The young Elizabeth II: life before she was Queen

From her birth to loving parents, her unconventional education and her involvement in the war effort, to the crisis that brought her to the throne, Kate Williams charts the early years and upbringing of Elizabeth II – a princess who never expected to be queen...

This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's 'Queen Elizabeth: 90 Glorious Years' bookazine

The 16-year-old princess Elizabeth. (Getty/Popperfoto)

In April 1926, Britain was on the brink of the General Strike called by the TUC. There had been an economic perfect storm: the postwar crash in coal prices, combined with the government putting Britain on the gold standard, had put mining under pressure. After a government commission recommended reducing miners’ wages, the stage was set for an all-out strike of miners and other workers covered by the TUC, including railway and transport workers.

But despite being in a crisis, the home secretary Sir William Joynson Hicks could not be excused witnessing the legitimacy of a royal baby. The Duke and Duchess of York – George V’s second son, Bertie and his wife, the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – were expecting their first child. Although the baby was not a direct heir to the throne, Sir William still had to travel to 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, a home owned by Bowes-Lyons, where the child was due to be born.

The little girl was born by Caesarian section at 2.40am on 21 April. “We have long wanted a child to make our happiness complete,” wrote the duke. The child was “a little darling with a lovely complexion”, decreed Queen Mary. “I do hope that you and papa are as delighted as we are to have a granddaughter, or would you sooner have had another grandson?” wrote the duke to his father, George V. The baby was officially third in line to the throne, but since she was the child of George V’s second son – and female – she was destined to be pushed down the succession by sons born to her uncle, the Prince of Wales, and her father. She was called Elizabeth Alexandra Mary after her mother, great-grandmother and grandmother – after consorts, not queens regnant. The princess was destined for a good marriage and little more.


The royal family gather following the christening of the new princess in Buckingham Palace’s private chapel, 29 May 1926. Although third in line, Elizabeth was not expected to rule. (Getty Images)
 

On 3 May, the TUC called the General Strike. Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin called it the “road to anarchy”, but the government played hard, drafting in volunteers and calling forth the middle classes to step in. By 12 May it had been called off and the following year the government outlawed sympathetic strikes and strikes intended to coerce the government, making another general strike impossible and restoring the existing structures of power. Two weeks later, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was christened by the archbishop of York at Buckingham Palace.

The young princess was a favourite with her grandparents and one of the few people in the family not afraid of the king, whom she called ‘Grandpa England’. In early 1927, her parents departed on a tour of Australia and New Zealand, leaving her with her nannies. When they returned, they took a new house, 145 Piccadilly, near Hyde Park. It had 25 bedrooms, a lift and a ballroom but, by royal standards, Elizabeth was growing up in a cosy, normal house and her playmates in the gardens were the daughters of businessmen and doctors, not fellow princesses.

In 1930 Princess Margaret was born. This time the home secretary, John R Clynes, had to trek up to Glamis Castle, the ancestral home of the Duchess of York. “I am glad to say that she has large blue eyes and a will of iron, which is all the equipment a lady needs!” the duchess wrote. As they grew up, it became evident that the two little girls had very different personalities. Elizabeth was conscientious, dutiful and orderly – she couldn’t go to sleep without unsaddling and feeding all her nursery horses and lining them up neatly. Margaret was playful, determined and fond of pranks – she blamed any mistakes or spillages on her imaginary friend, Cousin Halifax.


Elizabeth atop a rocking horse with sister Margaret in August 1932. (Getty Images)
 

In 1933, when Elizabeth was seven, she received a new governess, Miss Marion Crawford. She had been recommended to the Duchess of York as a “country girl who was a good teacher, except when it came to mathematics”. Fortunately, the duchess was not looking for a challenging academic schedule. Both she and her husband had hated school (the duke had been ridiculed as a dunce). What the royal couple wanted for their daughters was a “really happy childhood, with lots of pleasant memories”, which meant minimal lessons. The king had only one request: ‘‘Teach Margaret and Lilibet a decent hand.” Miss Crawford’s regimen was gentle. Elizabeth received lessons from 9.30 until 11 in the morning and the rest of the day was devoted to outdoor games, dancing and singing, with a rest period for an hour and a half.


Nanny Marion Crawford gave the girls a minimal education. Lessons became more robust once Elizabeth was heir. (Corbin)
 

Unlike her parents, Elizabeth had an aptitude for learning and enjoyed history and literature but she had little opportunity for sustained study. Queen Mary criticised their education and recalled that she had busied herself with homework in the holidays – but to no avail. In her free time, Elizabeth was fondest of dogs and horses. She declared she wanted to marry a farmer so she could have lots of “cows, horses and dogs”.

