The crown can be a heavy burden to bear, and the 1960s and 70s were challenging decades for Queen Elizabeth. From tabloid coverage of Princess Margaret’s affair to Prince Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, the royal family entered the spotlight like never before. When disaster struck in Aberfan and a miner’s strike plunged London into darkness, Queen Elizabeth was tasked with restoring calm and order to a changing nation. Here are seven of the biggest moments in Queen Elizabeth’s reign in the 1960s and 1970s.
1. Princess Margaret’s Controversial U.S. Tour
By 1965, Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, had established her reputation as the royal most likely to court controversy. So Elizabeth II was playing with fire when she sent “The Royal Lightning Rod” on a three-week tour of the United States.
The trip came at a tense time in U.S.-U.K. Relations. Prime Minister Harold Wilson and President Lyndon B. Johnson were at loggerheads, the UK was in debt and in need of American approval for a loan and America was embroiled in the Vietnam War just as Britain was shedding its colonial holdings.
The trip began well enough. Margaret and her husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, rode the trolley in San Francisco, rubbed elbows with celebrities like Judy Garland and Alfred Hitchcock in Los Angeles, rode horses in Arizona and danced with Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson in the White House at a spectacular dinner that roared on until 1:40 a.m. But other late night hijinks on the trip raised eyebrows—as did its astronomical cost of £30,000. The princess was banned from making future official U.S. visits.
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2. Aberfan Disaster
On October 21, 1966 a tsunami of black sludge rushed from the hill above the Welsh mining town of Aberfan, engulfing entire buildings and destroying everything in its wake. Over 140,000 cubic yards of coal waste from the mine fell that day, killing 144 people—most of them children whose classrooms were in the path of the runoff. Television crews capture a village in mourning, and an outpouring of support for the families of Aberfan rippled across the country.
Queen Elizabeth traveled to Aberfan to meet with the families of the victims...eight days after the incident. The Queen's private secretary, Lord Charteris, said later said that one of her biggest regrets was not arriving in Aberfan sooner.
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3. A Royal Documentary
Long before the Kardashians built their reality TV empire, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and their family were the subjects of a documentary inviting the public to get a glimpse of real-life royalty. Television was a relatively new and powerful medium with a reputation for making or breaking political careers (just look at the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates).
The 105-minute color documentary, “Royal Family,” was broadcast across England on June 21, 1969. The unscripted film was an attempt to humanize the royal family and introduce the public to Queen Elizabeth’s 21-year-old son, Charles.
Though Elizabeth was a reluctant participant, the public ate it up. Over 30 million people tuned in for the premiere across England, with viewers so riveted to their screens that they caused a water shortage at intermission as toilets flushed across London.
A month later, Charles was invested as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle while TV cameras rolled. The public was hungry for more of the royal family—a hunger that tabloid journalists and photographers were eager to feed.
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4. The Moon Landing
The two astronauts carried a message from Queen Elizabeth, which had been embossed on a disc alongside messages from 72 other world leaders that was sent to the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. It read: “On behalf of the British people, I salute the skills and courage which have brought man to the moon. May this endeavour increase the knowledge and well-being of mankind.”
Upon their return, the astronauts stopped at Buckingham Palace as part of their world tour, meeting Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. The meeting was famously awkward; Armstrong was suffering from a terrible cold and inadvertently coughed in the queen’s face repeatedly, prompting her to raise her hands in mock surrender.
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5. When London Went Dark: The UK Miner’s Strike of 1972
It was a strike so massive, it left London in the dark for days. When the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) couldn’t agree with the National Coal Board (NCB) on a wage increase for coal miners, all hell broke loose.
Starting in January 9, 1972, over a quarter of a million British coal miners went on strike. Their numbers swelled and occasionally grew violent following the death of miner Freddie Matthews, who was killed by a lorry while picketing.
The seven-week strike was the first official strike since the 32-week strike of 1926 and had been brewing for some time. As coal mining technology changed and the demand for coal decreased, mine workers had seen their wages fall behind in relation to other industries. Their desperation helped fuel their determination to not back down when the National Coal Board refused to meet their demands.
On February 9, the government, led by Prime Minister Edward Heath, declared a state of emergency. A three-day work week was instituted to cut down on energy consumption. Lights were shut off at schools and shops and offices went without heat. At its height, citizens of London went up to nine hours a day every other day without electricity.
Growing desperate, Lord Wilberforce set up an inquiry into miner’s pay. The strike ended on February 25, 1972, when an agreement on wage increases was reached. The success of the strike—which was spearheaded by activist and NUM member Arthur Scargill—helped to topple Prime Minister Heath's Conservative government.
6. Princess Margaret’s Affair
On February 1, 1976, tabloid photos emerged of Princess Margaret swimming off the coast of the private island of Mustique with a man 17 years her junior: 28-year-old Roddy Llewellyn, a landscape gardener, aristocrat…and her lover. The tabloids attacked Margaret as a cradle robber who spent the public’s money partying and portrayed Llewellyn as her “toy boy.”
The public outing of Princess Margaret’s affair ended her unhappy marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones, the First Earl of Snowdon, whom she had married on May 6, 1960. Though her husband, who traveled often for his work as a photographer for the Sunday Times, had been having multiple affairs out in the open, it was Princess Margaret who was censured.
Their breakup was one of the iciest recorded breakups in history, with Armstrong-Jones going through Margaret’s secretary, Lord Napier, to end the marriage. When Lord Napier called to tell Margaret that her husband was leaving her, she responded: “Thank you, Nigel. I think that's the best news you've ever given me.”
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7. Charles and Camilla
Prince Charles reportedly met Camilla Shan at a polo match at Windsor Great Park in 1970. The 23-year old prince was instantly smitten, but their ensuing relationship was complicated.
Before Charles, Camilla had been dating retired British Army officer Andrew Parker Bowles, who then started dating Charles’s sister, Princess Anne.
As a commoner and one with a public dating past, Camilla was viewed by the royal family as a less than ideal match for the heir to the crown. (Though for the next generation of British royals, Prince William and Prince Harry, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle’s status as commoners were not seen as an obstacle to love.)
It is speculated that Charles’s godfather, Lord Mountbatten, arranged for Charles to join the Navy to separate him from Camilla and open the door for Charles to date Lady Diana Spencer, a match Queen Elizabeth also favored.
While Charles was in the Navy, Andrew proposed to Camilla. The two married on July 4, 1973 at Guards’ Chapel in the Wellington Barracks.
Charles would go on to wed Princess Diana on July 29, 1981, though his love story with Camilla Parker Bowles was far from over.