Aged just 25 on her accession to the throne – like Elizabeth I almost 300 years before her – Queen Elizabeth II represented the determination of the next generation, which was committed to building a better world following the Second World War.
There is always an element of showbusiness to royal life, and the millions around the world who celebrated the coronation on June 2, 1953, found a star in the Queen.
As a young monarch, Elizabeth focused on finding the balance between her royal duties and family, and she adapted her role to help make that happen. Still, in her first decade as sovereign she hit the ground running, travelling around the globe. In 1957, she made her first trip to Ottawa as Queen. Two years later, she visited Quebec. Prince Philip was by her side for both trips; whatever else has changed during her reign, his devotion has remained steadfast.
This was the decade that gave the Queen her two youngest sons, Andrew and Edward, but beyond royal circles, history celebrates the 1960s for other reasons. In 1962, American statesman Dean Acheson said, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.” It was about to find one – as the cultural heart of the Swinging ’60s, taking the lead in music, fashion, film and TV.
In the U.S., it was a decade of upheavals – including the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy – and social change fuelled by the civil rights and anti-war movements. Canadians, meanwhile, found a new sense of national pride as we got a new flag and celebrated the country’s centennial.
The 1970s were a time of glitter and gloom. Glam rock and disco ruled the airwaves, but the optimism of the previous decade gave way to growing unease as steep oil price rises disrupted the world economy. In Canada, the FLQ crisis of 1970 made headlines, while in the U.K., the political situation in Northern Ireland continued to deteriorate. After almost two decades of war in Vietnam, the Paris Peace Treaty was signed in January 1973, and the U.S. began to withdraw its troops.
The 1977 Silver Jubilee was the peak of a hectic decade for the Queen, who undertook 14 overseas tours and more than 60 Commonwealth visits.
Rounding out the decade was Pope John Paul II’s election to the papacy in October 1978 and the end of Iran’s Islamic Revolution the following year.
When big mobile phones and even bigger hairstyles were on-trend, the Queen carried on in all areas of her life with the personal style that had endeared her to so many during her 30 years on the throne. Her responsibilities remained top priority, and so she yielded much of the limelight to her mother and the younger royals. That included her elder sons’ wives, who were from outside the royal fold but who stepped in and held their own in the spotlight.
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After 40 years of loyal and devoted service – and at an age when many women would have long since retired – this might have been the decade that saw the Queen wind down some of her duties. Instead, the 1990s contained many of the most challenging and distressing circumstances the Royal Family had encountered.
Speaking at London’s Guildhall while marking 40 years as Queen, she said that 1992 had been her “annus horribilis.”
All too symbolic was the devastating fire at Windsor Castle. However, most of the pain came from family crises. Marital breakdowns for three of her children were surely hard enough, but the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, proved to be the greatest test of her strength as mother and monarch.
In her Golden Jubilee year of 2002, the Queen spoke about change. “Since 1952, I have witnessed the transformation … Change has become a constant; managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future.” In her personal life, too, change was constant, most starkly in the loss of her mother and sister. From being one of “we four” together with her father, she was now alone, although the love and support of her growing clan of children and grandchildren was a consolation.
And so, almost unbelievably, we arrive here, six decades into the justly celebrated reign of Queen Elizabeth – the only monarch most of us have ever known.
Every sovereign faces unique challenges: the Queen’s father George VI led his country during the Second World War; his father through the First and the high noon of the British Empire. For Elizabeth, the ultimate challenge has been, as for her subjects, the relentless pace of change.
In many matters – loyalty, faith, duty, love and decency – the Queen has remained steadfast. That she should depart from any of these in the coming decade is unthinkable. That just isn’t who she is, and while we may not be able to define her, we do all know who the Queen is and what she stands for. Long may she reign.