Queen Elizabeth II: Royal Witness to History

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Queen Elizabeth II sits at a microphone at Sandringham House as she prepares to deliver her first Christmas message to subjects across the globe on Boxing Day in 1952. AP IMAGES

By Editorial Assistant Haley Spielberg

With 63 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II's reign has seen its share of defining moments. To commemorate the life and legacy of Britain's longest-serving monarch, Newsweek's latest special edition looks at some of the seminal moments in the Queen's life.

1952: The Queen makes her first Christmas Broadcast.

The annual Christmas Broadcast has been a tradition among the Royal Family since 1932, when Elizabeth's grandfather King George V delivered the first Royal message over the radio. That Christmas day, he spoke from a small office in Sandringham to an audience of 20 million. The broadcast was so successful that he continued to deliver the message every subsequent Christmas until he died in 1936. The Royal Christmas Broadcast took on a new layer of meaning in 1939 when war broke out; that year, King George VI spoke live to boost morale and offer reassurance to his people. After her father died in 1952, Elizabeth took over, viewing the broadcast as an opportunity to speak openly and directly to the public. Fittingly filmed at Sandringham House in Norfolk, on the 20th anniversary of her grandfather's first speech, Elizabeth's first message incorporated current issues and concerns, as well as the Queen's reflections on the Christmas spirit.

1965: The Queen visits West Berlin at the height of the Cold War.

In May 1965, Germany was still divided into two regions: The Eastern part of the country was associated with the Soviet Union, while the Western part was a member of NATO. The city of Berlin, situated in the Soviet-controlled East Germany, was also divided into East and West. During her visit, the Queen pledged her support to the people of West Berlin and received an enthusiastic response. In later years, the British Monarch would continue to display global diplomacy toward cold warriors and former adversaries alike, welcoming Emperor Hirohito of Japan on his first state visit to Britain in October of 1971, where he moved among silent crowds.

1969: Death penalty for murder abolished in Britain.

The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965 first introduced the proposal to abolish capital punishment for murder in Britain. Under its terms, hanging was suspended for an experimental period of five years. In 1969, the Members of Parliament voted for its permanent abolition, winning by a majority of 343 to 185. However, until 1998, capital punishment was still able to be administered for offenses such as treason, piracy with violence and arson in Royal Dockyards. It was not until 1999 that the death penalty was abolished in the U.K. for any reason.

1973: Britain joins the European Economic Community.

In 1973, facing growing economic decline, Great Britain sought entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), predecessor to today's European Union (EU). Before Britain's entry, the six member states were Belgium, France, Luxembourg, West Germany and the Netherlands. Up until 1973, France's President Charles de Gaulle had repeatedly blocked U.K. membership to the EEC, fearing British membership would weaken the French voice in Europe and increase America's influence. Following de Gaulle's 1969 resignation, British Prime Minister Edward Heath took the U.K. into the EEC in 1973 with the Queen's blessing, joining with Denmark and Ireland to bring the total number of member states up to nine. In 1975, newly elected Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a referendum on Britain's continued membership; 66 percent voted to stay in the European Community.

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Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, drive through West Berlin on their 1965 visit to Germany. In the background is the infamous Berlin Wall, which separated the Soviet Sector from the Allied Sectors. AP IMAGES

1979: Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister.

As conservative stances took hold of politics on both sides of the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan became its champion in the U.S., and Margaret Thatcher became his match in the U.K. When Thatcher won the position of Prime Minister—the first woman ever to do so—the U.K. became a country with women in its two highest positions. That too was a first. Thatcherism would go on to impact the British political landscape more than any other Prime Minister's philosophy since Winston Churchill.

1981: Belize and Antigua and Barbuda gain their independence from Britain.

The British Empire once ruled over 60 countries; today, there remain just 14 territories under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Two of the countries to achieve independence under Queen Elizabeth, Belize and the twin-island country Antigua and Barbuda, broke from Britain in 1981—though both countries remained part of the Commonwealth as independent nation- states. Whereas Antigua and Barbuda partitioned off without difficulty, Belize saw a more tortuous journey to independence. The last British colony in the Americas had long wanted independence, but was too weak to stand alone against territorial incursions by neighboring Guatemala. Its petition for independence eventually garnered international support, and on September 21, 1981, Belize finally gained independence. The empire suffered another loss 16 years later when China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, which had been under British rule for 156 years.

1982: England goes to war in the Falklands.

On April 2, 1982, Argentine junta leader General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands, an Atlantic archipelago just east of Argentina. Galtieri sent his troops to the Falklands in an attempt to seize the territory from Great Britain. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded by sending a heavy task force overseas to reclaim the islands. The ensuing battle was brief but brutal—with the death toll reaching 900 by the end of the war and Great Britain coming out with a firm victory. In 2013, a referendum was held in which 99.8 percent of Falkland islanders voted to remain part of the U.K. Still, the islands continue to be the subject of dispute.

