After nearly four decades as Great Britain monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who arrives in Washington, D.C., this week, wears the crown with ease. But it was not always so. On her maiden voyage to the former colonies in 1951, she was a 25-year-old Princess, so introverted that she asked her hostess, First Lady Bess Truman, to disinvite all guests scheduled for a welcome lunch. “Hers is the story of a woman who distinguished herself in a role to which she never aspired,” writes Roland Flamini in Sovereign: Elizabeth II and the Windsor Dynasty, just published by Delacorte Press. “She would have been happier as a lady of the manor in one of the English shires raising racehorses, dogs and children.” Such might have been her fate had her uncle David (King Edward VIII) not fallen for twice-divorced American Wallis Warfield Simpson and abdicated the throne. The crown then passed to Elizabeth’s father, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, later King George VI.
Today, at 65, Elizabeth is fit, firmly attached to the crown and a far cry from the young Princess portrayed in this excerpt—the oh-so-sheltered “Lilibet” who grew up to rule Britannia.
ELIZABETH WAS A FAIRY-TALE CHILDBLONDE and blue-eyed, and third in the line of royal succession. Born April 21, 1926, she was christened at Buckingham Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury with water from the River Jordan in Palestine. People gathered daily hoping for a glimpse of the child in her pram, letters poured in asking for photographs of “Princess Betty,” and at Madame Tussaud’s a wax statue of the Princess on her favorite pony was the main attraction of the royalty section.
Lilibet—as the Princess had named herself—was not unaware of the attention. By the age of 2 she had been taught to stand without fidgeting, to wave sedately to the crowds and to control her bladder. If she was able to contain herself on an outing, she was rewarded later with cookies.
In the summer of 1930 Elizabeth acquired a sister, Margaret Rose, an inseparable (if not always welcome) companion. Prince Albert was determined that his daughters’ upbringing be the opposite of his own. He had been made to feel secondary to his older brother, precisely because his brother was heir to the throne. His second daughter would not be made to feel marginal. So, despite the four-year age gap, the two Princesses were raised almost as twins, sharing the same nursery, following the same routine and often wearing identical clothes.
But their characters could not have been more different. Elizabeth was quiet, polite and responsible. Margaret was lively, outgoing and willful. Being compelled to live up to standards set by her sister only accentuated Margaret’s rebellious streak.
Lilibet never attended school. She was taught to read by her mother. Family atmosphere was more important to the Yorks than education, which was left in the hands of a governess, with an emphasis on British history and geography. After tea the family would play children’s card games, and following the girls’ baths there were pillow fights in the nursery. As the Princesses’ interest in horses became known, they received toy horses as gifts, and unsaddling them all became a nightly ritual. Elizabeth would tie the cord of her bathrobe to her bed and drive an imaginary horse twice round an imaginary park before going to sleep.
When Edward VIII abdicated on Dec. 10, 1936, the scepter passed to Albert. The Princess was 10 when she heard cheers outside the Yorks’ London home and learned from a footman that her father was now King.
Elizabeth rushed upstairs to relay this sensational news to Margaret, who considered the situation. “Does that mean that you will have to be the next Queen?” she asked. “Yes, some day,” Lilibet replied. Margaret said, “Poor you.”
Father and daughter were locked into their destinies. At an age when most girls have no more on their minds than dolls, clothes and homework, the Princess would join her father for morning walks on the Palace grounds to hear about the day’s business.
When Elizabeth was 13, she accompanied her family to Dartmouth for a tour of the Royal Naval College, her father’s alma mater. There she met a young cadet, Prince Philip of Greece, the nephew of the celebrated Lord Louis Mountbatten.
He was tall, 18 years old, extremely blond, and had smiling good looks. In his naval uniform, Prince Philip cut a dashing figure. The Princess, Mountbatten observed, “stared at him…and followed him everywhere.”
From the standpoint of his hard-up and politically insecure royal relatives in Greece, a marriage into the House of Windsor, the wealthiest and most entrenched in Europe, was devoutly to be wished, and they lobbied on behalf of their kinsman. Moreover, though Philip was no catch financially, he was royal and shared with Elizabeth a common descent from Queen Victoria.
If their daughter’s admiration for Philip registered with the King and Queen, it probably caused mild amusement. But more important issues occupied the King’s attention. War was declared on Sept. 3, 1939. Like many British children, Elizabeth and her sister knitted socks and scarves for the servicemen, kept to regular food rationing and wore their mother’s cut-down dresses.
