The Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was up a tree in Kenya gazing at the wildlife below when her father, King George VI, died in London on Feb. 6, 1952. At that moment, 60 years ago today, she was queen of the United Kingdom, at age 25. Only she didn't know it yet.
Six decades later, the British are preparing to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee with an outpouring of affection and patriotism and an extravagant party for their 40th monarch since the Norman Conquest.
It's only the second Diamond Jubilee in British history. The first was Queen Victoria's in 1897, when the old girl (she was 78) was so frail she had to sit outside St. Paul's Cathedral in her carriage for the thanksgiving service because she couldn't get up the steps.
Not so for her great-great-granddaughter, soon to be 86, who has spent a lifetime demonstrating how sturdy and steady she is, and always has been, since that gloomy day she arrived home from Kenya. The image is burned into the British brain: a small, black-gloved figure in a black coat and hat, alone at the top of the aircraft stairs, a line of ministers below led by a teary Winston Churchill.
"It was the first of very significant moments in the nation's emotional life," says royal biographer Robert Lacey, whose latest book about Elizabeth, A Brief Life of theQueen, just came out in the U.K.
It had taken some time for word of the king's death, at age 56, to reach East Africa where she and her husband, Prince Philip, were on a brief holiday.
Everyone knew this day was coming, but not this soon; yet Elizabeth took the news in a manner characteristic of her since childhood, according to those who were there. She kept calm and carried on. When an aide asked her what she would call herself as queen (monarchs, like her father, don't always use their given names to reign), she replied, "My own name, of course. What else?"
What else, indeed.
As the Jubilee celebrations commence this summer, most Britons have never known anyone else on their throne, currency and stamps. A shy, sheltered young woman, Elizabeth has grown into a dignified great-granny in a dignified hat, smiling serenely, wearing sensible shoes, clutching her handbag, waving her gloved hand.
In 1,000 years, no one else but Victoria has reigned over Britain longer, nor passed age 81 on the throne. No one has met as many people, nor traveled as far, nor been seen by more people in person or in the media.
"Hers is the most photographed face in world history," says British journalist Andrew Marr, author of the just-published The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
A far cry from the 'Widow of Windsor'
Victoria reigned while Britain evolved from a rainy little island in the North Sea to a globe-spanning colonial empire. Today, Britain is back to being a rainy little island in the North Sea, but remains a global power — at least partly because of the queen, who heads the Commonwealth of 54 former colonies, remains as the head of state of 16 nations and has assiduously worked to strengthen ties between Britain and other global powers, especially the United States.
Victoria spent much of her reign hidden behind palace walls, the mournful and unpopular "Widow of Windsor." Elizabeth has traveled the world every year since becoming queen, visiting 135 nations at last count. "I have to be seen to be believed," she once said.
Under Victoria, the telephone and the film camera were newfangled gadgets; Elizabeth, who has appeared in multiple filmed documentaries, has a mobile phone, an elaborate website and Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Not that she's bragging. "The queen is a modest person — it's one of the keys to her success. No one could ever accuse her of getting above herself," Lacey says.
She has changed the monarchy, and she has changed as a monarch. She presided over a shrinking and more multicultural United Kingdom, while at the same time ensuring the survival of the monarchy and the survival of her dynasty. She opened up her palaces, gardens, art collections and honors lists to the masses. She allowed more cameras behind the scenes than ever before. She gave up the royal yacht and the royal planes, cut back on her staff, agreed to pay taxes. She even has taken to riding a regular commuter train to her Sandringham estate for her annual Christmas break.
"She has changed the institution more in the last 25 years than her predecessors did in the previous 100 years," says Robert Hardman, a veteran royals correspondent and author of the forthcoming Her Majesty: Queen Elizabeth II and Her Court. "She is an innately cautious person. She has not sought to be ahead of the times, but she knows she needs to move with the times."
As she did in 1997, when her former daughter-in-law Princess Diana died in a Paris car crash, sending Britons into an unprecedented tailspin of grief and hysteria. The queen had been criticized for the way the royal family treated Diana; her first instinct was to stay away and mourn with her grandsons in private.
Under pressure, she returned to London, ordered the royal flag at Buckingham Palace lowered in tribute, gave the speech of her life live on TV, set in motion an unforgettable funeral service and bowed her head when Diana's casket passed her on The Mall.
