actor Daniel Craig.
A video showed 007 coming to the palace to escort the monarch to the opening ceremony, with the two appearing to parachute from a helicopter into the Olympic Stadium amid wild applause from startled fans. The real queen, poker-faced as always, entered her box seat with a familiar yet cheeky wave.
Harry and Meghan’s defection
The wedding of Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle in 2018 was a global event — and prompted questions about whether a biracial, politically active, self-proclaimed feminist might help modernize the British monarchy.
But by 2020, Harry and Meghan announced that they felt hounded by the media and would be stepping back from their royal duties. The queen brokered their departure from the family firm, writing in a statement: “Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family.”
Prince Philip’s death
Elizabeth had been married to Philip for 73 years when Buckingham Palace announced his death on April 9, 2021. His funeral, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, was attended only by close family members and friends. The queen sat alone in a pew, wearing a black face mask, in keeping with national restrictions.
Elizabeth, whom Philip affectionately called Lilibet, had described him as her “strength and stay.” In her Christmas message that year, she recalled that his “mischievous, inquiring twinkle was as bright at the end as when I first set eyes on him.” Then she added: “But life, of course, consists of final partings as well as first meetings.”
Parades, parties and a public holiday this week will mark the queen’s Platinum Jubilee, which celebrates Elizabeth as the first and only British monarch to reach 70 years on the throne.
Union flag bunting and decorations already adorn major monuments in London and cities across the country — a taste of the pomp and celebration that will take place from Thursday to Sunday, as Britain reflects on the long life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
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