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Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom

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Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee in 2002, wearing her Canadian orders)
Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee in 2002, wearing her Canadian orders)

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (Elizabeth Alexandra Mary), styled HM The Queen (born April 21, 1926) is the Queen regnant and head of state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and 15 other Commonwealth countries. She is Head of the Commonwealth and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She has reigned since February 6, 1952. About 125 million people live in countries of which she is head of state. Prior to her succession, she held the titles of a British princess and by marriage, Duchess of Edinburgh.


Constitutional status

In the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth holds her throne by virtue of the Act of Settlement 1701, being the senior Protestant descendant of Electress Sophia of Hanover not married to a Roman Catholic. Although the succession to the throne of the United Kingdom is in normal circumstances hereditary, the Parliament of the United Kingdom has had the right to determine who may inherit the throne since at least the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

As well as being Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth is head of state of fifteen other countries of the Commonwealth of Nations, known as the Commonwealth Realms. These countries are Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

In these countries, which are fully independent states, she holds the position of head of state by virtue of being designated as such in the Constitutions or laws of each of these countries. Originally, these nations were all either Dominions of the British Crown or colonies of the United Kingdom. The passage of the Statute of Westminster 1931 separated the British Crown from those of the Dominions.

Those former colonies which have chosen to retain the Queen as their head of state have, at the date of their independence, thereby assumed a similar status to the original Dominions in relation to the Crown. The Statute of Westminster suggests that all of these nations should maintain the same common rules of succession. This guideline, however, appears only in the preamble; consequently, it is not legally binding. Each realm may theoretically choose to adopt whichever rules of succession it pleases, but hitherto, no realm has chosen to do so. Furthermore, Elizabeth is Queen in each such realm by virtue of local laws, not by virtue of British law.

Early life

Queen Elizabeth was born at 21 Bruton Street in Mayfair, London, the London home of her maternal grandparents, the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and his wife Cecilia. She was named after her mother, the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, while her two middle names are those of her paternal great-grandmother (Queen Alexandra) and grandmother (Queen Mary) respectively. Her father, the Duke of York (known to his family as Bertie), was the second son of King George V, and was not then the heir to the throne.

The young Princess Elizabeth, was educated at home under the supervision of her mother, the Duchess of York. She studied history with C. H. K. Marten, Provost of Eton, and also learned modern languages. She speaks excellent French, as she has shown on several occasions, most recently during her 2004 state visit to France to commemorate the centenary of the Entente Cordiale. She was instructed in religion by the Archbishop of Canterbury and has always been a convinced member of the Church of England.

When her father became King in 1936 upon her uncle King Edward VIII's abdication, she became heir presumptive and was henceforth known as HRH The Princess Elizabeth. She was 13 when World War II broke out. She and her younger sister Princess Margaret were evacuated to Balmoral, Scotland. There was some suggestion that the princesses be sent to Canada, but their mother the Queen refused to consider this, saying, "The children won't leave without me, I won't leave without the King, and the King won't leave under any circumstances." In 1940 Princess Elizabeth made her first broadcast, addressing other children who had been evacuated.

In 1945 Princess Elizabeth convinced her father that she should be allowed to contribute directly to the war effort. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the ATS) where she was known as No 230873 Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor. She was trained as a driver. This training was the first time she had been taught with other students. It is said that she greatly enjoyed this and that this experience led her to send her own children to school rather than have them educated at home.

Elizabeth made her first official visit overseas in 1947, when she accompanied her parents to South Africa. On her 21st birthday she made a broadcast to the British Commonwealth and Empire, pledging to devote her life to the service of the people of the Commonwealth and Empire.

Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark on 20 November, 1947. Prince Philip is HM Queen Elizabeth's third cousin; they share Queen Victoria as a great-great-grandmother. (Prince Phillip had renounced his claim to the Greek throne and was simply referred to as Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten before being created Duke of Edinburgh before their marriage). This marriage, although not arranged as such, was eminently suitable for a female heir to the throne, as Philip had been trained for royal duties but had no embarrassing foreign connections. A genuine love match, it has survived many trials, including Philip's rumoured infidelities.

After their wedding Philip and Elizabeth took up residence at Clarence House, London. They had four children (see below). Though the Royal House is named Windsor, it was decreed via a 1960 Order-in-Council that the descendants of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip should have the personal surname Mountbatten-Windsor.

King George's health declined during 1951 and Elizabeth frequently stood in for him at public events. She visited Greece, Italy and Malta (where Philip was then stationed) during the year. In October she toured Canada and visited Washington, D.C. In January 1952 Elizabeth and Philip set out for a tour of Australia and New Zealand. They had reached Kenya when word arrived of the death of her father, on February 6, 1952. At the exact moment of succession, she was in a tree-top hotel: a unique circumstance for any such event. The treehouse where she went up a princess and came down a queen is now a very popular tourist retreat in Kenya. Elizabeth's coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953.

