‘Queen Elizabeth II’s tours weren’t about leaders, but people’: Celebrating 70 years of royal foreign visits

In her reign, the Queen has travelled more than a million miles and visited 117 countries

Queen Elizabeth II meets the crowds during her royal tour of New Zealand, 1977. (Photo by Serge Lemoine/Getty Images)

Given that she has travelled more widely than probably anyone else on earth, it’s ironic that the Queen doesn’t actually own a passport. The British travel document is issued in her name, so she’s never needed one. But, if she did have a passport tucked away in her handbag, its pages would be covered in stamps from immigration offices as far apart as Tonga in the South Seas, Belize in Central America and of course dozens from Canada, New Zealand and Australia – where she remains as much their Queen as ours.

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When the Queen gave up overseas travel after her visit to Malta in 2015, she had flown the equivalent of 42 times around the globe – 1,032,513 miles, if you must know – and visited 117 different countries.

That last visit to Malta was a fitting end to a reign dedicated to travelling the world, as the Mediterranean island has always held a special place in her heart. She lived on the island for several months between 1949 and 1951 when Prince Philip was posted there with the Royal Navy. And of course her reign began on foreign soil, in Kenya, where she was told of the death of her beloved father, King George VI. Since then, she has watched the British Empire fall and subsequently helped the newly formed Commonwealth to grow.

That the family of 53 countries that make up the Commonwealth is in a healthy shape is in no small part down to the affection the Queen has shown it and the attention she has given it throughout her reign. In 1953, fresh from her coronation at Westminster Abbey, the young Elizabeth showed that she intended to be a Queen of the world. Her six-month tour with the Duke of Edinburgh took in 12 Commonwealth countries and her Christmas broadcast that year was recorded in Auckland in New Zealand. “I set out on this journey in order to see as much as possible of the people and countries of the Commonwealth and Empire,” she said. “I want to show that the Crown is not merely an abstract symbol of our unity but a personal and living bond between you and me.”

And since then she’s visited every Commonwealth country with the exception of Rwanda and Cameroon – both of which joined in more recent years. Her busiest decade was the 1970s and Canada has been the most frequently visited country (27 times if you include the stops for her plane to refuel). Australia is not far behind on 16 visits.

But the Queen hasn’t neglected the smaller members of the Commonwealth family. The tiny island nation of Nauru is not an easy place to visit. With 11,000 people living on its eight-square miles, Nauru in the Pacific Ocean is the world’s smallest island country.

And yet, had you gone there in October 1982, you would have seen a beaming Queen Elizabeth in a blue and white dress meeting children on the dockside. Nauru joined the Commonwealth in 1968 and the Queen decided this country, like many other member states, deserved a visit from the organisation’s head. “I always felt that the Queen enjoys travel,” says Charles Anson, who accompanied the Queen abroad as her Press Secretary during the 90s. He says it’s because “she is genuinely curious about people, their different cultures, traditions and quirks”.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 01: The Queen Reviewing Troops On Her Arrival In Brisbane, Australia (exact Date Not Certain) During Her Jubilee Tour In February & March 1977 (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 01: The Queen Reviewing Troops On Her Arrival In Brisbane, Australia (exact Date Not Certain) During Her Jubilee Tour In February & March 1977 (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

That means she has been to places, inside and outside the Commonwealth, to which no member of the British royal family could go now. You couldn’t imagine the Queen going on tour in Libya, for example, or Iran or Yemen. But in 1954, the Queen could be found on the streets of Tobruk on Libya’s eastern coast. She was also in Aden (now Yemen) in the same year when it was still a British colony. And a visit to Tehran was ticked off in 1961, long before Iran became an Islamic Republic.

The second Elizabethan era has been such a long one the Queen has witnessed countries change and seen many world leaders come and go. Harry Truman was the President of the United States when she became Queen. After she welcomed Donald Trump to Windsor Castle in July, he became the 12th occupant of the White House to meet our monarch.

