Queen Elizabeth's Early Life Before Her 70-Year Reign
Why is the British royal family so popular? It starts with Queen Elizabeth II. She started ruling in 1952 and was the longest-reigning monarch in the world — 70 years to be exact — until her death on Sept. 8, 2022.
Funny thing is, Elizabeth wasn't meant to be queen. When she was born in 1926, her grandfather was king, and her father was the second son of the monarch. Then, the king died in 1936, her uncle abdicated the crown, and her father became king. At age 10, Princess Elizabeth was the heir to the throne.
It might be hard to imagine the beloved matriarch of the royal family as a kid, but she was a country girl at heart who dedicated her life to serving the Commonwealth. This is what Queen Elizabeth was like before she became queen.
Her Life Did Not Begin as a Fairy Tale
Queen Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor on April 21, 1926, in Mayfair, London.
With no one expecting her to be a monarch, the plan was to give her a pretty normal childhood.
At least as normal as life can be when you grow up in one of the most powerful dynasties in history.
But It Didn't Take Too Long for Her to Become a Celebrity
There’s always been a fascination with royalty, and this phenomenon has a name. According to Dr. Frank Farley, a professor and psychologist at Temple University and a former American Psychological Association president, it's called "parasocial behavior" and happens when people get attached to a person without meeting them or having any meaningful connection.
"We’re social animals," Dr. Farley told Time magazine in 2018. "With famous media figures, people we learn about, celebrities, et cetera, we often live some of our lives through them … We all have dreams of wealth and fame and happiness and style and social influence and so on, which starts early with fairy tales and the way we raise our kids. That stays with us, to some extent, through our lives. Royals and other people, like Hollywood figures ... keep that phenomenon alive."
Elizabeth was a public figure since birth. She appeared on her first Time magazine cover at the age of 3. She didn't have a choice. Fame chose her.
Some Family and Friends Called Her 'Lilibet.' One Person Called Her 'Cabbage.'
Learning how to speak can be difficult with longer names, and Elizabeth was a mouthful. The young princess couldn't quite pronounce it. That's how she gave herself her first nickname, "Tillabet."
As she got older, "Tillabet" became "Lilibet," which close family and friends still called her. Her late husband, Prince Philip, even had his own pet name for his wife, "Cabbage."
She also went by "Granny," "Gan Gan," "Gary" and "Shirley Temple." If you ever met the queen, though, you would have addressed her as "Your Majesty."
Any Day Could Be Dress-Up Day for a Princess
One of the perks of being a royal is being invited to a lot of fancy events. For a young prince or princess who liked to play dress-up, that meant getting to dress up for real and learn how to conduct yourself in a dignified way.
Queen Elizabeth may not have started out knowing she was going to be queen. But she had years of practice developing her regal manner.
In 1931, she served as a 5-year-old bridal attendant (front right above) at the wedding of Lady May Cambridge to Captain Henry Abel Smith.
This Castle Was One of Her Favorite Places
Little girls just want to have fun. And what's more fun than the Braemar Gathering, the most famous highland games in the world?
We're talking about running, dancing and impressive feats of strength. It's a big sporting competition/party that takes place in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, a short distance from the royals' summer residence at Balmoral Castle, the Queen's favorite residence.
"I think Granny is the most happy there," said Princess Eugenie in the documentary "Our Queen at Ninety," Town & Country reported. "I think she really, really loves the Highlands."
Princess Elizabeth started going to Balmoral when she was young and always enjoyed relaxing and spending quality time with family.
"Walks, picnics, dogs — a lot of dogs, there’s always dogs — and people coming in and out all the time," Eugenie continued. "It’s a lovely base for Granny and Grandpa, for us to come and see them up there, where you just have room to breathe and run."
She Learned Early It's Important to Never Embarrass the Family
It's good to be the queen. But it's not easy to live your whole life in a fishbowl under the microscope with every move documented.