Life as Queen

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth wearing the Imperial State Crown and holding the Sceptre with the Cross and the Orb (1953).
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth wearing the Imperial State Crown and holding the Sceptre with the Cross and the Orb (1953).

After the Coronation Elizabeth and Philip moved to Buckingham Palace in central London. Like many of her predecessors, however, she dislikes the Palace as a residence and considers Windsor Castle, west of London, to be her home. She also spends time at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

Queen Elizabeth is the most widely travelled head of state in history. In 1953-54 she and Philip made a six-month round-the-world tour, becoming the first reigning monarch to circumnavigate the globe, and also the first to visit Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. In October 1957 she made a state visit to the United States, and in 1959 she made a tour of Canada. In 1961 she toured India and Pakistan for the first time. She has made state visits to most European countries and to many outside Europe. She regularly attends Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings.

At the time of Elizabeth's accession there was much talk of a "new Elizabethan age". Elizabeth's role, however, has been to preside over the steady decline of Britain as a world military and economic power, the dissolution of the British Empire and the gradual development of its successor, the Commonwealth. She has worked hard to maintain links with former British possessions, and in some cases, such as South Africa, she has played an important role in retaining or restoring good relations.

Elizabeth is a conservative in matters of religion, moral standards and family matters. She has a strong sense of religious duty and takes seriously her Coronation Oath. This is one reason why it is considered highly unlikely that she will ever abdicate. Like her mother, she never forgave Edward VIII for, as she saw it, abandoning his duty, and forcing her father to become King, which she believed shortened his life by many years. She used the authority of her position to prevent her sister, Princess Margaret, marrying a divorced man, Peter Townsend. For years she refused to acknowledge her son Prince Charles's relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Elizabeth's political views are supposed to be less clear-cut (she has never said or done anything in public to reveal what they might be). She preserves cordial relations with politicians of all parties. It is believed that her favourite Prime Ministers have been Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson. Her least favourite was undoubtedly Margaret Thatcher, whom she is said to "cordially dislike". She has very good relations with her current Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who is the first Prime Minister born after her accession to the throne.

The only public issue on which the Queen makes her views known are those affecting the unity of the United Kingdom. She has spoken in favour of the continued union of England and Scotland, angering some Scottish nationalists. Her statement of praise for the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement raised some complaints among some Unionists in the Democratic Unionist Party who opposed the Agreement.

At the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, 2002: from left: HM the Queen, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Prince William of Wales, HRH the Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Henry of Wales, HRH the Duke of York
At the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, 2002: from left: HM the Queen, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Prince William of Wales, HRH the Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Henry of Wales, HRH the Duke of York

Despite a series of controversies about the rest of the royal family, particularly the marital difficulties of her children throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Queen Elizabeth remains a remarkably uncontroversial figure and is generally well-respected by the British people. However, her public persona remains formal, though more relaxed than it once was. Her refusal to display emotion in public prevents the growth of deeper feelings for her among the public.

Queen Elizabeth has never become unpopular, certainly not as unpopular as Queen Victoria was during a long period of her reign. However, in 1997 she and other members of the Royal Family were perceived as cold and unfeeling when they were seen not to participate in the public outpouring of grief at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. This brought sharp criticism from the normally royalist tabloid press.

It is widely believed that Elizabeth held negative feelings towards Diana and thought that she had done immense damage to the monarchy. However, the sight of the entire Royal Family bowing to Diana's coffin as it passed Buckingham Palace, together with a rare live television broadcast by the Queen, addressed the public grief. The Queen's change of attitude is believed to have resulted from strong advice from the Queen Mother and Tony Blair.

The Queen remains a highly respected head of state. In 2002 she celebrated her Golden Jubilee, marking the 50th year of her accession to the throne. The year saw an extensive tour of the United Kingdom, state visits to several Commonwealth Realms, and numerous parades and official concerts. In June thousands gathered outside Buckingham Palace for the "Party at the Palace", a massive concert featuring various famous musicians from across the British Isles. A national service of thanksgiving was held the following day at St. Paul's Cathedral, to which the Queen and Prince Philip travelled in the centuries-old Gold State Coach. This was followed by massive carnivals and processions, finishing with a fly-past by Concorde and the Red Arrows. The Royal Family watched all this from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, before a crowd of one million people.

