The Murderer Who Helped Make the Oxford English Dictionary

Composite via iStock
Composite via iStock

William Chester Minor opened his eyes and gazed sleepily at the figure of a man looming over the foot of his bed. The intruder, who had been hiding in Minor’s attic during daylight, had slithered from the rafters, crept into the bedroom, and now, under the dark of night, was watching Minor as he dreamed. In his hands, the faceless man held metal biscuits slathered in poison.

The next morning, Minor woke up unscathed and found no trace of the intruder’s shenanigans. He checked his closet and crawled on his knees to look under his bed. Nobody was there. But that night, the trespasser returned. And the next night. And the next. Each night, Minor laid in his bed frozen with fright.

By 1871, Minor needed a vacation. He left his lodgings in Connecticut and sailed for London in search of peace of mind and a good night’s sleep.

His harassers followed.

In fact, moving to England only placed Minor closer to his tormentors. Most, if not all, of the trespassers had been Irishmen, members of an Irish nationalist group called the Fenian Brotherhood that was not only hell-bent on ending British rule, but was equally hell-bent on exacting revenge on Minor. Minor envisioned these Irish rebels huddling under the cover of gaslit streets, whispering plans of torture and poisoning.

On multiple occasions, Minor visited Scotland Yard to report the break-ins to the police. The detectives would politely nod and scribble something down, but when nothing changed, Minor decided to handle the problem himself: He tucked a loaded pistol, a Colt .38, under his pillow.

On February 17, 1872, Minor woke to see the shadow of a man standing in his bedroom. This time, he did not lay still. He reached for his gun and watched the man bolt for the door. Minor threw off his blankets and sprinted outside with his weapon.

It was about two in the morning. It was cold. The streets were slick with dew. Minor looked down the road and saw a man walking.

Three or four gunshots broke the night’s silence. Blood pooled across the Lambeth cobblestones.

The man whose neck gushed with blood was not Minor’s intruder. His name was George Merrett; he was a father and a husband, and he had been walking to work at the Red Lion Brewery, where he stoked coal every night. Moments after police arrived at the scene, Merrett was a corpse and William Minor a murderer.

Minor explained to the cops that he had done nothing illegal: Somebody had broken into his room and he merely defended himself from an attack. Was that so wrong?

He did not know that, despite his sincerely-held beliefs, there had never been any intruders. Nobody had ever broken into his rooms or hidden in his ceilings or under his bed. The Irishmen, the plots, the poison—all of it had been imagined; none of it was real. George Merrett, however, was very much real. And now very much dead.

Seven weeks later, a court found William C. Minor, 37, not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Once a respected army surgeon who saved lives, he had suddenly been rejected as a deluded lunatic who took lives. He was sentenced to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmoor.

An 1867 illustration of the "Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor."
An 1867 illustration of the "Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor."
Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

One of England’s newest asylums, Broadmoor had already held a crew of tragically deluded criminal figures: There was Edward Oxford, who had attempted to shoot a pregnant Queen Victoria; Richard Dadd, a talented painter who had committed parricide, wanted to murder Pope Gregory XVI, and only consumed eggs and beer; and Christiana Edmunds—a.k.a. the “Chocolate Cream Killer”—a 19th century sweet-toothed spinoff of the Unabomber who, instead of packing up explosives, mailed her victims poisoned fruits and baked goods.

For many patients, getting institutionalized at an asylum such as Broadmoor marked the end of their useful lives. But not Minor. From the solitude of his cell in Broadmoor’s Cell Block Two, he’d become the most productive and successful outside contributor to the most comprehensive reference book in the English language: The Oxford English Dictionary.

 
 

There was a time when William C. Minor did not see phantoms lurking in his bedroom, a time when he did not soothe his paranoia with the reassurance of a loaded pistol. He had been a promising Yale-trained surgeon who loved to read, paint watercolors, and play the flute. That began to change, however, in 1864, when he visited the front lines of the American Civil War.

The Battle of the Wilderness may not have been the most famous or decisive battle of the war, but it was one of the most haunting to witness. Soldiers did more than bleed there—they burned.

The battle, as the name suggests, was not fought on scenic horizon-hugging farmland but in the dense, tangled undergrowth of a Virginia forest. On May 4, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army crossed the Rapidan River near Fredericksburg and encountered Confederate troops commanded by General Robert E. Lee. The belligerents exchanged fire. Smoke rose over the tree branches as dead leaves and thick underbrush smoldered and blazed.