Hand-me-downs appealed to Elizabeth’s frugality, but it was also a signal of her lifelong passion for orderliness. She arranged her books according to size, aligned her shoes exactly parallel and even sorted by size the coffee crystals her parents gave her as a treat after lunch.
Slowly, King George’s elder daughter was shedding the chrysalis of Lilibet and becoming Elizabeth. Throughout the war she corresponded with Prince Philip, who was serving in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. The Prince did not fit the mold of the Princesses’ officer friends, who tended to be the sons of aristocratic British families. He was independent, outspoken, slightly raffish. And King George would not have been the first father to be suspicious of the intentions of a handsome man who chased his very serious and not exactly beautiful daughter. Still, by the time of Elizabeth’s 18th birthday, speculation about a royal romance had begun to appear in the press.
With an eye toward escaping the palace and serving her country, Elizabeth persuaded her father to allow her to join the women’s unit of the British Army known as the Auxiliary Territorial Service, but officer-cadet 230873 Windsor, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, was no ordinary inductee.
By prior agreement with the Queen, Elizabeth was excused the requisite 10-week boot camp. She was also spared from sharing a hut with a cross section of Britain’s younger womanhood. Instead, the Princess drove home under escort every night, and slept in her own bed. She did not have to eat powdered scrambled eggs but had her meals in the officers’ mess. And when she enlisted, her hair was not checked for lice.
In May 1945 Elizabeth’s military career vanished in the general explosion of public joy at the end of the war in Europe. After pleading with the King and Queen, the Princesses were allowed to join the celebrants, and the sisters behaved like two birds let out of a cage, running along the Mall in the almost forgotten luxury of streetlights and floodlit buildings.
“We cheered the King and Queen and then walked through the streets,” Elizabeth would recall 40 years later. She wore her ATS uniform. “Terrified of being recognized, I pulled my uniform cap down over my eyes,” she remembered. “It was one of the most memorable nights of my life.”
Elizabeth began making public appearances, which were widening her experience but also bringing home the drawbacks of her sheltered upbringing. She once confided to a friend, “Believe it or not, I lie in my bath before dinner and think, ‘Oh, who am I going to sit by and what are they going to talk about?’ I’m absolutely terrified of sitting next to people in case they talk about things I have never heard of.” In those early days of her “public” career she needed the support of a worldly, mercurial person who could show her the light side of life. She needed Philip.
Protocol required that the Princess be the one to propose, but as Philip has hinted, it was in the fall of 1946 that he made his feelings known to the Princess. King George was still reluctant to give his consent, but Elizabeth stood up to her father, and shortly after her 21st birthday, the Palace announced her engagement.
On the gray morning of Nov. 20, 1947, Elizabeth looked out at the gathering crowds. Post-wartime austerity held London in its grip. The streets had few decorations, and no public holiday had been declared. Yet as she drove to Westminster Abbey in the Irish state coach, cheering crowds lined the sidewalks.
The bride wore a gown embroidered with ten thousand small pearls. At the altar she insisted on including the promise to obey her husband as well as to love and honor him. After the wedding breakfast, the couple left for Waterloo Station in a horse-drawn landau. Warmed by four hot-water bottles and with her favorite corgi, Susan, on Elizabeth’s knees, bride and groom left the Palace courtyard with the King and wedding guests running behind throwing rose petals.
Following their honeymoon at Broadlands, the Mountbattens’ magnificent Elizabethan manor in Hampshire, the couple moved into Clarence House, near Buckingham Palace, where on Nov. 14, 1948, Prince Charles Philip Arthur George was born.
Four months later Philip raised the question of resuming his career in the Royal Navy. Elizabeth backed him—but made it quite plain that if the posting was overseas, she was going too. Lt. Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, was duly gazetted First Lieutenant aboard the destroyer HMS Chequers, of the Mediterranean Fleet based at Malta. For the next two years, the Princess divided her time between London and a hilltop villa in Malta, while Prince Charles remained at Clarence House in his nanny’s care.
By entering the villa overlooking the harbor, Elizabeth made the official world disappear. Personal freedom was suddenly abundant: to drive alone in her husband’s yellow roadster, to go to the hairdresser, to do her own shopping—paying personally for her purchases with money from Philip. None of her royal aunts had ever held a wallet. That was what a lady-in-waiting was for.