Royals are human after all, and there are times when they are really just like us. Princess Elizabeth learned at an early age that when you step into the limelight, you need to make sure everything is just right.
Even your socks.
She Made Her Parents Proud
Look closely at many photos of the young Princess Elizabeth with her parents, and you can see them bursting with pride.
Even though they planned life out of the spotlight for her, wherever they took her when she was young, she had a special ability to connect with people of all ages.
In 1933, her mother, the Duchess of York, introduced her to disabled soldiers at an exhibition of their work. The meeting was a foreshadowing of Elizabeth's service to come during World War II.
And Her Grandparents, Too
Queen Mary also loved spending time with her granddaughter. And vice versa.
It was another benefit of being a royal. You had time to devote to family. In ceremonies, special occasions or just a simple carriage ride.
This bonding time served as a training ground for Elizabeth's future on the throne, though she didn't know it at the time.
She Was Always an Old Soul With Empathy
Can you spot the difference in this picture? Hint: One of these people outlasted 13 British prime ministers and 13 U.S. presidents during her time as Britain's head of state.
Of course, it's Princess Elizabeth as an 8-year-old in 1934. Often, she was the youngest in a group. These experiences gave her exposure to grown-up issues, even if she wasn't fully grown herself, and helped her develop a worldview with a sense of compassion and empathy for all.
Here, she walks between King George V and Queen Mary as they leave Westminster Abbey in London after attending a service for the Relief of the Unemployed. During the Great Depression in 1931, her Uncle Edward organized a relief fund for Britain's many unemployed, and an all-party government was formed on the advice of her grandfather, George V.
But Sometimes You Just Want to Be One of the Kids
Royalty has its privileges. So does normalcy.
When Princess Elizabeth went out in public as a child, she didn't get to be a normal kid. It could be isolating at times and left her longing for more non-royal interaction with others.
In 1935, she went with her little sister, Princess Margaret Rose, and their mother to the "Dick Whittington" pantomime at the Lyceum Theater. Most kids would be having the time of their life in the Duchess' box, but on this day (for at least a moment), nothing would have been better than general admission seats.
She Got Her Wish at Birthday Celebrations, and They Never Got Old
What kid doesn't like a birthday? An annual tradition in Great Britain is to celebrate the official birthday of the queen or king with the Trooping of the Color parade.
Elizabeth started going to this ceremony when she was young to honor the birth of her grandfather, King George V.
Once she became queen, it was her turn.
The Queen Was Homeschooled in a Nontraditional Way
Queen Elizabeth did not have a traditional education. Instead of attending a formal school (public or private), the princess and her sister, Princess Margaret Rose (who was five years younger than Elizabeth), were educated at home by their governess Marion Crawford.
After their father became king in 1936, Elizabeth had private instruction with some prominent teachers from Eton College and Cambridge, studying constitutional history and law. She also took horse riding lessons, and that may have been her favorite subject.
"The queen is certainly cultured, even if not that moved by the arts," said royal biographer Penny Junor.
The People Always Loved the Princess
The queen was always popular — and not much changed over her lifetime.
When Princess Elizabeth went out in public with her family, police officers sometimes would have to hold back cheering crowds. She was treated like a rock star.
Hip, hip, hooray.
She Always Loved Horses
They say a person's favorite animal says a lot about that person's character and personality. Queen Elizabeth loved horses since she was young. So what did that say about the queen's character?
According to The Dodo, people who love horses are very patient, strong and reliable. "Letting people down is not something that you are at all OK with — so you don't let it happen. You have a certain calm about you that gains the trust of others fairly easily, and that's not something you take advantage of."
Sounds like the queen.
She Passed on Her Love of Horses to Other Family Members
Elizabeth started riding horses when she was 3 years old, and she never stopped. At age 4, Elizabeth was given her first horse, a Shetland pony named Peggy, which she was riding by the age of 6.