A painting of the Battle of Wilderness.
By Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Soldiers who survived the battle would describe the forest fire in vivid detail. “The blaze ran sparkling and crackling up the trunks of the pines, till they stood a pillar of fire from base to topmost spray,” wrote one soldier from Maine [PDF]. “Then they wavered and fell, throwing up showers of gleaming sparks, while over all hung the thick clouds of dark smoke, reddened beneath by the glare of flames.”

“Ammunition trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration,” wrote then-Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter. “[T]he wounded roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing.”

More than 3500 people died. Minor had experience treating soldiers, but the Battle of the Wilderness was the first time he had seen patients fresh from combat. There were 28,000 total casualties; many of them were Irish immigrants. The famous Irish Brigade, widely considered among the army’s most fearless soldiers, was a primary combatant, and it’s likely that Dr. Minor treated some of its members.

But, as his family later insisted, it was Minor’s experience with one Irish deserter that would break his brain.

During the Civil War, the punishment for desertion was, technically, death. But the army usually treated deserters with a lighter punishment that was both temporarily painful and permanently shameful. During the Battle of the Wilderness, that punishment was branding: The letter D was to be burned into every coward’s cheek.

For some reason—perhaps a weird twist of wartime logic that suggested such a punishment was akin to a medical procedure—it fell to the doctor to carry out the branding. So, Minor was forced to thrust an orange-glowing branding iron into the cheek of an Irish soldier. According to court testimony, the horrific event shook Minor deeply.

If branding a man did make Minor snap, his mental illness fomented under the guise of normalcy. For two years, the doctor continued helping patients with great success—enough, in fact, to be promoted to captain. Then, around 1866, he began showing the first signs of paranoia while working on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. After a group of crooks mugged and killed one of his fellow officers in Manhattan, Dr. Minor began carrying his military-provided handgun into the city. He also began acting on an uncontrollable urge for sex, slinking into brothels every night.

Minor had long been plagued by “lascivious thoughts.” The son of conservative missionaries and members of the Congregationalist Church, he had long felt guilty and anxious about what was, most likely, a sex addiction. The more people he slept with in New York—and the more venereal infections he developed—the more he began to look over his shoulder.

The army noticed. Around 1867, Dr. Minor was deliberately sent from the bordellos of New York to a remote fort in Florida. But it did not help his paranoia. It grew worse. He grew suspicious of other soldiers, and at one point, he challenged his best friend to a duel. Sunstroke made his mental state deteriorate further. In September, 1868, a doctor diagnosed him with monomania. One year later, another physician wrote, “The disturbance of the cerebral functions is ever more marked.” In 1870, the army discharged him and handed him a handsome pension.

With that money, Minor would buy a ticket to London, pay for rent and prostitutes, and ultimately buy rare and antiquarian books that would be shipped to his cell at Broadmoor, where he would eventually take a special interest in the development of what would become the world’s leading dictionary.

 
 

The Oxford English Dictionary is not your everyday dictionary. Unlike the official dictionary of the French language, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, it’s not prone to finger-wagging, stuffily dictating what is and is not acceptable language. The OED simply describes words as they exist, from street slang to labcoat jargon. If a word has made a dent somewhere in an English-speaking culture, it is included.

Unlike your stereotypical glossary, which presents the current usage and meaning of a word, the OED tracks the word’s evolution: when it entered the language, how its spellings and pronunciations changed over time, when new shades of meaning emerged.

Take a word as mundane as apple. The OED lists 12 main definitions, and a total of 22 different “senses” (that is, shades of meaning). It traces the meaning we all recognize—apple as in fruit—to an Early Old English book called Bald’s Leechbk, where it’s spelled æppla. But the OED also tracks definitions for apple that other dictionaries might neglect: the tree itself (first appearing in 1500), or the wood of that tree (in 1815), or a gall on the stem of an unrelated plant (in 1668), a lump in somebody’s throat (in 1895), or a baseball (in 1902), or a shade of green (in 1923), or “all right” in New Zealand (in 1943), or the pupil of your eye (in the 9th century), or as a synonym for “guy” (in 1928), or a derogatory term for a Native American who has adopted white culture (in 1970). The dictionary even shows defunct meanings (from 1577 to the early 1800s, the word apple could be applied to any "fleshy Vessel" full of seeds). It’s also been used as a verb.

Each definition is supported with quotations, sentences from books and newspapers and magazines that show the word being used in that manner. Each definition has lists of quotations, listed in chronological order so that readers can see how that particular meaning of the word evolved.

