Queen Elizabeth’s Incredible Life in Photos
On the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee, a reflection on her relationship to Canada through the years.
The Queen in Canada: Then and Now
She was everywhere, back then. Gazing serenely from the wall of the principal’s office as I awaited my fate. The Unitarian Church, where the minister strummed his guitar. The drill hall where, in ill-fitting cadet uniforms, we shouldered wooden rifles and sang the national anthem—a plea for God to save her. Queen Elizabeth II was in every Canadian community centre and government office, the liquor stores and union quarters of my father, the hockey arenas and pool halls of my youth.
And there she remains, neatly framed, on the walls of my memory, wearing the priceless tiara, necklace, bracelets, earrings, and the striking blue sash signalling her place atop the Most Venerable Order of the Garter. In the photograph she is young and beautiful, so it must have been taken soon after she ascended the throne in 1952, at age 25, following the sudden death of her father, King George VI.
The Golden Age
Royalty was still the stuff of fairy tales back then, of princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, curtsies and posies, shy children performing charming dances in exotic places, LIFE magazine photo specials, breathless live coverage of royal visits. For the second half of the 20th century, with her husband and third cousin, the Duke of Edinburgh, by her side, Elizabeth performed her ancestral role expertly and indefatigably, a life of public service that would exhaust most mortals. Her respites were her stables, her corgis, her growing family, and Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Surveys still put her among the most admired figures in the world.
Keep Calm and Carry On
More recent times have not been so kind. Royal affairs, ugly marriages, party animals, tell-all books—princes and princesses, they’re just like us! Through the seemingly non-stop turbulence, the Queen has always provided royal ballast, keeping the ship steady, the very personification of keep calm and carry on.
When Princess Diana died in a Paris tunnel, victim of her own celebrity, her last words allegedly were, “Oh God, what has happened?” The world had grown ever more vulgar is what had happened. Who could imagine Elizabeth’s second child getting caught in the sordid web of a sexual predator and his accomplice? And then going on the BBC to attempt, laughably, to distance himself from the mess. And then buying his way out of it. What a mother of such tasteful impeccability must think of a princely son of such staggeringly poor judgement can only be imagined.
And what queen could have foreseen her grandson, Prince Harry, renouncing his royal duties, alluding to racism at Buckingham Palace, and moving his wife and their children to California, where Oprah is queen? Then, last year, Elizabeth suffered the most crushing blow of all—the passing of her consort of 73 years, Prince Philip, two months short of his 100th birthday.
Heavy is the Head
At 95, the elderly queen now bears the full weight of the monarchy on her frail shoulders. Through an accident of birth, she embodies wealth and privilege in an age when such wealth and privilege are associated with injustice. “God Save the Queen” was supplanted by “O Canada” long ago. In this post-colonial era, she is a reminder of a British Empire that blithely claimed scores of distant lands as its own, bribing, enlisting or subjugating the locals.
A Modern-Day Monarch
Yet to see her as a relic, a hopeless anachronism, is to miss her value and her meaning. She oversaw the transformation of the empire into the free association of equal states known as the Commonwealth, where she is the elected (not hereditary) leader. She has been a sounding board for countless world leaders. Her 22 visits to Canada have brought vividly, repeatedly, to life her portrait on our $20 banknote, her effigy on the toonie. I remember as a kid in 1959 lining up with tens of thousands of others to wave as her motorcade passed by Eaton’s in downtown Toronto. The slow-moving black limousines, the white-gloved hand, the royal wave.
The Queen is a symbol of steadfastness in a world that’s changing at an accelerating, even frightening, pace. She’s a reminder that we are always creating both the future and the past, and—as the much-loved monarch embarks on her eighth decade on the throne—a memento mori that nothing lasts forever.
Next, take a look back at Queen Elizabeth’s incredible life in 30 quotes.