By 18, she was an accomplished rider and continued to ride for pleasure throughout her life. In 2019, Queen Elizabeth was riding a horse on the grounds of Windsor Castle at the age of 93. She did the same a year later at age 94.
According to Town & Country, the queen also passed on her equestrian passion to her daughter, Princess Anne, who inspired her daughter, Zara Tindall, to get into the sport. Tindall then went on to win a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London as a member of the United Kingdom's eventing team.
Corgis Are Her Favorite Dog
The queen's father bought her first corgi in 1933 when she was 7, and he was still the Duke of York. She and her sister named the puppy Dookie. They soon got a second corgi named Jane.
Elizabeth was hooked and became a corgi fanatic. For more than eight decades, she has owned purebred corgis. In the 1980s, she collected packs of up to 13 corgis at a time and bred most of them at Windsor Castle.
According to The Dodo, people who love corgis "are very social creatures. They tend to be extroverts and love getting attention from others. Corgi lovers love to talk and will probably not stop talking very often. They tend to be the ones who crave the spotlight — maybe actors and musicians! They're very active and love going out and experiencing the world. Corgi people are quirky, but can also be kind of stubborn — they believe what they believe!"
Some of Queen Elizabeth's other dogs were named Carol, Crackers, Monty, Candy, Vulcan and more. She loved corgis so much that she even took one on her honeymoon. Now, that's true love. And a conscientious pet owner.
And the Zoo Was Another Happy Place
It's no surprise that Elizabeth enjoyed going to the zoo as a child.
She always had a natural curiosity about animals and was comfortable (and fearless) around them.
Her love of zoos continued throughout her lifetime, and she was a patron of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which supports animal conservation work around the world.
If She Wasn't Queen, She Might Have Been a Veterinarian
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but few things in life give her as much joy as animals. She got her first ride on an elephant in 1939 at the London Zoo.
In 2017, the 90-year-old monarch opened an elephant center during a visit at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire and met a 10-month-old elephant named Elizabeth in her honor.
She even handfed one of the elephants a banana.
She Was Close With Her Sister Until They Took Different Paths
Elizabeth got along well with Margaret, her only sibling, but once Elizabeth became a direct heir to the throne, she got more unique opportunities, such as education. A former member of the royal staff, Anne Clenconner, explained their divergent paths in a 2018 documentary called "Margaret: The Rebel Princess," Harper's Bazaar reported.
"[Margaret] said to me, 'That was the first time I sort of thought or realized that my sister was going to be Queen, and I wouldn’t really be part of what she was going to do,'" Glenconner said. "It hit her quite hard that their lives were going to be completely different."
Nevertheless, Margaret maintained great respect for her older sister. "She was terribly loyal to the queen — and being five years younger, I think it would have been much more difficult if she had been just [a little] younger than the queen," Glenconner told People. "There would have been more rivalry."
Clenconner offered more insights into the royal relationship in a 2020 memoir called "Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown" and shared 30 years of secrets.
Life Didn't Get Much Better Than Quality Time With Mom and Dad at a Horse Show
Princess Elizabeth was close to her mother and father and loved spending time with both of them together. The icing on top was when it was at a horse show.
In 1935, at age 9, she went to the Richmond Horse Show with her father, Prince George, and mother, Princess Elizabeth.
A good time was had by all.
With Some Youthful Playfulness, She Broke Down Traditional Royal Barriers
The royal family has strict rules to follow. They aren't exactly kid-friendly. But young Elizabeth brought a fun-loving spirit to the kingdom.
While her grandfather, King George V, could be an intimidating person, she was one of the few people in the country who wasn't afraid of him. According to Time, she once surprised the archbishop of Canterbury by playfully "leading the king by the beard as if he were a horse."
She was 9 when King George died in 1936 at the age of 70. The loss saddened her. But being around the king so much prepared her well.
