The Queen: Majesty and modesty

It is 60 years since she succeeded to the throne – a reign in which her sense of duty and absolute retention of royal mystique has only deepened her subjects’ affection for her.

The moment she became Queen Elizabeth II, on 6 February 1952, Princess Elizabeth was up a tree. As her father King George VI expired in the early hours of the morning, she was perched in a dendral hide at the Treetops Hotel, Kenya, from where she could watch rhino refreshing themselves at the waterhole below as dawn broke. Her position in the branches is a metaphor for how the monarchy used to be perceived by ordinary Britons: something exalted, aloof, exotic, out of sight, miles away and detached from "real" British life.

On Monday, she will have been our Queen for 60 years. It's not quite the gold medal for reigning. On 12 May 2011, she beat George III's record of 21,644 days, but she has some way to go to beat Queen Victoria (she'll have to continue until September 2015). What is beyond question – or record books – is that she has done more to humanise the monarchy than any King or Queen before.

The New Elizabethan Age coincided with the arrival of the Television Age, and has beamed her to billions around the world. But the Queen has spent 60 years putting herself about: traversing the globe, going walkabout in the Commonwealth and obscure Scottish farming communities, army barracks and Home Counties hospitals – meeting, chatting, smiling, enquiring, nodding, accepting millions of bouquets, being gracious, being queenly.

Her life is a relentless, unceasing meet-and-greet. She makes people feel bigger, prouder, bolder and more heroic from having the royal face (which can change, in a disconcerting instant, from grumpy scowl to dazzling smile) turn briefly to meet theirs. And when she isn't travelling, she's having people over to her place: not just heads of state, visiting royals, diplomatic missions and recipients of honours – including Fred Goodwin's, the Queen has dished out 404,500 honours and awards to beaming commoners in the course of her reign, and held more than 610 Investitures – but also the leading lights of professions or trades: lawyers, surgeons, artists, bankers, even journalists, invited to Buckingham Palace in their hundreds, because the Queen is interested in making contact with them as a body and assessing their collective identity.

What, though, of her own identity? In The Diamond Queen, one of several tie-in books published this spring, Andrew Marr makes the point that being "herself" is not an option. With foreign leaders, she offers small-talk "deliberately designed not to offend". If visitors talk politics, she pointedly suggests they chat about it to her foreign secretary. If controversial subjects arise, she uses the versatile royal silence to quell them. It doesn't mean she is herself bland. "She has strong views about people," says Marr. "It's just that her job means she has to hide [them]. Other people, celebrities and actors, are paid to have a 'personality'. She is required to downplay hers."

So what do we know about her? We know she was a quiet, thoughtful child who preferred horses to people. Constantly eclipsed by her vivacious sister Margaret, she was a shy teenager. "She didn't find social life at all easy," a young officer told the biographer Sarah Bradford. "I don't think she particularly enjoyed being a young girl... dances, all that sort of stuff. She quite enjoyed it once she could get going, but it didn't come absolutely naturally. She needed confidence." Everyone said she took after her father, King George, in being shy, dutiful and kind to people, with an additional calmness, reserve and inner toughness from the Queen Mother.

We know that she isn't a natural public speaker and still gets nervous before a microphone. We know she watched The King's Speech, "with interest and some pleasure", but not The Queen: she made a deal with Tony Blair that neither should watch Stephen Frears's film about their relationship. She favours Earl Grey tea, The Racing Post and wooden, rather than plastic, lavatory seats. She dislikes slow eaters, tedious talkers and unpunctuality. Not only is she herself never late, she never cancels an appointment; even when concerns were voiced over her trip to Ireland in May last year, there was never any question that it wouldn't go ahead.

She is famously non-intellectual – words like "nuance" and "dichotomy" are seldom, if ever, heard on her lips – but likes to be told things that are "interesting". The sleekly subversive dialogue ascribed to her by Alan Bennett in his play A Question of Attribution is widely held to be accurate. She can be acerbic, calling the famously pushy Princess Michael of Kent "far too grand for the likes of us". Talking to friends about her meetings with Cherie Blair (who famously refused to drop a curtsy), she said, "I can almost feel Mrs Blair's knees stiffening when I come in."

She has a charmingly playful side. When a past president of the Poetry Society turned the conversation to Rudyard Kipling, the Queen murmured, "Ah, yes, Kipling... exceedingly good poet." At a Palace garden party, a Birmingham businessman was nervously speaking to the Queen when his mobile phone rang inside his breast pocket. Conversation died as the "Mexican Hat Dance" warbled on. "Why don't you answer that?" the Queen dryly asked her mortified subject. "It might be someone important."

Exactly how important is she? She reigns but does not rule. She is powerless, but her influence is oceanic. Her weekly private audiences with prime ministers (she's had 12 from Winston Churchill to David Cameron) offer "friendliness rather than friendship", according to one source, but they have a serious effect. "She asks you well-informed and brilliant questions that make you think about the things you're doing," says Cameron. "I think you reveal, both to her but also to yourself, your deepest thinking and deepest worries... and sometimes that can really help you reach the answers."

It's in her foreign travels, and her role as super-ambassador, that her real importance now lies. Not just the myriad trading-partner trips organised for her by the Foreign Office, nor her travels to the 16 Commonwealth states whose constitutional Queen she is still. It's in her forging what seems like a genuinely close friendship with America (when the Obamas came to England, they were invited to stay at Buckingham Palace, as was expected. What was not expected was that the Queen would show them to their bedroom.)

It's in her visits to the Middle East, ostensibly to encourage investment from royal families there, but also to become part of the debate over the intentions of, say, Iran. It's in the hugely significant Irish visit – taking in landmarks of Irish suffering at the hands of the British from 1916-1921 – which encouraged both countries to "bow to the past but not be bound by it". The sight of this 85-year-old grandmother struggling to speak some words of Gaelic did more for Anglo-Irish relations in a minute than hours of diplomatic rhetoric.

As the Duke of Edinburgh reached his 90th birthday and suffered health scares, the Queen's subjects wondered how long she herself could keep going, with or without his company. If her mother's longevity is any guide, it could be 15 years, although few could seriously expect her to globetrot in her mid-nineties. But when she does leave the stage, it will seem like a wrench in the fabric of nature, a tilting of the world's axis. For through 60 years, from the aftermath of war to the digital dawn, she has been the nation's seraphic Holy Mother, serene, unflappable, concerned for our welfare, wryly amused by our follies.

"Have you come far?" she used to ask garden party guests. We have all come so far, our lives have changed so much, the monarchy has been rocked to its foundations, during her reign. But she has never changed. When Barack Obama called her "the best of England", he was inaccurate as to genealogy – but of course he was right.

A Life in Brief

Born: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, London, 21 April 1926.

Family: The eldest child of King George VI and Elizabeth, she had one sister, Margaret (who died in 2002). Married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in 1947; they have four children – Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward – and eight grandchildren.

Education: Educated privately at home.

Career: Became the British monarch and Head of the Commonwealth in 1952 after the death of her father.

She says: "Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements."

They say: "There's no question you can ask, and no point you can raise, that she won't already know about – and have a better opinion about." Prince William

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created