Retro read: Princess Elizabeth in 1945

William W. White 16 May 2022

A 1945 perspective of the woman who would become Queen Elizabeth II

Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor will someday claim the allegiance of 489,000,000 of the world’s population when she takes her full title: Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Queen, Defender of the Faith and Empress of India. She recently saw her sceptered isle go through the turmoil of sudden political change when Winston Churchill lost the election in July, just two months after he declared VE Day. Her one recorded comment when she learned that her good friend had been snowed under an avalanche of leftist votes was, “Oh, bother.”

This is not to say that the events of the day were altogether lost on Elizabeth. She has been educated to think very seriously while saying very little. 

At 19 she is already carefully coached and acutely conscious of the duties, dignities, and limitations of a throne—especially the limitations. The British have whittled away at the powers invested in the Crown so diligently since four centuries earlier—when Queen Elizabeth I said to an over-presumptive minister, “I will have here but one mistress and no master”—that there is not much left. What is left is the power of creating peers, a never-used veto as head of the Privy Council, and the rather dubious honor of naming a Prime Minister who has already been chosen by the British electorate.

 April 1942: Queen Elizabeth, left, 15; Margaret, 12.

The two sisters outside Windsor Castle in April 1942: Elizabeth, left, 15; Margaret, 12. Getty Images

At present, as heiress presumptive (as long as her father lives it is presumed he may have a male heir) Princess Elizabeth has no powers, no royal duties of state, and no constitutional functions. When she becomes Queen her most vital contribution will be that of a symbol of continuity. Governments may fall, parties may dissolve, but the Crown goes on forever. In that fairly certain knowledge the British find an unconscionable pleasure. The Crown remains one of the few expenses the British bear without grumbling.

So far, Elizabeth has shown every prospect of living up to a prediction made recently by one of Britain’s elder statesmen: “She has intelligence, personality, and charm. She will be a good Queen. She may even be a great one.” Good Queen or great, she will be an attractive one. Mannequin height (5 feet 6 ½ inches), Elizabeth has inherited from her Hanoverian antecedents an ample figure, a lovely rose-and-cream complexion, good white teeth, and a sturdy constitution. Unfortunately, she is not photogenic because her chief attraction lies in her coloring. Her regal bearing reminds old-timers of her grandmother, Queen Mary.

"The King ruled that she couldn't join the women's auxiliaries. 'Betts' had other ideas"

Less lighthearted than her attractive 15-year-old sister Margaret Rose, whose superb mimicry of visiting dignitaries has more than once caused gales of laughter at the royal dinner table, Princess Elizabeth has already shown traits which indicate she has a mind of her own. A year ago when, like her subjects-to-be, she became due for national service, the King ruled after long deliberations with his councilors that her training as a princess outweighed the nation’s increasing manpower problems and that “Betts” should not join any of the women’s auxiliaries (known as the Auxiliary Territorial Service, or ATS). But Betts had other ideas, and not long afterward the Palace made a straight-faced announcement that the King “had been pleased to grant an honorary commission as second subaltern in the ATS to Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth.”

Queen Elizabeth in a military vehicle

While in the women’s branch of the British Army in 1945, young Elizabeth learned how to service military vehicles. PA Images/Alamy Images.

Elizabeth passed her driving course in two days less than the prescribed time, after attending lectures and getting her hands greasy dismantling engines. Most of the students finish this ATS driving course by driving to London for the experience. It was ruled that Elizabeth should not, since the risks of a smash involving the heiress presumptive would be too great. But while the wheels of government were churning out that ponderous decision, Elizabeth was driving a camouflaged army vehicle up to London from the country. She arrived at the Palace after making two complete circuits of Piccadilly Circus in the rush hour “to get in as much traffic as I could.”

When the princess embarks on a venture it completely dominates her life. Thus, while she was at the driving school the royal dinner-table conversation was centered around spark plugs and engine performance. Currently the major topic of conversation—as far as Elizabeth can guide it—is horses. She hopes to have her own stable in a year or so and race against her father.

