Imagine being 25 years old and 5,000 miles from home when you get a call delivering the worst possible news – your parent has died. For Elizabeth Windsor, this call had a far greater impact. She was now taking on the greatest of responsibilities, shouldering the burden of the sovereign’s role.
Already a young wife and mother of two, she would become a mother to the nation, and to the Commonwealth of nations around the globe. It would have been a lot to process for the young queen on that day in 1952.
Her son Charles is now experiencing that same combination of mourning for the loss of a beloved parent while simultaneously being catapulted into the role of monarch and head of state. King Charles III had 70 years to prepare for this moment and a lifetime to act with the greater freedom of the heir.
Elizabeth did not have this luxury. As the daughter of the Duke of York, she was not the immediate heir to the throne until her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 suddenly made her heir apparent.
In taking the throne, she joined the ranks of Britain’s cohort of reigning queens. This long tradition of female rule has left an indelible impression on Britain’s history.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.
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The Queen’s namesake, Elizabeth I, was also 25 when she transitioned from princess to queen. Like Elizabeth II, she was a somewhat unexpected heir. Elizabeth Tudor was in and out of the line of succession to her famous father Henry VIII during her childhood.
While her mother, Anne Boleyn, fought to ensure that Elizabeth’s claim would be superior to her elder half-sister Mary’s, Anne’s fall made Elizabeth Tudor a bastard. Later restored to the line of succession, Elizabeth was relegated to the rear of the direct Tudor line, after Mary and her half-brother Edward VI. She spent years as a shadowy heir who was considered a threat to her half-sister and was briefly held prisoner at the Tower, before finally coming to the throne in 1558 on the death of Mary I.
Coming to the throne as a young woman was a dual challenge. Any young ruler faced being perceived as inexperienced or even incapable of rule. If they were still a child or even in their teens, a regency or minority council could be set up to govern for them. Women were normally second-choice heirs who only came to the throne in the absence, or death, of sons.
Women could face opposition as monarchs due to their gender. In 1558, the same year as Elizabeth I’s accession, the Scottish religious reformer John Knox published The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which derided female rule as “unnatural” and ineffective.
Despite these challenges, the two Elizabeths were not the only women to become queen at a young age and in unexpected circumstances. In 1689, the often overlooked Mary II unseated her father James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution, just shy of her 27th birthday.
Unlike the two long-lived Elizabeths, Mary II died only five years later, provoking public outpourings of grief at the untimely death of their young queen. Mary’s unexpected death also left her grieving husband William III, with whom she had shared the dual monarchy, to rule alone.
Lady Jane Grey, the first female monarch of England, was only 16 during her nine-day reign. Like Mary II, Jane too was accused of stealing a throne – that of her cousin, Mary Tudor, who moved swiftly to retake it and send the teenage Jane first to the Tower, and then to the executioner’s block.
Victoria was another teenage queen, just 18 at her accession in 1837. Her uncle, William IV, supposedly was determined to hang on long enough to avoid a royal minority council governing for Victoria until she came of age.
Neither Victoria nor William IV would have come to the throne if another heiress, Princess Charlotte of Wales, had not died in childbirth at age 21 in 1817. Charlotte’s beautiful and emotive tomb at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor – where Elizabeth II will be buried – visibly expresses the tragedy of her early, unexpected death.
From unexpected heirs to senior sovereigns
While they were sometimes unexpected heirs, Britain’s young queens have transcended challenging accessions to become historically significant sovereigns. Mary II’s short reign saw an important shift in the balance of power between monarchy and parliament, marking the beginning of the constitutional monarchy we still retain today.
Elizabeth I reigned for 44 years, Victoria for 63 and Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest reigning monarch with her 70-year reign. They all faced the challenge of assuming power at a young age and in very challenging circumstances. Elizabeth I had to cope with stabilising the realm after decades of religious and political turbulence under her father and siblings.
Victoria had to rebuild the reputation of the monarchy after the scandals of her Georgian predecessors. Elizabeth II came to the throne in the post-war era when Britain’s empire was dissolving rapidly.
Yet these three women gave their names to eras that resonate in history – the Elizabethan and Victorian ages. Britain’s history has been profoundly and positively marked by female rule and shaped by women who were able to shoulder the burden of sovereignty, often at a young age, and take to the task of rulership.
Elena Woodacre does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.