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Queen Elizabeth II and family standing on Buckingham Palace Balcony, attending Trooping the Colour on the 13th June 2015.

Key moments in Queen Elizabeth II’s life

Image Credit: Lorna Roberts / | Queen Elizabeth II and family standing on Buckingham Palace Balcony, attending Trooping the Colour on the 13th June 2015.

From the time when she was known to the world as Princess Elizabeth, right throughout her record-breaking tenure as the longest-serving monarch in British history, the Queen’s life was punctuated by some of the most iconic events of the past one hundred years. We take a look back at some of the pivotal episodes in a long life of service to the nation.

World War Two

The young Princess Elizabeth made her very first official public speech in the early, dark days of World War Two. At just 14 years of age, she gave a poignant radio address aimed at the children of the Commonwealth, providing words of solace for the evacuees who had been separated from their families.

In 1945, the princess proudly joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the women’s branch of the British Army. Training as a driver and mechanic, she achieved the female equivalent of the rank of captain, with newspapers dubbing her “Princess Auto Mechanic”. Photos of the future Queen in military uniform are among the most fondly regarded in the vast catalogue of images which her life would generate.

The Royal Wedding

It was during a tour of the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth in July 1939 that the teenage Princess Elizabeth became besotted with a handsome young cadet named Philip. As the son of a prince of Greece and Denmark, Philip was appropriately aristocratic, but he was also an exile without a fortune to his name. This made him a rather controversial choice, but the princess was deeply in love.

The couple tied the knot at Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947 in a ceremony that provided a touch of glamour for a nation still picking up the pieces after the war. Indeed, the princess had to use ration coupons to purchase the material for her bridal gown. Many well-wishers posted their coupons to the young Elizabeth, but these were returned with notes of thanks.

The Coronation

By the time of her coronation on 2 June 1953, Elizabeth had already been the monarch for a while, following the death of her father George VI the previous year. Taking place at Westminster Abbey, and including a lavish procession through London, it was a landmark moment in the history of the United Kingdom, and the first major event to be televised internationally. In fact, it’s been widely credited with inaugurating the television age.

Ironically, some had reservations about its suitability for TV, with one MP asking if there was something unseemly in the chance that a viewer could watch this solemn and significant service with a cup of tea at his elbow?

The event also had culinary significance: coronation chicken was invented for the coronation banquet by food writer Constance Spry (though her original version was rather more luxurious than the one that would go on to fill millions of supermarket sandwiches in the decades that followed).

The Commonwealth Speech

At the time of the Queen’s accession, the Commonwealth was made up of just eight states. Throughout her time as the head of the Commonwealth, this association of diverse nations grew to 56, with the Queen as a living symbol of its values of democracy, civil liberties, free trade, and peaceful multilateralism.

Her passionate dedication to the Commonwealth, which is largely made up of former territories of the British Empire, was made clear in a seminal speech she gave in 1953. This was during an epic six-month tour of the Commonwealth, which saw the Queen become the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and New Zealand.

In the speech, the Queen emphasised that “the Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the Empires of the past. It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man… The Commonwealth is moving steadily towards greater harmony between its many creeds, colours and races despite the imperfections by which, like every human institution, it is beset.”

The Trip to China

In 1986, the Queen again made history by becoming the first British sovereign to visit China. The rich itinerary, which included visits to major cities, the Great Wall of China, and the famed Terracotta Army, was doubly significant because it came in the aftermath of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

This treaty set the conditions for the return of Hong Kong, then a British colony, to China. The Queen’s landmark visit, therefore, symbolised the strengthening of relations between the two countries.

The Annus Horribilis Speech

One of the most famous speeches of the Queen’s reign was also one of her least happy. On 24 November 1992, at an ostensibly celebratory event held at Guildhall to mark the 40th anniversary of her accession, the Queen spoke of 1992 as her “annus horribilis”, or horrible year.

It was rare for the Queen to speak so personally in public, making this an immediately iconic moment of her reign. It reflected a turbulent period for the Royal Family, with the year having seen the breakdown of the marriages of her sons Charles and Andrew, and a shocking fire in Windsor Castle. Her favourite official residence, the castle was devastated by the inferno, with 115 rooms left in cinders.

The Death of Diana

One of the most significant challenges the Queen faced during her reign came in 1997, with the shocking death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Amid an unprecedented outpouring of national grief, many of the Queen’s subjects – including the press – wondered why the monarch hadn’t immediately expressed her sympathy in public.

There was even some outrage that the flag over Buckingham Palace wasn’t flown at half-mast. This was a matter of protocol, since the Royal Standard flag is never flown at half-mast, and is only hoisted when the monarch is in residence. Since the Queen was in Balmoral at the time, the flagpole was bare – much to the dismay of many.

The Queen later circumvented protocol by allowing the Union flag to fly at half-mast. On the day before Diana’s funeral, she also delivered a remarkable speech, “as your Queen and as a grandmother”, speaking with candour and emotion about the loss of Diana and the importance of family. It was a hugely significant tribute, bringing immense comfort to people in the United Kingdom and around the world.

London 2012

The London 2012 Olympics was a celebration of sport, and Great Britain as a whole, that spread across the whole year. The events of that summer still continue to inspire people to this day.

The opening ceremony was also an opportunity for the Queen to showcase her famous sense of humour to the world. In a skit, James Bond (portrayed by Daniel Craig) arrived at Buckingham Palace before boarding a helicopter with the Queen. The world will never forget what happened next as Her Majesty made her entrance by parachuting into the stadium. The sight of her parachute, adorned with the colours of the Union Flag, against the night's sky will never be forgotten.

Platinum Jubilee

In 2022, Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee. To mark the occasion, jubilee beacons were lit in every capital city throughout the Commonwealth for the first time.

Celebrations took place across four days across the United Kingdom with a special thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral, Trooping the Colour, and the 'Platinum Party at the Palace' outside Buckingham Palace.