EXCLUSIVE: How the Queen has been “devoted to your service” for 70 historic years

As Britain’s longest-reigning monarch through good times and bad, Queen Elizabeth II has proved a role model for generations past, present and future.
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Princess Elizabeth was young, unworldly and head over heels in love when she made a speech that would become the framework of her life. It was a jubilant time for the Heir Apparent, who was aching to become engaged to Philip Mountbatten, the handsome naval officer she had known since she was 12 years old.

Her parents were well aware of their eldest daughter’s plans, as she had told them the year before, but they had asked the lovebirds to take things slowly and postpone any engagement announcement.

Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and her fiance, Philip Mountbatten at Buckingham Palace, after their engagement was announced, 10th July 1947.

(Image: Getty)

It was 1947, the country had just come through a brutal war, and the King and Queen wanted Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to join them on an important tour of South Africa to shore up the Commonwealth. They were also well aware that this was the most important decision their Lilibet could make; choosing not just a romantic partner, but the man who would be called on to put his own career dreams aside and support their daughter when the time came for her to step up to the biggest job imaginable, that of monarch.

But if they ever had any doubts that Elizabeth was unaware of the demands of her destiny, that landmark speech broadcast around the world from Cape Town on her 21st birthday would have reassured them in spades.

Elizabeth’s pledge – “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service” – is regularly quoted and noteworthy in itself. But when you look at the speech in its entirety, what is even more remarkable is the awareness in this young woman of the enormity of the task ahead of her. “This is a happy day for me; but it is also one that brings serious thoughts, thoughts of life looming ahead with all its challenges and with all its opportunity,” she said.

Elizabeth noted that after the sacrifices made in the war, it was time for her generation to play their part and build a better tomorrow. “If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient Commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing – more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world – than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers. To accomplish that we must give nothing less than the whole of ourselves. There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors – a noble motto, ‘I serve’.”

Queen Elizabeth II visits the Town Hall in Sydney in 1970.

(Image: Getty)

Today Elizabeth’s words send shivers down your spine, not because it’s a great speech – which it undoubtedly remains – but because unlike political leaders who so regularly fall short of their promises, she has delivered. Seventy-five years later Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 96 is still serving with “a quiet heart”.

“I think getting to where she is now is her greatest triumph. It’s an amazing record,” says Ita Buttrose, who has met Her Majesty on several occasions and covered the royal family as a journalist. “You just think of all the people she’s known, all the history she’s witnessed, all the prime ministers she’s worked with. What an extraordinary life.”

WATCH: The Queen and Prince Philip’s first royal tour of Australia. Story continues after video.

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In that life Australia has been very important. She was the first reigning monarch to visit our shores. “The country was very excited. She came to Australia as a very young person and the bond has grown over the years,” notes former Prime Minister the Hon. John Howard, who says whatever the republican movement may posit, having the Queen as our constitutional monarch has provided 70 years of stability in a changing world.

Sir William Heseltine, who is the only Australian to have worked as the Queen’s Press Secretary and Private Secretary, accompanied Her Majesty on numerous tours to Australia and says that key to her success as a leader are her people skills.

Queen Elizabeth II watch Tjapukai Aboriginal locals light a ceremonial fire during a cultural performance in 2002.

(Image: Getty)

“I think she has succeeded very well in reasserting the close bonds between sovereign and people. Everyone feels that they know her and to some extent they do, because one of her outstanding qualities is ‘what you see is what you get’. Australians today have known no other head of state, and this generates a comfortable feeling that while she is there, everything will ultimately turn out okay.”

Former Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove treasures the time he worked with the monarch. “She was fantastic,” he says. “When you consider the experience, wisdom, intelligence and energy tucked into that small frame, without doubt she’s the most amazing woman of our generation.”

Iconic Australians share their memories of the Queen

Ita Buttrose.