Simon Winchester, in his brilliant best-selling book about William Minor’s contributions to the OED, The Professor and the Madman, explains the innovation beautifully: “The OED’s guiding principle, the one that has set it apart from most other dictionaries, is its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or otherwise recorded uses of English and using them to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language. The reason behind this unusual and tremendously labor-intensive style of editing and compiling was both bold and simple: By gathering and publishing selected quotations, the dictionary could demonstrate the full range of characteristics of each and every word with a very great degree of precision.”

Scouring obscure books for quotations of every word in the English language is no easy feat. It requires the help of hundreds of volunteers. In 1858, when the project was launched, the dictionary’s editors published a general request asking for volunteers to read books and mail in sentences that illuminated the meaning of a word, any word. Subeditors would sift through these slips and do the tedious job of reviewing these quotations and, if accepted, organizing them under the appropriate definition.

Quotation for "Ahoy"
A quotation slip for the word "Ahoy"

The first attempt was a mess. Readers mailed more than two tons of suggestions, but the slips were poorly organized. (As one tale goes, all the words under the entire letter F or H were accidentally lost in Florence, Italy.) After 20 years, volunteer enthusiasm had dwindled and the project had lost momentum under the weight of its own ambitions. It wasn’t until Dr. James Murray, a philologist, took over that the modern OED began taking shape.

Murray was in all respects a linguistic genius. He knew in varying degrees Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin, Dutch, German, Flemish and Danish; he had a grasp of Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal, Celtic, Slavonic, Russian, Persian, Achaemenid Cuneiform, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Syriac; he also knew his way around Aramaic Arabic, Coptic, and Phoenician. (Among these talents, Murray was also expert on the sheep-counting methods of Yorkshire farmers and the Wawenock Indians of Maine.)

In 1879, Murray published a new appeal to magazines and newspapers asking the “English-Speaking and English-Reading Public” for volunteers. He laid out exactly what they needed.

“In the Early English period up to the invention of Printing so much has been done and is doing that little outside help is needed. But few of the earliest printed books–those of Caxton and his successors–have yet been read, and any one who has the opportunity and time to read one or more of these, either in originals, or accurate reprints, will confer valuable assistance by so doing. The later sixteenth-century literature is very fairly done; yet here several books remain to be read. The seventeenth century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory. The nineteenth century books, being within the reach of every one, have been read widely: but a large number remain unrepresented, not only of those published during the last ten years, while the Dictionary has been in abeyance, but also of earlier date. But it is in the eighteenth century above all that help is urgently needed.”

In late 1879, William C. Minor, who had now been institutionalized at Broadmoor for over seven years, likely picked up his subscription of The Athenaeum Journal and read one of Murray’s requests. Minor looked around his cell. Towering to the ceiling were piles upon piles of books, obscure travel treatises published during the early 1600s such as A Relation of a Journey begun 1610 and Geographical Historie of Africa.

He cracked open a book and began his life’s work.

 
 

With sunlight came stability. Minor, with his long, tousled white beard, spent daylight hours reading and painting watercolors. He resembled a haggard Claude Monet impersonator. He spoke coherently and intelligently and, by all outward appearances, seemed to be in control of his thoughts and actions. He gave inmates flute lessons. He even grew remorseful for the murder he committed and apologized to George Merrett’s widow. He was at times obstinate—he once refused to step indoors during a snowstorm, barking at his attendants, “I am allowed to go out and can choose my own weather!”—but was otherwise the ideal inmate.

But at night, he was a disaster. He felt the gaze of young boys watching him, heard their footsteps as they prepared to smother his face with chloroform. He watched helplessly as interlopers barged into his room, shoved funnels into his mouth, and poured chemicals down his throat. He complained that invaders entered with knives and unspecified instruments of torture and operated on his heart. Others forced him into sordid acts of depravity. At one point, his harassers kidnapped him and carted him all the way to Constantinople, where they publicly tried to, in Minor’s words, “make a pimp of me!”

Minor tried to stop them. He barricaded his door with chairs and desks. He fashioned traps, tying a string to the doorknob and connecting it to a piece furniture (the logic being that if somebody cracked opened the door, the furniture would screech across the floor and act like a booby-trapped burglar alarm). He subscribed to engineering journals, possibly in hopes for better construction advice. But none of this helped his condition. One of Broadmoor’s doctors described him as “abundantly insane.”