England Wanted Her to Be Queen
Elizabeth's uncle, Edward, ascended to the throne after the death of King George V. Edward had been romancing an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, for a few years, so people in the United States got excited about the possibility of an American queen.
But kings are not allowed to marry divorced women, and old England had its heart set on a second Queen Elizabeth. The daughter of George and Elizabeth, the Duke and Duchess of York, would become Crown Princess if King Edward abdicated to marry. And that's exactly what happened.
He abdicated the throne in order to marry Simpson and took the title Duke of Windsor. Elizabeth's father became king, and she became the next in line in the monarchy.
All Hail Her Dad
The coronation of Princess Elizabeth's father, George VI, and his wife Elizabeth, her mother, as king and queen of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth took place at Westminster Abbey in London, on May 12, 1937.
The family's new home was Buckingham Palace, the London residence and administrative headquarters of the monarchy. It has been the official royal residence since 1837 and is famous for hosting state and royal events.
When the young Elizabeth learned they were moving to Buckingham Palace, she asked her nanny: "What, you mean forever?"
She Liked to Plan Parties, and She Got Nice Presents
The eldest daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 13th birthday on April 21, 1939. And Princess Elizabeth was allowed to plan her own day.
After opening her presents in the morning, she went riding in Windsor Great Park with the king and Princess Margaret. Elizabeth then gave a tea party at Windsor Castle. The king, queen and others close to the royal family were invited.
The princess’ birthday presents included a diamond bracelet from the king and clothes, among which were silk stockings from the queen.
Princess Elizabeth Fell in Love With Her Future Husband When She Was 13
It wasn't love at first sight, but it didn't take long for Princess Elizabeth to fall for Prince Philip, her future husband.
The distant cousins met for the first time in 1934 at a wedding when Elizabeth was 8 and Philip was 13. Three years later, Philip was at the coronation of Elizabeth’s father, George VI. But their first official meeting was in 1939 when King George VI brought his family to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, Devon.
She was 13 and he was 18, tasked with entertaining her and her sister Margaret. After playing with some train sets, he took them to the tennis courts and impressed Elizabeth by jumping over tennis nets.
"I thought he showed off a good deal," recalled Marion Crawford, Elizabeth's governess, recalled. "She never took her eyes off him the whole time."
Elizabeth and Philip exchanged letters after that, and they got married in 1947.
The Royal Family Takes Family Photos, Too
Every family takes them. Even the royal family.
In 1940, they took a break from national war activities to celebrate the 14th birthday of Princess Elizabeth and take a family photo. This birthday picture was taken in Windsor Great Park.
Say Gloucester cheese.
She Became a Wartime Princess During World War II
The British Empire and Commonwealth (except Ireland) declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, then Italy in 1940 and Japan in 1941.
World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945, and King George's popularity soared during the conflict that involved almost every part of the world with the Allies (led by Great Britain, the United States, France, the Soviet Union and China) fighting the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Blitz while the king and queen were there, and the king's younger brother, the Duke of Kent, was killed in active service.
George became known as a symbol of British determination to win the war. Instead of moving his family out of England during the war, he and the queen stayed at Buckingham Palace, and the children stayed at Windsor Castle, a country residence in Berkshire, about 20 miles from the palace.
The princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, did not leave England as other English children did because the king wanted his family to share the hardships and perils of the common people. This decision shaped her entire life and worldview.
And Thus Began a Lifetime of Leadership
Princess Elizabeth was called on to perform many public duties for the royal house as she grew older. On Oct. 13, 1940, the 14-year-old made her broadcasting debut during World War II on the "Children's Hour," a BBC radio program.
She spoke to the nation of England, giving a three-minute speech to the British girls and boys who were evacuated overseas to find new wartime homes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.
"[W]e children at home are full of cheerfulness and courage," Elizabeth told the listening audience. "We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end, all will be well, for God will care for us and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place."
Her sister, Princess Margaret, joined her to say goodnight to listeners.
You can hear the full speech here.