In the afternoon there was swimming, the races or polo. At night, there were dances galore—on ships, in 17th-century forts and palaces, at the private homes of Maltese society. After dancing with the Princess at a ball, Lord Mountbatten wrote in his diary: “She dances quite divinely and always wants to samba.”
In December 1949 Princess Elizabeth stood with other young wives at Malta’s Grand Harbor watching HMS Chequers sail out on a Red Sea patrol, then walked slowly away. That afternoon, she flew home to a country in the grip of strikes, shortages, deprivation, cold weather and to a reunion with Charles, who had tonsillitis. Six weeks later, she learned that she was pregnant again.
On Aug. 15 she gave birth to Princess Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise at Clarence House. Elizabeth nursed the new baby for three months. Then she hired a nanny and returned to Malta without her daughter. Soon the British press began to question her absences, sniping that she was spending too much time away from her children and not shouldering her share of royal obligations. It was the first time Elizabeth had been openly criticized.
By the summer of 1951 shadows were lengthening over the King’s life. He had been troubled by a persistent hacking cough, and tests confirmed that he had cancer. Surgery to remove his left lung took place on Sunday, Sept. 23, at Buckingham Palace. But doctors were skeptical about his chances.
On Oct. 7, Elizabeth and Philip left on a tour of Canada and a side trip to Washington, D.C. Among the Princess’s papers was a sealed envelope containing the draft Declaration of her accession to the throne and all the documents necessary in the event of her father’s death.
In Washington Elizabeth lived up to American expectations of what a princess should be like. She was pretty, delicate and charming, if perhaps a little too quiet. The object of real curiosity was her handsome husband, who Washingtonians quickly noted walked a couple of paces behind his wife at all times.
The homey Trumans and their staff were equally intrigued by the royal sleeping arrangements. When an advance man requested separate bedrooms for Elizabeth and Philip, Bess Truman moved her own four-poster into Blair House for Elizabeth, and prepared an adjoining bedroom for Philip. The Princess’s bed had a blue canopy, linen sheets and flowered shams. All the air-conditioning units were removed at her request. When her dresser inspected the room, she exclaimed, “Why, it’s just like her bedroom at [Windsor] castle!”
The following February Elizabeth and Philip embarked again, this time to stand in for the ailing King on a royal tour of East Africa and Australia.
Prince Charles waved from the sidewalk outside Clarence House as his mother and father drove away. Perhaps because it was a tour they were undertaking in his place and he wanted to show his appreciation, the King—unusually—went to the airport to see them off. It was the last time Elizabeth saw her father alive. On Feb. 6, at age 56, he died of a heart attack in his sleep.
Unaware of the calamity at home, Elizabeth and Philip spent a blissful night in a cedarwood cabin built in the branches of a giant fig tree overlooking the Sagana River in Kenya.
Nothing disturbed the serenity of the evening as the couple stood on the balcony until the moon set before going to bed. The next morning, the royal visitors had a thoroughly English breakfast and were preparing to leave. When Prince Philip’s secretary Michael Parker brought him the sad news, Philip was stunned. “He looked as if you’d dropped half the world on him,” Parker said later. The Prince told his wife as she stood by the Sagana River. The royal couple walked together, not touching, back and forth along the bank for nearly an hour.
When Elizabeth returned and quietly faced her household, she was dry-eyed, tense, but in control. Immediately, she began sending messages of love to her mother and sister and studying the Accession documents she had been convinced she would not need on this journey.
Touching down in London on the afternoon of Feb. 7, Elizabeth looked out of the window. Waiting on the tarmac was a frieze of somber officials headed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and beyond him the massive black Daimlers and Rolls-Royces that had come to fetch her. “Oh, they’ve sent those hearses,” she said. It was a word she and Margaret had always used for the royal cars, but at that moment it had a macabre ring.
The aircraft door opened, and the Queen came down the steps alone. Churchill bowed low from the waist and clasped her hand, too moved to speak. On the way to the airport he had burst into tears.
The streetlights were coming on when the royal car swung into the grounds of Clarence House. Inside waited Albert’s mother, Queen Mary. “Her old Granny and subject must be the first to kiss her hand,” Queen Mary said, insisting on the ancient form of homage. Then she looked at Elizabeth’s dress and remarked, “Lilibet, your skirts are much too short for mourning.” That night, Mountbatten wrote in his diary: “Poor, sweet Lilibet—now our Queen.” Sixteen years earlier, Princess Margaret had said much the same thing.