Queen Elizabeth sits in Buckingham Palace

Queen Elizabeth II: A lifetime of devotion and service

The funeral of Britain's longest-ruling monarch concludes a life exemplified by a personal motto of "I serve."

This photograph, taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2007, portrays a serene monarch whose official title was Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz / Trunk Archive

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch died on September 8, setting off a series of well-planned events to mark her passing. The culmination of these events is the state funeral at Westminster Abbey on Monday and her subsequent interment at King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle. The people of the United Kingdom and leaders from around the world will gather in London to pay their respects to the late queen and bid a final farewell.

The beginning of an era

Queen Elizabeth II sat at her desk, undertaking her first duties as monarch. Just hours before, she had been Elizabeth Windsor; now she was queen of the United Kingdom, head of the Commonwealth of Nations, and sovereign of the Commonwealth realms.

It was 1952, and she was in mourning. But despite her grief, the young queen shouldered her new responsibility with grace—and her signature stiff upper lip. “She was sitting erect, fully accepting her destiny,” her private secretary later recalled. When he asked her which name she would reign under, she said “My own, of course.”

Over the seven decades that followed, Queen Elizabeth II would leave an unmistakable impression on her nation and the rest of the world. Her road to the throne was a twisted one; her reign beset by crises and social cataclysms. But her destiny was to rule through triumph and sorrow, conflict and almost unthinkable change. Along the way, she would become the longest-ruling British monarch—linking past and present and emerging as an indelible figure on the world stage.

A twist of royal fate

Born in London on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth was the granddaughter of a king and daughter of a duke—the newest member of the House of Windsor. Despite her royal pedigree, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary didn’t seem destined to the British throne. She was third in line to the monarchy, but it was widely assumed that her uncle Edward would become king, marry, and produce royal heirs of his own. History had other plans for Elizabeth.

When she was nine years old, her uncle took the throne as Edward VIII according to plan. Less than a year later he abdicated, abandoning the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite. Elizabeth’s father would become king, and suddenly Elizabeth was next in line to helm Britain’s hereditary monarchy.

The lonely princess

Elizabeth had been raised quietly along with her younger sister, Princess Margaret. But when she became heir to the throne, her future reign indelibly shaped young Elizabeth’s life. Privately educated in Buckingham Palace and overseen by a beloved governess, she was tutored in her future duties by leading scholars and in religion by the archbishop of Canterbury. She learned from her father, too: Shy, stuttering George VI nonetheless addressed his people regularly and insisted on staying in London during the Blitz of World War II.

Elizabeth was a lonely but dutiful young girl—one biographer noted that her loud cries during her christening as a baby were “the last recorded instance of her surrendering to anything like a tantrum.” But the war opened up her horizons.

In 1940, she made her first public speech at age 14, addressing children who had been separated from their parents during the war. “We children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage,” she said. “We are trying . . . to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war.”

Love and war

The teenage princess took part in the war effort in another way, too. In 1945, Elizabeth made history when she became the first woman in the royal family to serve full-time in Britain’s military as a truck driver and mechanic. When the war ended later that year, she wore her uniform and slipped into the celebrating crowds, blending in with the revelers as she basked in the joy and relief of peace.

By then, the seeds of what would become a seven-decade romance had been sown. Elizabeth and Margaret spent much of World War II at Windsor Castle. Elizabeth’s third cousin, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark often stayed there when he was on leave from the Royal Navy. After the war, their relationship bloomed.

The dashing, blunt prince—who was exiled to England as an infant amid political strife in Greece and became naturalized as Philip Mountbatten in 1947—was an unlikely match for the reserved queen-to-be. He was relatively poor and seemingly rootless, his childhood marked by instability and trauma. But Elizabeth was captivated, reportedly falling in love at age 13. “She had a protective shell around her, and he brought her out of it,” said one observer. They married in Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947.

The young queen

As a young wife and mother—Charles III was born in 1948 and Princess Anne followed in 1950—Elizabeth began to step into her aging father’s shoes. In 1952, she undertook a world tour in King George VI’s stead. During a brief getaway with Philip in Kenya, word arrived that her father had died. The 25-year-old was now a queen.

Elizabeth II, Britain’s 61st monarch, would reign over a vast empire and serve as head of the Church of England. At the time of her accession, Britain had more than 70 territories overseas. She was sovereign and head of state of the Commonwealth realms, including Canada and Australia, and the second Head of the Commonwealth of the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of sovereign states mostly linked to the United Kingdom through a history of British colonial rule. But her role was mostly symbolic: Though technically head of state and church, under the United Kingdom’s constitutional monarchy she possessed no ability to pass or enforce laws and was responsible for serving as a national figurehead, not a politician.