George V died in January 1936 and the Prince of Wales assumed the throne as Edward VIII. As king he was more dependent on his lover, Wallis Simpson, than ever. But although the foreign press discussed his relationship with the American divorcee at length, the British newspapers stayed quiet. In late October, Wallis filed for divorce from her second husband and it was clear that the king meant to marry her. The government was as determined to stop him, for it was thought the people would not accept a divorced consort. The empire governments mostly refused the idea outright. “It was plain to everyone that there was a great shadow over the house,” wrote Miss Crawford.


Edward ruled for less than a year before standing down to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. (Getty Images)
 

On 10 December, 10-year-old Elizabeth was about to write up her notes from her swimming lesson when she heard chants of “God Save the King” outside. She asked a footman what had happened and he told her that her uncle had abdicated and her father was king. She ran up to tell her sister the news. “Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?” asked Margaret. “Yes, some day,” replied Elizabeth. “Poor you,” said Margaret. In the face of crisis and change, Elizabeth adopted a technique she would use throughout her life: she stuck to her routine, attempting to appear unruffled. She wrote up her swimming notes, and at the top of the page she wrote: “Abdication Day.”

The jolly life of 145 Piccadilly was at an end. The family moved into Buckingham Palace and her father and mother – who had always been so present – became consumed by meetings, receptions and politics. The former king, now the Duke of Windsor, the Uncle David of whom the children had been so fond, was sent to Europe. Elizabeth attended her father’s coronation, accompanied by Queen Mary, writing that the abbey was covered in “a sort of haze of wonder as papa was crowned, at least I thought so”.


Princess Elizabeth, aged 11, witnesses her father, the Duke of York, being crowned King George VI after his brother Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936. (Getty Images)
 

Elizabeth was now heir to the throne. Queen Mary stepped up her campaign over education, and more history was introduced. In 1938, Elizabeth began receiving lessons from the vice provost of Eton, Henry Marten, on constitutional history. Marten’s teachings were important to Elizabeth’s perception of her role: he told her that monarchy was strengthened by adaptability and talked of the importance of broadcasting directly to her subjects.

The palace and the government were concerned that the princess did not seem too isolated. The First Buckingham Girl Guide Pack was instituted, with 20 girls invited to the palace on Wednesday afternoons. They learned trekking in the palace grounds and practised signalling in the corridors.


A girl guide pack was created at the palace to enable Elizabeth to fraternise with girls her own age. (Press Association)
 

On 15 March 1939, German tanks entered Prague. The ‘peace’ created through appeasement by prime minister Neville Chamberlain was shattered. “Who can hope to appease a boa constrictor,” declared The Telegraph. The country moved towards war. In the summer of 1939, Elizabeth and her parents paid a visit to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, where the king had studied. There she was introduced to Philip of Greece, 18 to her 13. The princess was fascinated by him.

On 3 September 1939, Chamberlain announced on the BBC that Britain was now at war. The king broadcast later in the day, telling the people that this “grave hour” was “perhaps the most fateful in our history”. The princesses were staying at Birkhall, near Balmoral, on their annual summer holiday with Miss Crawford – and were soon joined by hundreds of evacuees from Glasgow. After Christmas at Sandringham, they went to Royal Lodge in Windsor, the pale pink walls painted green to fool enemy bombers. The queen refused to bow to pressure to send the children to Canada, out of the range of the enemy.

In spring 1940, German troops invaded Denmark and Norway. Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill became prime minister, declaring to the Commons that Britain must “wage war, by sea, land and air with all our might”. The dispossessed royals of Norway and Denmark arrived seeking safety in London. The princesses were sent to Windsor Castle, where they would remain for the rest of the war – along with the crown jewels, bundled up in paper in the underground vaults.


Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in a BBC studio announcing the declaration of war, 3 September 1939. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)
 

The princesses were key to the propaganda strategy – the nation was told that they were in a secret location in the countryside, where they carried around their gas masks and grew their own carrots and potatoes in a vegetable patch. But the princesses were not exempt from the terrors of war – 300 bombs were dropped on Windsor Great Park over the course of the conflict. Often they were woken at night and sent into the underground vaults of the castle. Like Churchill, they slept in ‘siren suits’, zip-up all-in-one jumpsuits designed for warmth and practicality in bombing raids.

