She may have been one of the longest-serving monarchs in history, but she was also just a woman doing her best at a job typically reserved for men
On September 8, 2022, Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96. Although well-loved by many, her death has raised conversations around colonialism, racism and injustice that will no doubt play out for months to come. But regardless of personal opinions, it is undeniable that Queen Elizabeth’s life and reign were unique, as were the societal, environmental and technological changes she lived and ruled through.
Here are 5 times Her Majesty reinvented the institution she inherited and the role she was destined to play.
She campaigned to serve in WWII
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Princess Elizabeth was only 13 years old. While her parents stayed at Buckingham Palace in London to be among their people living through the Blitz, Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret, like so many other children, were evacuated from the capital.
But when she turned 18 in 1944, the princess insisted that she be allowed to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army. She was trained as a mechanic and qualified for driving and vehicle maintenance in 1945.
Elizabeth’s involvement in the war effort made her the first woman of the Royal family to be an active member of the British armed forces. Even in her nineties, the Queen was often seen driving, and was known to repair faulty engines just like she had been taught to during the war.
She fought to marry the man she loved
Princess Elizabeth met Greek-born Prince Philip in 1934 when they were eight and 13 years old respectively. They met a handful more times over the next ten years or so, and exchanged letters from when she was 13 and he 18.
In 1946, Philip was granted permission by King George VI to marry his daughter, but the couple would have to wait until the following year when she turned 21.
As well as the princess’s youth, there were reportedly concerns, particularly among the King’s courtiers, over Philip being a foreigner and his lack of financial prospects. What’s more, a banished foreign prince with familial links to Nazi Germany was nobody’s first choice of husband for the heir to the British throne.
Except Elizabeth’s, that is: Philip was her first choice, and had been since she was 18. Despite reservations, the couple married on November 20, 1947, with Elizabeth wearing a dress made from materials she had bought with rationing coupons amid the country’s recovery from the war.
She wasn’t afraid to shake things up
The Queen was such a presence for so long that it’s easy to forget she was born in a very different time; remember, for example, the world’s first electronic television wasn’t invented until after her birth.
Whether it was shaking up how she connected with “her people” or reframing women’s place in society, Elizabeth was always evolving to keep up with the times. In fact, she saw it as part of her job.
“Change has become a constant, managing it has become an expanding discipline,” she said at her 2002 Golden Jubilee celebrations. “The way we embrace it defines our future”.
How did she define the future? Hers was the first coronation to ever be televised, drawing more than 20 million viewers worldwide. In 1970 during a tour of Australia and New Zealand with her husband, Elizabeth declined the security of her vehicle and pioneered the royal “walkabout”, approaching the line of people gathered to catch sight of her to greet them, shake their hands, and share a moment with them. She broke with tradition and had her children educated at schools, not through tutors at home. In 2013, she approved the Succession to the Crown Act, which gives daughters and sons of future British monarchs equal rights to the throne. And let’s not forget her appearance with James Bond for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, her viral video with Prince Harry responding to President Obama and Michelle Obama’s Invictus Games mic drop video message (“Oh, really. Please.” will forever be the poshest shade ever delivered) and her appearance with Paddington Bear for her 2022 Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
She sat in the driver’s seat
Quite literally. As mentioned, the Queen drove herself well into her nineties; and that she and her husband were huge fans of Jaguars and Land Rovers was well-known. When not on official business, Elizabeth regularly drove, mostly around the Windsor and Balmoral estates.
One of her most memorable times behind the wheel has to be when she took Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah for a spin around Balmoral, Scotland, in 1998.
The joy of this joyride anecdote is two-fold: firstly, the Prince was not told who his chauffeur would be when he was invited to get into the passenger seat, and was thoroughly surprised—but allowed no time to react—when Elizabeth climbed into the driver’s seat and took off; and secondly, at the time, it was illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive. While the Queen may not have done it to make a point, it certainly challenged the notion that women can’t or shouldn’t drive. (Women in Saudi Arabia continued to fight for their right to get behind the wheel until 2018, when it finally became legal for women to drive.)
She used her reign to make better decisions
Elizabeth was just 10 years old when her uncle abdicated and altered the trajectory of her life forever. And while life for the heir to a throne is never “normal”, most don’t have to think about inheriting that responsibility and weight of expectation in their 20s like she did. Just look at King Charles III ascending the throne now at 73.
Throughout her reign, gestures were made to recognise the past and open the door to a fairer future. Part of that came in the form of downsizing. For example, saying goodbye to the royal yacht; more modest celebrations; and paying taxes on her private income. And while it can never erase the past or make up for it, the British empire shrank during Elizabeth’s rule, and she made an effort to address history.
In 2011 she became the first UK monarch to visit the independent Republic of Ireland. During a state dinner at Dublin Castle, the Queen said (after a greeting in Gaelic), “To all those who suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all.”
The old woman who died last week was once a young woman who had to give up her own life to be the face of others’ decisions, to live by everyone else’s expectations, and to do her duty. This she did right up until two days before her death, when she welcomed Liz Truss as her new prime minister on September 6.
Rest in peace, Your Majesty. You’ve done your duty.