LONDON, UK (CBS) - This year marks the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the British throne. For over half a century, her majesty has reigned over the United Kingdom and its commonwealth realms with a sure and steady hand that has not only earned her the respect of her people, but has positioned the British monarchy for a future that now appears brighter than ever.
Born in London on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary wasn't supposed to be queen. But when her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated to wed American divorcee Wallace Simpson, 10-year-old Elizabeth suddenly became heir apparent to the British throne. In King Edwards VIII's abdication speech, he says, "I have found it impossible to carry the heavy responsibility without the help and support of the woman that I love."
On her 21st birthday the princess affirmed her commitment to public life. She said in her address in 1947, "I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service."
In 1947, Princess Elizabeth married Phillip Mountbatten, launching a partnership that has carried her throughout her reign. Editor of The Lady Rachel Johnson says, "it was a real romance at the very beginning, they were deeply in love, she's never looked at another man."
Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation was the first major international event to be televised. Opening up the pageantry and the splendor of the centuries-old ceremony to the world and also opening up the monarchy to increased scrutiny. British historian David Starkey says, "Elizabeth has been an absolute rock, a fixed point in the history of the monarchy. She has kept it going, but she's also been an obstacle to any kind of change."
One of the biggest changes to come under her reign: divorce. Johnson says, "As soon as she became Queen, there wasn't the same room for family, for social life, and for being a normal wife."
Starkey says, "The Windsor's of the middle decades of the 20th century were, as it were, totally wedded to the idea of the royal family. Divorce was impossible, but finally like most women with families, they accommodate themselves."
In 1992, the Queen's sons both separated and her daughter divorced. That same year a devastating fire ravaged Windsor Castle on her 45th wedding anniversary.
Capping off a year the Queen said she would rather forget. In her 40th anniversary of ascension address in 1992, the Queen said, "1992 is not a year which I shall look back on with undiluted pleasure."
But one of the Queen's greatest challenges was still to come, on the heels of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's very public, and dramatic divorce, Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997.
Diana's death inspired an outpouring of love for the princess and backlash for the Queen who remained silent for days before finally addressing the nation. She said, "I want to pay tribute to Diana myself. She was an exceptional and gifted human being."
Since then, the Queen's image has slowly shifted. Now, the nations' grand-matriarch, she has a seemingly softer approach.
In 2005, the Queen surprised many when she gave her blessing to the marriage of Prince Charles and his one-time mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles.
And in the year since the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Queen seems to be sharing some of her spotlight with a new generation of royals while continuing to make history as she did during last year's monumental visit to Ireland, the first by a British monarch in a century. In her speech in Ireland, she said, "That no one who look to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are in no place between our two nations."
After 60 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth is clearly not slowing down. Johnson says, "The Queen is driven by duty. This is her overriding mission, and it goes beyond her family, beyond her own comfort and I think even beyond her own marriage."