Unbelievable moment 10-year-old Elizabeth discovered she was destined to be Queen

She is the longest-reigning, best-loved, monarch in British history, but the Queen was not destined to be on the throne.

And far from being born in the gilded surroundings of a grand palace, Elizabeth II’s birth took place in a London townhouse, on what was a damp and windy spring night.

Her parents had moved into 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair, belonging to her Scottish grandparents, only a few weeks before she arrived by Caesarean section on 21 April 1926. Her father, Bertie, the Duke of York, was King George V’s second son, which meant Elizabeth was only third in line to the throne and not expected to become Queen.

Despite this, royal protocol at the time meant that her birth had to involve the presence of the home secretary, so Sir William Joynson-Hicks was called to witness the 2.40am arrival of the baby girl. Her full given name was Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, after her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

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“We have long wanted a child to make our happiness complete,” wrote her father at the time. He could never have imagined how his life and that of his newborn daughter would change just a decade later.

In 1936 his elder brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated and he became King George VI, so Elizabeth became first in line to the throne.

The duke and duchess – the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon who later became Queen and the Queen Mother – and their baby girl spent less than a year living in Bruton Street. The house no longer exists after being demolished in 1937, and today the site is shared by the glass-plated entrance to offices and Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Hakkasan.

However, there is still a clue to the location’s historic significance, as a plaque on the wall reads, “On this site stood the townhouse of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne where Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, later to become Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, was born on 21 April 1926.”

The year after Elizabeth’s birth, the young family moved into 145 Piccadilly, a five-storey townhouse overlooking Green Park. Although it had 25 bedrooms, a lift, two nurseries and a ballroom, it was fairly modest by royal standards and similar to the kind of home owned by many wealthy London socialites.

As with their first home, the house no longer exists, and after being badly damaged by Second World War bombs, it is now the site of the InterContinental London Park Lane hotel.

The Yorks led a happy life in the Piccadilly house, especially as Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret Rose, had arrived to complete the family on 21 August 1930.

It was while still a toddler that Elizabeth was given the nickname of Lilibet – which came about because she was unable to pronounce Elizabeth. It was in the Queen’s honour that Prince Harry and wife Meghan named their daughter Lilibet when she was born in June last year.

However, while the nickname stuck throughout the Queen’s life, it recently emerged that it is no longer used, as the Duke of Edinburgh, who died last April, was the last surviving member of the family to call her it. While growing up, her father was known to say, “Lilibet is my pride. Margaret my joy,” and he certainly doted on the two girls.

Unlike other children their age, the royal sisters never attended school, and instead, they were taught by a young Scottish governess, Marion Crawford – affectionately dubbed “Crawfie”.

She joined the royal household in 1933 when Elizabeth was seven and Margaret almost two, and held lessons from 9.30am-11am.

Luckily for the girls, the remainder of the day was for outdoor games, dancing and singing. Rather than achieving great academic success, their parents wanted them to have a “really happy childhood, with lots of pleasant memories”.

Although Elizabeth did enjoy many of her lessons, including history and literature, her greatest enjoyment came from nature and animals, and she even declared she wanted to marry a farmer so she could have lots of “cows, horses and dogs”.

Elizabeth’s sheltered family life ended abruptly in 1936 in the wake of a crisis that tore the monarchy apart. Following her grandfather King George V’s death in January that year, it became clear that her uncle the Prince of Wales – who had taken the throne as Edward VIII – was intending to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

In late October, Wallis filed for divorce from her second husband, sparking a constitutional crisis as the British government set out to halt their marriage plans. Deemed too scandalous, it was felt that the public would refuse to accept a divorced consort, and the governess Crawfie wrote at the time, “It was plain to everyone that there was a great shadow over the house.”

On 10 December, 10-year-old Elizabeth was writing notes from her swimming lesson when she heard chants of, “God save the King.” A footman told her that her uncle had abdicated and her father was King.

“Does that mean you will have to be the next Queen?” asked Margaret. “Yes, some day,” Elizabeth said. “Poor you,” replied Margaret. In the calm manner that has been a hallmark of her entire life, Elizabeth returned to her swimming notes and at the top of the page she wrote Abdication Day.

Following the drama, the family moved into Buckingham Palace, and as heir to the throne, Elizabeth was given vital lessons in constitutional history by a private tutor from Eton. Crawfie also remained with the family for 17 years as a teacher and confidante – though the relationship soured in later years after she published a book in 1950 detailing the girls’ childhood.

While being educated at home, there were concerns that Elizabeth might become isolated, so in 1937, she was registered as a Girl Guide, so that she could socialise with other girls. They were invited to the palace on Wednesday afternoons, and the 11-year-old princess and her friends practised pitching a tent, cooking on campfires and learning first aid.

Elizabeth’s home life and education may only have changed in subtle ways after her uncle’s abdication, but less than three years later, the Second World War broke out, shattering everything she knew. After German tanks had entered Prague on 15 March 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to placate Hitler lay in ruins, and on 3 September, he announced that Britain was at war.

Despite the dangers now present in London, Elizabeth and Margaret’s mother refused to send her daughters to safer shores in Canada. “The children won’t go without me,” she said. “I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”

Instead, in 1940 the princesses moved to Windsor Castle, where they spent most of the war – in close proximity to the crown jewels, which were wrapped in paper in the vaults for safekeeping.

