Elizabeth Didn’t Expect to Be Queen. Here’s How It Happened

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The following feature is excerpted from TIME’s Queen Elizabeth II: The World’s Longest-Reigning Monarch.

Elizabeth didn’t expect to be queen. Born on April 21, 1926, to King George V’s second son, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, she was third in line to the throne. Albert’s older brother Edward, Prince of Wales, had not yet married, but the family was confident he would settle down and have children soon. So the Duke and Duchess of York planned a life largely out of the spotlight for Elizabeth and their second daughter, Margaret.

But when Elizabeth was still small, her uncle -Edward began spending a great deal of time with American divorcée Wallis Simpson, to the consternation of the palace. Kings were not allowed to marry divorced women. Rumors swirled about their relationship, though Edward maintained to his family that Simpson was just a good friend. The king and queen became outraged with Edward when he invited Simpson to the king’s Silver Jubilee Ball in 1935.

The possible affair was a mainstay in American gossip columns—the British press was voluntarily silent on the matter—but the situation graduated to a -national -crisis in Britain on Jan. 20, 1936, when King George V died. The loss stung Elizabeth. She had adored her grandfather and was one of the only people in the country who seemed to be unafraid of him. The archbishop of Canterbury was rather taken aback when he once caught Elizabeth leading the king by the beard as if he were a horse. Meanwhile, the adults of the family worried about Edward’s intentions with Simpson now that he had been named King Edward VIII.

Their fears were confirmed when Wallis filed for divorce from her second husband. On Nov. 16, 1936, Edward summoned British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to Buckingham Palace to declare his intention to marry Wallis and make her queen. Baldwin informed the king that the British people would not accept his bride on moral grounds: Edward was the titular head of the Church of England and therefore bound by its moral laws.

Edward followed his heart, and on December 10 he announced his abdication of the throne. He had ruled for just 325 days. A footman informed -Elizabeth and Margaret of the news. Margaret asked her 10-year-old sister, “Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?”

“Yes, someday,” Elizabeth replied.

“Poor you,” said Margaret.

Queen Elizabeth II TIME Special Edition
TIME Special Edition Cover of Queen Elizabeth II

Margaret likely picked up such sentiments from her father. Albert was, to say the least, a reluctant king. He wrote that he “broke down and sobbed like a child” when discussing his brother’s abdication with his mother. Albert had not been groomed to be king. He’d never seen a state paper before in his life and dreaded public speaking because of a stammer he hadn’t been able to overcome. But duty-bound, Albert took the name of King George VI to send a message of continuity in a tumultuous time. He soon moved his family into Buckingham Palace.

Elizabeth had been on the cover of TIME at the tender age of 3, but now the princesses became a national obsession in the U.K. King George VI had always resented being the less favored brother, so he insisted that no one show preference for Elizabeth over Margaret. As a result, the sisters dressed identically, and their outfits would instantly sell out in department stores. Despite his efforts to treat them equally, the king soon slotted his daughters into their respective roles. Elizabeth was the serious one: she meticulously lined up her shoes in her room every night before bed and would leap up from mid-sleep if she thought one was out of order. Margaret was the more precocious and sociable one.

Despite the fact that Elizabeth was now heir apparent, the king and queen prioritized Elizabeth’s and Margaret’s happiness over their education. Some biographers have speculated that the king did not want his daughters to be able to outsmart him. It’s certainly true that the queen believed only women who would eventually hold jobs should go to school. Apparently, queen barely qualified as a career, since the princesses received just one and a half hours of schooling per day.

Marion Crawford, called Crawfie by the family, tutored the princesses at home. Their classes focused more on handwriting than on science and statecraft. The two girls did learn about the history of the royal family. And at 13, Elizabeth began to attend private lessons with the vice–provost of Eton College, Henry Marten. They studied the ins and outs of the British constitution for six years.

