Queen Elizabeth II has reigned for sixty years. She holds no political power, and isn’t even allowed to publicly reveal what her political preferences are. But Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor is one of the most famous and iconic women of our era. She was a beautiful, elegant princess who charmed the world and at only twenty-five, found herself Queen, not only of the United Kingdom, but of Commonwealth realms made up of far-flung nations that were once part of the British Empire.
Queen Elizabeth II is one of the most difficult members of the royal family to research. She has never given an interview, and she’s never written a book or allowed anyone in her inner circle to write one for her. Her personal documents are kept locked away, except for the ones she consents to release. When official biographies were published on her parents, grandparents, and uncle, and those authors were allowed access to private documents, Elizabeth got to approve the final draft. Plenty of self-proclaimed “insiders” have tried to publish their own accounts, but they aren’t very consistent and it’s difficult to know what to believe and what not to believe. The one person who was a true insider who wrote a book was Elizabeth’s childhood nanny Marion Crawford. The royal family saw this as the ultimate betrayal, even though the book was a very positive and sympathetic account. “Crawfie,” as the children called her, became persona non grata. In the years since, all people employed by the royal family have signed strict confidentiality agreements. Queen Elizabeth is a very private person, and she does a good job of keeping her personal issues a secret. Her children and grandchildren are more open, but she comes from a different generation. Therefore, I tend to distrust any biography of her that is too detailed. But you can’t tell any story without a little speculation.
When Elizabeth was born in 1926, she was Princess Elizabeth of York, the first daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York. Her father was the second son of King George V, a notoriously cold and tempermental man who, though his children were terrifed of him, proved a suprisingly affectionate grandfather. To her family, she would be known as Lilibet partly to differentiate her from her mother (also named Elizabeth) and partly because she couldn’t pronounce Elizabeth. Lilibet was a beautiful child, with golden blonde hair that turned to a rich chesnut brown as she got older. Like her mother and sister, she had deep blue eyes framed by thick eyelashes, and she was always very small and dainty. Her only sibling, Princess Margaret Rose, was born four years later in 1930. The girls were best friends, and their mother frequently dressed them alike. Elizabeth was a good girl, studious and mature, who was protective of her passionate and rebellious younger sister.
Going against generations of royal dysfunction, Elizabeth’s parents raised their daughters in a close-knit family environment. Though the royal family was of great interest to the media of the day, for much of her childhood Elizabeth was allowed to live like any other girl. She had her picture taken at some large family events, but she could go to museums and plays, or just go buy some sweets without anyone bothering her. She was allowed a peace that her grandsons William and Harry have never had. This wasn’t just because her father was a second son; it was a different time. The royal family had more privacy and the press, for the most part, respected their wishes.
Elizabeth’s father was Prince Albert, who later became King George VI. He was a shy and reserved man who cared about his wife and children more than anything else. The greatest accomplishment of his life, by his own standards, was convincing Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to marry him. Best known by her eventual title of Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the youngest daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family. Witty and fond of parties, she was briefly the “it-girl” of 1920s London. Pretty much every upper-class man in Britain wanted to marry her. She wasn’t particularly sure she wanted to marry anyone. Much has been made of Edward VIII’s passionate, life-long love for Wallis Simpson. What is less known is that his younger brother Albert loved Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon just as much, and once he set his sights on her there would never be anyone else. Albert proposed three times, and won Elizabeth over by being friendly and respectful and sucessfully charming her entire family.
Young Elizabeth and Margaret were close to both sides of their family. Elizabeth’s childhood dream was to be an old woman with a country estate and lots of dogs and horses. This was probably inspired by knowing the many upper-class dowagers in her mother’s family and the more distant branches of her father’s family who lived a Downton Abbey sort of life. But it was not to be. When Elizabeth was ten, her life changed forever when her father’s older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne after only ten months. I’ve thought that even before the abdication Elizabeth must have had some idea she would end up Queen, but becoming heir to the throne at a young age and having to move into Buckingham Palace was a great shock. To Elizabeth, her royal destiny probably seemed very remote and far off, and if she thought she would end up on the throne it was something that would happen in a very distant future. Children are rarely ones to look far ahead. Things like swimming lessons were probably of more concern than the future of the monarchy.
