Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series about the entire life of Queen Elizabeth II that will be published in the Anglotopia Print Magazine. Each issue of this magazine will feature an article about every aspect of her life. This was the first, published in Issue #11 in 2018. To keep up with the series, please subscribe to the Anglotopia Print Magazine.
It might seem surprising to us today to think that Queen Elizabeth II hasn’t always been Queen Elizabeth II; she is, after all, the longest-reigning British monarch in history, as well as the Western world’s longest-serving leader. We sometimes picture her like the birth of Athena, springing from Zeus’s head fully grown and in full battle regalia. But of course, she wasn’t born queen or even heir to the throne. Her father was Albert, Duke of York, King George V’s second son. It was Uncle David, momentarily (for ten months, anyway) reigning as King Edward VIII, who was meant to be king.
Perhaps it was exactly because she was not meant to be a queen that she was able to have such a charmed, happy childhood. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in London on 21 April 1926. Just as with Britain’s royals today, her birth was met with a media firestorm, proving that even if she wasn’t yet the “heiress presumptive,” she was still not just a normal little girl. In fact, her future first Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the family in Scotland at Balmoral when Elizabeth was just two years old and was completely taken by her charm. He called her “a character” and someone with “an air of authority.” 1
Even before her father took the throne in 1936 when Elizabeth was just age 10, young Lilibet, as she was called, had developed quite a personality. She was said to be shy and humble yet clever, astute, witty, precise, and cheerful. In 1927, when Elizabeth was still just a toddler, her parents went on a royal tour of New Zealand and Australia, leaving their daughter with King George V and Queen Mary (and presumably a host of nannies and staff). Her grandmother, Queen Mary, called her “a joy.” Lilibet had already stolen her grandparents’ hearts. Her grandfather, King George V, who was rather harsh with his own sons, was crazy about Lilibet. She clearly was just as crazy about him, calling him Grandpa England. With the birth of little sister Margaret in 1930, four years after Elizabeth, the family was complete and happy.
Margaret and Elizabeth seemed to be a good complement to each other. While Elizabeth was dignified and standoffish, Margaret was lively and fun, often playing practical jokes on the staff (picture the von Trapp children putting frogs in Frauline Maria’s pockets) while Elizabeth watched and giggled. In public occasions, Elizabeth was clearly already the older sister more ready for monarchy, at one point telling Margaret before an outing, “If you see someone with a silly hat, Margaret, you must not point at it and laugh.”2 And yet they were good friends and had a lot of fun together. Of course, there were not a lot of other options, since they did not leave to go to school or make friends with outsiders. One of Lilibet’s favorite playmates was her Uncle David, in the years before his abdication when the whole relationship went sour. He often came to play in the family’s after-supper games; he even gave the young princess her first copy of Winnie-the-Pooh, which was published the same year as her birth. Elizabeth’s father, and soon the rest of their little family, called each other “we four,” and had a strong bond of friendship and fun, probably realizing that they were really the only ones who know what it was like to be a family like they were. The press loved them.
Besides parlor games with the family, Lilibet loved her horses. She started riding at age three and took to it immediately, a love she has kept throughout her life. It was her father who taught her all about breeding and racing; she loved to ride and explore the stables with him at their estate in Norfolk—Sandringham—and at Hampton Court and Balmoral. When she wasn’t outside with the horses, she was often inside with her pile of toy ponies, brushing their hair and arranging them on the stairs, sometimes even pretending to be a pony herself and refusing to answer those around her: “I couldn’t answer you as a pony.”3 It was also her father who gave her her first Welsh Corgi, what was to become her signature breed. They named the dog Duke of York, calling him “Dookie” (again with the nicknames); after that, she was never without at least one dog, sometimes many underfoot. She even took her dog Susan on her honeymoon with Prince Philip.
In 1932, the family brought in a lively Scottish nanny, Marion Crawford, affectionately known as Crawfie (this family likes their nicknames). In an effort to introduce the young princesses to life outside the “glass curtain,” as she called it, Crawfie would take the girls into town on the bus and the tube in the years before the abdication. After the abdication, when it became clear that Elizabeth was not going to do as much traipsing around London, Crawfie arranged for a troop of Girl Guides (think British Girl Scouts) to meet at Buckingham Palace as a way to help Elizabeth make friends and have a normal (or normal-ish) childhood. This was not your average group of Girl Guides, of course, no Eastenders in the mix, but 20 girls of about Margaret and Elizabeth’s ages carefully chosen from their relatives, of which there were so many, and local aristocrats. Still, the young princesses got to run around exploring the 40 acres of gardens at the palace, making campfires and learning outdoor skills. Crawfie and her young charges were very fond of each other, and they were together for years. However, in 1949 the nanny wrote a (very sweet, kindly, completely innocuous) memoir of her time with Elizabeth and Margaret, and the family cut her out completely for such a show of disloyalty, prompting the Queen Mother to cry, “We can only think that our late and completely trusted governess has gone off her head.” 4
Before Crawfie’s abrupt departure from the family, she also acted as tutor to the two girls. In the years before King George VI’s succession, Elizabeth’s education was fairly relaxed. She was expected to learn language and history, but no math or government to speak of. Crawfie remembers the first book she read with Lilibet and Margaret—”Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens”, an appropriate choice as it was written and took place just down the street. Marion Crawford was also expected to teach her manners and penmanship, as well, skills that would be useful to a life of royalty but nothing to prepare her for the monarchy. Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Duchess of York, had taught Lilibet to read herself, often reading aloud to her. It was the Duchess of York who encouraged a light education, often interrupting her studying hours for little outings, and one day bringing home a stack of 18 P.G. Wodehouse novels, hardly heavy reading. Still, it was also the Duchess of York who taught Lilibet religion. Lilibet grew up with a strong Christian faith, learning her Psalms and reading the Book of Common Prayer with her mother. This turned out to be a great asset later on when she became head of the Church of England, hardly something her mother could have expected as they were saying their prayers together before bed.
