Most of the published tributes paid to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II after the announcement of her death have mentioned her dedication to serving the nation and the Commonwealth during her life.
Mention has been made of her public vow on her 21st birthday to pledge her life to the service of her people, and that she later reaffirmed she had never regretted making that dedication. However, something worth remembering of our remarkable late Queen is that she made the choice of living a life of service, privately, in her early years.
She was, from the first, a strong character. Comment was made on this by people like Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth’s first of 15 Prime Ministers, who first encountered her aged two-and-a-half. He reflected that the young child was already “a character”, and had “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant”.
That may well have been why her grandmother, Queen Mary, decided to ensure the young Elizabeth was trained in the kind of behaviour she would need as a future Queen.
The young princess was taught by her from a toddler to be conscious that she had two lives – the young girl doted on by her loving parents, and the princess, with a duty to behave as a princess. She was also trained to sit still for hours, without fidgeting and with considerable bladder control, for the reward of a biscuit.
Her grandmother would also intervene via the nanny Clara Knight, known to the young Elizabeth and her sister as ‘Allah’. As she grew older, Queen Mary insisted on taking her to museums and art galleries, to give her a sense of cultural appreciation as well as a sense of history, especially in relation to the monarchy.
It is important to remember that Princess Elizabeth was, from her birth in 1926, heiress presumptive to the throne, and third in the line of succession. Her uncle, the Prince of Wales and later King Edward VIII, was unmarried and so had no legitimate heirs. So her father was next in the line of succession, with Elizabeth after him.
Few people took much notice of this in 1926 because there was still a popular expectation that the Prince of Wales would marry and produce his own heirs. There was also the possibility that Elizabeth’s own parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, would have a son. But while the couple did have another child, in 1930, it was again a daughter, leaving the line of succession unaffected.
By this time, Queen Mary had fully focused her hopes for the future of the monarchy on her eldest granddaughter. In 1930, the Prince of Wales was 36, and still a bachelor. He had an active social life, and – as his mother will have known – a number of mistresses. But he showed no interest in eligible young women, whether foreign princesses or British aristocrats.
Queen Mary was a highly practical woman, and she knew her son well enough to realise that he had little traditional sense of duty to the institution of monarchy and so was unlikely to be persuaded to marry an eligible girl for the sake of providing an heir. She recognised that there were therefore high odds that Princess Elizabeth would ascend the throne in due course and Queen Mary was determined that she be fitted for her role.
For this to work, Princess Elizabeth had to make a choice at very tender years of whether or not to embrace the line of duty offered to her by her grandmother. Her loving parents put no such pressure on her, though they were undoubtedly proud of their elder daughter being such a good girl.
It is plain that the child Elizabeth had a strongly developed sense of responsibility and decided early to take up a life of service because of that. But one reason why this early choice did not turn the young Elizabeth into an unbearable prig, was that she also had a sense of humour and a love of fun.
With her younger sister Margaret and her animals, as well as the assistant nanny Bobo, Princess Elizabeth was able to play and enjoy her life, despite having also a sense of responsibility.
That remarkable combination, imprinted so early in her life, helps to explain why Queen Elizabeth II was such a strikingly successful monarch. She knew how to rule, and to serve her subjects – but she also knew how to party as well. It endowed her, in practice, with a tolerance and a sense of the ridiculous that carried her through so many of the crises of her reign.
She was most truly born to be a great Queen, and consciously chose to be one. We owe her a huge sense of gratitude for the choice she made as a toddler. Thank you, ma’am.