She’s one of the most iconic figures in world history: a queen whose reign has outlasted all other British monarchs and most other world leaders, too. But though she stands for the continuity and tradition of the English monarchy, Elizabeth II’s reign has been anything but predictable. Since she took the throne in 1952, the queen has redefined what it means to be a monarch—and withstood a tremendous amount of change within her family, her country and the world.
“Change is a constant,” said the monarch as she addressed Parliament during her Golden Jubilee in 2002, “managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future.” Here are some of the most dramatic changes during Elizabeth’s reign:
Then: Low-tech royalty
Now: All-access monarchy
Elizabeth II’s coronation on June 2, 1953 had all the pomp and circumstance of a major event. But there was a difference from the coronations of the many monarchs that preceded her: It was broadcast on television. The decision to televise the coronation was a controversial one; the elderly, tradition-bound commission that planned the event was horrified by the idea of allowing cameras into Westminster Abbey for such a solemn occasion, and Elizabeth herself was camera-shy. But she eventually overruled her advisors and decided to go ahead with a live broadcast. The decision revolutionized the monarchy’s attitude toward media, writes Radio Times’ Joe Moran. Soon, the queen was a TV watcher herself.
Today, the monarchy takes advantage of smartphones and social media to shape its public image. It has presences on platforms like Twitter and Instagram and employs a digital engagement planner to craft its online message. The monarchy may no longer be as private, but its message is still impeccably controlled.
Then: Roiling Troubles in Northern Ireland
Now: A tenuous peace
When Elizabeth took the throne, Northern Ireland had been ruled by Protestant unionists who favored remaining part of the United Kingdom for decades. But in 1968, tensions over whether Northern Ireland should become part of the Republic of Ireland, the sovereign state with which it shares an island, boiled over. During the Troubles, the 30-year conflict that followed, Elizabeth watched Northern Ireland explode into a seemingly endless cycle of violence marked by bombings (including the IRA assassination of her second cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten), riots and guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile, the queen visited Northern Ireland in 1977 despite protests and threats.
Finally, in 1998, the conflict ended with the Good Friday Agreement. In 2011, Elizabeth spoke publicly about the Troubles during a visit to Dublin. “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy,” she said—a near-apology that marked the monarchy’s desire to move forward. And when she shook hands with ex-IRA leader Martin McGuinness in 2012, it was seen as the beginning of a new era of tenuous peace between monarchists and separatists.
Then: A sprawling British empire
Now: A smaller Commonwealth
At the height of the British empire, it was estimated that one in every four people was a British subject. When Elizabeth began her reign, Britain had more than 70 territories overseas. But she inherited an empire in crisis. The government had already begun to recognize that it would need to give more power to colonies in order to survive, and during the 1960s it gave up colony after colony in an atmosphere of revolt and insurrection. From Africa to Asia, Britain withdrew from colonies like Kenya and Malaysia.
Today, Elizabeth is the monarch of just 16 countries known as commonwealth realms. “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past,” she said in 1953, perhaps anticipating the end of the British empire. “It is an entirely new conception, built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”
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Then: A buttoned-up family
Now: A normal one
All families have their ups and downs, but Elizabeth’s family always tried to keep its scandals and conflicts under wraps. Raised in an atmosphere of almost stifling secrecy, Elizabeth witnessed her parents’ horrified reaction to the public affair and abdication of her uncle. When she took the throne, divorce was a royal taboo and the family did its best to cover up scandals like Princess Margaret’s tempestuous love life.
But over the years, the royal family learned it is not immune to scandal. Princess Margaret divorced in 1978, and in 1992 Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated, turning the family’s business into a worldwide obsession fueled by tabloid speculation and paparazzi photographs. In a break with the past, Elizabeth urged them to divorce, which they did in 1996. Today, divorce is no longer taboo and the family’s ups and downs, from Diana’s tragic death in 1997 to Prince William and Harry’s well publicized weddings, are no longer under wraps.
Then: An off-limits monarch
Today: A walkabout queen
When Elizabeth took the throne, the monarchy was the most accessible it had ever been—if you compared it to the days in which monarchs simply hid within their castles and rarely, if ever, came in contact with their subjects. But the early days of Elizabeth’s reign were still relatively sheltered, and her subjects were more likely to get a glimpse of their queen from far away or on television than in person. Though she went on trips as queen, she only interacted with dignitaries when she did so.
That changed in 1970, when Elizabeth went on her first “walkabout” during a trip to New Zealand. The practice—a limited meet-and-greet with excited crowds—has been a tradition ever since, and has put Elizabeth in direct contact with thousands of subjects over the years.
Then: A young queen
Now: She’s outlasted them all
Elizabeth was just 25 when she took the throne, and when she met foreign dignitaries, presidents and prime ministers she was often the new kid in the room. World leaders who were in power at the time she was crowned included Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Dwight David Eisenhower—towering male figureheads who couldn’t have been more different than the young queen.
But during her more than six decades on the throne, Elizabeth has outlasted them all, becoming a potent symbol of continuity even as the world has changed around her. Today, she is a figure just as formidable as the old-school leaders who came before her. It’s uncertain how many more years Elizabeth will reign, but for now she’s the longest-lasting British monarch of all time.