The one and only object that likely occupied more space in Minor’s mind than his nighttime harassers was the Oxford English Dictionary. Not only did the job of curating quotations provide him a semblance of peace, it also offered him a chance at a different kind of redemption.

This was not, it turns out, the first time Minor had contributed to a major reference book. Back in 1861, when he was a first-year medical student at Yale, Minor had helped contribute to the Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language. Guided by Yale scholars, the book was the first major English dictionary edited by a team of trained lexicographers, and the 114,000-word edition published in 1864 would become the world’s largest mass-produced book at the time. Minor had assisted a professor of natural history, but when that professor became ill, the green medical student effectively took over. He was in way over his head. He made sloppy mistakes, prompting one critic to call Minor’s contributions “the weakest part of the book.”

The Oxford English Dictionary was a chance to make amends, and Minor took to the task with the zeal of a man who had nothing but time.

The editors of the dictionary had advised volunteers like Minor to focus on rare or colorful terms, eye-grabbing words like baboon or blubber or hubbub, and to ignore grammatical filler like and, of, or the. But many volunteers, eager to impress the philologists at Oxford, took the directions too far: They supplied more quotations for abstruse words such as, well, abstruse and few quotations for simple words such as, say, simple. The omissions frustrated Murray, who complained, “My editors have to search for precious hours for quotations for examples of ordinary words, which readers disregarded, thinking them not worthy of including.”

It didn’t help that the editors could never predict what would come through the door. Each day, they had to sift through and organize hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unexpected quotations. But Minor did not mail in quotations at random. What made him so good, so prolific, was his method: Instead of copying quotations willy-nilly, he’d flip through his library and make a word list for each individual book, indexing the location of nearly every word he saw. These catalogues effectively transformed Minor into a living, breathing search engine. He simply had to reach out to the Oxford editors and ask: So, what words do you need help with?

If the editors, for example, needed help finding quotations for the term sesquipedalia—a long word that means “very long words”—Minor could review his indexes and discover that sesquipedalia was located on page 339 of Elocution, on page 98 of Familiar Dialogues and Popular Discussions, on page 144 of Burlesque Plays and Poems, and so on. He could flip to these pages and then jot down the appropriate quotations.

Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
Minor's index for 1687 book The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant, which includes keywords such as acacia and dance.
Image courtesy of Oxford University Press and Simon Winchester. Reproduced by permission of the Minor family.

Oxford’s first request, however, was less exotic: It was art. The editors had discovered 16 meanings but were convinced more existed. When Minor searched his indexes, he found 27. The Oxford staff was overjoyed. As Winchester writes, “They knew now that down at this mysteriously anonymous address in Crowthorne, in all probability they had on tap, as it were, a supply of fully indexed words together with their association, citations, and quotations.” They made Minor the team’s go-to resource for troublesome words.

For the rest of the 1890s, Minor would send as many as 20 quotations a day to the subeditors in Oxford. His submissions had a ridiculously high acceptance rate; so high, in fact, that in the OED’s first volume—then called A New English Dictionary, published in 1888—James Murray added a line of thanks to “Dr. W. C. Minor, Crowthorne.”

Murray, however, had no idea about his contributor’s identity. “I never gave a thought to who Minor might be,” he said. “I thought he was either a practicing medical man of literary tastes with a good deal of leisure, or perhaps a retired medical man or surgeon who had no other work.”

In 1891, the two exchanged personal letters and agreed to meet at Broadmoor. When Murray arrived, any surprise upon seeing his top contributor confined inside an insane asylum appears to have quickly worn off: The two sat and talked in Minor’s cell for hours.

Murray would write, “[I] found him, as far as I could see, as sane as myself.”

 
 

It was a cool December morning when William C. Minor cut off his penis.

Unlike other patients at Broadmoor, Minor had been permitted to carry a pen knife in his pocket, which he had once used to cut the bound pages of his old first edition books. But it had been years since he had last put it to use, and, on a breezy day in 1902, Minor sharpened the blade, tightened a tourniquet around the base of his penis, and performed what the medical community might delicately describe as an autopeotomy.

It took one swift motion of the wrist. With his member dismembered, Minor calmly ambled downstairs to the gate of Block 2 and hollered for an attendant. “You had better send for the Medical Officer at once!” he yelled. “I have injured myself!”