Elizabeth considered her responsibility as monarch a sacred duty. “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 radio address on her 21st birthday, when her father was still king. She would spend the rest of her life living up to that promise.

A glittering coronation

As she mourned her father and acclimated to life as queen, Elizabeth prepared for perhaps the most memorable of the many royal appearances she was to make during her long life: Her coronation, held in Westminster Abbey in June 1953, hewed to time-honored tradition.

The day of the ceremony, the demure young queen, wearing an elaborate white satin dress, took a carriage from Buckingham Palace to the abbey. Inside the abbey, she was blessed and anointed with oil, decked with royal robes, and given a scepter and an orb.

Finally, after a nearly five-pound crown studded with jewels was placed on her head, she received the homage of the royal family and the peerage. Prince Philip was the first to kneel before her, pledging to be her “liege man of life and limb.”

Admiring subjects lined the streets of London to celebrate. They weren’t the only ones to take in the grandeur—at the queen’s insistence, television cameras were allowed inside the church for the first time, and the coronation was broadcast live. An estimated three-quarters of the population of Britain, more than 20 million people, tuned in for the ceremony, and millions more watched from other countries. Her coronation was the world’s first must-see television event and ushered in a new, modern monarchy.

Her changing empire

The British Empire of the queen’s forebears was changing rapidly as countries asserted their independence in the postwar years. Elizabeth continued to serve as constitutional monarch of a growing number of Commonwealth realms. And as head of the Commonwealth of Nations, she presided over a loose group of mostly former British colonies that had abandoned their colonial relationships with Britain.

After the coronation, Elizabeth and Philip embarked on an unprecedented tour of the Commonwealth. During the trip, the pair traveled more than 40,000 miles and visited 13 countries. It was the first time a reigning monarch had visited either Australia or New Zealand.

The Commonwealth would become one of Elizabeth’s most enduring projects. She embraced the association’s diversity and fostered close relationships with its leaders. The Commonwealth “bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past,” she said. “It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”

Royal duties

A busy travel schedule made up just part of the queen’s royal duties. Though the British sovereign must remain externally neutral on matters of state, they retain the right to appoint prime ministers and call a general election. Although those duties are usually no more than ceremonial, they remain a key part of protocol. Monarchs can also advise—or be advised by—their prime ministers.

During her weekly visits with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in her first years as queen, Elizabeth received his tutelage and shared in his notorious sense of fun. Her private secretary recalled hearing “peals of laughter” during their audiences, and the queen wrote that she was “profoundly grateful” for his guidance during her first years as sovereign.

A “priggish schoolgirl”

Despite her outward neutrality, the queen had her detractors—and soon learned that, in times of national strife, the monarchy could be harshly criticized. The first gauntlet came after the Suez Crisis, Britain’s disastrous, short-lived invasion of Egypt in 1956. The brief fiasco resulted in a decline in the U.K.’s global status and fueled a political and economic crisis.

After Anthony Eden, the prime minister who had given the invasion the green light, resigned, Elizabeth came under fire for relying on the advice of an insular group of royal insiders in choosing Eden’s successor. In 1957, Lord Altrincham, the influential editor of the National and English Review, published sharp criticism of Elizabeth and her “tweedy” advisers. Then he launched into a personal attack on the queen herself, complaining about everything from her voice to her “priggish schoolgirl” demeanor.

The criticism—and the debate it generated—prompted the queen to make lasting changes. Though the queen kept the monarch’s prerogative to appoint prime ministers, she would defer to political parties’ choice of prime minister for the rest of her life. And, in a nod toward equality, the queen eventually did away with the custom of presenting upper-crust debutantes at court, a long-standing tradition seen by some as evidence of a privilege unfairly extended to an elite minority.

A troubled nation

British society was changing and so was the monarchy. During her reign, Elizabeth faced a seemingly endless parade of crises, from economic malaise in the 1970s and 1980s to the international woes of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic in the 21st century. But some events hit closer to home than others.

One such event was the Aberfan mine disaster in 1966, a landslide in which 144 people, many of them schoolchildren, were killed. After refusing to visit the Welsh community until more than a week after the incident, Elizabeth faced deep criticism for what some saw as leaving her subjects in the lurch. The queen reportedly considered her bungled response to the disaster to be the biggest regret of her reign.

The Troubles, a three-decades-long conflict between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland, was another crucible. The violence left more than 3,600 dead and more than 30,000 injured. The Troubles also touched Elizabeth personally: Her second cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1979. It would take until 2011 for Elizabeth to make an official state visit to the Republic of Ireland, where she offered her sympathy to the victims of the Troubles. Despite her words—the closest a member of the Royal Family ever came to apologizing for Britain’s reprisals during the conflict—tensions continued to simmer in Northern Ireland, especially in the throes of Brexit, which threatened trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Pomp and circumstance

As a mother of four—Prince Andrew was born in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964—the queen hewed carefully to her symbolic duties. Every year, she presided at the State Opening of Parliament, delivering a speech to the assembled members of the Houses of Commons and Lords. (During her reign she missed only three appearances; twice while pregnant with her younger sons and once in 2022 as concerns for her health increased.)

