Queen Elizabeth II's Path to the Throne Was Actually Pretty Nuts

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Heavy was the head that assumed the crown 67 years ago.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor became queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth on Feb. 6, 1952, but it was a sorrowful day, as her accession technically occurred the moment her father, King George VI, had died.

And that is why, though Feb. 6 remains a historic date, Queen Elizabeth II does not demonstratively mark Accession Day in any way, let alone celebrates it. Instead, she usually spends the day in private reflection at Sandringham House, in Norfolk.

Now she’s almost 93 years old and is Britain’s longest-reigning monarch ever, but one wonders if she has ever spent much time dwelling on the turn her life took, the fact that—though she was born a princess, third in line to the throne, and groomed from an early age for the most public of public service—becoming queen wasn’t a given at all.

Elizabeth—or Lilibet, as her family affectionately called her—was very close to her grandfather, King George V, a grandson of Queen Victoria who was, as a second-born son, considered a spare heir.

But George V’s older brother, Prince Albert Victor, died at only 28—of pneumonia during a flu epidemic—making George the presumptive heir. (Amid the endless layers of conspiratorial lore surrounding the royal family, it’s been suggested that Albert was Jack the Ripper; thanks to documentation of his whereabouts, he appears to have alibied out.)

George V ascended to the throne on May 6, 1910, when his father, King Edward VII, died. He and his wife, Queen Mary, had six children (their youngest, Prince John, suffered from severe epileptic seizures and died in his sleep at 13).

Prince Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David (he went by David) was George and Mary’s eldest, followed by brother Albert Frederick Arthur George. (Are these names starting to sound familiar?)

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Albert married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923 and they became the Duke and Duchess of York. They had two girls, Elizabeth and Margaret. But David remained a bachelor, cycling through—and sticking with—various affairs, including a 16-year relationship with the very married Freda Dudley Ward.

One school of thought is that Albert’s wife was actually in love with David, who despite being, by many accounts, a not particularly impressive man and possibly not mentally stable, was easily the most eligible bachelor in Britain—made all the more so when he became King Edward VIII on Jan. 20, 1936, when George V died.

By then, however, David had already lost his heart to Wallis Simpson (née Warfield), the soon-to-be twice-divorced American who, with Britain also on the brink of war with Germany, no less than helped reroute the course of history.

“My theory is that the Queen Mother was really rather in love with the Duke of Windsor and probably would have quite liked to have married him,” Hugo Vickers, author of the Wallis Simpson biography Behind Closed Doors, told NPR in 2011. “It must have passed through her mind. And I think it suited her very well to present the Duchess of Windsor as the woman who stole the king. And people rather swallowed that line.”

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Elizabeth was very close to her paternal grandfather and in a Nov. 6, 1935, diary entry, an ailing George V wrote that he hoped his oldest boy, David, wouldn’t have an heir, so that the crown would then pass to Albert and then, eventually, to Elizabeth.

King Edward VIII abdicated for love on Dec. 11, 1936, vaulting his brother Albert onto the throne as King George VI.

“Does that mean that you will have to be the next queen?” 6-year-old Margaret Rose asked her 10-year-old sister, Lilibet. “Yes, someday,” Lilbet said.

“Poor you,” Margaret replied.

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But Elizabeth’s childhood went on as scheduled, at least until the onset of World War II changed the entire United Kingdom’s fortunes for the foreseeable future. The princess and presumptive heir gave her first radio address from Windsor Castle at the age of 14, on Oct. 13, 1940, during the BBC Children’s Hour.

“Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers,” the teen said. “My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all. To you, living in new surroundings, we send a message of true sympathy and at the same time we would like to thank the kind people who have welcomed you to their homes in the country.”

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Philip proposed in 1946 and, at George VI’s request that they wait till Elizabeth was 21 to announce the engagement, they went public as a betrothed couple on July 9, 1947.