The attendants were afraid something terrible like this could happen. Over the previous years, Minor had grown increasingly religious—a harmless development on its own—but his reawakened spirituality manifested itself in the most unfruitful ways: His insatiable sexual appetite, his shamefully libidinous past, and the sexually abusive specters that bedeviled him at nightfall had filled him with relentless guilt. “He believed there had been a complete saturation of his entire being with the lasciviousness of over 20 years, during which time he had relations with thousands of nude women, night after night…” reads Minor’s medical file. “But when he became Christianized he saw that he must sever himself from the lascivious life that he had been leading.”

Sever indeed.

Minor’s self-surgery did not make the nightly phantasms any less common, nor did it make his sexual urges any less intense. Before the incident, he had claimed that his visitors were forcing him to have sex with hundreds of women “from Reading to Land’s End,” and afterwards, he continued complaining of unwanted harassers. It was around this time, as Minor recuperated in the infirmary, that he stopped contributing to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the following years, Minor and Murray continued corresponding and remained warm acquaintances. In 1905, while Murray was on a trip to the Cape of Good Hope, Minor sent his devoted editor money to cover expenses. Five years later, Murray returned the favor by joining an effort to return the deteriorating man back to the United States. It worked. In 1910, after more than three decades at Broadmoor, Minor was transported back to an asylum in America. When he died 10 years later, in 1920, no obituary would mention his achievements. But you didn’t have to look very far to find them: All you had to do was crack open the pages of an Oxford dictionary.

In the preface of the fifth volume of the OED, James Murray published this word of thanks: “Second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall [one of the OED’s earliest major contributors], in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases, and constructions, have been those of Dr. W. C. Minor, received week by week for words at which we are actually working.”

Elsewhere, Murray wrote: “The supreme position is … certainly held by Dr. W. C. Minor of Broadmoor, who during the past two years has sent in no less than 12,000 quots [sic] …. So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last 4 centuries from his quotations alone.”

Indeed, it’s hard to fathom the magnitude of Minor’s contributions. He provided material for entries as obscure as dhobi and as common as dirt. Today, the OED calls itself the “definitive record of the English language,” and it defines more than 300,000 words (more than half a million if you count word combinations and derivatives). It remains the authoritative reference for courtrooms, policy-makers, and etymology-nerds alike; linguists respect it as the barometer of where the language has been and where it may be going. Much of that credit goes to Minor.

Today, the stacks of books that he so preciously consulted are tucked away in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At least 42 of his famed word indexes are protected inside the vaunted archives of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The words contained within are much like the man himself.

Minor was a surgeon, a veteran, and a murderer. He was a Yalie, a painter, and a danger to others. He was a sex addict, a reformed deist, and (most likely) a paranoid schizophrenic. The defining features of Minor’s character—what his life meant—shifted with time and could never be reduced to one single identification.

But it’d be nice to think that one definition would be crowned at the top of the page: “Greatest outside contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.”

25 Regal Facts About Queen Elizabeth II

Jane Barlow, Pool/Getty Images
Jane Barlow, Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her 93rd birthday—and her first of two official birthdays. Though millions of words have been written about the world's longest-reigning monarch, few people know the woman behind the crown, or even what her daily duties entail. In honor of Her Majesty, here are some things you might not know about this royal legend, and why it's good to be the Queen.

1. She wasn't born an heir apparent to the throne.

The Queen Elizabeth (3rd-L, future Queen Mother), her daughter Princess Elizabeth (4th-L, future Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Mary (C) , Princess Margaret (5th-L) and the King George VI (R), pose at the balcony of the Buckingham Palace in December 1945.
The Queen Elizabeth (3rd-L, future Queen Mother), her daughter Princess Elizabeth (4th-L, future Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Mary (C) , Princess Margaret (5th-L) and the King George VI (R), pose at the balcony of the Buckingham Palace in December 1945.
AFP, Getty Images

For the first 10 years of her life, Princess Elizabeth was a relatively minor royal—her status was akin to Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York today—but that all changed with the death of her grandfather, King George V, in 1936.

The next in the line of royal succession was Elizabeth's uncle, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne less than a year after taking it so that he could marry an American socialite named Wallis Simpson. Edward didn't have any children at the time, so his brother Albert (Elizabeth’s father) ascended to the throne, taking the name George VI and making the then-10-year-old Elizabeth the first in line to become Queen.

2. Her younger sister gave her a family nickname.

Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth in 1933.
Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth in 1933.
AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth and Margaret were the only children of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and King George VI, who said of his daughters: "Lilibet is my pride, Margaret my joy." "Lilibet," of course, is Elizabeth, who earned her nickname because Margaret—whom the family affectionately called Margot—constantly mispronounced her big sister’s name.

