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Why Princess Elizabeth Was Almost Never Queen Elizabeth II at All

Mental Floss UK
Princess Elizabeth as a child, 1930.
Princess Elizabeth as a child, 1930. / V&A Images/GettyImages
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by James Hunt

Queen Elizabeth II broke a lot of records during her historic 70-year reign, which came to an end on September 8, 2022. She was the oldest monarch and the longest-reigning British monarch ever. It's odd to think that she almost didn't become queen at all.

Queen (or rather, Princess) Elizabeth II was born on April 21, 1926, during the reign of her grandfather, George V. At the time, she was third in line to the throne behind her uncle, Prince Edward (the eldest son of George V), and her own father, Prince Albert (Edward's younger brother).

At this point, it was far too early to imagine Elizabeth would ever become queen. Mostly because the heir apparent, Prince Edward, was still young enough that he was expected to marry and produce his own heir, but also because Prince Albert could still have produced a son. Had that happened, the boy would have taken the throne before Elizabeth, under the (since-altered) rules of succession, which placed male children before their sisters, regardless of birth order.

The birth of Prince Edward's child, whether male or female, would have shuffled both his brother and niece (Prince Albert and Princess Elizabeth) down the line of succession, putting them both farther from the top job.

So barring any unfortunate tragedy, Princess Elizabeth was never expected to get much closer to being queen than she was when she was born. For the first 10 years of her life, it seemed that she would remain a relatively minor royal. Her modern equivalents would be Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York, neither of whom are as well-known globally as their cousins, Princes William and Harry.

But something unexpected happened. When King George V died in 1936, Edward VIII took the throne—then renounced it less than a year later so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American socialite, against the advice of the British government and the Church of England. Because Edward had no children at the time, his brother Albert ascended, choosing the regnal name George VI in honor of his late father. His daughter, 10-year-old Princess Elizabeth, was now the heir presumptive: first in line to the throne on the understanding that her father could still produce a son who would take the throne before her (and, for that matter, her younger sister Margaret, who was born in 1930).

But despite the possibility, that didn't happen. George VI produced no more children and died on February 6, 1952. His eldest daughter was crowned Queen Elizabeth II, defying the expectations of her birth to become one of Britain's most popular, well-regarded, and longest-reigning monarchs. Though to some constitutional scholars, she'll always be the queen who almost wasn't.

This story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.

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