She was never meant to be Queen. Indeed, with the line of succession expected to pass to her father’s brother, David, and subsequently to his future children. Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, the eldest daughter of the Duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was destined, it seemed, to live a rather unspectacular life in relative royal obscurity.
But, to use a sentiment from the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, the best laid plans often go awry…
When George V died on 20 January 1936, he was succeeded by his eldest son, David, the erstwhile Prince of Wales, who chose to take the regnal name of King Edward VIII (pictured). As Prince of Wales, David had lived the life of a pleasure-seeking playboy prince. Weak-willed, petulant yet endlessly charming, he was bored senseless by royal protocol and showed little interest in affairs of state, preferring instead to absorb himself in a number of adulterous liaisons with married women. Hardly surprising then, that the old king had predicted “after I’m dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months”,
And how prophetic those words would prove to be – in the event, it would take just eleven months for George’s wayward son to bring about his own spectacular fall from grace.
The instrument of Edward VIII’s downfall lay in the rather unlikely guise of an American woman named Wallis Simpson, who was already on her second marriage, the first having ended in divorce.
When Mrs Simpson first appeared on the scene in 1932, her subsequent affair with the Prince of Wales initially caused little concern. However, much to the chagrin of his family and advisers, it gradually became clear that the charismatic American was not just another of David’s inconsequential dalliances – in fact, by 1935, he had become so fond of Mrs Simpson that his affection for her bordered on obsession, one that showed no signs of abating even after he became king. Indeed, in the words of Winston Churchill, “… [She was] as necessary to his happiness as the air he breathed”. And as such, by mid-1936, the new king became fixated on a plan to make Wallis (who was by now about to divorce her second husband) his wife.
And therein lay the problem. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, an institution which frowned upon divorce, such a course of action was a constitutional impossibility for the king. But, ignoring the counsel of his advisers, Edward doggedly insisted on marrying Mrs Simpson, and in doing so, he plunged the country into a constitutional crisis.
In a number of secret meetings, Edward and his cabinet ministers earnestly tried to come up with a solution to the problem of Mrs Simpson. The ins and outs of the issue were endlessly debated, without success. At one stage, it seemed likely that he would be allowed to enter a morganatic marriage (which meant that, despite being married to a king, no royal status would be conferred on his wife), but in the end, this too was rejected by the Government, who believed that the British public would be hostile to any such arrangement.
Utterly dejected, Edward was forced to choose between his duty to his country and the love of his life – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he chose the latter. On 10 December 1936, the king signed the Instrument of Abdication, ending his all too brief reign.
The New King
Consequently, when Princess Elizabeth (pictured in 1939 with her grandmother and younger sister, Princess Margaret) awoke the following day, her world had changed beyond all recognition – the Crown had passed to her father, who was now King George VI, which meant her mother was Queen Consort and Elizabeth herself was the heiress presumptive. The only thing that would now prevent her from ascending to the throne would be an early death or, thanks to the existence of the concept known as male primogeniture (which gives precedence to the king’s sons), the arrival of a male sibling.
In words attributed to her maternal grandmother, Lady Strathmore, it was at this stage in the proceedings that Princess Elizabeth allegedly “began praying ardently for a brother”.
A brother, however, did not materialise. And just fifteen years later, upon the unexpected death of her father on 6 February 1952, Elizabeth ascended to the throne at the tender age of 25.
Read more in The Queen: History In An Hour published by Harper Press