In 2022, Queen Elizabeth II made history by becoming the first British monarch to reign for 70 years. Though millions of words have been written about the world’s longest-reigning living monarch, few people knew the woman behind the crown, or even what her daily duties entailed. Here are some things you might not know about this royal legend, who died on September 8, 2022, at 96 years old.
1. She wasn’t born an heir apparent to the throne.
For the first 10 years of her life, Princess Elizabeth was a relatively minor royal—her status was akin to Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York today—but that all changed with the death of her grandfather, King George V, in 1936.
The next in the line of royal succession was Elizabeth’s uncle, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne less than a year after taking it so that he could marry an American socialite named Wallis Simpson. Edward didn’t have any children at the time, so his brother Albert (Elizabeth’s father) ascended to the throne, taking the name George VI and making the then-10-year-old Elizabeth the first in line to become Queen.
2. Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister gave her a family nickname.
Elizabeth and Margaret were the only children of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and King George VI, who said of his daughters: “Lilibet is my pride, Margaret my joy.” Lilibet, of course, is Elizabeth, who earned her nickname because Margaret—whom the family affectionately called Margot—constantly mispronounced her big sister’s name.
3. She didn’t go to school like a regular kid.
Heirs apparent don’t just show up to primary school like normal kids. Instead, Elizabeth was tutored at home during sessions by different teachers like Henry Marten, vice-provost of Eton College (which is still for boys only), and was also given private religion lessons by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
4. But Queen Elizabeth II and Priness Margaret technically did have a teacher.
Just because she didn’t attend school doesn’t mean that Elizabeth didn’t receive an education. She received the bulk of it through her nanny, Marion Crawford, who the Royal Family referred to as “Crawfie.” Crawford would eventually be ostracized by the Royal Family for writing a tell-all book in 1953 called The Little Princesses without their permission; the book recounted Crawford’s experiences with Elizabeth during her younger days.
5. Elizabeth wanted to go to war, but was too young.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Elizabeth—then just a teenager—begged her father to join the effort somehow. She started out by making radio broadcasts geared toward raising the morale of British children. During one of the broadcasts, the 14-year-old princess reassured listeners, “I can truthfully say to you all that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage. We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers, and airmen and we are trying too to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war.”
6. She eventually served in World War II.
Queen Elizabeth II was the only female Royal Family member to have entered the armed forces, and until her death, was the only living head of state who officially served in World War II.
7. She celebrated the end of the war by partying like her subjects.
When then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that the war in Europe was over on May 8, 1945, people poured out into the streets of London to celebrate—including Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The sheltered duo were allowed to sneak out of Buckingham Palace to join the revelers at their father’s behest.
“It was a unique burst of personal freedom,” recalled Margaret Rhodes, their cousin who went with them, “a Cinderella moment in reverse.”
8. Queen Elizabeth II married her cousin.
9. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband knew each other since childhood.
Philip, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, first met Elizabeth when she was only 8 years old and he was 14. Both attended the wedding of Princess Marina of Greece (Prince Philip’s cousin) and Prince George, the Duke of Kent (Elizabeth’s uncle).
Five years later, the pair met again when George VI brought Elizabeth to tour the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, where Philip was a cadet. In a personal note, Elizabeth recalled falling for the young soldier-in-the-making: “I was 13 years of age and he was 18 and a cadet just due to leave. He joined the Navy at the outbreak of war, and I only saw him very occasionally when he was on leave—I suppose about twice in three years,” she wrote. “Then when his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, were away he spent various weekends away with us at Windsor.”
10. She didn’t tell her parents she was getting hitched.
In 1946, Philip proposed to Elizabeth when the former planned a month-long visit to Balmoral, her royal estate in Scotland. She accepted the proposal without even contacting her parents. But when George VI finally caught wind of the pending nuptials, he would only officially approve if they waited to announce the engagement until after her 21st birthday.
The official public announcement of the engagement finally came nearly a year later on July 9, 1947.
11. Queen Elizabeth II had a very royal name.
She was the second British monarch named Elizabeth, but Elizabeth II wasn’t named after Henry VIII’s famous progeny. Queen Elizabeth II’s birth name was Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, after the names of her mother, Elizabeth; her paternal great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra; and her paternal grandmother, Queen Mary.
12. She got to choose her own surname.
Technically, the Queen’s last name was “Windsor,” which was first chosen by George V in 1917 after the Royal Family wanted to distance themselves from “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”—the dynasty to which they belonged—for sounding too Germanic during World War I.
But as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Royal Family, in 1960 Elizabeth and Philip adopted the official surname Windsor-Mountbatten. (Fans will surely remember that the surname drama was briefly discussed in Netflix’s series The Crown.)
13. Queen Elizabeth II had two birthdays.
Like most British monarchs, Elizabeth got to celebrate her birthday twice, and the reason why boils down to seasonably appropriate pomp and circumstance.
She was born on April 21, 1926, but April was deemed too cold and liable to fall during inclement weather. So instead, her official state-recognized birthday occurred on a Saturday in late May, or more typically June, so that the celebration could be held during warmer months. The specific date varied year to year in the UK, and usually coincided with Trooping the Colour, Britain’s annual military pageant.