Right before the wedding, George VI bestowed Philip (who in becoming a British citizen had ditched the Greece and Denmark heritage and adopted Mountbatten as a surname) with the titles of Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, as well as designated his future son-in-law “his royal highness.” A week earlier George VI had made his daughter an Order of the Garter, the highest personal honor a monarch can bestow, and he followed suit with Philip.

Elizabeth and Philip married on Nov. 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey in front of a group that was notable for its absences: Edward and Wallis were basically exiled in Paris, and none of Philip’s three sisters were there, having all married Germans.

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They had a conservatively sized wedding breakfast (only 150 people) and honeymooned pretty locally—not wanting to take an ostentatious trip so soon after the war—at Broadlands House, a Hampshire estate that belonged to Philip’s beloved uncle Lord Mountbatten, and then Birkhall in Scotland, part of the royal family’s Balmoral residence. They were back in London by Dec. 14, 1947, George VI’s 52nd birthday.

Prince Charles was born on Nov. 14, 1948. 

All the while (and as seen on The Crown), the looming specter of destiny hung over the future queen and her future consort.

Philip had been advised that his military career would no longer be tenable once his wife became queen, but he devoted himself to the Royal Navy while he could. In the fall of 1949, he returned to active duty in Malta, and Elizabeth joined him for their second wedding anniversary, leaving Charles in the care of his grandparents (and nannies, etc.). The couple spent the majority of the next two years in Malta, by all accounts enjoying their time there together very much. Their daughter, Princess Anne, was born in 1950. (Prince Andrew and Prince Edward came along a ways later, in 1960 and 1964.)

Ever since she was 10 years old, though, Elizabeth knew that, barring an unlikely twist of fate, she would become queen one day, and she made a point of observing her father as he went about being king—and a wartime king, at that.

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She admired how hard he worked to overcome his stammer when he prepared to address the nation at Christmas—an annual tradition started by his father in 1932 and which his daughter carries on to this day.

Though she shared his fiery temper (and her grandfather’s fiery temper) as a child, Elizabeth worked on becoming the picture of stoicism and grace, which as anyone who has been paying attention for the past 67 years knows, has become one of her hallmarks.

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Overall, she said that her father’s “steadfastness” served as a model for her, according to biographer Sally Bedell Smith. When she was a teenager, they took long walks together at Windsor Home Park, Sandringham and Balmoral (one of the reasons the queen has particular affection for those royal residences) and George VI would share his experiences and advise her about her future job.

Which, it being the nature of the job, he knew he wouldn’t live to see her do.

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Because of the war, the king and queen’s first official trip abroad together with their daughters (“we four,” as George VI sweetly called them)—three months in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, plus a month at sea traveling back and forth—didn’t occur until early 1947. That was Princess Elizabeth’s first up-close-and-personal look at Britain’s reach around the globe, and her father wanted to instill in her the same great pride he took in country and empire.

The trip also, incidentally, marked what was considered the real test of Elizabeth’s affection for her fiancé. She passed, carrying a picture of Philip with her and writing to him throughout. She also turned 21 while in South Africa that April (a ball was thrown in her honor, among various celebratory gestures) and was looking forward to her engagement being announced that summer.

Per Bedell Smith, former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt recounted being impressed with Elizabeth on a trip to Windsor Castle in 1948, happy to find the princess interested in learning all about “social problems and how they were being handled.”

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When Prince Charles was born that November, George VI was said to be “simply delighted by the success of everything.” But the king was also in increasingly poor health; suffering from arteriosclerosis, he underwent surgery to improve circulation in his legs in March 1949. He tried to maintain a full schedule during the time Philip was stationed in Malta but by May 1951 he was suffering from a cough that would not go away.

Elizabeth returned home to appear in his stead at various events, including the Trooping of the Color parade that June. 

In The Crown, it shows Jared Harris‘ George VI having an entire lung removed, only to quickly learn that the other wasn’t in much better shape. And that is close to what happened in real life.

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