The girls were looked after by their old governess, who would rush them underground whenever the air-raid sirens rang out. They reportedly wore special siren suits – jumpsuits that offered warmth in the chilly depths of the castle.

Although 300 bombs were dropped on Windsor Great Park during the war, spirits remained high, and the sisters staged a series of shows and Christmas pantomimes to raise money for the armed forces. In one, Elizabeth took the title role of Aladdin, wearing a gold brocade and turquoise jacket with dungarees and matching hat.

In 1944, 18-year-old Elizabeth started her royal duties, and early the next year she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a trainee ambulance driver.

The war ended on 7 May and on VE Day, Elizabeth and Margaret secretly joined the crowds who filled the streets of London to celebrate. The Queen had vivid memories of the day, once saying, “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.”

Following her relief at the end of the war, Elizabeth was to experience a whole new set of emotions when she fell in love with Philip Mountbatten. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark had been known to the royal family since he was a boy. Elizabeth had first met him in 1934 at the wedding of her uncle, the Duke of Kent, who married Philip’s cousin.

Philip fascinated her, even at the age of 13 – when the 18-year-old naval cadet “showed off” in front of her and her parents during a visit to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth in 1939. “To a young girl with hormones raging, there was a strong physical attraction,” author Deborah Hart Strober tells us. “As a teenager she said, ‘That’s my man,’ and from that moment onwards, there was no one else.”

Although they were distant cousins – both were great-great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria – their childhoods could not have been more different. While Elizabeth had thrived as part of a loving family unit, Philip had an unsettled background and grew up in boarding schools.

While his family ruled Greece until the abdication of his uncle, King Constantine I, after the First World War, Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, experienced mental health problems and his father left her to live in France with a mistress. “Elizabeth knew he had had a difficult upbringing and she really admired him for his strength,” adds Deborah.

However, it seems Philip was less romantically interested in the beginning, and when recalling their first encounters, he reportedly once told her, “You were so shy. I could not get a word out of you.”

Their age difference became starkly apparent when Philip was made the youngest-ever second-in-command of a warship in 1942, but undeterred, Elizabeth kept a framed photo of him by her bed. The pair began writing to each other, and they secretly got engaged in the summer of 1946.

However, she was forbidden by her father from making the news public until she was older, so the romance remained under wraps as her royal duties stepped up.

In February 1947, she joined her parents and sister for a three-month tour of South Africa, and while there, celebrated her 21st birthday.

The occasion was marked by a momentous radio speech in which she cemented her commitment to serving the British 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.

It was a message that has defined her long reign, as her former press secretary, Dickie Arbiter, tells us. “Even then, it was clear she would put duty above everything else,” he says. “She was essentially committing her whole life to the role, and even today, irrespective of whether people say she should step back and retire, that will not happen before she’s drawn her last breath.”

In July 1947, two months after the family returned from the successful tour, message that has defined her long reign, as her former press secretary, Dickie Arbiter, tells us. “Even then, it was clear she would put duty above everything else,” he says. “She was essentially committing her whole life to the role, and even today, irrespective of whether people say she should step back and retire, that will not happen before she’s drawn her last breath.”

In July 1947, two months after the family returned from the successful tour, Elizabeth’s engagement to Philip was announced, and their wedding took place four months later in November.

Almost exactly a year later, Prince Charles was born at Buckingham Palace on the evening of 14 November 1948. Elizabeth was 22 and reportedly in labour for 30 hours before giving birth by Caesarean. Philip had been playing squash with his private secretary, but when he got word of the birth, he ran up to the delivery room and gave her a bouquet of red roses and carnations.

It wasn’t long before Elizabeth resumed her royal work, and in 1949 she managed to visit Edinburgh, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and Malta.

In the summer of that year, Buckingham Palace needed renovations due to war damage, so the family moved to Clarence House on The Mall. It was there that Princess Anne was born on 15 August 1950, while today, Clarence House serves as the London home of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, 74.

Now with two young children to care for, Elizabeth was becoming aware that her beloved father’s health was declining. During 1951, she stepped in for him at various state functions, and it was said he began showing his daughter state papers and “the ways of the monarchy”.

That autumn, she and Philip visited Canada on his behalf, and after Christmas, they left on a tour of the Commonwealth – with the 56-year-old King, who was battling lung cancer, seeing them off. It would be the last time she’d ever see her father.

Elizabeth and Philip flew into Nairobi, Kenya, on 1 February 1952, for the first stage of the tour, and it was five days later while they were staying at the Treetops Hotel in the heart of the Kenyan forest that the King died.

Unbeknown to Elizabeth, who reportedly sat at breakfast that morning “tossing bananas to baboons below”, he had suffered a coronary thrombosis, and passed away at Sandringham House.

Elizabeth was not told until the following afternoon, and it was Philip who had the heavy task of letting her know. He had been alerted by a local newspaper reporter, and after speaking to the princess’s secretary, Martin Charteris, he took his 25-year-old wife for a walk to break the sad news.

Showing the stoic nature for which she is famed, Elizabeth immediately began writing letters to various leaders, apologising that she had to cancel the rest of her trip.

With her father now dead, her life had been turned on its head – and she graciously acknowledged her terrifying new role on her return to London. “By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty,” she said. “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.”

A state funeral for her father took place on 15 February, with St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle becoming his final resting place.

Then, on 2 June 1953, Elizabeth was officially crowned Queen, signalling the next chapter in her long and extraordinary life…

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