14. Her coronation was televised against her wishes.
Elizabeth officially ascended to the throne at just 25 years of age when her father, George VI, died on February 6, 1952. Elizabeth was in Kenya at the time of his death and returned home as her country’s Queen. As fans of The Crown will remember, the hubbub surrounding her coronation was filled with ample amounts of drama.
The notoriously camera-shy Elizabeth—who didn’t even allow photos to be taken of her wedding—didn’t want the event televised, and others believed that broadcasting the coronation to commoners would break down upper-class traditions of only allowing members of British high society to witness the event. A Coronation Commission, chaired by Philip, was set up to weigh the options, and they initially decided to only allow cameras in a single area of Westminster Abbey “west of the organ screen,” before allowing the entire thing to be televised with one minor caveat: no close-ups on Elizabeth’s face.
15. She paid for her wedding dress using war ration coupons.
Still reeling from an atmosphere of post-war austerity, Elizabeth used ration coupons and a 200-coupon supplement from the government to pay for her wedding dress. But don’t be fooled: The dress was extremely elegant; it was made of ivory duchesse silk, encrusted with 10,000 imported seed pearls, took six months to make, and sported a 13-foot train. (It cost just under $40,000 to recreate the dress for The Crown.)
16. Queen Elizabeth II didn’t need a passport to travel.
Elizabeth II was the world’s most well-traveled head of state, visiting more than 115 countries between hundreds of official state visits, but she didn’t even own a passport. Since all British passports are officially issued in the Queen’s name, she technically did not need one.
17. She didn’t need a driver’s license either.
And it wasn’t just because she had a fleet of chauffeurs. Britain also officially issues driver’s licenses in Elizabeth’s name.
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recounted to The Sunday Times the time when Elizabeth drove former Saudi crown prince Abdullah around the grounds of Balmoral: “To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off,” he said. “Women are not—yet—allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen.”
18. Queen Elizabeth II didn’t have to pay taxes (but chose to anyway).
Queen Elizabeth voluntarily paid income and capital gains taxes beginning in 1992, but was always subject to Value Added Tax.
19. She survived an assassination attempt.
During the 1981 Trooping the Colour, the Queen led a royal procession on horseback down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace when shots rang out. A 17-year-old named Marcus Sarjeant, who was obsessed with the assassinations of figures like John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, fired a series of blanks toward Elizabeth. Sarjeant—who wrote in his diary, “I am going to stun and mystify the whole world with nothing more than a gun”—was thankfully unable to purchase live ammunition in the UK. He received a prison sentence of five years under the 1848 Treason Act, but was released in October 1984.
20. She also survived an intruder coming into her bedroom.
A year after the Trooping the Colour incident, Elizabeth had another run-in. But instead of occurring near Buckingham Palace, this time it was inside Buckingham Palace. On July 9, 1982, a man named Michael Fagen managed to climb over the Palace’s barbed wire fence, shimmy up a drain pipe, and eventually sneak into the Queen’s bedroom.
While reports at the time said Fagen and the Queen had a long conversation before he was apprehended by palace security, Fagen told The Independent the Queen didn’t stick around to chat: “She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor.”
21. Queen Elizabeth II technically owned all the dolphins in the UK.
In addition to owning all of the country’s dolphins, she owned all the sturgeon and whales, too. A still-valid statute from the reign of King Edward II in 1324 states, “Also the King shall have ... whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm,” meaning most aquatic creatures are technically labeled “fishes royal,” and are claimed on behalf of the Crown.
22. She had her own special money to give to the elderly.
The Queen had silver coins known as “Maundy Money”—with her likeness on the front—that were given to pensioners in a ceremony called Maundy Thursday. The royal custom dates back to the 13th century, in which the Royal Family was expected to wash the feet of and distribute gifts to penniless subjects as a symbolic gesture to honor Jesus’s act of washing the feet of the poor in the Bible. Once the 18th century rolled around and washing people’s dirty feet wasn’t seen as befitting of a royal, the act was replaced with money allowances bequeathed by the monarch.
23. Gin was her drink of choice.
Before Queen Elizabeth II’s doctors advised her to quit drinking, she was said to enjoy gin mixed with Dubonnet (a fortified wine) and a slice of lemon on the rocks every day before lunch. She also reportedly had a glass of champagne every evening.
24. She created her own breed of dogs.
Elizabeth has a famous, avowed love of Corgis (she has owned more than 30 of them during her reign; her last one, Willow, passed away in 2018), but what about Dorgis? At the time of her passing, she owned a Dorgi named Candy (her other Dorgi, Vulcan, died in 2020). She engineered the crossbreed when one of her Corgis mated with a Dachshund named Pipkin that belonged to Princess Margaret.
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25. She was on social media … kind of.
The Queen joined Twitter in July 2009 under the handle @RoyalFamily, and sent the first tweet herself, but hadn’t personally maintained the page since then (she had a digital communications team for that). She was also on Facebook, and in March 2019, the Queen published her first Instagram post to the family’s account.
This story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.