Queen Elizabeth II: How 'Lilibet' became one of Britain's greatest ever monarchs – obituary

·17 min read
Queen Elizabeth II (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II has died aged 96 (Getty Images)

The Queen has died, Buckingham Palace has announced.

In a statement, the Palace said: "The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon.

"The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow."

Though she was not born to be queen, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor died on 8 September 2022 having become the longest reigning monarch in British history.

Her childhood

Elizabeth was born on 21 April 1926 to the Duke and Duchess of York.

May 1926:  Future King and Queen, George, Duke of York (1895 - 1952) and Elizabeth Duchess of York (1900 - 2002) holding their first child, future Monarch Princess Elizabeth at her christening ceremony.  (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
The Duke and Duchess of York hold their first child, Princess Elizabeth, at her christening ceremony. (Getty Images)

Nicknamed ‘Lilibet’ by her family, she made a lasting impression on people even at a young age.

Winston Churchill said in 1928: "She’s a character. She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant."

Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret were privately educated at home under the supervision of their mother and their governess, Marion Crawford.

Lessons concentrated on history, language, literature and music.

Edward VIII abdicates

Born third in line to the throne, by rights Elizabeth should have lived her life as a minor royal.

However, her future changed forever in 1936 when her uncle Edward VIII abdicated less than a year after taking the throne – so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American socialite.

Elizabeth’s father became King George VI and the young princess was now heir to the throne.

The Duke and Duchess of York with their daughter Princess Elizabeth immediately after their return from Australia in 1927. Albert Frederick Arthur George, future George VI, 1895 – 1952. King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth. Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, 1900 –2002. Future Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. Wife of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary; born 1926. Future Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. From The Duchess of York, published c.1928. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The Duke and Duchess of York with their daughter Princess Elizabeth immediately after their return from Australia in 1927. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Thrust into the public eye, Princess Elizabeth took her royal duties seriously. During the Second World War she helped boost morale by making a broadcast to the nation’s children in 1940, with her younger sister joining at the end.

She made public appearances on her own and joined the women auxiliary territorial service as a driver and mechanic to free up men for the front lines. The skills she learned lasted a lifetime.

Decades later, she once terrified her passenger Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia by driving fearlessly around the winding roads of the Scottish Highlands in her Land Rover while he pleaded with her to keep her eyes on the road.

On VE day in 1945, the young Elizabeth and her sister Margaret convinced their parents to let them sneak out of Buckingham Palace and mingle with the celebrating crowds outside.

She later recalled: “I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.”

Princess Elizabeth at the wheel of an Army vehicle when she served during the Second World War in the Auxiliary Territorial Service.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Princess Elizabeth at the wheel of an army vehicle when she served during the Second World War in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Moments of anonymity like this were rare, but she was able to enjoy several more over her lifetime. One biographer recalls the time she went shopping in the duty-free section of an airport while waiting for her flight to refuel.

“It was a secure area, no-one was expecting her and she had a lovely time browsing at the Clarins counter,” reported a member of the royal party.

On another occasion, while walking around the grounds of Balmoral with her bodyguards she was asked by a group of US tourists if she’d ever met the Queen. Apparently she replied “no” before pointing at her police guard and saying: “But he has.”

Philip, her ‘strength and stay’

It was during the war that she met a young naval officer, Philip of Denmark and Greece.

The couple married at Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947 with the princess wearing a dress she paid for with ration tokens.

There was fierce opposition to the union in royal circles at the time – he was penniless and thought of as "arrogant" – but they were a solid partnership and their 73-year marriage became the longest of any UK monarch.

Britain's Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) (L) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (R) pose on their wedding day at Buckingham Palace in London on November 20, 1947. (Photo by - / - / AFP) (Photo by -/-/AFP via Getty Images)
Princess Elizabeth and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, pose on their wedding day at Buckingham Palace in London on 20 November 1947. (AFP via Getty Images)

The late Lord Charteris once said that Philip was the only person on earth who could tell the Queen to "shut up", and vice versa.

Another close friend said of the couple: "Those two, they’re just a real love story – taking tea together every day, talking about everything. He might take out a letter and read it to her, or crack a joke. They just adore each other."

During a speech to mark their golden wedding anniversary, the Queen said about Philip: "He is someone who doesn't take easily to compliments but he has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know."

Early family life

Their first child, Charles, was born in 1948 and Anne followed two years later.

But Princess Elizabeth’s life was one in which family life had to be balanced against royal duties.

At one point, she lived with Philip at his naval base in Malta, leaving the young Prince Charles back in the UK.

It is said to have been one of the happiest times of her life. The young princess would drive around the island unescorted in her open-topped car or pop to the local cinema to watch a film, holding hands with her husband.

Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921 - 2021) at the Villa Guardamangia in Malta, where he is stationed with the Royal Navy, 23rd November 1949. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth at the Villa Guardamangia in Malta, where he was stationed with the Royal Navy. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Her coronation

On 6 February 1952, George VI passed away and Elizabeth became Queen, bringing a huge change to her life with Philip.

She was on a royal tour of Kenya at the time, visiting a treetop hotel and it was left to Prince Philip to tell his wife about her father’s death.

6th February 1952:  Princess Elizabeth attends a polo match in Nyepi, Kenya, flanked by attending dignatories. One of the last photographs taken of Elizabeth before her succession to the British throne following the death of her father, HM King George VI.  (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty Images)
Princess Elizabeth during the 1952 royal tour of Kenya. It's one of the last photos of Elizabeth before she was made queen following the death of her father, George VI. (Keystone/Getty Images)

The next day, the new monarch requested no photographs be taken. One journalist said he could “feel her sadness” as she passed and waved to them.

More than a year later, on 2 June 1953, the Queen was crowned at Westminster Abbey in a televised event that was watched by an estimated 27 million people around the UK.

Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Elizabeth - Coronation The Duke of Edinburgh kneels in homage to his wife the new queen (Photo by NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
At Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, the Duke of Edinburgh knelt in homage to his wife the new queen. (NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

She was the 39th sovereign to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, in a service followed by a procession along a 7.2km route through London.

Later family life

By the 1970s, she had given birth to sons Andrew and Edward and become the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and New Zealand.

In 1977, she celebrated her Silver Jubilee and while the country was rocked by political turmoil and unrest, the Queen was still admired and respected.

1965: Queen Elizabeth II and The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh with their children (right to left); Charles Prince of Wales, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward and Princess Anne celebrating the Queen's 39th birthday at Windsor.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
The Queen and Prince Philip, with their children Edward, Anne, Charles and Andrew, celebrating her 39th birthday at Windsor in 1965. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Break-in at Buckingham Palace

In the early hours of 9 July 1982, 31-year-old painter and decorator Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace after scaling the site's 14 ft perimeter walls.

He then climbed up a drainpipe and entered the palace through an unlocked window.

Michael Fagan, famous for breaking into Queen Elizabeth II's bedroom, leaves court after being placed on probation for three years for assaulting three policemen and using threatening behaviour
Michael Fagan, who broke into the Queen's bedroom. (PA)

Fagan eventually made it to the Queen's bedroom, where he happened upon the startled monarch.

An official Scotland Yard report into the incident found that the basic cause of the breakdown in security had been due to a series of failures by officers to act properly and security was improved.

Annus horribilis

In 1992, a series of unpleasant events rocked the Royal Family. The marriages of two of her children, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, broke down.

A book detailing Princess Diana’s unhappiness was published and a fire swept through Windsor Castle. It led to the Queen making a speech in which she called it her 'Annus horribilis' – her horrible year.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 24:  Queen Elizabeth ll delivers her
The Queen delivers her 'Annus horribilis' speech after the marriage breakdown of her two sons and the devastating fire at Windsor Castle in 1992. (Getty Images)
An aerial view of Windsor castle showing the damage to the roof caused by the fire.   (Photo by David Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
An aerial view of Windsor Castle showing the damage to the roof caused by the 1992 fire. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Public support for the Royal Family was in decline but the Queen’s popularity hardly waned. Perhaps this was down to her selfless duty and service.

Tony Blair, one of the many prime ministers she presided over during her reign, said: “What I found to be her most surprising attribute is how streetwise she is.

"Frequently, throughout my time as prime minister, I was stunned by her total ability to pick up the public mood.”

There was one notable exception. In 1997, the world was stunned by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and for the first time the Queen seemed to misjudge what the public required of their monarch.

No doubt thinking of her beloved grandsons William and Harry who had lost their mother, she took them to Balmoral Castle in Scotland. There, she intentionally removed newspapers to as not to upset the youngsters further.

Prince Harry later explained: “It was a case of ‘how do we let the boys grieve in privacy, but at the same time when is the right time for them to put on their prince hats and carry out duties to mourn not just their mother but the Princess of Wales’.”

Royal Family, Balmoral Estate, Scotland, 5th September 1997. After attending a private service at Crathie Church, Royal family stop to look at floral tributes left for Princess Diana, at the gates of Balmoral Castle. They are: Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry, Peter Phillips. (Photo by Robert Patterson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
After attending a private service at Crathie Church, the Queen, Philip, Charles, William and Harry, stop to look at floral tributes left for Princess Diana, at the gates of Balmoral Castle in September 1997. (Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

However, her public’s response was not as sympathetic. The Queen was accused of being “cold” and “out of touch”. Later, she made a broadcast paying tribute to Diana. But the swell of anger had shocked her.

As for showing anger herself, the Queen’s preferred method of expressing disapproval was to say: “Are you sure?” or simply to ask a lot of questions.