3. She didn't go to school.

Princesses Elizabeth (right) and Margaret at Waterloo Station, London, 1939.
Princesses Elizabeth (right) and Margaret at Waterloo Station, London, 1939.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Heirs apparent don’t just show up to primary school like normal kids. Instead, Elizabeth was tutored at home during sessions by different teachers like Henry Marten, vice-provost of Eton College (which is still for boys only), and was also given private religion lessons by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

4. But she and Margaret technically did have a teacher.

Stamps from 1937 featuring Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, The Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey, The Coronation Coach, The Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to commemorate the King's Coronation.
Stamps from 1937 featuring Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, The Coronation Chair, Westminster Abbey, The Coronation Coach, The Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to commemorate the King's Coronation.
London Express, Getty Images

Just because she didn't attend school doesn't mean that Elizabeth didn't receive an education. She received the bulk of it through her nanny, Marion Crawford, who the royal family referred to as "Crawfie." Crawford would eventually be ostracized by the royal family for writing a tell-all book in 1953 called The Little Princesses without their permission; the book recounted Crawford's experiences with Elizabeth during her younger days.

5. She wanted to go to war, but was too young.

Queen consort Elizabeth holds Princess Margaret's hand as Princess Elizabeth follows, in 1936.
Queen consort Elizabeth holds Princess Margaret's hand as Princess Elizabeth follows, in 1936.
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When World War II broke out in 1939, Elizabeth—then just a teenager—begged her father to join the effort somehow. She started out by making radio broadcasts geared toward raising the morale of British children. During one of the broadcasts, the 14-year-old princess reassured listeners, "I can truthfully say to you all that we children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage. We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers, and airmen and we are trying too to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war."

6. She eventually served in World War II.

Princess Elizabeth changing the tire of a vehicle as she trains at as ATS Officer during World War II in April 1945.
Princess Elizabeth changing the tire of a vehicle as she trains at as ATS Officer during World War II in April 1945.
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite the risks, Elizabeth eventually joined the women's Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a truck driver and mechanic in 1945, when she was 18 years old.

Queen Elizabeth remains the only female royal family member to have entered the armed forces, and is currently the only living head of state who officially served in World War II.

7. She celebrated the end of the war by partying like her subjects.

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1947.
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1947.
William Vanderson, Fox Photos/Getty Images

When then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that the war in Europe was over on May 8, 1945, people poured out into the streets of London to celebrate—including Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The sheltered duo were allowed to sneak out of Buckingham Palace to join the revelers at their father's behest.

"It was a unique burst of personal freedom," recalled Margaret Rhodes, their cousin who went with them, "a Cinderella moment in reverse."

8. She married her cousin.

Then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, following their wedding ceremony in November 1947.
Then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, following their wedding ceremony in November 1947.
AFP, Getty Images

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth are third cousins; both share the same great-great-grandparents: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

9. Elizabeth and her husband have known each other since childhood.

A family portrait in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace on the wedding day of Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on November 20, 1947.
A family portrait in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace on the wedding day of Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on November 20, 1947.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Philip, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, first met Elizabeth when she was only 8 years old and he was 14. Both attended the wedding of Princess Marina of Greece (Prince Philip's cousin) and Prince George, the Duke of Kent (Elizabeth’s uncle).

Five years later the pair met again when George VI brought Elizabeth to tour the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, where Philip was a cadet. In a personal note, Elizabeth recalled falling for the young soldier-in-the-making: "I was 13 years of age and he was 18 and a cadet just due to leave. He joined the Navy at the outbreak of war, and I only saw him very occasionally when he was on leave—I suppose about twice in three years," she wrote. "Then when his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, were away he spent various weekends away with us at Windsor."

10. She didn't tell her parents she was getting hitched.

Princess Elizabeth, Philip Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother), King George VI, and Princess Margaret pose in Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1947, the day the engagement of Princess Elizabeth & Philip Mountbatten was officially announced.
Princess Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II), Philip Mountbatten (also the Duke of Edinburgh), Queen Elizabeth (future Queen Mother), King George VI, and Princess Margaret pose in Buckingham Palace on July 9, 1947, the day the engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten was officially announced.
AFP/Getty Images

In 1946, Philip proposed to Elizabeth when the former planned a month-long visit to Balmoral, her royal estate in Scotland. She accepted the proposal without even contacting her parents. But when George VI finally caught wind of the pending nuptials he would only officially approve if they waited to announce the engagement until after her 21st birthday.