The palace had repeatedly rejected requests for Elizabeth to speak on the radio. In 1940, with the Luftwaffe razing British cities to the ground, the king and queen changed their minds. In a time when US support for the war effort was critical, they agreed to allow the princess to broadcast on the BBC to the children of North America. On 13 October she gave her speech, expressing how she and her sister sympathised with those who had been evacuated, since “we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all”. The speech was a hit. “Princess yesterday huge success here,” reported a north American representative of the BBC.  

“This time we are all in the front line,” said the king in his Christmas message at the end of 1940. The bombing of British cities continued until April. Britain entered a sustained period of hardship. In 1941 it was the first country in the world to introduce conscription for single women. When Elizabeth turned 16, she begged her father to allow her to join the Labour Exchange. She was interviewed, but not placed – much to the relief of the king, who wished to protect his daughters.

At the end of 1943, when Elizabeth was 17, Philip came to spend Christmas with the family. He was charmed by her admiration and what he described as the “simple pleasure” of family life, so unlike his own unhappy childhood. He returned to war enthusiastic about the idea of marrying the princess, and his cousin, George of Greece, made a suggestion to the king that the pair might wed. It was a misstep; the king was shocked and told George that Elizabeth was too young and Philip “had better not think any more about it at present”. The king didn’t wish to lose his daughter and the courtiers thought Philip “rough, ill mannered” (in the words of one). Worst of all was his background. As one courtier put it, “it was all bound up in one word: German”.

The princess turned 18 in 1944 and began to assume royal duties. Her father insisted she be made a counsellor of state (usually only open to those who had reached 21) and she stood in for him when he was briefly in Italy, signing a reprieve on a murder case. She made her first public speech at a children’s hospital and launched HMS Vanguard in the autumn. But she wanted more – she desired to serve in the forces. In early 1945, the king relented and allowed her to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a trainee ambulance driver.


The king relented in 1945 and allowed Elizabeth to play a part in the war effort – she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service where she learned car mechanics. (Getty Images)
 

At the base in Aldershot she was initially kept away from the other trainees and taken to eat in the officers’ mess, before the papers found out and the regime was quickly adjusted. The princess later said that it was the only time in her life that she had been able to test herself against people her own age. For the government, her training was a propaganda coup. Photos were taken of her wielding her spanner or standing by vehicles and she was on the front of every Allied newspaper.

On 30 April, Allied forces occupied the Reichstag. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker and the troops surrendered. On 7 May, the BBC interrupted a piano recital to announce that the following day would be known as Victory in Europe Day. The war was over.

On VE Day, the princesses appeared with their parents and Winston Churchill on the balcony of the palace to wave at the crowds, Elizabeth in uniform. That evening, Margaret suggested that they go out to see the crowds. The king and queen relented and the girls set off, accompanied by Marion Crawford and various officers, wandering as far as Park Lane before returning back through Green Park to shout “we want the king!” with the crowds. “All of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief,” recalled Elizabeth.


Prime Minister Winston Churchill (centre) with Queen Elizabeth, King George VI, Princess Elizabeth (left) and Princess Margaret Rose waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace during VE Day celebrations. (Reg Speller/Getty Images)
 

Once the euphoria had subsided, the aftermath of war seemed grey, miserable and full of privations. “Food, fuel and clothes are the main topics of conversation,” wrote the king. He was exhausted by the effort of war and found it hard to adjust to daily life. At the same time, the people were fascinated by the princess and increasingly preferred to see her opening hospitals, presenting prizes and giving speeches. She was overwhelmingly popular: dignified, a veteran of the war and full of the glamour of youth. Cambridge University suggested she might be the first woman ever to receive an honorary degree but the palace refused the offer.

In 1946, with the end of the war in Japan, Prince Philip returned to Britain and was sent to teach naval officers in Wales. He began to court Elizabeth in earnest, taking supper with her and Margaret in the nursery and taking the sisters out to restaurants or shows. Austerity Britain was delighted by the idea of a royal romance and the possibility of a wedding. The king and queen were dubious, but it was too late – Elizabeth was determined to marry Philip.

In February 1947, the princess left the country for the first time for a tour to South Africa with her parents and sister. There, she celebrated her 21st birthday. She reviewed troops, attended a ball in her honour and gave her address to the empire. In it she pledged her future: “I declare before you that my whole life, whether it shall be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” She had spent a long time in the nursery but now she was 21, on the brink of marriage – and in less than five years, she would become queen.

Kate Williams is a royal historian, author and broadcaster.

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