Future King and Queen, George, Duke of York (1895 – 1952) and Elizabeth Duchess of York (1900 – 2002) hold their first child, future Monarch Princess Elizabeth at her christening ceremony.
Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, known to her family as Lilibet (a name the Queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, and granddaughter-in-law, Meghan Markle, would later choose for their daughter), came into the world on April 21, 1926, the elder daughter of the then-Duke and Duchess of York. (Her sister Margaret was born four years later.) The young princess enjoyed an idyllic childhood of homeschooling and long summer holidays playing in the heather in Scotland.
“It was a life of picnics, and paddling around in burns [Scottish streams] and watching people shooting,” her late cousin Margaret Rhodes previously told PEOPLE. Rhodes later said in the ITV documentary Our Queen at Ninety, “She was very much an ordinary little girl. But she was always a slightly serious little girl.”
Elizabeth’s father, the soon-to-be King George VI, famously described dutiful Elizabeth as his “pride” and fun-loving Margaret as his “joy.”
It was in those early years that Elizabeth fell in love with the first in a long line of her cherished corgis: a pup named Susan. The breed would later become a mainstay of her long life, captured in a special portrait by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz in 2016.
Another childhood fixture would also carry through to adulthood: her love of horses, which she owned both for pleasure and racing and rode into her 90s.
But the simple years were not to last long. By the time she was just 10, Elizabeth knew her destiny — when her uncle Edward abdicated after just a few months on the throne in order to marry his American lover, Wallis Simpson.
“Does that mean that you will have to be the next Queen?” her younger sister Margaret is said to have asked when the family learned of King Edward’s abdication.
“Yes, someday,” Elizabeth said. “Poor you,” came the reply.
In her teens, the future Queen spotted the man she was to marry. Just 13 when she met the dashing Prince Philip, she wrote to him for several years before they began courting formally.
Many observers say the first signal that the two were destined for a future together came when a picture emerged of them at the wedding of their mutual cousin, Lady Patricia Mountbatten, in October 1946. They were spotted in the doorway of the Romsey Abbey in Hampshire, and as Elizabeth removed her coat, Philip looked on smiling, with his eyes locked on hers.
He was a handsome prince five years her senior, and Elizabeth a fresh-faced beauty. “Patricia Mountbatten said, ‘She has such beautiful skin,'” says biographer Sally Bedell Smith. “And Philip said, ‘She’s like that all over.’ There was a physical attraction!”
As their relationship grew, the two started spending more time together, especially when Philip accepted a job at an officers’ school in England and was able to visit with greater frequency.
“He’d spend weekends with us, and when the school was closed he spent six weeks at Balmoral,” Elizabeth wrote in a 1947 letter to author Betty Shew that went up for auction in April 2016. “It was great luck his getting a short job first then!”
Further into their relationship — but before their engagement — they would drive out in his sports car together.
“Philip enjoys driving and does it fast!” Elizabeth wrote. “He has his own tiny M.G. which he is very proud of — he has taken me about in it, once up to London, which was great fun, only it was like sitting on the road, and the wheels are almost as high as one’s head.”
A Wedding for the Ages
On November 20, 1947, the pair married in a spectacular ceremony at London’s Westminster Abbey — the same place where Prince William would wed Kate Middleton in 2011.
And just like William and Kate, a young Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip brought smiles and celebrations to the nation — something that was certainly needed just two years after the end of World War II.
At the time of their wedding, which was the first major event following the end of the war, millions of Britons were living in the aftermath of the bomb-damaged cities and coping with food rations.
A 21-year-old Elizabeth, who was accompanied to the famous Abbey by her father, King George VI, wore an elegant Norman Hartnell gown. Philip, then 26, wore his ceremonial naval uniform. (He had served in the war — and so had she.)
“With her bridal dress and tiara on her wedding day, she was a knockout,” one of her bridesmaids, Pamela Hicks, previously told PEOPLE. “And, of course, Philip was every girl’s dream Viking prince.”
Sweet Newlywed Years Overseas
After their wedding, Elizabeth and Philip spent around two years from 1949 to 1951 living in Malta while he was based there in the Royal Navy.
The blissful time was the “most ‘normal’ of her entire life,” biographer Ben Pimlott once noted. Their then-private secretary Mike Parker said it was a “fabulous period.”
It was, Pimlott wrote in The Queen, a “haven of comparative privacy and freedom from official duties.” She was happy being a service wife (albeit one with a retinue of servants) while she left her son, Prince Charles, then 1, in the charge of the royal nursery and his maternal grandparents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, back in Sandringham.
She announced she was pregnant with daughter Princess Anne in April 1950 and headed home to Clarence House in order to give birth in August that year.
Rise of a Young Queen
But tragedy struck the young couple less than two years later when King George VI died at just 56 of lung cancer on February 6, 1952. Philip broke the news to his young wife while they were on safari in Kenya.
The death would become known as Ascension Day for Elizabeth, marking the beginning of her reign — and thrusting her new husband into the role he would play for the rest of his life: the consort to the Queen of England. (In 1957 Elizabeth granted him the title of prince that he had given up to marry her.)
Her coronation took place the following year, on June 2, 1953, in Westminster Abbey. But the post-war landscape was vastly different for Britain, and the once-vaunted British Empire evolved gradually, sometimes painfully, into the Commonwealth of Nations.