Sadly the Jubilee year coincided with the deaths, within a few months, of the Queen's mother and sister. Elizabeth's relations with her children, while still somewhat distant, have become much warmer since these deaths. She is particularly close to her daughter-in-law the Countess of Wessex. The Queen and Prince of Wales still see little of each other, however. She is known to disapprove of Charles's long-standing relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, but has made gestures of recognition of the relationship in recent years. On the other hand, she is very close to her grandchildren, noticeably Prince William and Zara Phillips.

Queen Elizabeth II leaving hospital after having a knee operation in late 2003
Queen Elizabeth II leaving hospital after having a knee operation in late 2003

In 2003 the Queen, who is often described as robustly healthy, underwent three operations. In January she had torn cartilage removed from her right knee as a result of a fall over Christmas. In December 2003 she underwent a similar operation to her left knee, at the same time having several lesions removed from her face. This prompted rumours that she might have skin cancer, quickly scotched by the Palace. However, these surgeries have brought concerns that she is now overworked.

As the Queen approaches her 80th birthday, she has made it clear that she has no intention of abdicating. Those who know her best have stated that she intends to reign as Queen until the day she dies. She has, however, begun to hand over some public duties to her children. She is also reducing the amount of international travel she normally undertakes (she has usually undertaken two state visits each year, her first in 2004 being her state vist to France, and her second will be one to Germany in November, and up to two Commonwealth visits a year). Like her mother, she intends to keep working until she is physically unable.

Elizabeth's public image has noticeably softened in recent years, particularly since the death of the Queen Mother. Although she remains reserved in public, she has been seen laughing and smiling much more than in years past, and to the shock of many she has been seen to shed tears during emotional occasions such as the memorial service at Westminster Abbey for those killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Political role

The Queen with President Tito of Yugoslavia
The Queen with President Tito of Yugoslavia

In theory, the Queen is an essential part of the legislative process of the United Kingdom. The Queen-in-Parliament (the Queen, acting with the advice and consent of Parliament) constitutes the British legislature, Parliament comprising the House of Lords and House of Commons. In practice, however, the Queen's role in the legislative process is entirely ceremonial. The Queen may legally grant or withhold Royal Assent to bills, but no British monarch has refused his or her assent to a bill since 1708. The Queen also gives a speech at the annual State Opening of Parliament, outlining the legislative agenda for the year, but the speech is written for her by ministers.

The Queen also has a ceremonial role in executive government. The British government is known as "Her Majesty's Government," and the Queen appoints the ministers who serve in it. In practice, again, the Government's composition is determined not by the Queen but by the Prime Minister, who "advises" the Queen. The Government is accountable in the first instance not to the Queen but to the House of Commons. The Queen's role in the judiciary is again ceremonial: the courts act in her name and prosecutions are brought on her behalf.

The Queen may not be brought to trial in the courts in her capacity as head of state, nor can she be sued personally for any official act carried out by her or in her name (although the Crown may be sued as a legal entity). The Queen is, however, a natural person under British common law, subject to the law like any other person. The question of whether the monarch could be tried for an offence committed in their personal capacity has never been tested. During the English Revolution of the 17th century, Parliament tried Charles I for treason, but after the Restoration of Charles II these proceedings were deemed to have been unlawful.

Prime Ministers take their weekly meetings with the Queen very seriously. One said he took them more seriously than Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, because she would be better briefed and more constructive than anything he would face at the dispatch box. Elizabeth also has regular meetings with her individual ministers. Even ministers known to have republican views speak highly of her and value these meetings.

The Queen also meets the Scottish First Minister. The royal palace in Edinburgh, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, once home to Scottish kings and queens like Mary, Queen of Scots, is now regularly used again, with at least one member of the Royal Family (often the Prince of Wales or Princess Royal) in residence. She also receives reports from the new Welsh Assembly.

HM the Queen with Commonwealth Prime Ministers, in the 1950s. To her right, Sir Winston Churchill; to her left, Robert Menzies of Australia and Louis St. Laurent of Canada
HM the Queen with Commonwealth Prime Ministers, in the 1950s. To her right, Sir Winston Churchill; to her left, Robert Menzies of Australia and Louis St. Laurent of Canada

Though bound by convention not to intervene directly in politics, her length of service, the fact that she has been a confidante of every prime minister since Churchill, and her knowledge of world leaders, means that when she does express an opinion, however cautiously, her words are taken seriously. In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher offered this description of her weekly meetings with the Queen:

"Anyone who imagines that they are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience."

The Queen has developed friendships with many foreign leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Mary Robinson and Bill Clinton. On occasion such contacts have proved highly beneficial for Britain. For example, John Major as prime minister once had difficulty working with a particular Commonwealth leader. The Queen informed Major that he and the leader shared a mutual sporting interest. Major then used that information to establish a personal relationship, which ultimately benefited both countries. Similarly she took the initiative when Irish President Mary Robinson began visiting Britain, by suggesting that she invite Robinson to visit her at the Palace. The Irish Government enthusiastically supported the idea. The result was the first ever visit by an Irish President to meet the British monarch.