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Queen Elizabeth is accompanied by a fireman as she tours the scene of a major fire at Windsor Castle on November 21, 1992. GILLIAN ALLEN/AP IMAGES

1992: The Queen's "annus horribilis" (horrible year).

On November 24, 1992, Queen Elizabeth spoke at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London in recognition of the 40th anniversary of her coronation. In her speech, she reflected on what she referred to as an "annus horribilis"—a horrible year. Indeed, 1992 saw a range of tragedies for the British Royal Family. Just two days before her speech, a large fire had broken out in the Windsor castle, engulfing the 850-year-old structure and its vast collection of valuables in flames. The fire lasted 15 hours, taking 250 firefighters and 1.5 million gallons of water to extinguish. Repairs would last five years, cost £37 million and spark intense public debate about whether taxpayer money should fund the bill. That same year, the respective marriages of three of her children, Prince Charles, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne, disintegrated. As heir to the throne, Prince Charles's separation from first wife Princess Diana not only threatened the future of the Monarchy but also led to the publication of Diana, Her True Story. The tell-all book revealed details of the couple's marriage, including Charles's affair with his previous girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Queen's second child and only daughter, Anne, split from her husband, Mark Phillips, in April of that year, and Prince Andrew, her youngest child, separated from his wife, Sarah Ferguson, one month later, after several scandals surfaced.

1993: The Queen starts paying taxes.

In 1992, the Queen introduced a huge reform, volunteering for the Monarchy to pay income tax and capital gains tax for the first time in more than a century. On April 6, 1993, the Queen and her family began paying taxes like everyone else, albeit with a sizeable break on the inheritance tax. Historically, very few monarchs have paid taxes. Queen Victoria paid income tax when it had been first introduced in the 19th century, but King George V arranged several exemptions, while his son, George VI, stopped paying taxes altogether. The year the Queen volunteered her tax contributions, she also opened her official residences to the public to finance their maintenance.

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As a nation mourned the loss of Princess Diana in 1997, the Monarchy had to cope with the mother of its heirs being killed before her time. Her brother, Earl Spencer, delivered a eulogy still remembered by Britons and foreigners alike. REX/NEWSCOM

1997: Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in a Paris car crash.

Shortly after midnight on August 31, 1997, a car accident would rattle the world. That night, Princess Diana, 36, was in the back seat of a car driving away from Paris's Ritz Hotel when chauffeur Henri Paul lost control of the vehicle. Diana's boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, son of billionaire Mohammed Al Fayed, was also in the car. Fayed and Paul died on impact; Diana and her bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones were rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Her bodyguard survived. Diana did not. Thousands attended her funeral, and almost 2.5 billion around the world watched the televised broadcast. The Queen remained quiet after the incident, preferring to deal with the tragedy in private.

2003: The U.K. leads a "Coalition of the Willing."

As the United States prepared to take action against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, allies were hard to come by. Many questioned going after the Iraqi dictator at this particular time. Led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, the U.K. became the first and largest member of what would later become known as a "Coalition of the Willing." More than 600 British military personnel would lose their lives in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though it was deemed too dangerous for Elizabeth's grandson Prince Harry to serve in Iraq in 2008, he was stationed in Afghanistan for two months, until his high visibility became a security concern for his fellow soldiers. He would return as an Apache pilot from 2012 to 2013.

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Proud parents, Prince William and Princess Catherine, and big brother, Prince George, accompany Princess Charlotte (in carriage) to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene for her Christening on July 5, 2015. MICHAEL DUNLEA/N&S SYNDICATION/EXPRESS NEWSPAPER/AP IMAGES

2011: The Queen supports female heirs to inherit the throne.

Throughout her reign, the Queen has shown support for a number of progressive legislative amendments—one of which was the Perth Agreement of October 2011. That year, the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting took place in Perth, Australia; there, British Prime Minister David Cameron described certain rules as "outdated"—namely, those of Royal succession. By the end of the meeting, the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth (16 in total) had voted to replace male primogeniture with absolute primogeniture, effectively allowing daughters of the Monarch to take their place in the line of succession. The Perth Agreement also dissolved legislation that prevented potential Monarchs from marrying Catholics. Interestingly, had these amendments been made earlier in history, Margaret Tudor would have succeeded Henry VII; instead, her younger brother, Henry VIII, took the throne. In 2013, as the Queen's grandson William awaited the birth of his firstborn, the act gained urgency in Britain. It was finally passed in 2015, allowing Elizabeth's great-granddaughter Charlotte to be a candidate for the throne.

This article appears in Newsweek's Special Commemorative Edition, The Queen.

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Queen Elizabeth II: Royal Witness to History | World