LONDON — She was a fresh-faced 25-year-old on an official tour of Kenya with her husband of six years, Philip. Harry Truman was president of the United States and Winston Churchill was the British prime minister. And on Feb. 6, 1952, Elizabeth Windsor became Queen of England. Her coronation on June 2, 1953, seemed to herald a new era for Britain — for on the same day it was announced that a British-led team had conquered the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.
Flash-forward 60 years and it once again seems Britain’s time. The nation is preparing to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee —making her the second-longest-serving monarch after Queen Victoria. London is hosting the Summer Olympics for the first time since 1948. All that’s needed is for a Briton to win Wimbledon and it would seem the stars were in absolutely perfect alignment.
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That’s unlikely to happen, but nothing would surprise the 86-year-old monarch with the white set curls, megawatt smile and penchant for horse racing, homeopathic remedies, corgis and silk Hermès head scarves. Throughout her six-decade reign, she’s weathered family tragedy, scandal, mishaps and more — and has remained as implacable as Mount Everest itself.
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Her famous annus horribilis in 1992 — when she marked her 40 years as queen — was a particularly trying time in a difficult decade that saw her family behaving badly and public opinion for the monarchy hitting a low. Princess Diana’s death in 1997 — and the Queen’s initial failure to tune into the national mood — was another low, but it marked the end of the decade horribilis in the Queen’s otherwise stellar tenure.
Since Diana’s death, she has subtly thrown her energy behind rebuilding the royal family’s reputation — and cementing its future. “In the 1990s, disaster was looming and it looked like the House of Windsor was imploding,” said Paul Moorhouse, who curated “The Queen: Art and Image,” a warts-and-all collection of photographs, paintings and works of art tracking the monarch’s reign at the National Portrait Gallery. After her darkest days, she figuratively took up arms, began to strategize about the future of the House of Windsor, and maintained her famous unflappability and dignity in the process.
“She rehabilitated the monarchy and has come back stronger than ever,” said Moorhouse.
Nicky Haslam, interior decorator, socialite and cabaret performer who is close to members of the royal family, put it a different way: “She’s un-Hello-ed the whole thing. She hasn’t sold out to the popular press, and she’s given a sense of stability to something that could have been viewed as not serious.”
But that was always Queen Elizabeth II’s way. Harold Macmillan, who served as British prime minister from 1957 to 1963, wrote the following in his diaries from those years: “The Queen…is impatient of the attitude toward her to treat her as a woman, and a film star or mascot. She has indeed ‘the heart and stomach of a man.’ She does not enjoy ‘society.’ She likes her horses. But she loves her duty and means to be a Queen, not a puppet.”
Her subjects would agree: According to a recent Guardian-ICM poll, 69 percent of respondents in England and Wales believe Britain would be worse off without the monarchy, while 22 percent say the country would be better off. Only 10 percent of respondents said that when the Queen dies, Britons should elect a head of state instead of having a new monarch. On a lighter note, the Evening Standard reported this week that sales of corgis have seen a 10 percent uptick this year due to the Jubilee celebrations.
Indeed, the pro-monarchy mood is so strong in the U.K. right now — due mostly to the Queen, but also to Princes William and Harry and royal newcomer the Duchess of Cambridge — that it’s hard to believe that, not so long ago, the royal family was in the dumps. Richard Grayson, head of history and professor of 20th-century history at Goldsmiths, University of London, said back in the Nineties, during all the royal family drama, it would have been difficult to imagine Prince Charles ever becoming king, let alone marrying his longtime lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall.
“Today there is even serious talk of Camilla one day becoming Queen,” he said. It was most likely Diana’s worst nightmare, and unthinkable even a decade ago.
Grayson says the Queen has a lot in common with her grandfather, King George V. “She’s been dignified in very difficult times and has guided very conservative changes. Like her grandfather, who was monarch at a point when there was real talk of revolution in the country, she can read the times quite effectively, and incorporate demands and changes with a calm hand,” he said.
Asked to give her an enduring epithet, Grayson called her “Elizabeth the Dignified.”