Elizabeth and Margaret had a sheltered childhood. They attended birthday parties thrown by the daughters of neighbors, but any excursion into London attracted so much attention that the girls never had a hope of feeling ordinary. Crawfie enlisted the daughters of palace workers and noblemen to create a troop of Girl Guides (a British version of Girl Scouts) for the princesses. They built campfires to earn badges. Elizabeth also developed a fondness for horses and dogs. Her father gifted her the first in a long line of corgis, Dookie, in 1933. She has owned more than 30 in her lifetime.

Princess Elizabeth and Margaret Rose
22nd June 1940: Princess Margaret Rose (1930 - 2002) and Princess Elizabeth (right) working on paintings in the school room of Buckingham Palace, London on June 22, 1940Lisa Sheridan—Studio Lisa/Hulton Royals Collection/Getty Images

Any sense of normalcy disappeared for Britain when World War II began. In 1940, the two princesses were ferried away to Windsor Castle, about 20 miles from London, for safety and stayed there for five years until the Allies defeated Germany. Their parents stayed in Buckingham Palace, undeterred by the bombings. The queen notoriously would not be rushed to the bomb shelter during raids. Once, Buckingham Palace received a direct hit, nearly killing the royal couple. The queen wrote to her mother later that she had been trying to remove an eyelash from the king’s eye when they heard the sound of a plane above. “It all happened so quickly that we had only time to look foolishly at each other when the scream hurtled past us and exploded with a tremendous crash in the quadrangle,” she wrote. Later she claimed she was glad the palace had been bombed so that she could face the citizens in the East End who had borne the brunt of the German attacks.

Windsor was safe from such chaos. Though she hosted friends and officers there, Elizabeth seemed to live in a suspended childhood. She missed debutante season, and at the urging of her mother, she continued to wear childish clothing through her 18th birthday. Her one moment of independence came in early 1945 when her father permitted her to train for three weeks at the Mechanical Transport Training Centre as part of the war effort.

In May 1945, Elizabeth and Margaret returned to London. England had survived the war, and so had Philip, Elizabeth’s third cousin. The princess had set her heart on the tall, blond sailor five years her senior when she was a child, and not even international upheaval could change her mind.

Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, Philip’s uncle, arranged for Philip to have lunch with the royal family at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth when Elizabeth was 13. Crawford observed that Elizabeth “never took her eyes off” the 18-year-old Philip. He went on to serve in the British Royal Navy, and the two kept in touch. When Elizabeth was 17, Philip visited the royal family for Christmas. He watched as Elizabeth performed in a pantomime of Aladdin. Soon after, Elizabeth’s grandmother wrote to a friend that the two had “been in love for the past eighteen months. In fact longer, I think.”

Elizabeth was steadfast. Philip proposed to her in the summer of 1946, and the 20-year-old immediately accepted without consulting her parents. Her father consented on the condition that they wait until her 21st birthday to announce the engagement. The wedding was set for Nov. 20, 1947. The morning of the ceremony Philip quit smoking “suddenly and apparently without difficulty,” according to his valet, as a romantic gesture. Elizabeth detested the habit because of the toll it had taken on her father’s health. The king gave Elizabeth away, even though he knew it meant the breaking up of the tight-knit royal family. “When I handed your hand to the Archbishop, I felt I had lost something very precious,” he later wrote to Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth II Royal Wedding
20th November 1947: The royal group on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after returning from the wedding ceremony between Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at Westminster Abbey. (left to right) Princess Margaret (1930 - 2002), Margaret Elphinstone, Diana Bowes-Lyon, Lady Caroline Montague Douglas-Scott, Lady Elizabeth Lambert, the Marquis of Milford-Haven, Prince William, the bride and groom, Lady Mary Cambridge and Lady Pamela MountbattenTopical Press Agency/Getty Images

Several guests were conspicuously missing from the wedding in Westminster Abbey. Philip’s sisters were not invited because of their German husbands. The Duke of Windsor, Elizabeth’s uncle, was also barred from the wedding for political reasons: The palace believed that if the former king were to attend, the British people might view him as a threat to his brother’s reign.