The official public announcement of the engagement finally came nearly a year later on July 9, 1947.

11. She has a very royal name.

Princess Elizabeth (left) and her mother, Queen consort Elizabeth, in 1951.
Princess Elizabeth (left) and her mother, Queen consort Elizabeth, in 1951.
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

She's the second British monarch named Elizabeth, but Elizabeth II wasn't named after Henry VIII's famous progeny. Queen Elizabeth II's birth name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, after the names of her mother, Elizabeth, her paternal great-grandmother, Queen Alexandra, and her paternal grandmother, Queen Mary.

12. She got to choose her own surname.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with two of their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, circa 1951.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with two of their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, circa 1951.
OFF, AFP/Getty Images

Technically, the Queen's last name is "Windsor," which was first chosen by George V in 1917 after the royal family wanted to distance themselves from "Saxe-Coburg-Gotha"—the dynasty to which they belonged—for sounding too Germanic during World War I.

But as a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of the royal family, in 1960 Elizabeth and Philip adopted the official surname Windsor-Mountbatten. (Fans will surely remember that the surname drama was briefly discussed in Netflix’s series The Crown.)

13. She has two birthdays.

Princess Elizabeth just before her 21st birthday in April 1947.
Princess Elizabeth just before her 21st birthday in April 1947.
AFP/Getty Images

Like most British monarchs, Elizabeth gets to celebrate her birthday twice, and the reason why boils down to seasonably appropriate pomp and circumstance.

She was born on April 21, 1926, but April was deemed too cold and liable to fall during inclement weather. So instead, her official state-recognized birthday occurs on a Saturday in late May or June, so that the celebration can be held during warmer months. The specific date varies year to year in the UK, and usually coincides with Trooping the Colour, Britain’s annual military pageant.

14. Her coronation was televised against her wishes.

Queen Elizabeth's coronation, June 1953
Queen Elizabeth's coronation, June 1953.
AFP, Getty Images

Elizabeth officially ascended to the throne at just 25 years of age when her father, George VI, died on February 6, 1952. Elizabeth was in Kenya at the time of his death and returned home as her country's Queen. As fans of The Crown will remember, the hubbub surrounding her coronation was filled with ample amounts of drama.

The notoriously camera-shy Elizabeth—who didn't even allow photos to be taken of her wedding—didn't want the event televised, and others believed that broadcasting the coronation to commoners would break down upper-class traditions of only allowing members of British high society to witness the event. A Coronation Commission, chaired by Philip, was set up to weigh the options, and they initially decided to only allow cameras in a single area of Westminster Abbey "west of the organ screen," before allowing the entire thing to be televised with one minor caveat: no close-ups on Elizabeth's face.

15. She paid for her wedding dress using war ration coupons.

A 1947 sketch of Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress by Norman Hartnell.
A 1947 sketch of Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress by Norman Hartnell.
Central Press, Getty Images

Still reeling from an atmosphere of post-war austerity, Elizabeth used ration coupons and a 200-coupon supplement from the government to pay for her wedding dress. But don't be fooled, the dress was extremely elegant; it was made of ivory duchesse silk, encrusted with 10,000 imported seed pearls, took six months to make, and sported a 13-foot train. (It cost just under $40,000 to recreate the dress for The Crown.)

16. She doesn't need a passport to travel.

Queen Elizabeth II in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in December 1953.
Queen Elizabeth II in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in December 1953.
STRINGER, AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth II is the world's most well-traveled head of state, visiting more than 115 countries between more than 270 official state visits, but she doesn't even own a passport. Since all British passports are officially issued in the Queen’s name, she technically doesn't need one.

17. She doesn't need a driver's license either.

Queen Elizabeth II drives a car in 1958.
Queen Elizabeth II drives a car in 1958.
Bob Haswell, Express/Getty Images

It's not just because she has a fleet of chauffeurs. Britain also officially issues driver's licenses in Elizabeth’s name, so don’t expect her to show off her ID when she gets pulled over taking other heads of state for a spin in her Range Rover.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, recounted to The Sunday Times the time when Elizabeth drove former Saudi crown prince Abdullah around the grounds of Balmoral: "To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off," he said. "Women are not—yet—allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen."

18. She doesn't have to pay taxes (but chooses to anyway).

Queen Elizabeth rides in a carriage in 2000.
ODD ANDERSEN, AFP/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth has voluntarily paid income and capital gains taxes since 1992, but has always been subject to Value Added Tax.

