On 10th December 1936, Princess Elizabeth of York was with her sister, Margaret, in their London home, 145 Piccadilly, when she became aware of people shouting for her father outside. Her father was away and her mother was ill in bed. Finally, she went to ask a footman the reason for the commotion. He replied that her beloved uncle, Edward VIII, had abdicated and her father was king.
She ran to tell Margaret the news. “Does that mean you will be queen now?” asked her sister. “Yes, I suppose so,” Elizabeth replied. She then turned and began writing up her notes from her swimming lesson. At the top of the page she wrote, “Abdication Day”.
Elizabeth’s preparation to be heir to the throne was so slight that the news came as a surprise. Right up until the last minute, the royal family had hoped that the king would change his mind. Now everyone’s efforts were focused on proving that George VI was strong enough to be king. No great thought was given to Elizabeth as a future queen. After all, it was not a certainity – her parents might have a son.
Previous queens had been obsessively prepared for the role. But although everything changed after the abdication, elizabeth’s education remained as light as it had always been. At 145 Piccadilly, Princess Elizabeth had grown up jolly and carefree. Her lessons in the hands of the nursery governess, Marion Crawford, had been undemanding, with most of the timetable devoted to outdoor games, dancing and singing.
The king famously obsessed by dress and etiquette, was much more concerned by what his daughter wore and with ensuring she understand the importance of royal ceremony. In 1938, the palace bowed to necessity and sent Elizabeth for lessons in the British constitution with Henry Marten, vice-provost of Eton College. Absentminded and surrounded by dizzying piles of books, Marten was nonetheless aware of his chance to shape the mind of the future queen.
Essentially liberal, Marten taught Elizabeth that the monarchy’s main virtue was its adaptability, and praised the 1931 Statute of Westminster (which had given independence to the dominions including Canada, Australia and South Africa) as the basis of the modern Commonwealth. His notion of rule was a consensual one – a lesson that Elizabeth throughly absorbed. Otherwise, Elizabeth learned to be queen by watching her mother and father. Suggestions that she attend Cambridge University were rejected. Her first private secretary, John Colville, attempted to introduce her to ministers (and talked of prince Philip spending time working as a coal miner), encouraged er to read Foreign Office telegrams and took her to listen to a debate in the House of Commons.
Elizabeth came to the throne on 6th February 1952, after the king’s death at the age of 56. On hearing the news, Winston Churchill complained that she was “a child”. But he soon declared that no film star could have performed the role so well. By 1952, Edward VIII had been firmly replaced in British affections. But the young Queen Elizabeth was always affected by his actions. She asked that he did not attend her coronation, and his yearly allowance was not continued after her accession.
The Duke of Windsor watched the coronation on TV, at the house of a rich American friend in Paris. At the close, he lit the cigarette. “It is a very moving ceremony,” he declared, “and all the more moving because she is a woman.” The Queen may have had a light education but her most important lesson had been of that of the abdication – that the people’s love could be easily lost. It is a lesson she has retained throughout her reign.