Edward VIII was Uncle David to Elizabeth and Margaret, and he was a frequent visitor to their parents’ house when they were girls. He always made sure to stop in the nursery and read the girls a story. Elizabeth also often went for tea, or swimming when the weather was warm, at his country home at Fort Belvedere. When he ascended to the throne, David had much less time for his family. His girlfriend Wallis and Elizabeth’s mother intensely disliked each other for a variety of reasons, and that eventually led to a rift that would never be repaired. The girls were too young to understand the complexities of family conflict and, to them, it was an issue of their uncle simply not visiting them anymore. Elizabeth and Margaret met Wallis Simpson once, fleetingly, when she and David dropped by for tea unexpectedly one afternoon. They didn’t know who she was, or what her significance was. She wasn’t the first female friend of their uncle the girls had met. When word of a crisis finally reached Elizabeth, who had been sheltered from the gossip, she mistakenly believed her uncle was attempting to marry the Prime Minister’s wife (a stiff, matronly woman in her late sixties) and that was why the government was giving him so much trouble. But when the Order of Abdication was signed, and suddenly her father was king, Elizabeth quickly realized the seriousness of the situation. This led to an oft-quoted exchange between Elizabeth, now heiress presumptive, and her younger sister.
“Does this mean you will be the next queen?” Margaret asked.
“Yes, someday,” Elizabeth responded.
It is often lost on people that Elizabeth never wanted to be queen. This was not her goal, or her intention. After her father took the throne on that dreary day in December of 1936, Elizabeth could no longer speculate about what she would be when she grew up. Everyone knew what was in store for her. According to one account from a family friend, Elizabeth began to wish her parents would have a baby boy who would displace her in the line of succession. But she knew her parents had no intention of having another child, and her fate was sealed. Queen Elizabeth has always kept quiet on her private feelings, but all of her biographers emphasize the impact the abdication had on Elizabeth’s psycology. Her grandmother, the formidable Queen Mary, had often lectured Elizabeth on royal duty and acting like a princess. But her uncle’s predicament laid it all bare. His life was not his own, and his family was horrified that he had chosen his personal feelings over his public obligations. In America, most children grow up surrounded by messages of “be yourself” and “make your own destiny.” Elizabeth developed a completely different worldview. She doesn’t see herself as an individual who makes her own choices and looks out for her own interests, and she doesn’t see her children that way either. The former Edward VIII was cut out of the family almost entirely; no one in the family attended his wedding. To this day, the abdication is something the royals avoid mentioning, and when they do it’s in very hushed tones. Wallis Simpson was not referred to by name; instead, she was known as “that woman” or simply “her.” She was divorced and outspoken, and clearly not “one of us.” The royal family is very insular, and they see themselves as above the sins of the rest of the world. After several generations of impropriety in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Elizabeth’s grandparents King George V and Queen Mary had sought to set up the royal family as the model for wholesome family life in Great Britain. Behind closed doors, their own family was deeply dysfunctional, but this was concealed from Elizabeth just like it was concealed from the public. Elizabeth has always cared a great deal what people think of her and she wants nothing more than to be a good queen and fulfill the expectations her subjects have of her. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t made her share of mistakes, or acted selfishly on occasion. She is a human being like any other. But her actions have always been based on her strong sense of royal duty more than her own personal desires.
As the daughter of a king, Elizabeth’s life was very different. She had to move into Buckingham Palace, which is large, drafty, and not very homey. Many have compared it to living in a musuem. Elizabeth now saw a lot less of her father, who was kept busy with royal duties and official paperwork. Her mother was sent out on frequent public engagements, and she sometimes had her daughter accompany her. Her parents made efforts to keep most mornings and evenings free to spend with their daughters, but their lives were much busier. Elizabeth and Margaret never went to school and were tutored privately. Their education in math and science was very lacking, and they were educated in the custom of early 20th century aristocratic women. Though they were obviously denied certain experiances by never attending school, their parents were trying to protect them. Their father had a very difficult time during his school years because of his shyness and the isolation of his royal upbringing, and he was trying to spare his daughters that misery. Their mother hadn’t attended school either, and felt she had turned out just fine and what was good enough for her was good enough for her children. Their aunt Princess Mary formed a Girl Guides troop for Buckingham Palace to give Elizabeth some social interaction, and the girls also began putting on plays and talent shows with the children of royal staffers.
