Why Queen Elizabeth II Didn’t Expect to Become Queen

February 6 is the 67th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the throne. But as a young princess, she didn't anticipate reigning—here's why.

Why Queen Elizabeth II Didn't Expect to Become QueenHistoria/Shutterstock

When Princess Elizabeth of York was born on April 21, 1926, she was third in line to the throne behind her uncle and her father. She expected that when her uncle, Edward, Prince of Wales, became king, his future children would be next in succession, pushing her further down the line and allowing her to live mostly out of the spotlight, much like Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York today.

But when Princess Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, died in 1936 and her uncle became monarch, an unexpected controversy followed. The yet-unmarried King Edward VIII’s choice of bride was divorcée Wallis Simpson, but as head of the Church of England, he was not allowed to wed her. This national crisis led to his abdication of the throne after reigning for less than a year, and Princess Elizabeth’s father unexpectedly became King George VI. Here are 12 more royal family scandals that shocked the world.

The unlikely turn of events was the first surprise on Princess Elizabeth’s road to the throne. Now she was “heir presumptive”—she wasn’t named as “heir apparent” because a male heir could still be conceived. Still, when her younger sister, Princess Margaret, reportedly said, “Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?” the ten-year-old Princess Elizabeth replied, “Yes, someday,” to which Princess Margaret countered, “Poor you.”

Princess Margaret might have gotten this notion from her father, a quiet man with a stammer who hadn’t been trained to take on the role of monarch and approached the role with trepidation. The stress of the job would take its toll on his health, leading to “someday” coming much sooner than expected.

In the winter of 1952, Princess Elizabeth, now a young mother, was on a tour of the British Commonwealth on behalf of the crown. On February 6, she and her husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were staying at a remote treetop hotel in Kenya when the 56-year-old king died in his sleep, immediately making her the sovereign. British game hunter Jim Corbett later wrote in the visitors’ log book, “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and…climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”

But the Queen wasn’t actually aware of her change in status. The royal couple didn’t get the news until the next afternoon, with the Duke gently breaking it to his wife: Her father was gone, and she was now Queen.

Although King George had been in poor health due to lung cancer, he was not expected to die so suddenly—and with the heir to the throne out of the country. Queen Elizabeth bore the news with British stoicism, even though the 25-year-old hadn’t anticipated reigning for many years to come.

After rushing back to London, the Queen read an official proclamation: “By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty. My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over.” Don’t miss these 20 other things you probably didn’t know about Queen Elizabeth II.

Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.