State events were filled with pitfalls of procedure and etiquette. But for the queen, there was a practical annoyance: the weight of her nearly five-pound Imperial State Crown. “You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up. Because if you did, your neck would break—it would fall off,” she told the BBC in a 2018 documentary. “So there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things.” As the queen aged, she began wearing a lighter-weight diadem to Parliament instead.

Another tradition was the royal Christmas message, a speech broadcast first by radio, then by television to a worldwide audience. During the annual messages, which her grandfather first instituted, Elizabeth offered thanks and encouragement to the people of the Commonwealth and commented on the most pressing issues of the time.

And then there were the jubilees—anniversary celebrations of the queen’s ever lengthening rule. The queen would often travel throughout the Commonwealth of Nations during jubilee years, and she used the jubilee celebrations as chances to greet her subjects and focus on the unity and progress of her nation and the Commonwealth.

In 1969, she presided over a very personal ceremony: the investiture of her oldest son, Charles, as Prince of Wales. As her son knelt before her at Caernarfon Castle, she placed a jewel-studded coronet on his head and presented him to the Welsh people as their prince.

Family matters

Over the years, the queen survived multiple assassination attempts. But those were arguably less traumatic than the family conflicts that rocked her personal life and shook public confidence in the monarchy.

The queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, caused a furor when tabloids published photos of her cavorting with her lover in 1976. Though Margaret’s subsequent divorce scandalized the family, Elizabeth gave it her blessing. It was just a preview of the strife to come.

The fallout of the tempestuous marriage and separation of Charles III and Princess Diana led Elizabeth to refer to 1992 as her “annus horribilis,” a year that also included a catastrophic fire at Windsor Castle, the divorce of Princess Anne, and the separation of Prince Andrew and his wife, Sarah.

When Diana died in a tragic car crash while being pursued by paparazzi in 1997, her former mother-in-law was condemned for her seeming lack of emotion. But in private, the queen expressed her grief, writing to a friend that Diana’s death was “dreadfully sad.” In the aftermath, she protected and cared for her grandsons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

A stiff upper lip

Elizabeth’s troubles didn’t end then. Her son Prince Andrew was linked to infamous American financier Jeffrey Epstein and accused of sexually assaulting a minor Epstein had allegedly trafficked. Under increasing public pressure and after a widely criticized television interview in which Prince Andrew downplayed Epstein’s actions and denied any wrongdoing, he stepped down from public life in November 2019 and returned his royal patronages and military titles to the queen in January 2022.

In January 2020, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, announced they would step back from the royal family and become financially independent. They also alleged that Meghan, who is biracial, had received racist treatment from members of the royal inner circle. Though the couple’s retreat to the United States reportedly came as a blow to the queen, the monarch retained a relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from afar and was said to have been “overjoyed” that the pair named their second child Lilibet.

Another blow came in 2021, when Philip, the longest-serving royal consort in British history, died at age 99. Images of the queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral, which was kept small to conform with the British government’s coronavirus-era restrictions, vividly illustrated the queen’s loss. But through it all, she presented a placid face to the world.

Intensely private though she was, the queen was also known to be warm and witty. She doted on her corgis and relished her summer retreats to Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where she could go on long walks and picnics, drive her Range Rover, and visit with her royal ponies. A committed horsewoman, she was a fixture at horse shows and races and could be spotted in the saddle into her 90s.

But for the woman who committed to serving her country at the age of just 25, her country was never far from her thoughts. She remained active and involved in public events into her mid-90s and never turned away from her responsibilities as queen. “These are the things that, at her age, she shouldn’t be doing, yet she’s carrying on and doing them,” her grandson Prince Harry said in a 2012 interview. So, what did the resilient queen make of her own boundary-breaking life? She reportedly joked, “I have to be seen to be believed.”

Elizabeth could find the humor in her complicated destiny. And for those who loved her—her millions of subjects, her loving family, and her fans around the world—she was much more than a figurehead. “In the days when it was a man’s world, it was very difficult for her to . . . make a difference,” her grandson Prince William said in a 2019 interview. “And she’s done it. In her own very unique, distinct way.”

To the end, she retained the calm resolve of the young woman who accepted her royal fate so many years before—a life of duty and service, accomplished as no one but Elizabeth could.

Portions of this work have previously appeared in Queen Elizabeth II: A Life in Photographs by Erin Blakemore. Copyright © 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.

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