Queen Elizabeth is descended from English monarchs extending back to the House of Wessex in the 7th century. She is also descended from the Scottish royal house, the House of Stuart, which can be traced back to the 9th century. Through her great-grandmother Queen Alexandra she is descended from the Danish royal house, one of the oldest in Europe. As a great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth is related to the heads of most other European royal houses. She is cousin of Albert II of Belgium, Harald V of Norway, Juan Carlos I of Spain and Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, as well as former kings Constantine II of Greece and Michael of Romania. She is more distantly related to the Dutch royal house and to the former royal houses of Germany and Russia.


In the United Kingdom, her official title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. In common practice Queen Elizabeth II is referred to simply as "The Queen" or "Her Majesty".

At her succession, the title Elizabeth II caused some controversy in Scotland, where there has never been an Elizabeth I (although there had been no similar controversy at the times of William IV and Edward VII, whose numbering was similarly inappropriate). In a rare act of sabotage in Scotland, new Royal Mail post boxes bearing the initials E.R.II were blown up. As a result, post boxes in Scotland now bear only a crown and no royal initials. A legal case, MacCormick v. Lord Advocate (1953 SC 396), was taken to contest the right of the Queen to style herself Elizabeth II within Scotland, arguing that to do so would be a breach of the Act of Union 1707. The case was lost on the grounds that the pursuers had no title to sue the Crown, and also that the numbering of monarchs it was part of the royal prerogative and not governed by the Act of Union.

Future British monarchs are to be numbered according to either that of their English or Scottish predecessors, whichever number is higher. Applying this policy retroactively to monarchs since the Act of Union (1707) yields the same numbering.

Following a decision by Commonwealth Prime Ministers at the Commonwealth conference of 1953, Queen Elizabeth uses different styles and titles in each of her realms. In each state she acts as the monarch of that state regardless of her other roles.

Properly styled as "Her Majesty The Queen" (and when the distinction is necessary "Her Britannic Majesty"), her previous styles were:

  • Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth of York (1926-1936)
  • Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth (1936-1947)
  • Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh (1947-1952)

Personality and image

Queen Elizabeth in domestic setting, with a Welsh Corgi (circa 1970)
Queen Elizabeth in domestic setting, with a Welsh Corgi (circa 1970)

The Queen has never given press interviews, and her views on political issues are largely unknown except to those few heads of government who have private conversations with her. She is also regarded privately as an excellent mimic. Rather conservative in dress, the Queen is well-known for her solid-colour overcoats and decorative hats, which allow her to be seen easily in a crowd. Although she attends many cultural events as part of her public role, in her private life the Queen is said to have little interest in culture or the arts. Her main leisure interests include horse racing, photography, and dogs, especially her Corgis.

In diplomatic situations the Queen is extremely formal, and royal protocol is very strict. Though some of the traditional rules for dealing with the British Monarch have been relaxed during her reign (bowing is no longer required, for example) other forms of close personal interaction, such as touching, are still discouraged. In 1992, the Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was dubbed the "Lizard of Oz" by the British press for touching the Queen on the back, and in 2000 his successor John Howard had to deny that he too had touched the Queen. A similar flap occurred when Newfoundland and Labrador premier Brian Tobin was photographed touching the Queen's back as he accompanied her up a flight of stairs; he protested he was merely attempting to help an elderly lady avoid falling.

Her former prime ministers speak highly of her. Since becoming Queen, she spends an average of three hours every day "doing the boxes" - reading state papers sent to her from her various departments, embassies, etc. Having done so since 1952, she has seen more of public affairs from the inside than any other person, and is thus able to offer advice to Tony Blair based on things said to her by Harold Wilson, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Winston Churchill and many other senior leaders. She takes her responsibilities in this regard seriously, once mentioning an "interesting telegram" from the Foreign Office to then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, only to find that her prime minister had not bothered to read it when it came in his box!

Coat of Arms

HM The Queen's Coat of Arms
HM The Queen's Coat of Arms

The Queen bears quarterly, I and IV England, II Scotland, III Ireland (now Northern Ireland), which serves as the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. This coat of arms has been unchanged since Queen Victoria.

The Queen's children and grandchildren

Two of the Queen's grandchildren, Peter and Zara Phillips, have no titles, probably a unique circumstance in British history. This is because British titles are, with rare exceptions, inherited through the male line only. Since Mark Phillips has never accepted a peerage, his children are not entitled to any courtesy titles.

External link

Preceded by:
George VI
Queen of the United Kingdom Heir-Apparent:
The Prince of Wales

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45