Throughout her reign, she remained neutral politically but her experience and knowledge of world affairs meant she was an invaluable source of good advice to politicians.

Former PM Blair remembers asking her about another head of state, saying: “I’m really struggling to get on with him.” She replied: “Try cricket, that’s his subject.”

A record-breaking monarch

Her incredible work ethic as well as her undivided loyalty towards her subjects meant that support for the Queen was galvanised in the 2000s.

Her Golden Jubilee was marked in 2002, despite the deaths that year of her sister Margaret and her mother, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Among the UK celebrations was proms at the palace, in Buckingham Palace's gardens, services across the country attended by various royals, and street parties were held.

Members of the British royal family (L-R) Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry and Prince William stand aboard the royal barge 'Spirit of Chartwell' during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames in London on June 3, 2012. Queen Elizabeth II was to sail on a ceremonial barge down the Thames on Sunday at the centre of a 1,000-boat pageant to mark her diamond jubilee, although heavy rain threatened to spoil the party. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PAUL GROVER        (Photo credit should read PAUL GROVER/AFP/GettyImages)
The Queen and other members of the Royal Family during the 1,000-boat pageant down the Thames to mark her Diamond Jubilee. (AFP/Getty Images)

When she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, her approval rating hit 90%, the highest it had ever been since she came to the throne.

The occasion was marked with a river pageant on the Thames in London, although poor weather on the day made it something of a washout.

2012 was also the year that she proved to the world what everyone in her inner circle had known for many years – she had a mischievous sense of humour.

during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics at the Olympic Stadium on August 29, 2012 in London, England.
The Queen during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics at the Olympic Stadium on August 29, 2012 in London. (PA Images)
A performer playing the role of Britain's Queen Elizabeth parachutes from a helicopter during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium July 27, 2012.  REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (BRITAIN  - Tags: OLYMPICS SPORT) - LR1E87R1M8A5V
A performer playing the role of Britain's Queen Elizabeth parachutes from a helicopter during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Reuters)

Friends had always intimated that the Her Majesty was a talented mimic, taking off the Liverpool and Scottish accents with ease.

But no-one was prepared for the jaw-dropping moment she appeared to jump out of a helicopter in a James Bond spoof for the opening of the 2012 London Olympics.

Three years later, on 9 September 2015, Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest reigning monarch. To her public, she was admired and respected. To her family, she was loved.

She relished the role of grandmother and would often text her grandchildren from her mobile. When he was just a toddler, Prince William called her ‘Gary’ as he could not pronounce ‘Granny’ and she is known affectionately as ‘Gan Gan’ to the young Prince George.

In recent years, she was able to attend the marriages of her grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry, granddaughters Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and has welcomed 12 great-grandchildren.

Members of the royal family, including Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge holding Princess Charlotte, Prince George, Prince William and Queen Elizabeth stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony on Horseguards Parade in central London, Britain June 11, 2016. Trooping the Colour is a ceremony to honour Queen Elizabeth's official birthday. The Queen celebrates her 90th birthday this year.   REUTERS/Toby Melville  - LR1EC6B10A8HW
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Princess Charlotte, Prince George, and Queen Elizabeth stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony in 2016. (Reuters)

She became a symbol of stability when the UK and the Commonwealth was rocked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Isolating with her husband Prince Philip in Windsor Castle, she adapted to the new normal, carrying out video engagements and making television and audio broadcasts.

The Queen was forced to steer her family through difficult times when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle announced in January 2020 that they wanted to step back from their roles as senior royals, for a new life in the US.

She presided over the discussions between the couple and the rest of the Royal Family, eventually agreeing a deal which was dubbed 'Megxit'.

It saw the couple give up use of their HRH titles, relinquish the right to use the word 'royal' and stripped Prince Harry of honorary military positions.

And in March 2021 she had to navigate the fallout of the couple's explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey, as they claimed there had been racist remarks made by a member of the Royal Family and that Meghan had not been offered support when she was dealing with suicidal thoughts.

The Queen's carefully worded short statement ensured the matters would be dealt with by the family members and not through the wider palace machinery.

WINDSOR, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: Queen Elizabeth II takes her seat during the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021 in Windsor, England. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born 10 June 1921, in Greece. He served in the British Royal Navy and fought in WWII. He married the then Princess Elizabeth on 20 November 1947 and was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich by King VI. He served as Prince Consort to Queen Elizabeth II until his death on April 9 2021, months short of his 100th birthday. His funeral takes place today at Windsor Castle with only 30 guests invited due to Coronavirus pandemic restrictions. (Photo by Jonathan Brady - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
The Queen sat alone during the funeral of Prince Philip on 17 April 2021 in Windsor. (WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The Queen faced heartbreak when Prince Philip died at the age of 99 on 9 April 2021, at Windsor Castle. He had spent four weeks in hospital about three weeks before his death.