Just as Elizabeth had adjusted to her new life, she was faced with another life-changing event. Britain was at war. George VI was an ally of Neville Chamberlain and had strongly favored appeasement. Having seen the destruction of World War I, he was desperate to avoid another war at all costs. This position was shared by the rest of the royal family. The king and queen had invited Chamberlain on to the balcony of Buckingham Palace after he signed his famously ill-fated treaty with Hitler, a move that was unconstitutional and taken as an endorsement of his policies. The king also begged Chamberlain not to resign in 1940. History has been much kinder to George VI than many other supporters of appeasement, like his friend Chamberlain. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that; you can’t judge people of the past by present standards. This chapter of British royal history has been practically written out, but it’s worth examining because of the impact her father’s mistake has had on Elizabeth’s own reign. Queen Victoria was the last British monarch to have political power, but Elizabeth II was the first to never express any political opinions. Even in her private life, she does her best to conceal her feelings. Sometimes that has proven very difficult, like when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Elizabeth could not conceal her intense dislike of Thatcher’s policies to her staff. But still, she has kept her mouth shut.
When war was declared, the royal family threw themselves into the war effort. They were subjected to the same rationing as everyone else, though of course there have been allegations certain members of the royal family broke the rules. If they did, Elizabeth probably wasn’t one of them. She was very eager to participate in the war effort. In 1940, she made her first ever radio broadcast to the children of the nation on their role in the war. Her mother had decided against sending the children away to Canada during the Blitz, like many other families were doing, and by all accounts Elizabeth wouldn’t have
wanted to leave anyway. Elizabeth began doing solo royal engagements at sixteen, after making frequent appearences alongside her parents. She was incredibly popular. Privately, she knitted scarves, blankets, and socks for soldiers, and she and her mother sold lace at charity events to support the Red Cross. Elizabeth wanted to be of even greater service, and as soon as she turned eighteen she was allowed to join the Women’s Auxilery Territorial Service. She trained as an ambulance driver and mechanic. Her exact work schedule and locations were kept quiet to avoid undue attention, but she stayed close to home and spent every night at Windsor Castle. For the most part, she was treated just like all of the other women. Her father also did mechanic and factory work in support of the war. Though George VI had initially distrusted Winstron Churchill and had not wanted him as Prime Minister, the two became close friends and their families spent a lot of time together. Also, Elizabeth was given her first corgi, whom she named Susan, for her eighteenth birthday. Many of the Queen’s current corgis are Susan’s descendants.
During the war years, Elizabeth mixed with normal people more than she had in the past. She had many new experiances, and developed a strong work ethic. She also learned the important role of public relations as her family became more popular than ever due to their war work and personal sacrifices. There was also some subtle manipulation of the media, as her parents claimed to stay at Buckingham Palace while London was being bombed when they actually went back to spend most nights at Windsor, which was much safer. I doubt this was lost on the young princess, who learned a lot about the media from her savvy mother. The Queen Mother’s charm was so great that she could say and do anything and still manage to spin it in a positive way. It amazes me how many things she did (from dressing lavishly while meeting bombing victims to demanding drinks at 10 am) that would cause a minor scandal for any other royal but only served to make the public love her more. Elizabeth’s personality is very different from her mothers, and as a young woman she didn’t possess the same level of confidence, though Margaret did.
When the war ended, Elizabeth and Margaret snuck out of the palace to join the crowds on the streets celebrating V-E Day. There was a strong feeling of “we’re all in this together” in Britain during the war, and those who were growing up at the time carried that attitude with them throughout their lives. Elizabeth had the ideal upbringing for a constitutional monarch, and her experiances during the war were a big part of that. The Queen shares many quirks common among those who grew up during rationing; she’s always turning off lights and she uses things until they fall apart. Her frugality serves as a balance against the lavish spending of most other royals.
With the war behind her, Elizabeth began the routine of royal engagements and public appearances that has defined her life. She’s not a natural at public speaking, and despite her beauty and charm, she doesn’t have much of a knack for being a celebrity. She has to work to prepare herself for a speech, and she’s very human in how she interacts with people. Even now, her voice has a very girlish quality to it, and that was more true in the late 1940s. Now she’s everyone’s grandmother, then she was everyone’s daughter or little sister. Elizabeth and Margaret accompanied their parents on a royal tour to Africa in 1947. Elizabeth and Margaret were shown playing tag with sailors in newsreel footage that was seen throughout the Commonwealth. On her twenty-first birthday, Elizabeth made a speech promising to devote her entire life to the service of her people.