She Always Wanted to Do More During the War
Princess Elizabeth was not a person who liked to stand on the sidelines and watch. She wanted to be part of the action as much as possible.
Whenever she witnessed her father taking part in any activities related to World War II, Elizabeth envisioned how she could help.
She begged him to let her pitch in during the war, but King George was a protective father.
Still, She Found Ways to Contribute to the War Effort as a Young Teenager
Princess Elizabeth did as much as she could to support the Allies at the beginning of the war.
She knitted garments for the poor, gave funds to purchase cigarettes for the armed forces, and attended dances and programs for evacuated children.
Still, she yearned to serve more.
She Carried Out Her First Military Inspection on Her 16th Birthday
Princess Elizabeth turned 16 years old in 1942 in the middle of World War II and carried out her first public engagement — a military inspection.
She inspected the Grenadier Guards at Windsor Castle in her capacity as colonel of the regiment. The British Grenadiers, who added new luster to their fame during the war, then marched for the future queen.
After the ceremony, there were presentations and informal conversations.
She Enjoyed Gardening and Getting Her Hands Dirty
Princess Elizabeth could be as prim and proper as the best of them, but she wasn't afraid to work in the dirt.
While living at Windsor Castle, Elizabeth and Margaret grew a garden that included tomatoes and beans. Tending to their garden was a favorite pastime, and they took great pride in their harvests.
The queen had a gardener, but she still enjoyed having a nice garden of her own at Buckingham Palace.
She Was More Down to Earth Than Many People Thought
When you're in the royal family, you have a lot of servants. They are there to take care of your every need.
But Princess Elizabeth wasn't above taking care of herself. Sometimes, this show of humility surprised some people.
At the end of the day, she was salt of the Earth, and just about everyone who met her loved her instantly.
Who Will She Marry?
When the princess turned 18 in 1944, the hottest gossip of the day centered around who Elizabeth would marry. There was a wealth of conjecture and no shortage of rumors.
The best bet was that the future queen would choose some young man whom she had met or would meet at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, another royal residence. Most of the young men who visited there were members of the royal household and sons of the future queen's Scottish friends invited down for the weekends.
Of course, her heart already had chosen someone.
She Became a Bona Fide Grease Monkey
All that begging with her father worked, and Elizabeth finally got her wish to do more during the war. In February 1945, the 18-year-old princess joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and trained in London as a military truck driver and mechanic with the rank of second subaltern.
Five months later, she was promoted to junior commander, the equivalent of captain. Her younger sister Princess Margaret was a Girl Guide (similar to the Girl Scouts) and later joined the Sea Rangers.
The queen remained the only female member of the royal family to enter the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II.
She Secretly Celebrated VE Day on the Streets of London
World War II officially ended on May 8, 1945, or Victory in Europe (VE) Day, as the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of the Nazis. The king broadcasted the news to the nation, and the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge the cheering crowds.
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret got permission from their parents to leave the palace and party incognito in the streets of London. "I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief," she recalled in 1985, according to the BBC.
Their wild evening was dramatized in a 2015 film called "A Royal Night Out," with Sarah Gadon playing Elizabeth and Bel Powley playing Margaret.
Her Faith Was a Guiding Principle
Princess Elizabeth grew up Anglican as part of the world's most famous Church of England family. After becoming queen in 1952, she also inherited the title of defender of the faith, a role every monarch has had since Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1534.
Her faith in Christianity was a guiding principle in her life, and it grew over the years. "Let us set out to build a truer knowledge of ourselves and our fellowmen, to work for tolerance and understanding among the nations and to use the tremendous forces of science and learning for the betterment of man’s lot upon this Earth," she said in her first Christmas message as queen in 1952.
In the 21st century, she has spoken more openly about Christianity. A senior member of the Vatican even called her "the last Christian monarch." Now, faith is her message. "I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad," she said in her Christmas message in 2002. "Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God ... I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian Gospel."
