Elizabeth II: the queen who saved the royals

Britain's current Queen was an accidental royal heir, but she has become the country's longest-running ruler. During her reign she has overseen the radical modernisation of the institution of monarchy, as historian Kate Williams relates...

Queen Elizabeth II in a garden with one of her dogs, March 1953. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

On 10 December 1936, Elizabeth, Princess of York, aged just 10, was at home with her sister Margaret in 145 Piccadilly, Hyde Park. She heard shouts from outside – cries of “God Save the King”. A footman told her that the king had abdicated. She dashed upstairs to tell her sister: “Uncle David is going away and isn’t coming back, and papa is going to be king?” “Does that mean that you will have to be queen one day?” asked Margaret, who was only six. “Yes, some day,” said the princess. “Poor you,” said Margaret.

Elizabeth II was, like Victoria and Elizabeth I before her, never meant to be queen. Born on 21 April 1926, little Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was intended for, in the words of her mother, “a happy marriage”, but little more. Twenty-six years later she became Queen, and one of the most famous women in the world.

Until the abdication of Edward VIII, who gave up the crown to marry Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth and Margaret led, by royal standards, a sheltered life. The abdication changed everything. The family moved to Buckingham Palace and their father, the new George VI, struggled with the weight of responsibility. Elizabeth never forgave her uncle for pitching her father into the role of monarch, especially as he had to reign through a punishing war.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now