There was a personal matter causing the royal family some distraction on that tour. Elizabeth was in love. The object of her affections was her second-cousin once removed, Philip Mountbatten. He was an exiled Greek Prince who had lost his father at age ten and lived with a variety of relatives in a variety of countries in the years since. He was five years older then Elizabeth, and she had developed a crush on him at age thirteen when she visited his school as part of an engagement with her parents. During the war, they wrote to each other and Philip send Elizabeth a photo of him that she kept on her desk. His uncle was Lord Louis Mountbatten, a notorious royal hanger-on who had been Edward VIII’s best friend until he’d abdicated, at which point Mountbatten decided he would rather be George VI’s best friend instead. Mountbatten was distrusted by Elizabeth’s mother, who considered him manipulative. Philip adored Elizabeth and returned her feelings, though he was also being pushed in that direction by his ambitious uncle. They had a whirlwind romance in 1946, and Philip had asked George VI for permission to marry his daughter. The king was reluctant; he thought Elizabeth was too young and too sheltered to get married. His wife thought Philip was too foreign and distrusted the influence of his questionable uncle. George VI told Philip he would consent to the marriage, provided things were kept quiet and nothing was made official until after Elizabeth turned twenty-one. Elizabeth’s birthday came and went; she wanted to marry Philip.
The engagement was announced on July 9, 1947. The wedding was a very big deal, and was seen as a chance for Britain to celebrate after the pain of the war. Rationing was still in effect, and Elizabeth saved up clothing rations to get the lace for her dress. Well-wishers sent her extras in the mail, but she sent them back as giving away ration tickets wasn’t legal. The wedding was a media sensation, like the wedding of Elizabeth and Philip’s grandson in 2011. Like most weddings, there was plenty of drama involved in the planning. Most of Philip’s relatives were not invited, particularly his sisters, who had all been married to Nazi party members. It would have been distasteful to have them at a British royal wedding so soon after the war. Elizabeth had her own questionable relative; Uncle David. He and Wallis were living in France at the time, and were still kept out of family events in Britain. Elizabeth still had fond memories of him from her childhood and wanted him to attend. The family was divided on the issue, but Elizabeth’s mother felt the strongest and stated she would not attend her own daughter’s wedding if he was there. His wife was also an issue; it’s very strange to invite a married person to a wedding without inviting their spouse and no one wanted Wallis to attend. So Elizabeth decided he would not be invited. This did not go over well with her aunt Mary, who was incredibly close to her older brother. Despite being on very good terms with her niece, Mary didn’t attend the wedding.
On November 20, 1947, Elizabeth and Philip were married. Large crowds lined the street as Elizabeth rode in a horse-drawn carriage to Westminster Abbey. Her father walked her down the aisle, and wrote to her afterwards:
I was so proud of you & thrilled at having you so close to me on our long walk in Westminster Abbey, but when I handed your hand to the Archbishop I felt that I had lost something very precious.
You were so calm & composed during the Service and said your words with such conviction, that I knew everything was all right …
I have watched you grow up all these years with pride under the skilful direction of Mummy, who, as you know is the most marvellous person in the World in my eyes, & I can, I know, always count on you, & now Philip, to help us in our work. Your leaving us has left a great blank in our lives but do remember that your old home is still yours & do come back to it as much & as often as possible. I can see that you are sublimely happy with Philip which is right but don’t forget us is the wish of
Your ever loving & devoted
Philip was granted the title Duke of Edinburgh and upon her marriage, Elizabeth was known as Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh. A year later, their first child, Prince Charles, was born. Elizabeth and Philip lived in a quiet house near Windsor Castle, and Elizabeth remained very close with her parents and sister. For a period in 1949 and 1950, they lived in Malta where Philip was stationed in the navy, and Elizabeth acted as a normal military wife. Not a lot is known about that period because she stayed off the radar, but she later stated that it was one of the happiest times in her life because she was able to feel normal. Her daughter, Anne, was born in Clarence House, which was intended to be her residence in London while she and Philip raised their family.
That was not to be. In February of 1952, Elizabeth and Philip were in Kenya on their way to Australia for a royal tour. On February 6, George VI died unexpectedly. He was only fifty-six. Though he had been in bad health for the last year, and had developed lung cancer, her father’s death was a great shock to Elizabeth. They had been incredibly close, and Elizabeth had counted on him living many more years. Elizabeth was forced to adapt, and moved back into Buckingham Palace. She was only twenty-five. Just like in 1936, when her father had unexpectedly ascended the throne, Elizabeth’s life was going to change.
The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford
Elizabeth by Sarah Bradford
The Book of Royal Lists by Craig Brown and Lesley Cunliffe