In 2016 she said, “Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”
On Her 21st Birthday, She Dedicated Her Life to Service
Princess Elizabeth turned 21 in 1947 and was with her parents and younger sister on a tour of South Africa. In a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town, the princess dedicated her life to the service of the Commonwealth.
"I declare before you all 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. "But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it."
You can hear her whole speech here.
She Mastered Balancing Work With Play
Being in the royal family can be tougher than it looks. When you are the heir to the throne, the scrutiny is magnified, and there is a lot of pressure to live up to the title.
Elizabeth made it look easy her whole life. Her family trip to Africa in 1947 may have been the moment when everything clicked, and she figured out the art of balancing royal life. She gave a BBC radio address to her nation, made her first public appearance alone at an event in a foreign land, watched wild big game at Kruger National Park and rode horses on the beach in East London, South Africa.
She did everything with a purpose and calm that was a beacon of light.
Did You Know That She Never Did Interviews?
Perception is often different than reality. While Elizabeth appeared quite comfortable in public, she was by nature a private person.
She attended many cultural events as part of her public role but never gave interviews. That changed for a 2018 BBC One documentary called "The Coronation." The program was made to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the coronation of Elizabeth II, who opened up for the first time about what it was like to wear the crown.
"This is all, I suppose, the beginning of one's life really as a sovereign," she told journalist Alastair Bruce.
She Got Married
The big wedding day arrived for the princess. On Nov. 20, 1947, Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh and a former Greek and Danish prince, at Westminster Abbey in London.
The couple was secretly engaged in 1946 after Philip asked King George VI for his daughter's hand in marriage. The king agreed with one request to delay any formal engagement until she turned 21, so the official engagement was announced July 9, 1947.
They were been married for 74 years before Prince Phillip passed away on April 9, 2021.
The Royal Family Grew, and the Country Rejoiced
It's kind of a big deal when the future queen of England gets married. And the whole country was overjoyed when Elizabeth and Philip tied the knot.
The royal couple had four children, and their marriage was the longest of any British sovereign, surpassing that of George III and Queen Charlotte, who were married for 57 years.
She Is a Decorated Woman
It's good to be the queen.
Elizabeth held many titles and honors before and during her time as monarch.
Her Horse Hobby Developed Into Something More
Elizabeth didn't only ride horses. She also bred and raced them. In 1952, after the death of her father King George VI, she inherited his breeding and racing stock.
The breeding of thoroughbreds for horse racing developed into one of her favorite leisure activities.
According to a USA Today report in 2018, her horses had won 452 times in 2,834 races and earned the queen over $9.3 million in earnings.
Even Hollywood Royalty Got Starstruck
You know you're big time when Hollywood stars get starstruck around you. That's what happened when Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra met Princess Elizabeth in 1951.
According to the Ava Gardner Museum, Gardner's love of Welsh corgis was inspired by Elizabeth, which prompted Sinatra to give Gardner her first corgi pup.
Gardner and Sinatra weren't the only stars who enjoyed meeting the queen.
Say Hello to Queen Elizabeth II
Princess Elizabeth became the queen of England on Feb. 6, 1952, after her father died of coronary thrombosis at the age of 56.
Her coronation took place on June 2, 1953, at Westminster Abbey and was the first British coronation to be fully televised. It was watched by 27 million people in the U.K. alone and millions more around the world.
It was estimated to have cost £1.57 million, or $1.9 million (c. £43,427,400, or $54.2 million, in 2019).
All Hail the Queen
Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-reigning monarch in British history. Even though she only became queen by a twist of fate, she was the perfect person for the job.
She always understood that the queen's role is highly ceremonial and stayed above the fray of politics. Her neutrality was one reason why she was so loved. Her grace and class were others.
Royal biographer Robert Jobson sums it up well: "The primary role of the monarchy is to sell the British brand, and the queen [was] very good at it."
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