"She's been very adaptable," says Elisabeth Cawthon, a historian of Britain at the University of Texas. "She's presided over some very important historical developments and served as a symbol of Britain in the midst of that. … To the British, symbolism is important."
Dutiful, devout and down-to-earth
Above all, she is still there. Longevity goes … well, a long way in explaining her success and her enduring position in the world's imagination, say her multiple biographers.
"She's coming into her own now in part because of the deaths of the three women who overshadowed her — Princess Diana; her mother, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; and her sister, Princess Margaret, in 2002 — all of whom loved to upstage," Lacey says.
"Her own success comes partly from living for so long," he says.
The queen is, according to her biographers, the same personality she was as the little heiress presumptive "Lillibet" — dutiful and devout, practical and down-to-earth, savvy, focused, opaque and absolutely never controversial. Yet she and her royal family are the most watched royals in a world where royals don't matter very much anymore in political power calculations.
But in cultural terms, Elizabeth matters, and not just to the British.
"There are other monarchs around the world but really there is only one queen," says Sally Bedell Smith, an American observer of royals and author of the new Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. "Unlike those other monarchs, she has a real job. She's played a real role at the center of history."
There's virtually no one of any importance in the world, politically or culturally, whom the queen has not met in the past six decades, from Khrushchev to Kissinger, from de Gaulle to Gaga. "Continuity is key: Her personal memory embraces all the presidents since Eisenhower," Marr says. "People know she won't go on forever, so this is a moment to reflect on what's happened over those decades."
Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the queen, says the British recognize the skill with which she has negotiated the tricky shoals of being a figurehead monarch with behind-the-scenes influence under Britain's murky, unwritten constitution. "Throughout her reign she has done it totally uncomplaining and unflinching. For her, duty comes first, before all else," Arbiter says.
As a result, Smith says, admiration for the queen, at home and abroad, has intensified in the past 10 years as people see she lives according to the values she represents. "Everything is so polarized now, and she's above politics, she's above fashion, she's above style," Smith says. "She's a symbol, but she's also a doer."
Accession Day pomp
Traditionally, the British don't "celebrate" today, Accession Day, because it is also the day her beloved father died. Most of the Jubilee events will be in May and June when the weather is better for the signature pageantry that the British are so skilled at devising (much of it funded by private donations). The peak event will be the first weekend in June, just two months before the start of the 2012 London Olympics. A flotilla of 1,000 ships, from kayaks to antique tall ships, will follow the queen and her heirs on a Royal Barge (decorated like a 17th-century galley) 7 miles down the Thames from Putney to Tower Bridge, while hundreds of thousands line the riverbank cheering and waving flags.
The queen and Prince Philip will travel throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while her royal relations roam the globe representing her in public appearances in Commonwealth nations as large as Australia or as small as Tuvalu, a Polynesian island in the South Pacific where the young royal stars — her grandson Prince William and his wife, Catherine Duchess of Cambridge — will appear.
The queen's reign is winding down, but she is not. Her most historic state visit ever took place late last year when she crossed the Irish Sea to the Republic of Ireland for a tour of reconciliation between two island nations with an 800-year history of mutual strife. She was the first British monarch to set foot in an independent Ireland, demonstrating that it was possible to transcend the past (a cousin, Lord Mountbatten, had been killed by an IRA bomb in 1979). She even laid a wreath at Dublin's national memorial to those who died fighting for independence from Britain.
"She was making a personal effort of reconciliation as well as a political effort," Cawthon says.
Legacy survives minefields of history
Her reign has seen trouble spots — terrorism, mining disasters, labor strife, the devastating fire at Windsor Castle, the divorces of three of her four children and the trauma of Diana's death among them.
And for all her success as a monarch, she has not always been seen as a successful parent, having left the running of the family to Prince Philip.
Still, she is a successful grandmother, judging by the effusive praise from Prince William, 29, the wildly popular king-in-waiting on whom the Windsor dynasty's future rests. He doesn't give many interviews, but he talked to Hardman about his grandmother, who has helped train him for his role since he was a boy. The queen's dedication to duty and country is something to behold, Hardman quotes William as saying:
"She'll want to hand over knowing she's done everything she possibly could to help and that she's got no regrets and no unfinished business; that she's done everything she can for the country and that she's not let anyone down — she minds an awful lot about that."
She has minded since her 21st birthday, when she broadcast a pledge to the Commonwealth from Cape Town, South Africa, in 1947: "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong."
The queen can say she made good on her promise.