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LONDON — She was a fresh-faced 25-year-old on an official tour of Kenya with her husband of six years, Philip. Harry Truman was president of the United States and Winston Churchill was the British prime minister. And on Feb. 6, 1952, Elizabeth Windsor became Queen of England. Her coronation on June 2, 1953, seemed to herald a new era for Britain — for on the same day it was announced that a British-led team had conquered the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest.
Flash-forward 60 years and it once again seems Britain’s time. The nation is preparing to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee —making her the second-longest-serving monarch after Queen Victoria. London is hosting the Summer Olympics for the first time since 1948. All that’s needed is for a Briton to win Wimbledon and it would seem the stars were in absolutely perfect alignment.
That’s unlikely to happen, but nothing would surprise the 86-year-old monarch with the white set curls, megawatt smile and penchant for horse racing, homeopathic remedies, corgis and silk Hermès head scarves. Throughout her six-decade reign, she’s weathered family tragedy, scandal, mishaps and more — and has remained as implacable as Mount Everest itself.
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Her famous annus horribilis in 1992 — when she marked her 40 years as queen — was a particularly trying time in a difficult decade that saw her family behaving badly and public opinion for the monarchy hitting a low. Princess Diana’s death in 1997 — and the Queen’s initial failure to tune into the national mood — was another low, but it marked the end of the decade horribilis in the Queen’s otherwise stellar tenure.
Since Diana’s death, she has subtly thrown her energy behind rebuilding the royal family’s reputation — and cementing its future. “In the 1990s, disaster was looming and it looked like the House of Windsor was imploding,” said Paul Moorhouse, who curated “The Queen: Art and Image,” a warts-and-all collection of photographs, paintings and works of art tracking the monarch’s reign at the National Portrait Gallery. After her darkest days, she figuratively took up arms, began to strategize about the future of the House of Windsor, and maintained her famous unflappability and dignity in the process.
“She rehabilitated the monarchy and has come back stronger than ever,” said Moorhouse.
Nicky Haslam, interior decorator, socialite and cabaret performer who is close to members of the royal family, put it a different way: “She’s un-Hello-ed the whole thing. She hasn’t sold out to the popular press, and she’s given a sense of stability to something that could have been viewed as not serious.”
But that was always Queen Elizabeth II’s way. Harold Macmillan, who served as British prime minister from 1957 to 1963, wrote the following in his diaries from those years: “The Queen…is impatient of the attitude toward her to treat her as a woman, and a film star or mascot. She has indeed ‘the heart and stomach of a man.’ She does not enjoy ‘society.’ She likes her horses. But she loves her duty and means to be a Queen, not a puppet.”
Her subjects would agree: According to a recent Guardian-ICM poll, 69 percent of respondents in England and Wales believe Britain would be worse off without the monarchy, while 22 percent say the country would be better off. Only 10 percent of respondents said that when the Queen dies, Britons should elect a head of state instead of having a new monarch. On a lighter note, the Evening Standard reported this week that sales of corgis have seen a 10 percent uptick this year due to the Jubilee celebrations.
Indeed, the pro-monarchy mood is so strong in the U.K. right now — due mostly to the Queen, but also to Princes William and Harry and royal newcomer the Duchess of Cambridge — that it’s hard to believe that, not so long ago, the royal family was in the dumps. Richard Grayson, head of history and professor of 20th-century history at Goldsmiths, University of London, said back in the Nineties, during all the royal family drama, it would have been difficult to imagine Prince Charles ever becoming king, let alone marrying his longtime lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall.
“Today there is even serious talk of Camilla one day becoming Queen,” he said. It was most likely Diana’s worst nightmare, and unthinkable even a decade ago.