In the early hours of February 6 1952 King George VI, a much loved and respected monarch, died in his sleep at Sandringham at the early age of 56.
He was succeeded by his elder daughter who was in Kenya at the time. She returned home to be proclaimed ‘Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm and all Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith’.
The new title reflected the change in status of what was once the ‘British Dominions beyond the seas’. The title ‘Head of the Commonwealth’ enabled the new republics, of which India was the first, to retain their association with the Crown, without swearing allegiance to it.
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The young Queen brought glamour to a nation still experiencing post-war austerity. Just as Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first prime minster, was besotted by his young monarch, Sir Winston Churchill, Elizabeth II’s first prime minister, was similarly affected.
The coronation took place on June 2 1953 and was the first to be televised. The broadcasting of the coronation resulted in a phenomenal growth in TV ownership.
On the morning of the coronation, The Times reported the conquest of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and his guide Sherpa Tenzing. Edmund Hillary became the new Queen’s first knight and was the first hero of what was hailed as ‘the second Elizabethan era’. In 1953 the conquest of Mount Everest was seen in the same light as Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon in 1969.
While some may smile, James Naughtie’s book ‘The New Elizabethans’, published in 2012, demonstrates that the concept of a ‘second Elizabethan era’ is by no means devoid of reality. A nation which can produce men and women of the calibre of Francis Crick (the molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist, most noted for being a co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule), Dorothy Hodgkin (the biochemist who developed protein crystallography, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964) and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) has much to be proud of.
Throughout her reign the Queen has displayed a great many of the skills behind the scenes which the historian and political scientist Archie Brown has identified as ‘the ideal taxonomy of political leadership’: ‘‘Integrity, intelligence, articulateness, shrewd judgment, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, flexibility, good memory, courage, vision, empathy and boundless energy”’.
The Patriation of the Canadian Constitution in the early 1980s was an immensely complex subject which demonstrated the Queen’s grasp of political subtleties. Three senior Canadian politicians despatched from Ottawa to London in 1981 to discuss the matter found the monarch ‘better informed on both the substance and politics of Canada’s constitutional case than any of the British politicians or bureaucrats’.
In his memoirs Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada of the time, paid tribute to the Queen for her role in Patriation, by observing that he was ‘always impressed not only by the grace she displayed in public at all times’ but ‘by the wisdom she showed in private conversation’.
A deep sense of religious and civic duty is central to the Queen’s life. Because she takes her coronation oath seriously, she will never abdicate.
In her Christmas Day television broadcast in 2000 she told the Commonwealth: ‘To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example’.
The Queen regularly goes to church wherever she is: at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, St Mary Magdalene Church at Sandringham, Crathie Kirk at Balmoral, and Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, when she stays in Holyrood, her official home in Scotland.
A strong sense of duty, something which she imbibed from her parents, is a theme which recurs in many of the Queen’s pronouncements. In a speech as Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday (April 21 1947) in South Africa, she said: ‘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 reiterated those sentiments during her Silver Jubilee in 1977: ‘When I was 21, I pledged my life to the service of our people and I asked for God’s help to make good that vow. Although that vow was made in my salad days, when I was green in judgment, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.’
And again, on February 6 2012, at the beginning of her Diamond Jubilee year, she said: ‘In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighbourliness ... I hope also that this Jubilee year will be a time to give thanks for the great advances that have been made since 1952 and to look forward to the future with clear head and warm heart.’
The Queen has a wide range of interests. As is widely known, she has been an animal lover since childhood. An owner and breeder of thoroughbreds, she has a keen and highly knowledgeable interest in horses and often visits race meetings to watch her horses run. She also is a frequent attender at equestrian events.
From her mother she has inherited a great affection for Scottish country dancing. ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’, a reel which the Queen Mother taught her as a girl, remains a firm favourite. Each year during her stay at Balmoral Castle, the Queen gives dances known as Gillies’ Balls, for neighbours, estate and castle staff and members of the local community.