Royal historian Hugo Vickers said her polestar over the past six decades has been duty — to her family and her country. “She saw her uncle, Edward VIII, renounce the path of duty for the perceived path of happiness, and that had a profound impact on her,” Vickers said. “She always chose duty. She believes you have got to do your bit, and I think she derives a tremendous amount of satisfaction from knowing she’s done a good job.”
A sense of duty is also a quality she admires in others. “Prince William didn’t go off the rails, he met a nice girl and married her, and I think that is a great source of satisfaction for the Queen,” said Vickers.
Unusual for a public figure living in the 21st century, the Queen has executed her work without any media interviews, public tears, excuses, arguments or complaints. She gets on with her work, which — despite her many public appearances and friendly chitchat with her subjects — takes place behind closed doors. Since vowing in 1952 to devote her “whole life, whether it be long or short” to serving the people of Britain and its imperial family, she’s retained an aura of mystery.
“What do we know about the Queen? Almost nothing,” said the National Portrait Gallery’s Moorhouse. “She’s an enigma, and has eluded us all these years despite being the most represented person in contemporary history.”
Royal historian Leslie Field agreed: “More than 100 books have been written about her, we see her undertaking public duties, we see her relaxing, but the truth is we don’t know her. She’s never given an interview, although it is believed that she keeps a diary, which she writes in every night and every morning.”
Unlike the myriad presidents, prime ministers and popes whom she’s outlived, she’s never had to take part in a popularity contest or a political campaign, never had to sell herself, or worry about the next election. “The Queen Mother and Diana wanted to be liked,” said Vickers, who wrote the approved biography of the Queen Mum. “The Queen and Prince Philip don’t ask you to like them. They hope you respect the job they are doing.”
Every once in a while, however, the public catches a glimpse of the woman, wife, mother and grandmother behind the composed facade. There’s the famous image of the Queen — shocked — with a fireman by her side at Windsor Castle in 1992 after parts of the building were destroyed by fire. Last summer, she let rip in front of the Duchess of Cambridge when the two were having a look at the latter’s wedding dress on display at Buckingham Palace. She called the display — the dress was shown on a headless mannequin — “horrible” and “horrid.” “It’s made to look very creepy,” the Queen told her new granddaughter-in-law.
She played along — patiently — with the artist Chris Levine, who famously made holographic portraits of her, which were unveiled in 2007. One of them captures a spontaneous, Buddha-like moment that shows the Queen resting between shots, with her eyes shut and lips sealed. Called “Lightness of Being,” it is on display at the National Portrait Gallery.
“She’s a very experienced model, and was most obliging,” Levine said. “One of her aides told me as I prepared for the shoot, ‘We are fairly relaxed here,’ and it was — me, too —once I’d settled.”
For the Jubilee, Levine has updated another hologram portrait of the Queen, with a crown he assembled of Asprey diamonds and pearls. “I’m not royalist in a strict sense, but I have appreciated the Queen being there as something of a cornerstone in the background, somehow reassuring,” he added.
It won’t always be this way. Britons are gearing up to celebrate the Queen’s 60 years this weekend with a four-day holiday that will feature a flotilla — led by the monarch and members of the royal family — of 1,000 boats along the river Thames, a concert at Buckingham Palace with artists including Sirs Paul McCartney and Elton John, a mass of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a royal carriage procession to Buckingham Palace. But the occasion will be bittersweet for many.
“We won’t have her for another generation, and I think millions of people — and we are not just talking about one small island, but the countries in the Commonwealth — see it as a time to say thank you,” said Field.
Vickers agreed. “I think until 2002, the Queen was rather eclipsed by the Queen Mother. I fear that people took her for granted. The Jubilee is a real opportunity to consider what she’s done, and there is this sense that this is the last time we can all properly celebrate her. We can enjoy it, and the royal family can enjoy it,” he said.
Still, considering that the Queen Mother died at age 101, that day may be a very long way off, and 63-year-old Prince Charles could be an old man indeed by the time he ascends to the throne. The Queen most likely will have a few more bumps along the road of her reign. But at least for this summer, the nation she leads gets once again to shout “Rule Britannia.”