Since news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death aged 96 on 8 September at Balmoral, we have paused to reflect on her 70-year reign and her role as New Zealand’s head of state. Her life spanned significant and tumultuous global times. She has been widely lauded for her dignity, grace and steadying international presence; despite personal loss, the pressures of scandal and changing attitudes towards the monarchy.
Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on 21 April 1926 at her maternal grandparents’ home in Mayfair, London. She was not expected to accede to the throne, however, due to the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, and the subsequent coronation of her father as King George VI in 1936, the course her life would take changed dramatically.
In 1952, at the age of just 25 years, Elizabeth acceded to the throne after the sudden death of her father following a lung operation. In this post WWII period of patriotic loyalty to Britain and huge interest in the Royal family, her coronation on 2 June 1953 was an event celebrated in many parts of the Commonwealth. Ōhinehou Lyttelton was by no means alone in setting up an elaborate coronation arch and hosting a parade thronged by flag-waving enthusiasts charmed by the youthful and vibrant monarch.
The new Queen, with her husband and consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited New Zealand in the summer of 1953-1954, one of 10 trips she would make here over her lifetime. In the words of former Prime Minister David Lange, reflecting in 2005 on that tour, ‘They were greeted with a frenzy which is hard to imagine today. The enthusiasm of the public was near-universal and certainly demonstrative.’
This 1954 collection photograph of Queen Elizabeth meeting the Australian Governor General, Field Marshal The Viscount Slim (known as Bill Slim!) was taken at Duntroon, Canberra, home to the Royal Military College of Australia, which she visited on four occasions. The inscription on the back of the photo includes ‘for the interest of the ladies, her dress was emerald green’. The Coronation cup pictured was someone’s well-used royal souvenir of the 1953-1954 visit – a practice no doubt being repeated in London during this period of official mourning and the state funeral at Westminster Abbey on 19 September.
In retrospect, despite the outpouring of public affection during the 1953-1954 tour, arrangements did marginalise Māori protocol and ceremony, as evidenced by brief visits at Waitangi, Rotorua and Tūrangawaewae, the marae of King Korokī at Ngāruawāhia. From the 1960s, which featured a growing Māori renaissance and reinterpretation of the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi, there were numbers of occasions when activists used opportunities such as the 1990 Waitangi events (at which the Queen was present), to challenge old ideas of assimilation and conformity.
In 1995, Waikato-Tainui were one of the first iwi to agree to a settlement under the Treaty Settlement process. The Queen herself signed the Deed of Settlement, a task usually undertaken by the Governor General; in addition it was the first time she signed a law in public. In the presence of the Māori Queen, Te Arikinui, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, she delivered the Crown's historic apology. It was during this visit that she was first referred to as Te Kōtuku. The kōtuku or white heron is rarely seen away from its nesting area; if the bird is sighted it is considered a once in a lifetime encounter, he tohu pai, a good omen.