19. She survived an assassination attempt.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rides a horse side saddle and salutes during a Trooping of the Colour ceremony in London in 1952.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rides a horse side saddle and salutes during a Trooping of the Colour ceremony in London in 1952.
STRINGER, AFP/Getty Images

During the 1981 Trooping the Colour, the Queen led a royal procession on horseback down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace when shots rang out. A 17-year-old named Marcus Sarjeant, who was obsessed with the assassinations of figures like John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, fired a series of blanks toward Elizabeth. Sarjeant—who wrote in his diary, "I am going to stun and mystify the whole world with nothing more than a gun"—was thankfully unable to purchase live ammunition in the UK. He received a prison sentence of five years under the 1848 Treason Act, but was released in October 1984.

20. She also survived an intruder coming into her bedroom.

Queen Elizabeth II in Australia in 1954.
Queen Elizabeth II in Australia in 1954.
Fox Photos, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A year after the Trooping the Colour incident, Elizabeth had another run-in. But instead of near Buckingham Palace, this time it was inside Buckingham Palace. On July 9, 1982, a man named Michael Fagen managed to climb over the Palace's barbed wire fence, shimmy up a drain pipe, and eventually sneak into the Queen's bedroom.

While reports at the time said Fagen and the Queen had a long conversation before he was apprehended by palace security, Fagen told The Independent the Queen didn't stick around to chat: "She went past me and ran out of the room; her little bare feet running across the floor."

21. She technically owns all the dolphins in the UK.

The HMAS Vengeance seen from a helicopter, as the Australian Naval crew spell out the signature of Queen Elizabeth II on the deck, in 1954.
The HMAS Vengeance seen from a helicopter, as the Australian Naval crew spell out the signature of Queen Elizabeth II on the deck, in 1954.
Keystone, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In addition to owning all of the country's dolphins, she owns all the sturgeon and whales, too. A still-valid statute from the reign of King Edward II in 1324 states, "Also the King shall have ... whales and sturgeons taken in the sea or elsewhere within the realm," meaning most aquatic creatures are technically labeled "fishes royal," and are claimed on behalf of the Crown.

As the song goes, "Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!"

22. She has her own special money to give to the poor.

Queen Elizabeth II hands out maundy money in 2004.
Queen Elizabeth II hands out maundy money in 2004.
PHIL NOBLE, AFP/Getty Images

Known as "Maundy Money," the Queen has silver coins—currently with Elizabeth's likeness on the front—that are given to pensioners in a ceremony called Maundy Thursday. The royal custom dates back to the 13th century, in which the royal family was expected to wash the feet of and distribute gifts to penniless subjects as a symbolic gesture to honor Jesus’s act of washing the feet of the poor in the Bible. Once the 18th century rolled around and washing people's dirty feet wasn't seen as befitting of a royal, the act was replaced with money allowances bequeathed by the monarch.

23. Gin is her drink of choice.

Queen Elizabeth II sipping a drink.
RUSSEL MILLARD, AFP/Getty Images

The Queen drinks gin mixed with Dubonnet (a fortified wine) and a slice of lemon on the rocks every day before lunch. She also reportedly drinks wine at lunch and has a glass of champagne every evening.

24. She created her own breed of dogs.

Queen Elizabeth with her dog Susan, circa 1959.
Queen Elizabeth with her dog Susan, circa 1959.
AFP, Getty Images

Elizabeth has a famous, avowed love of Corgis (she has owned more than 30 of them during her reign; her last one, Willow, passed away in 2018), but what about Dorgis? She currently owns two Dorgis (Candy and Vulcan), a crossbreed she engineered when one of her Corgis mated with a Dachshund named Pipkin that belonged to Princess Margaret.

25. She's on social media ... kind of.

Queen Elizabeth II tours a Canadian Blackberry factory in 2010.
Queen Elizabeth II tours a Canadian Blackberry factory in 2010.
John Stillwell, Pool/Getty Images

The Queen joined Twitter in July 2009 under the handle @RoyalFamily, and sent the first tweet herself, but hasn't personally maintained the page since then (she has a digital communications team for that). She's also on Facebook (and no, you cannot poke The Royal Family) and in March 2019, the Royal Family posted its first Instagram.

This story originally ran in 2017.

12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series coming soon: HBO's Catherine the Great, due in 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
iStock.com/traveler1116
  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER