Queen Elizabeth II’s reign spanned parts of eight decades, and the tenures of 15 British prime ministers and 14 U.S. presidents.
What You Need To Know
- Queen Elizabeth II’s reign spanned parts of eight decades, 15 British prime ministers and 14 U.S. presidents.
- For her coronation, in 1953, she said, “Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust”
- Other highlights from her reign include historic visits to West Germany, China and Ireland
- She was criticized in the days after Princess Diana's death in 1997, but she bowed as the princess’ casket and called her "an exceptional and gifted human being"
Much has changed in the world since Elizabeth, who died Thursday at age 96, ascended to the British throne in 1952. For starters, the British Empire saw a wave of decolonization; air travel, television and the internet transformed the way so many individuals live; people have traveled to space; women have become heads of state, including as British prime ministers; and the United Kingdom came and went from the European Union.
Here is a look at 10 memorable moments from Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign, the longest in British history.
Ascension to throne and coronation (1952, 1953)
Elizabeth became queen on Feb. 6, 1952, when her father, King George VI, died. She was just 25 years old.
Her coronation did not take place until 16 months later. The ceremony was the first to be broadcast live on television and was watched by more than 20 million people in the U.K. The event included over 8,000 VIP guests, including many world leaders.
More than 3 million Brits lined the streets afterward for her procession from Westminster Abbey, where the ceremony was held, to Buckingham Palace.
“I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine,” the queen said during a speech broadcast after the coronation. “Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
Visit to West Germany (1965)
Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, paid a 10-day visit to West Germany in May 1965, making the queen the first British sovereign to visit Germany in more than a half-century.
The trip marked the 20th anniversary of the end of World War II and was viewed as the culmination of the political reconciliation of the two countries.
Aberfan tragedy (1966)
On Oct. 21, 1966, a coal mine accident in the Welsh village of Aberfan triggered an avalanche of mud, water and debris that wiped out an elementary school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
Prince Philip visited the site of the disaster the following day, but Queen Elizabeth delayed her visit for more than a week, believing it would distract from rescue and recovery efforts.
According to multiple accounts from people within her inner circle, Elizabeth deeply regretted not traveling to Aberfan sooner.
"It was a sort of lesson for us that you need to show sympathy and to be there on the spot, which I think people craved from her,” Sir William Heseltine, who worked in the royal press office, said in the documentary “Elizabeth: Our Queen,” according to Town & Country.
The first walkabout (1970)
Before the queen’s 1970 tour of Australia and New Zealand, British monarchs waved at well-wishers from a safe distance. But Elizabeth changed that forever when she and Philip strolled the streets of Sydney to greet crowds up close and personal, shaking hands along the way.
"We never shook hands [before],” Prince Anne, the queen’s daughter, who was also on the trip, said in an HBO documentary “Queen of the World.” “The theory was, you couldn't shake hands with everybody, so don't start.”
“Walkabouts” have been a common ritual among the royal family ever since, both abroad and at home.
China visit (1986)
In October 1986, Queen Elizabeth made history by becoming the first British monarch ever to travel to China. It is widely viewed as one of the most important tours of her reign and is credited for being a critical diplomatic step toward improving relations between the two nations.
The visit came two years after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government agreed to transfer sovereignty of Hong Kong to China beginning in 1997.
''I am confident that the cooperative spirit which has been built up in this way will continue to provide a reliable basis for the imaginative policies which are enshrined in that document,” Queen Elizabeth said during the visit, referring to the Hong Kong agreement.
'Annus horribilis' (1992)
Elizabeth’s reign certainly saw its share of tragedy and adversity, but 1992 was particularly difficult.
That year, three of her children — Princes Charles and Andrew and Princess Anne — saw their marriages fall apart. There also was a large fire at Windsor Castle, one of the queen’s official residences, which started when a spotlight ignited a curtain.
In a speech to mark the Rudy Jubilee — 40 years on the throne — Elizabeth remarked that 1992 was “annus horribilis,” Latin for “horrible year.”
Death of Princess Diana (1997)
The queen and the royal family were criticized for their initial response to the death of Princess Diana, Prince Charles’ ex-wife, who was killed at age 36 in a Paris car crash while be followed by paparazzi.
While Britain mourned, Elizabeth stayed silent and remained at Balmoral Castle in Scotland rather than returning to London, and Buckingham Palace refused to give into public pressure to fly the Union flag at half-mast.
At Diana’s funeral, however, Queen Elizabeth bowed as the princess’ casket passed. And in an address to the nation, the monarch said of Diana: “She was an exceptional and gifted human being. In good times and bad, she never lost her capacity to smile and laugh, nor to inspire others with her warmth and kindness. I admired and respected her for her energy and commitment to others.”
Ireland visit (2011)
In May 2011, Elizabeth became the first British monarch to make a state visit to Ireland since it was part of the United Kingdom.
Ireland began fighting for its independence nearly a century earlier, and the two countries had a strained relationship for decades. The four-day visit helped signify closer relations between the neighboring countries and drew broad acclaim from Irish lawmakers.
At the Garden of Remembrance, the queen bowed her head in honor of Irish soldiers who died fighting British forces.
“With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all,” she said.
Death of Prince Philip (2021)
On April 9, 2021, Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband of 73 years, died at age 99.
Photos showed the queen sitting alone at his funeral because of COVID-19 protocols, which elicited sympathy from people around the globe.
In her Christmas address last year, Elizabeth paid tribute to Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
“His sense of service, intellectual curiosity and capacity to squeeze fun out of any situation — were all irrepressible," she said. “That mischievous, enquiring twinkle was as bright at the end as when I first set eyes on him."
Platinum Jubilee (2022)
It had become evident that the queen’s health was declining in June during the Platinum Jubilee, marking her 70 years on the throne.
She attended some events, but was absent for others. For instance, the queen was forced to skip the Jubilee service at St. Paul’s Cathedral because she was experienced discomfort watching the parade a day earlier from the Buckingham Palace balcony, according to palace officials.
Nevertheless, the festivities proved to be one final opportunity for Britain to celebrate their monarch.
"When it comes to how to mark 70 years as your Queen, there is no guidebook to follow,” Elizabeth said in a statement afterward. “It really is a first. But I have been humbled and deeply touched that so many people have taken to the streets to celebrate my Platinum Jubilee.
"While I may not have attended every event in person, my heart has been with you all.”