Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
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Of the many pupils fondly remembered by Horace Smith, Royal Riding Master throughout the reigns of six British Monarchs, one young rider was always held in the very highest esteem. At the age of 12, having already distinguished herself as a gifted and eager horsewoman, Princess Elizabeth confided to her teacher that, had she not been born to be Queen, she would “like to be a lady living in the country with lots of horses and dogs”. These youthful remarks are revealing indeed, demonstrating not only a genuine passion for an aspect of Royal life that outsiders often dismiss as mere pomp and ceremony, but also for a remarkable degree of prescience and acuity. Even as a child, Princess Elizabeth understood the full significance of the role into which she had been born; and yet coupled with that awareness was an ardent desire to lead a simple, traditional country life. Little could the Princess have imagined then just how prophetic her words would be; for it is perhaps this blend of her sense of regal duty with a love of simple pleasures that came so uniquely to characterise the style of Elizabeth II’s reign.
Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born in London at 17 Bruton Street, at 2.40am on April 21, 1926. She was the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York, subsequently King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. With the Victorian era not three decades past, it might appear peculiar that Elizabeth’s parents applied so thoroughly modern a manner of bringing up their daughter – for, from the outset, it was decided that the Princess’s life was to be as normal as possible. No longer was the future Monarch to be sheltered from her people’s concerns by Royal excess and opulence; instead, she was to understand the inescapable reality of a nation still coming to terms with the loss of so many of its sons in the First World War. She was born in the year of the General Strike, and British society was undergoing a profound change. Accordingly, the Duke and Duchess of York were determined that Elizabeth should neither be shielded nor spoilt.
Much of the Princess’s early years were spent at the family home at 145 Piccadilly. Her parents’ commitment to providing the future Queen with an appreciation of both her privileges and her responsibilities was absolute. Yet Princess Elizabeth’s first year of life proved a rather solitary affair. Duty-bound to undertake an official visit to Australia in order to open its new Commonwealth Parliament, her parents were obliged to leave her in the hands of her nanny, Clara “Alla” Knight. This early separation was not as traumatic as one might expect – on the contrary, it served to forge an unbreakable bond between Elizabeth and her grandparents. King George V and Queen Mary were immediately entranced by their granddaughter, and proudly informed her parents of every new tooth and word.
When the Yorks returned in June 1927, they found a loving, confident, and slightly mischievous child. “Tillabet”, as the Princess referred to herself, was always ready to amuse. During that year’s Christmas party for the tenants of the Sandringham Estate, she clambered on to the dining-table and proceeded to pelt the guests with cracker after cracker, handed to her by her mother. Her well-developed sense of fun was equally evident in the games that she persuaded her grandfather to play with her. The Archbishop of Canterbury was once utterly discombobulated when, upon attending an audience with George V, he found the King crawling on all fours across the floor, pretending to be a horse, and the young Princess taking the role of groom.
By 1936, the elderly Monarch was dead, and “Tillabet” had become “Lilibet”, the affectionate name by which she is known to her Family to this very day. She had gained a little sister, five years previously, with the birth of Princess Margaret. Princess Elizabeth was initially educated at home, although the Duchess of York had always harboured the hope that one day her daughter would attend public school, and thus learn about matters both intellectual and social. This, however was not to be, as the new King, Edward VIII, had decided that it would not do for a Princess to be educated alongside commoners, and thus Elizabeth received the entirety of her instruction in private.
Given contemporary circumstances, it may well have been the case that the King was merely trying to minimise the level of press scrutiny on the affairs of the Royal Family. His relationship with Wallis Simpson was soon to become the United Kingdom’s most popular source of common gossip, and there can be little doubt that he was apprehensive as to the public reaction when news of her divorce came to light. By the end of 1937, Elizabeth’s life had changed dramatically: Edward VIII had abdicated, her father had been crowned King George VI, and she was Heiress Presumptive to the Throne.
Despite the requisite move to Buckingham Palace, and the ever-increasing pressure of life as the daughter of the King, the 11-year-old Elizabeth was essentially unchanged. Her propensity for pranks and play had been replaced by a more mature and responsible attitude to life and duty, but her formidable sense of humour remained very much intact.
