The death of Queen Elizabeth II today has brought the British monarchy’s longest ever reign to an end. But though she descended from royalty, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor wasn’t supposed to be queen—until a series of historical vagaries placed her in the crosshairs of the world’s most visible monarchy.
A royal family tree
Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, Victoria, reigned over the British Empire for nearly 64 years, longer than any British monarch before her. And she wasn’t first in line for the throne. She was fifth in the line of succession, but a series of deaths put her in power when she was just 18.
Victoria’s eldest son, Edward VII, was heir to the throne for decades, but his long-living mother prevented his ascension to the throne until he was 59 years old. He reigned for only nine years before dying. By then, his eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, had died at just 28, so his second son took the throne.
George V had a 25-year reign, and after his death in 1936 his eldest son, Edward VIII—Elizabeth’s uncle—took the throne. But when he fell in love with the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, he decided to abdicate.
Elizabeth’s sudden veer toward the monarchy
This created a constitutional crisis, and again the line of succession veered to another arm of the family. If Edward VIII had had children of his own, they might have stepped up. Instead, the disgraced king’s brother, George VI, reluctantly took the throne.
Since he had no sons (at the time, male heirs took precedence because of the country’s system of male primogeniture, a tradition that ended in 2013), his firstborn daughter, Elizabeth, became first in line for the monarchy.
At the time of the abdication, Elizabeth was 10 years old. She had spent her childhood in both London and the nearby countryside. Though her London home on the edge of Hyde Park was elegant and large, it had no security to speak of. The princess was educated at home alongside her younger sister, Margaret, by a variety of tutors.
Elizabeth’s life as princess
“If Princess Elizabeth had grown up to be a cousin or a sister of the monarch, she would still have undertaken some royal duties but would also have enjoyed a quieter life with less press scrutiny and more time to pursue her own interests,” says historian and royal commentator Carolyn Harris.
Instead, Elizabeth’s life changed dramatically in 1936 once her uncle abdicated and her father became King George VI. Suddenly she lived in Buckingham Palace. Her movements were restricted; her education changed. Though her governess, Marion Crawford, attempted to give her life some normalcy, taking her and her sister on outings and even organizing a scouting group among the children of palace employees and a variety of aristocratic friends and relatives, Elizabeth’s life was anything but normal.
The princess was expected to master the social graces of a royal and gain an understanding of the history, protocols, and laws of the country over which she would one day reign. She studied history with the royal archivist, got lessons in religion from the archbishop of Canterbury, and became fluent in French.
Experts disagree on the extent of her education. Taking the throne “must have been extraordinarily difficult for her, particularly because she’d never been to school and never had that wider education that we perhaps now take for granted,” royal correspondent Chris Shop told the Daily Express in 2019.
Her father, who despite his shy reserve and stutter became a beloved national figure, helped too, says Harris. “Elizabeth learned her future role as the sovereign by shadowing her father. George VI had not been born to be king and was uncomfortable with public speaking but rose to the occasion.” The hesitant king reigned until his death in 1952, when Elizabeth became queen.
A childhood friend, Sonia Berry, told the Sunday Telegraph’s Andrew Alderson in 2006 that Queen Elizabeth would likely have chosen a different trajectory for her life if she had had the chance. “I think she would have been happier married and living in the country with her dogs and horses,” said Berry. “It’s a very lonely job because, even when she knows people well, she is still the Queen, and there is still a barrier there.”
As for the unplanned, yet fateful, series of events that led Elizabeth II to the throne, the exception has always been the rule for the royal family, says Harris, who points out that, until recently, succession often went in unexpected directions because of death, abdication, or an absence of direct heirs in the main branch of the royal family.
“The current royal succession, where there are three generations of direct male heirs [Prince Charles, Prince William, and Prince George] is comparatively rare in British royal history,” she says.
Like those who came before her, Elizabeth II has made it clear it was her duty to serve. “I declare before you that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said to her future subjects during a radio address given on her 21st birthday, in April 1947.
More than 75 years later, she has followed through on that promise—even if it wasn’t one she wanted to make.