As head of state in the U.K. and many of those Commonwealth countries, Queen Elizabeth, supported by her family, represented the country abroad and at home, making historic trips everywhere from China to the Mideast to the Vatican while strengthening ties with old allies like the U.S. By 2015, she had hosted 110 state visits — including her famous state banquets at Buckingham Palace.
The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend the Queen’s Diplomatic Reception at Buckingham Palace, London, UK, on the 8th December 2016.
The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend the Queen’s Diplomatic Reception at Buckingham Palace in London on December 8, 2016. MEGA
There can be few world figures who have met as many leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries, and fewer still to have shared as many secrets and insights with them. And yet through the decades, she offered little or no evidence of her opinions on state matters or on the political decisions and issues of the day, even during the controversial Brexit vote in June 2016.
Although she bonded with many of her fellow figureheads and elected politicians — South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was a favorite — it was said that she and Britain’s only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, weren’t close.
“There is nowhere on this planet, that I can think of, that she hasn’t been in the last 90 years,” her grandson Prince Harry said in 2016’s Our Queen at Ninety. Her tireless globe-trotting added quite a bit of pressure to the younger members of her family, Harry added. “Sometimes it’s quite hard, if you go to a place that she hasn’t visited for maybe 20, maybe 15 years. And you just think to yourself, How can I fulfill this expectation that comes with being a member of her family?”
Away from affairs of state, there were personal setbacks, including seeing the marriages of two sons crumble: that of Prince Charles to Princess Diana and Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Charles and Diana’s very public divorce in 1992, which was accompanied by Diana’s thinly veiled criticism of her monarch mother-in-law, came the same year as a devastating fire at her favorite official residence, Windsor Castle. She would famously call the year her “annus horribilis.”
Then in 1997 came the intense shock of Princess Diana’s death in a Paris car crash — a world-shaking event that the stoic Queen was ill-equipped to navigate publicly. Diana’s grieving sons William and Harry were secluded in the highlands of Scotland with her, the family protecting them in their insurmountable grief.
And yet the public soon wondered why the flag at Buckingham Palace wasn’t lowered to half-staff, and then called for the Queen and Prince Philip to head south from Scotland to London. “Show Us You Care” cried a memorable headline in the Sun newspaper; 2006’s The Queen would go on to portray the events surrounding Her Majesty’s reaction to the death, with Helen Mirren earning an Oscar for her characterization of the emotionally removed monarch.
Her Twilight Years
But time would soften even the ever-unflappable royal. When Charles wed his longtime love, Camilla Parker Bowles, in a low-key 2005 ceremony, the Queen welcomed her into the royal family with open arms.
More joy would follow with the spectacular wedding of her grandson Prince William to Kate Middleton in April 2011, introducing new energy to the family — and bringing a bright new smile to the Queen’s face. Confident that the couple wed for love and that the relationship is built on solid ground, she beamed throughout the historic day — a sign, palace insiders have told PEOPLE, of her contentment that the line of succession had been secured.
With the arrival of the young couple’s children, Prince George in 2013, Princess Charlotte in 2015 and Prince Louis in 2018, the line was cemented still further. She celebrated with a portrait commemorating four generations of royal heirs in 2016.
She welcomed Meghan Markle — the first biracial member of the modern royal family — into the fold after her grandson, Prince Harry, introduced his beloved granny to his future wife in the fall of 2017. The Queen celebrated their nuptials on May 19, 2018, and hosted their luncheon reception at Windsor Castle immediately following the ceremony. She and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex later shared a memorable “away day” together via the royal train.
When Meghan and Harry stepped back from senior royal duty in January 2020, the Queen released a statement, saying in part, “My family and I are entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family. Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family.”
The royal family sustained the loss of another senior member from official duty when Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son stepped down in November 2019 following a disastrous BBC interview regarding his longstanding friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Through everything, the Queen relied on the stalwart support of her husband, Prince Philip, until his death in April 2021.
“Regardless of whether my grandfather seems to be doing his own thing, sort of wandering off like a fish down the river, the fact that he’s there — personally, I don’t think that she could do it without him,” Prince Harry told the BBC in 2012.
In the last years of her life, her leadership during the global COVID-19 pandemic evoked her steadiness during wartime.
“It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made, in 1940, helped by my sister,” she said in a televised address in April 2020. “We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.
“While we have faced challenges before, this one is different,” she added. “This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed — and that success will belong to every one of us.”
As the broadcast came to a close, the Queen reiterated that the tough times will not last forever.
“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again,” she said. “But for now, I send my thanks and warmest good wishes to you all.”
A Lifetime of Service, a Legacy for the Future
On September 9, 2015, in a lifetime of landmarks, Elizabeth passed the record set for the longest reign by a British monarch. This was not something to which she “aspired,” she said on the day. “Inevitably, a long life can pass by many milestones; my own is no exception.”
As she approached her 90th birthday, her grandson William praised her “kindness and sense of humor, her innate sense of calm and perspective, and her love of family and home.”
Writing in a foreword to 2015’s Elizabeth II: The Steadfast, he added, “All of us who will inherit the legacy of my grandmother’s reign and generation need to do all we can to celebrate and learn from her story. Speaking for myself, I am privileged to have the Queen as a model for a life of service to the public.”