Like Queen Victoria before her, Elizabeth insisted that during the ceremony she promise to “obey” her husband, though her family and some in the government had urged against it. Over the course of their marriage, Elizabeth would try to make such conciliatory gestures to her fiercely independent husband.

About a year later, Elizabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, Charles. Philip took to renovating their new home, and in 1949 they moved into their first house together. That same year, Philip was appointed Second-in-command of a destroyer off the island of Malta, and they moved to the Mediterranean. The couple had another child, Anne. They lived happily, Philip embarking on his naval career and Elizabeth experiencing life outside the spotlight for the first and only time in her life.

King George VI had long had health problems, and in 1951 he took a turn for the worse. In September, surgeons removed the king’s left lung after finding a malignancy. The family kept the news from the press, but Elizabeth’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, took to carrying a draft accession declaration in case the king died when Elizabeth was out of the country. In January 1952, Elizabeth and Philip set off for Kenya, the first stop on a royal tour meant to be taken by the king. When they arrived, the couple spent an evening in a hotel perched in a tree, and Elizabeth, who nurtured a lifelong love of photography, filmed elephants meandering below.

On the morning of February 6, King George VI died at age 56. The news spread across England, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill reportedly bemoaned the fact that Elizabeth, at 25, was “only a child.” Yet nobody was able to reach Elizabeth and Philip, still gazing at the wildlife from the treetop hotel in Kenya. It took approximately four hours to get hold of the couple. Philip broke the news to -Elizabeth, and Charteris asked what she was going to call herself. (Monarchs often adopt new names, as Elizabeth’s father, Albert, had done.) Elizabeth answered, “My own name, Elizabeth, of course. What else?”

Perhaps naively, Elizabeth and Philip had not expected her to inherit the crown so soon. Philip had planned for a long naval career before he became a full-time husband, and he struggled to play the role of consort. He protested their move into Buckingham Palace and bristled under Elizabeth’s newfound authority. Elizabeth’s mother and sister were also left with little purpose now that the king was gone. Their lives “must seem very blank,” Elizabeth wrote, while hers had a newfound meaning.

Still, some were cheered by the news. Margaret Thatcher, who would later become the first female prime minister, wrote in a newspaper column at the time, “If, as many earnestly pray, the ascension of Elizabeth II can help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand.” And when Elizabeth arrived in London, Churchill was among the first to endorse her: “Famous have been the reigns of our queens. Some of the greatest periods in our history have unfolded under their scepter.”

Philip’s uncle Dickie Mountbatten greeted the news clumsily. “The House of Mountbatten now reigns,” he announced. Elizabeth’s grandmother heard rumors of the declaration and teamed up with Churchill to persuade Elizabeth to keep the name House of Windsor, lest she risk backlash from the people against her German husband. Elizabeth agreed, and Philip balked. “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children,” he complained to friends. “I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.”

To assuage him, Elizabeth gave Philip the job of heading up the committee to organize her -coronation. He pushed to modernize the event for the young, female monarch by bringing cameras into Westminster Abbey. Queen Elizabeth and Churchill initially nixed the idea but changed their minds when they found the public was in favor of televising the event. It was the first major international event to be broadcast.

The Duke of Windsor was again left off the invitation list. He reportedly said of the snub, “What a smug, stinking lot my relations are.” But the former king, who had never had his own coronation, tuned in to the ceremony on June 2, 1953, along with 20 million other people around the world.

Three million onlookers gathered in the streets to cheer as the queen made her way to Westminster Abbey in a 24-foot-long gold stagecoach. She wore a dress adorned with the symbols of Great Britain and the Commonwealths, including a rose, a thistle, a shamrock, a maple leaf and a fern. In the abbey, the most sacred part of the ceremony was hidden from the cameras: Elizabeth was anointed with holy oil under a canopy. Holding a scepter and balancing a five-pound solid-gold crown on her head, she took her throne. ■

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com