Queen Elizabeth II is such an institution that it’s easy to forget she wasn’t supposed to have become queen at all.
Born in 1926, Elizabeth was the daughter of King George V’s second son, and had little expectation of succeeding to the throne until her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936 to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. After the death of her father, King George VI, 25-year-old Elizabeth was called upon to assume the throne, beginning a momentous reign that has spanned the better part of a century.
Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation - June 2, 1953
Held at Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth’s coronation ceremony was the first to be broadcast live on television. Some 27 million people in the United Kingdom (out of a total population of 36 million) watched the ceremony, and 11 million more listened on the radio. Afterward, some 3 million people lined the route as the queen and her entourage made their slow procession back to Buckingham Palace.
READ MORE: Queen Elizabeth II's Reign: Then and Now
First State Visit to West Germany - 1965
In the midst of a decade marked by social and political changes, the queen kept to a busy schedule of diplomatic duties, including a 10-day visit to the Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany) that was the first official visit there by a British royal since 1913. Her visit marked the 20-year anniversary of the end of World War II, helping to symbolize the reconciliation between the two countries and recognize Germany’s reemergence as a power in Europe and on the world stage.
Mining Disaster in Wales - 1966
On October 21, 1966, an avalanche of mud, water and debris from a coal mine buried an elementary school in the South Wales village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Though Prince Philip arrived in Aberfan a day after the disaster, the queen herself delayed her visit for over a week, fearing her presence would distract from rescue and recovery efforts. Some of those close to Elizabeth—including her former private secretary, Lord Charteris—have said she regrets the decision not to visit Aberfan sooner.
First 'Walkabout' - 1970
During a royal tour of Australia and New Zealand with Philip and Princess Anne in 1970, Elizabeth bucked centuries of royal tradition when she took a casual stroll to greet crowds of people in person, rather than wave to them from a protected distance. Now a regular practice for British royals both abroad and at home, the first “walkabout” in Sydney was proposed by Sir William Heseltine, an Australian who served as the queen’s private secretary and was the driving force behind a 1969 TV documentary featuring the royal family, which attracted a global audience of some 40 million people.
Silver Jubilee - 1977
On June 7, Elizabeth and Philip rode in the Gold State Coach from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul’s Cathedral to officially celebrate her 25th year on the throne. Wearing a bright pink outfit, including a hat decked out with 25 fabric bells, the queen repeated her long-ago pledge to devote her life to service, saying that "Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgement, I do not regret nor retract one word of it.”
Prince Charles' Wedding to Lady Diana Spencer - 1981
On July 29, 1981, an estimated 750 million people in 74 countries around the world tuned in to watch Prince Charles, Elizabeth’s eldest son, marry Lady Diana Spencer, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The romance between the heir to the British throne and the young “Shy Di” had attracted massive media attention, and their lavish nuptials were considered the “wedding of the century.” But while Diana earned the adoration of the public, her marriage to Charles (and her relationship with the royal family) was troubled from the beginning.
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Visit to China - 1986
In late 1984, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government agreed to return sovereignty over Hong Kong to China beginning July 1, 1997. In 1986, Elizabeth became the first British monarch to visit the Chinese mainland, touring the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, the Great Wall in Beijing and other sites. For the press, the diplomatic importance of the queen’s visit was outweighed by her husband’s characteristic (and sometimes racist) gaffes: Philip called Beijing “ghastly” and told a group of British students they would get “slitty eyes” if they stayed in China too long.
'Annus Horribilis' - 1992
Charles and Diana’s marriage continued to deteriorate, and in 1992 they announced their decision to separate. Prince Andrew, the queen’s second son, and his wife, Sarah Ferguson, also separated, while Anne divorced her husband, Mark Phillips. Late that year, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, destroying more than 100 rooms. In a speech delivered to mark the 40th anniversary of her succession, Queen Elizabeth remarked that 1992 “has turned out to be an 'Annus Horribilis'”: Latin for “a horrible year.”
READ MORE: Charles and Diana Divorce
Response to Princess Diana’s death - 1997
Public criticism of the royal family grew more intense after Charles and Diana’s divorce in 1996 and especially after Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris the following summer. The queen initially remained at her estate in Balmoral, Scotland, and refused to allow the flag to fly at half-mast over Buckingham Palace or address the grieving nation.
At the urging of her advisers, she soon revised her stance on the flag, returned to London to greet crowds of mourners and delivered a rare televised address to a nation devastated by the loss of the “People’s Princess.”
READ MORE: Princess Diana's Death: Causes, Timeline
Golden Jubilee - 2002
The queen’s celebration of her 50th year on the throne was marred by a double loss, when her younger sister, Princess Margaret, and their mother died within weeks of each other. As the first British monarch since Queen Victoria to celebrate a Golden Jubilee, Elizabeth traveled more than 40,000 miles that year, including visits to the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. She also visited 70 cities and towns in 50 counties in the United Kingdom.
Compared with the tumultuous 1990s, the start of Elizabeth’s second half-century as queen coincided with the beginning of more positive relations between Britain and its royal family: In 2005, a majority of the British public supported Charles’ wedding to his longtime love, Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Visit to Republic of Ireland - 2011
In May 2011, Elizabeth and Philip visited the Republic of Ireland at the invitation of President Mary McAleese. Though the queen had frequently visited Northern Ireland over the course of her reign, this was her first to the Republic of Ireland, and the first by a British monarch in 100 years. Elizabeth’s visit, during which she expressed her “sincere thoughts and deep sympathy” for the victims of the troubled Anglo-Irish past, was widely celebrated as the beginning of a new era of friendship.
Birth of Prince George - 2013
In July 2013, the queen welcomed a new great-grandson, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, the first child of Prince William and the former Kate Middleton, who married in 2011. As third in the line of succession after his grandfather and his father, George is widely expected to become king one day. His birth marked the first time since Victoria’s reign that three generations of direct heirs to the British throne were alive at the same time.
Prince Harry & Meghan Markle’s wedding - 2018
Perhaps no other event during Elizabeth’s reign symbolized the modernizing monarchy more than the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a divorced, biracial American actress. Though the queen reportedly gave her quick approval to the match, the relationship between the couple and the British media—as well as the rest of the royal family—grew increasingly tense after their marriage. In 2020, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced they were stepping back from their role as senior royals. They later moved to Markle’s native Southern California with their son, Archie, born in 2019.