Coronavirus restrictions at the time of his death meant the funeral had to be scaled back, reduced to just 30 mourners.

The Queen cut a solemn figure as she sat alone in the quire of St George's Chapel with 29 other mourners — mostly her children and grandchildren.

Her 95th birthday was spent in royal mourning for her husband of more than 73 years, who had been able to spend more time with her because of the stay at home rules during the pandemic.

In the days that followed she thanked the public for their messages of condolence, saying: "While as a family we are in a period of great sadness, it has been a comfort to us all to see and to hear the tributes paid to my husband, from those within the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and around the world.

"We have been deeply touched, and continue to be reminded that Philip had such an extraordinary impact on countless people throughout his life."

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II reacts during her visit to the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth, southern England on May 22, 2021, ahead of its maiden operational deployment to the Philippine Sea. - The aircraft carrier will embark on her first operational deployment on May 23, leading the UK Carrier Strike Group in engagements with 40 nations including India, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore. (Photo by Steve Parsons / POOL / AFP) (Photo by STEVE PARSONS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The Queen at her first solo in-person engagement after the death of Prince Philip. (AFP)

Now a widow, the Queen would have to navigate the final years of her life without the man who had been by her side since she was a teenager.

However, she soon returned to public duties – both remotely and in-person – when possible.

The year 2022 marked 70 years of her reign, which was celebrated with a four-day Platinum Jubilee bank holiday in June, and the Queen joined in the celebrations a number of times over the weekend.

She didn't attend Trooping the Colour, with Charles taking the salute on her behalf during the event at Horse Guards Parade.

However, she made an appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the end of the parade and watched the flypast with working members of the Royal Family – including Prince Louis, who arguably stole the show with a range of animated expressions.

(left to right) The Prince of Wales, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Louis, the Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte and Prince George on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, to view the Platinum Jubilee flypast, as the Queen celebrates her official birthday, on day one of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Picture date: Thursday June 2, 2022.
The Prince of Wales, the Queen, Prince Louis, the Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Charlotte and Prince George on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, to view the Platinum Jubilee flypast. (PA)
Queen Elizabeth II arrives to symbolically lead the lighting of the principal Jubilee beacon at Windsor Castle, as part of a chain of more than 3,500 flaming tributes to her 70-year-reign, on day one of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Over 3,000 towns, villages and cities throughout the UK, Channel Islands, Isle of Man and UK Overseas Territories, and each of the capital cities of Commonwealth countries are lighting beacons to mark the Jubilee. Picture date: Thursday June 2, 2022.
The Queen arrives to symbolically lead the lighting of the principal Jubilee beacon at Windsor Castle. (PA)

Later in the day at Windsor Castle, she also symbolically led the lighting of the main Jubilee beacon as part of a chain of more than 3,500 flaming tributes to her 70-year-reign.

More than 3,000 towns, villages and cities throughout the UK, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and UK Overseas Territories, and each of the capital cities of Commonwealth countries, lit beacons to mark the Jubilee.

Other events over the weekend included the Platinum Party at the Palace and a street pageant, with the Queen appearing on the balcony once again on the final day of the long weekend.

Queen Elizabeth II appears on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the end of the Platinum Jubilee Pageant, on day four of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Picture date: Sunday June 5, 2022.
The Queen appears on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the end of the Platinum Jubilee Pageant. (PA)

She attended several events over the following summer, although was represented by Charles at the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

On 6 September, she welcomed Liz Truss at an audience at Balmoral Castle, where she invited the newly-elected leader of the Conservative Party to become prime minister.

The historic audience was the first time that the Queen had carried out the duty at her Scottish retreat rather than at Buckingham Palace.

Using a walking stick, the event was also the first time she had been seen since publicly she had arrived for her summer holiday at Balmoral on 21 July.

Queen Elizabeth II welcomes Liz Truss during an audience at Balmoral, Scotland, where she invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative party to become Prime Minister and form a new government. Picture date: Tuesday September 6, 2022.
The Queen welcomes Liz Truss during an audience at Balmoral, Scotland, where she invited the newly-elected Tory Party leader to become prime minister and form a new government. (PA)

But the following day it was announced the Queen had postponed her Privy Council meeting after being advised by her doctors to rest.

On 8 September, Buckingham Palace announced that she was under medical supervision at Balmoral with a statement saying: “Following further evaluation this morning, the Queen’s doctors are concerned for Her Majesty’s health and have recommended she remain under medical supervision. The Queen remains comfortable and at Balmoral.”

Members of the Royal Family rushed to be by her side. Shortly afterwards it was announced that she'd died peacefully that afternoon.

By the time of her death, Queen Elizabeth II had reigned for 70 years, a record that looks unlikely to be broken for many centuries.