(Image: Getty)

Ita Buttrose

“I first saw the Queen in person with my school in 1954. We were all at the Sydney Showground waving flags, and Her Majesty and Prince Philip drove around in a jeep. I felt she liked Australians.

“When I joined The Weekly years later, the folklore was that in 1954 Sir Frank Packer took two copies of the magazine hot off the press with the Queen on the cover with him to a function at Government House.

“He produced them from behind his back, saying, ‘Here you are, Ma’am.’ I believe she was quite chuffed. I mean, where do you find characters like that? I think she liked that we weren’t bound by protocol.”

Sir William Heseltine with the Queen.

(Image: Getty)

Sir William Heseltine

“My first year at Balmoral as the Queen’s press secretary, I had been warned about the Ghillies Ball. I was absolutely drenched in perspiration trying to keep up with all these Scottish reels which I was doing for the first time.

“I was told, ‘There’s no danger Her Majesty will ask you to dance. She always asks the footman or the new ghillie.’ But then to my horror I saw the Queen advancing on me with this look in her eye.

“I said to the Queen, ‘I’m a pretty basic dancer.’ Somehow we stumbled through a rumba and a samba. At the end of it she said, ‘Yes, you are a pretty basic dancer.’ And she never asked me to dance again.”

Blanche d’Alpuget with Bob Hawke.

(Image: Getty)

Blanche d’Alpuget

“The only time I had dinner at Buckingham Place, it was in a private dining room with about 20 people. It was for the centenary of Federation, totally relaxed and liberty ruled. Prince Philip was eating his wild strawberries while the Queen was still eating her roast lamb.

“I see the Queen as a great stateswoman. If tomorrow England were attacked, the one person who could rally morale is the Queen. She emanates wise power.

“I think she has liked Aussie leaders and Bob [Hawke] thought she was terrific. He always said they got on very well and I have no doubt he flirted with her.”

The Hon. John Howard with the Queen.

(Image: Getty)

The Hon. John Howard

“The first time I seriously met Her Majesty was at a reception at Government House when I was a junior minister in the Fraser government in 1977. She was a very charming, intelligent, engaged person who had an air of deep interest in Australia.

“Her strengths as a monarch are a tremendous commitment to service and duty; a wonderful personality; and she is a remarkably well-informed person. In any conversation I’ve had with her, she’s always been right across the topic being discussed.

“She had great affection for her parents and the role that her father [played]. He had a big influence on her life. They’re all things that distinguish her time.”

The Queen with Dame Quentin Bryce.

(Image: Getty)

Dame Quentin Bryce

“One of my favourite times was going to Balmoral with my husband Michael. It was before I was sworn in as Governor-General. It’s very much a home as well as a castle, and arriving you are made to feel so welcome.

“The Queen took us for a drive in the Range Rover through the heather. Dinner was a barbecue where pipers played. I love the bagpipes and I remember the lovely ‘Highland Cathedral’.

“Prince Charles noticed the pipe major of the Queensland Police Pipes and Drums had worn the standard of the Queensland Governor at the Edinburgh tattoo and invited the band specially to Balmoral. I was thrilled to hear the pipes again the next morning outside Her Majesty’s window. Perhaps playing for me too!”

General Sir Peter & Lady Lynne Cosgrove

(Image: The Weekly)

General Sir Peter & Lady Lynne Cosgrove

Sir Peter: “We have been lucky enough to visit the Queen in all her homes except Sandringham. Every time was special, but one that I loved was chatting with the Queen in a sitting room in Balmoral. We were able to look through these tall windows out to the hills.

“All of a sudden there’s a figure walking around outside. Her Majesty said, ‘Oh, what’s Philip doing out there in the rain?'”

Lady Lynne: “He’d just taken Prince William and a friend up to go stalking. He’d driven the kids up there and was coming in to see us.

“The Queen’s eyes lit up when she saw Philip. I felt in their company that they were very strong as a couple, and I think she adored him.”

You can read this story and many others in the June issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now

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