Elizabeth II is perhaps the most famous monarch of modern times. Ascending the throne in 1952, Elizabeth II was the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch in history at a staggering 70 years. She was also the longest-serving female head of state in world history.
Alongside her regal duties to the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II was the Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Queen of an additional 15 sovereign states that, combined with the United Kingdom, encompass a population of around 151 million people.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on 21st April 1926 to the Duke and Duchess of York, who would go on to become George VI and Elizabeth respectively.
Third in line to the throne, Elizabeth was never expected to be Queen as her father was only the second eldest son of the ruling monarch (George V).
However, in 1936, George V died suddenly leaving Edward to take up the throne. Then, scandalously, Edward VIII abdicated later that same year so that he could marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson.
Elizabeth's father became king, succeeding as George VI.
Now, rather extraordinarily, the 10-year-old Elizabeth became 'heir presumptive' – although she was first in line to the throne, because she was a woman, she was never 'heir apparent'.
Three years after the 'Year of the Three Kings', the Second World War broke out. Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret relocated to Royal Lodge, Windsor, until moving to Windsor Castle, where they lived for most of the next five years.
The royal family's refusal to evacuate abroad during the war was well received by the public. This apparent desire to share in the fate of the nation sparked the emergence of more informal artistic presentations of the monarchy as seen in this tea-time scene captured by Scottish painter Herbert James Gunn.
In 1947, Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. Their engagement was slightly controversial as Philip had no financial standing, was foreign-born (though a British subject), and had sisters who had married German noblemen with Nazi links. To marry Elizabeth, Philip had to give up his Greek and Danish titles and officially convert from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism.
Elizabeth and Philip were married on 20th November 1947 at Westminster Abbey. As Britain had not yet completely recovered from the devastation of the war, Elizabeth required ration coupons to buy the material for her gown. At his death in April 2021, Elizabeth and Philip had been married for over 73 years.
Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, Prince Charles, in 1948 (heir apparent since his mother's accession in 1952). Their second child, Princess Anne, followed two years later in 1950.
From 1951 onwards, George VI's health declined, and Elizabeth frequently stood in for him at public events. The King died in 1952 and Elizabeth acceded to the throne, at the young age of 25.
Elizabeth's coronation was held on 2nd June 1953 at Westminster Abbey.
This glorious occasion was televised to an estimated 20 million people around the United Kingdom and parties erupted throughout the country to celebrate the new Queen.
Alongside the Imperial State Crown, the Queen wore a white silk dress embroidered with floral emblems of the 11 countries of the Commonwealth at the time.
This design symbolised the 'unity of the Commonwealth', an enduring passion of the Queen's, throughout her reign.
Following her coronation, Elizabeth and her husband embarked on a seven-month round-the-world tour, visiting 13 countries.
The Queen would go on to make hundreds of overseas visits. At home and abroad, the Queen had to maintain political neutrality, but she made several historic and significant visits, including the first to Berlin of a British monarch since before the First World War. She was also the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and New Zealand.
In 1960 and 1964, the Queen gave birth to her two youngest sons, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, respectively. Their births marked the only times that the Queen has not performed the State Opening of Parliament during her reign, due to pregnancy.
In 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, marking 25 years on the throne. The UK was in a state of political turmoil, with an unpopular government led by Harold Wilson, and many people were suffering economic hardship.
Punk rock was also becoming increasingly popular and the Sex Pistols' anti-monarchist song God Save the Queen reached number two in the Official UK Charts.
Despite growing republican sentiments in some corners, the Queen remained a popular figure and celebrations took place across the country. The Queen and her family increasingly posed for more informal portraits to play down the remoteness of their special position in society. This portrait by Michael Leonard is one such example, with the Queen cuddling one of her beloved corgis.
Popular support for the Queen continued to increase throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, the Queen had her so-called annus horribilis – horrible year – during which the marriages of two of her children, Anne and Andrew, broke down, a book detailing Princess Diana's unhappiness and collapsing marriage to Prince Charles became a national bestseller, and a large fire devastated Windsor Castle.
In this portrait painted in 1991, Richard Stone depicts the Queen looking pensively to the left against a black background, as if foreshadowing the hardship that was to come the following year.
In 1997, the royal family was rocked once again which the sudden death of Princess Diana in a car crash.
The royal family's desire to grieve in private was met with great criticism from the British press (and by extension, the public), resulting in the Queen doing a live television tribute the day before Diana's funeral. The Queen's popularity dipped slightly but after her address, much of the public hostility evaporated.
At the turn of the millennium, the image and shape of the royal family had shifted significantly from the beginning of Elizabeth's reign.
The way the world interacted with the royals and vice versa had changed and the younger generation of royals – primarily, the Queen's grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry – took a more casual approach to their royal duties.
In 2002, the Queen celebrated 50 years on the throne, though this was in part clouded by the death of her mother and sister earlier that same year.
Ten years later, the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and, on 21st December 2015, she surpassed her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to become the longest-lived British monarch in history. In 2017, the Queen became the first British monarch to commemorate a Sapphire Jubilee (65 years) and to celebrate a platinum wedding anniversary.
On 21st April 2020, the Queen turned 94 years old. The Queen's official birthday on 13th June 2020 was markedly different from previous years as the Covid-19 pandemic prevented the typical celebrations – such as Trooping the Colour – from going ahead.
Despite the lack of physical celebrations that year, it is still worth marvelling at the extraordinary life and reign of Elizabeth II. In 2022 the Queen – and the nation – celebrated her Platinum Jubilee. Eliabeth died on 8th September 2022, aged 96, following a lifetime of dedicated service to the nation.
In total, Elizabeth's reign saw a total of 15 Prime Ministers, the decolonisation of the British Empire, the incredible advancement and development of technology, as well as countless other historically and socially significant events across the world.
The world may have changed dramatically during Elizabeth II's epic reign, but her presence on the global stage remained an esteemed and powerful constant.
Flora Doble, Operations Officer at Art UK
Editor's note: this story was updated in September 2022 to reflect the death of Elizabeth II.