The Windsors were a dutiful family, instilling that sense of duty in Elizabeth from a young age. Queen Mary was particularly stiff-upper-lip about royal duties, teaching Lilibet how to walk and sit up straight so as not to embarrass herself—traditional royal family skills. Lilibet learned the useful skill of keeping a diary from her mother. When complimented on her daily writings in later years, the Queen said, “It’s not really a diary-like Queen Victoria’s . . . or as detailed as that. It’s quite small.” She called it just a habit, “like scrubbing your teeth.”5 Despite her humility about it, we can imagine that one day beyond her death, those daily entries will be quite enlightening to the rest of us. The Duchess of York, by now Queen Elizabeth herself, was also a great example to Lilibet of how to treat other people, a characteristic that Lilibet has hung onto throughout her life and reign. Her mother told her, “if you find something or somebody a bore, the fault lies in you.”6 Now there’s a quality more of us could use in our modern lives, and those who know Queen Elizabeth II often comment on how interested she is in people, relating to them in a way that might seem surprising considering her sheltered upbringing. The family also tried to teach Lilibet and Margaret frugality and money management, giving the girls an allowance of five shillings a week—a somewhat comical idea to us today, considering Lilibet already had a yearly allowance of 6,000 pounds, and where was she really going to spend her weekly allowance anyway?
Young Elizabeth’s easy, simplified education changed dramatically in 1936 when her father reluctantly took the throne, and she became the heiress presumptive (“presumptive” just in case her parents had a son, but of course they didn’t). Suddenly Elizabeth needed to learn all sorts of new things—maybe not math, which was never her strong suit, but government and more history and languages, to be sure. To that end, in 1939 the family brought in Sir Henry Marten, vice-provost of nearby Eton College (nearby when they were at Windsor, that is, but they were in Windsor quite often, causing the queen to call Windsor her home). Marten was very knowledgeable as a professor at Eton, we might think of him as stuffy and a bit of a bore, but for Lilibet, he was engaging and brought history alive. That was, of course, just what she needed in the years of royal tutelage she had ahead of her. Marten taught her the ins and outs of the British Constitution with some instruction in American history, as well. As Americans, we consider our constitution to be fairly straightforward as a document that was, for the most part, written all in one go. The British Constitution, however, is more of a conglomeration of accumulated laws and precedents, not surprising considering their history is well more than 1,000 years older than that of the United States and has gone through numerous governmental and monarchical permutations. The King’s private secretary, and later Elizabeth’s, Tommy Lascelles instructed Marten to “hide nothing” about the constitution and how to navigate it. Marten clearly took this task to heart—Elizabeth’s Prime Ministers were often impressed with her command of the Constitution and her knowledge of the workings of Parliament, they were perhaps even surprised by her detailed knowledge. Marten also taught her critical thinking and how to use her best judgment in assessing an argument, a skill that would benefit her throughout her reign.
Along with learning the intricacies of the British government, Elizabeth’s family brought in a French tutor for the young princesses, a Belgian vicomtesse with the improbable name of Marie-Antoinette de Bellaigue. They called her Toni (again with the nicknames, but these names are all such a mouthful, who can blame them?). Lilibet learned to speak fluently, a great skill in her future as Queen, never needing an interpreter in France and her other francophone territories. Her family and advisers clearly had quite a lot of foresight and experience in choosing her education and her educators, her natural curiosity and intelligence helped her to adapt well to the education she suddenly found herself needing.
These formative years were, perhaps surprisingly, happy and loving for the future queen. While the Queen refuses to grant interviews, she talks very fondly of her childhood and her years as “we four.” She still has in her near future a world war, a marriage, the death of her father, and her own reign. It seems like it would be almost impossible to prepare for all the things she would see in her life, yet she seemed perfectly positioned to take them all on with the consistency, discipline, wit, and intelligence she learned from the start.