The most well-known royal photographer of recent times, Arthur Edwards of The Sun, has looked through his lens many times as the Queen travelled the world to meet leaders of state and church alike. He recalls the moment at the Vatican in 2000 when the Queen, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, met Pope John Paul II, the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.

It wasn’t their first meeting – they’d met twice in the 1980s – but on this occasion the pontiff was frail and struggled to talk. “The Queen took complete control of the situation,” Edwards says. For the press who were at the Vatican that day, the Pope’s words were barely audible but “she repeated them loudly”, Edwards remembers, “so we could all hear them.”

Another significant moment came with Nelson Mandela at a Commonwealth heads of government summit in 1991 in South Africa, a year after his release from prison. He would not become the country’s president until 1994, but the Queen’s relationship with Mandela –some say it was better described as a friendship – began with a mix-up at the formal banquet for the Commonwealth leaders. Mandela was not on the guest list as he wasn’t a head of government at the time, but the Queen decided he should be at the dinner anyway.

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According to Press Secretary Anson, “they clicked right away” because they both shared a deeply held belief that societies should be multiracial. Anson adds: “I remember they talked about the way international sport, and the televising of it, had helped to break down barriers between people of different races all over the world.”

In fact, the relationship between the two was so warm, Mandela could say things other leaders couldn’t. “He was the only leader whom I recall sometimes calling the Queen by her first name in private conversations,” remembers Anson. “And it seemed totally natural.” The Queen returned to South Africa in 1995 as a guest of President Mandela, and he was invited to Buckingham Palace the following year. For a Queen who has steadfastly avoided politics all her life, she has had quite an influence on the world’s politicians. When another African leader, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, wanted to leave the Commonwealth in 1961 in favour of stronger ties with the Soviet Union, she visited despite the threat of bombs in the capital. Not only did she visit but she also danced. The tour provided one of the most memorable images of all: the Queen foxtrotting with President Nkrumah at a ball in Accra. The President kept Ghana in the Commonwealth.

But her tours were not all about world leaders and big summits. They were primarily about people. And for the Queen who once said “I have to be seen to be believed,” she chose to travel, where possible, in the most visually accessible way. Not just open-top cars and jeeps but sometimes by canoe. In Tuvalu in 1982, she was carried aloft in a war canoe through the streets of one of the coral atolls that make up the South Pacific nation. In fact, the royal walkabout we recognise today was invented by the Queen in 1970 on another tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh (behind) wearing formal dress as they leave City Hall following a Civic Ball, Hobart, circa 1954. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh (behind) wearing formal dress as they leave City Hall following a Civic Ball, Hobart, circa 1954. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Where she led, her family has followed and those walkabouts are today in the royal tour rulebook for every member of the royal family. Of course, sometimes security can prevent the Queen from meeting the people who have come to see her. It was the case in Ireland in May 2011. But, despite her limited movements, the visit of a British monarch to the Irish Republic will be remembered by that nation and this one for many years.

“A Uachtaráin agus a chairde,” she said in Gaelic at the start of her speech in Dublin Castle, which translates as “President and friends…” It was a gesture of reconciliation that went a very long way. The Queen said: “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

The day before she had stood next to the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and the two women laid wreaths at the Garden of Remembrance where Ireland honours those killed fighting against the British.

“The Queen is perhaps the best example of soft power at work,” says Anson. And Edwards, who was in Dublin that night, remembers the tour well. “It gave me goose bumps that one,” he says. “It’s the best visit I’ve ever done with the Queen and you could almost feel the two countries move forward in that moment.”

In 1947, on her 21st birthday in Cape Town, the then Princess Elizabeth declared that she would devote her whole life “whether it be long or short” to the service of the Commonwealth. On her wedding day later that year, she had the symbols of the then eight Commonwealth countries sewn into her wedding gown. More than 70 years later, Meghan Markle arrived at St George’s Chapel in Windsor to marry Prince Harry with the national flowers of all 53 members of the Commonwealth embroidered into her veil.

It was a sign that she and Harry – together with the younger generation of royals – intend to carry on their grandmother’s good work right across the Commonwealth now the Queen no longer travels the world.

Chris Ship is ITV’s royal editor

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