As befitted an Heiress Presumptive, she took it upon herself to discover all she could about the matters that would one day form the basis of her ruling life. She began to attend lessons in constitutional history at Eton College, one of England’s most illustrious and intellectually demanding public schools. Soon, her love of all things historical led her to broaden her education in order to take in the history of Europe. A famous anecdote recounts the occasion on which Princess Marie Louise apologised to her fellow guests at a dinner party held at Windsor Castle for having spoken for so long about her life. With her customary warmth and sincerity, Princess Elizabeth answered: “But Cousin Louise, it’s history, and therefore so thrilling!”
The Princess’s idyllic days of study and self-improvement were soon to be curtailed by the menacing shadow that had fallen over Europe. Hitler’s National Socialist Party, in power since 1933, held Germany in its thrall, and, once again unified with Austria, was threatening to drag the world into another bloody conflict. When war came in September 1939, the people of Great Britain dug deeply, and pulled together as never before. The arbitrary divisions of class were rapidly cast aside as London was pounded by the full force of Germany’s Luftwaffe aircraft.
Princess Elizabeth decided it was time to show that she was ready to assume the full weight of her Royal responsibilities. Realising the need to boost morale, she became patron of organisations whose work she valued. Already President of charities such as the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Hackney, east London, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, she embarked on a series of national visits with the King and Queen. She first bore the full weight of regal office at the age of 18, in 1944, when, during the King’s absence on a tour of the Italian battlefields, she performed many of the official duties of Head of State.
That August, standing at her mother’s side, Princess Elizabeth received an address from the House of Commons, and replied on behalf of the Crown. In 1945, the year in which she flew for the first time, the teenage Princess took a courageous decision: fiercely desirous of showing that she was resolved to do her bit for the war effort, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Services as Second Subaltern No. 230873, a rank equivalent to second lieutenant. It was at this time that Elizabeth truly began to fulfil her mother’s ambitions for her. Her contemporaries frequently remarked not only on how at ease she appeared, but also on what a capable driver she was!
By the end of the Second World War, the Heiress Presumptive to the British Throne had risen through the military hierarchy to become a Junior Commander and a fully qualified driver. Meanwhile, Hitler’s expansionist fantasies had been crushed by the Allies. Happier times, thankfully, were ahead. In 1947, Princess Elizabeth made her first official overseas visit to South Africa. That year, she took a pledge of dedication to the people of the Commonwealth.
The Princess’s role in service had demonstrated that “Lilibet” was now a mature and natural leader. Furthermore, she had achieved her majority. It was with little surprise, but much joy, that the public was informed of her engagement to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria. The couple had known each other for many years, and thus Prince Philip was the obvious and most popular match for Elizabeth, in the eyes of both senior courtiers and the British public. Even the characteristically fickle British press conceded that this was “clearly a match of choice not arrangement”.
They married on November 20, 1947 in Westminster Abbey. The couple were rapturously welcomed wherever they went by a nation sincerely proud of its Monarchy. This happiness was only enhanced by the announcement on November 14 1948 that Princess Elizabeth had given birth to Prince Charles, a baby who was, by all accounts, the perfect likeness of George V, his great-grandfather. Two years later, a sister for the Prince, Princess Anne, was born.
The influence of Princess Elizabeth’s mother was obvious in her maternal attitude towards her children. Conscious of the impact and significance of the War, Elizabeth was convinced that her children needed to be modern Princes and Princesses, and resolved that they, like her, would not be shielded or spoilt, and that they would attend public school.
But as a new generation of the Royal Family was born, another began to fade. By 1952, King George VI was so seriously ill that Princess Elizabeth and her husband stepped in to take his place on a State visit to Australia and New Zealand. On their way there, in Kenya, the Heiress Presumptive was brought the news that her beloved father was dead, and that she had acceded to the Throne. On June 2, 1953, as news of the Commonwealth’s conquest of Mount Everest arrived, the Princess returned to Westminster Abbey, in which she had been married just a few years earlier, to be crowned “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”.
Princess Elizabeth had become Queen Elizabeth II, but she had never quite ceased to be “Lilibet” – the little girl who knew both her duty and her own mind, and was determined to be the best and the most “normal” regent that she could.
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