At dances in Mayfair private houses, which Elizabeth frequently attends accompanied by her lone lady in waiting—and from which she has been known to return as late as 3 a.m.—she dances with many different young gallants and favors no one in particular. But the names of several young peers keep recurring constantly. Handsome, blond, 29-year-old Lord Wyfold, the young Earl of Euston, or the good-looking Duke of Rutland are the usual three. Elizabeth is bound by the provisions of the Royal Succession Act to marry only with the consent of her father in council and not to marry outside the Protestant faith. If and when she marries, her husband, on her accession to the throne, would not be king but prince consort, like Victoria’s Albert of Saxe-Cobourg. The number of eligibles who would care for this subordinate role is problematical. 

Princess Elizabeth playing tag with Navy officers en route to South Africa with her parents and sister in early 1947

Princess Elizabeth playing tag with Navy officers en route to South Africa with her parents and sister in early 1947. Bettmann/Getty Images.

Elizabeth’s first official public tour after her father became king was in Wales. Instead of appearing in the stately setting of an evening Court at the Palace, the Princess made her debut in the orange glow of furnace fires in a Welsh tin-plate mill. Since then she has made many appearances with her family and by herself; she has done two radio talks and made a dozen speeches.

Her most important engagement so far was the launching of Britain’s newest and greatest battleship, HMS Vangaurd. Although it was a cold, gray day and she confessed to a nearby official, “I’m too nervous to feel the cold,” she went through the ceremony without a flaw. Only later did she show she was more woman than princess. She had been presented with a beautiful diamond brooch and while the chairman was laboring through a ponderous speech of welcome, Elizabeth sat quietly turning the Rose-of-England-shaped brooch over and over in her hands, admiring it for all she was worth.

"It was a cold, gray day, but Elizabeth confessed, 'I'm too nervous to feel the cold'"

Elizabeth’s training has been arduous. “Grandmamma England”—Queen Mary—seems to have had a firm hand with young Elizabeth, and she got in return more respect from little Betts than from her other grandchildren. The two Lascelles boys, Gerald and George, when very young, had a terrifying habit of rushing into a room and attacking Queen Mary’s ankles. She was often obliged to put up a spirited defense with her famous parasol. Happily, Elizabeth was less boisterous.

Queen Mary taught the child the art of talking intelligently to the various visitors at Court, and young Elizabeth early learned her most difficult lesson—that she must appear to be enjoying the talk, however dull. So that she might be well informed or curious about many subjects her grandmother trotted little Elizabeth through the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Mint, the Bank of England, the science museum in South Kensington, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and the National Gallery.

Princess Elizabeth on honeymoon with Prince Philip in late 1947.

On honeymoon with Prince Philip in late 1947. Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

Since she was six, Elizabeth’s formal education has been supervised by an able young Scotswoman, Marion Crawford—“Crawfie” to everyone in the royal household. If young Betts found it easier, as indeed she did, to absorb history while lying on her stomach on the floor of Crawfie’s room, Crawfie had no objections. By the time Elizabeth was 12 she had shown a marked aptitude for history and languages and a sublime distaste for mathematics. At that point her education became a matter on which the Cabinet had to be consulted.

Elizabeth’s mother wanted her to go to a girls’ school so she could meet more of her contemporaries, but the choice of a school and the specialized curriculum necessary for a royal person were difficult, so it was decided she should have a staff of tutors as Queen Victoria had. Her historical background includes the study of constitutional changes from Saxon times to the present as well as the history of British land tenure and agriculture. She is also well versed in American history, and speaks French fluently. To what would in Victorian days be called “the accomplishments”—she plays the piano and sings agreeably—Elizabeth added completely 20th-century arts. She swims, drives a car, likes American dance music, has the “good hands and pretty seat” of an accomplished horsewoman, and is a good shot.

When she was very young, Elizabeth was asked what she would like to be when she grew up. Without a moment’s hesitation, she answered, “I should like to be a horse.” Time has served to modify that ambition. Whether anyone would genuinely like to lead the antiseptic and rather empty life of a modern queen may be a matter for doubt. But Elizabeth will have that duty. 

That being the case, her ambition is to be a good queen. If she, like the earlier Elizabeth, reflects and encourages the contemporary spirit of her people, she may occupy a position in history of similar importance. The first Elizabeth built the British Empire. The second, by gentler means, may keep it together. 

© The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted/Translated from LIFE and published with permission of The Picture Collection Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited. LIFE and the LIFE logo are registered trademarks of TI Gotham Inc., used under license. 

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