In 1939, the year that would see the start of the Second World War and an important visit to Canada and the USA by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the thirteenth birthday of their daughter Princess Elizabeth on 21 April seemed almost insignificant by comparison. The concept of the ‘teenager’, with its connotations of rebellion, was yet to be invented and in any case, would hardly have applied to this obedient Heiress Presumptive to the Throne. Just three months later she would famously and enduringly fall in love with 18-year-old Prince Philip of Greece, a naval cadet at Dartmouth – ‘So good-looking, a Scandinavian Adonis!’ recalled her cousin Margaret Rhodes – but for now she revelled in her special birthday which marked the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence.
A comforting familiarity greeted the day. Since her first birthday when her parents, then the Duke and Duchess of York, were away on their six-month tour of New Zealand and Australia, Princess Elizabeth had spent the occasion at Windsor Castle. The Royal Family almost always spent the Easter period there and the Princess’s birthday fell within it. The exception was in 1936, during the brief reign of her uncle Edward VIII. He chose to spend Easter that year at Fort Belvedere with his mistress Wallis Simpson and other friends, forcing his recently-widowed mother Queen Mary to spend the holiday and her granddaughter’s tenth birthday at Royal Lodge, Windsor, with the Yorks. After his brother’s abdication, George VI moved the Court back to the castle for Easter, satisfying Queen Mary that royal custom was restored. As Princess Elizabeth woke up there on her thirteenth birthday, she never dreamt that a year later she and Princess Margaret would be living within its thick, ancient walls full-time to protect them from the bombs that would fall upon London.
In some ways, she was very grown up for her age. As part of her preparation for her future role, her father wanted her to meet the same major figures as he did. At twelve, for instance, during a visit to Windsor by the American Ambassador Joe Kennedy and his wife Rose, Elizabeth was seated next to him at lunch and was expected to converse. A month before her thirteenth birthday, her parents had welcomed the French President Lebrun and his wife on a reciprocal state visit, at a sensitive time when European relationships were particularly important. During their stay at Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth was encouraged to speak French to them, and when (unusually) the Royal Family accompanied them to Victoria Station on their departure, the King placed her in the first of the cars with him and the President.
Yet in other ways Elizabeth was still young, or at least looked it, dressed by her mother in the same outfits as Margaret who was four years younger, complete with white socks. Although this would continue a little longer, other things would make her feel more grown up. ‘NO MORE DOLLS AND TOYS’ shouted one newspaper headline on her thirteenth birthday. After breakfast, having read the many messages she had received from around the world, she opened her presents. As always, some came from kind members of the public but such gifts, however lovely, could not be kept and had to be returned to the sender or given to good causes. From the King, she received a diamond-studded bracelet, from her mother the Queen a new riding habit, and from Queen Mary a silver dressing set. Margaret gave her a silk handkerchief case which she had embroidered herself. There was even a gift from the Duke of Windsor in Paris, believed to be a cine camera. One present that particularly pleased her and really made her feel grown up was another from her mother: a pair of silk stockings, which she would wear on special occasions and certainly not two days later on St George’s Day, when she donned her Guide uniform to salute a large contingent of Boy Scouts on parade at the castle.
As usual on her birthday, the public buildings in the town flew flags in her honour. She and Margaret watched the Changing of the Guard ceremony in the Grand Quadrangle and noticed a bigger crowd than usual watching and waving outside the gates. That year she could decide what she wanted to do and she chose to go riding in Windsor Great Park with her father and sister. In the afternoon the 13-year-old had a party in the castle’s Oak Room where, many years later, she would entertain Barack Obama for her 90th birthday.
For now, though, her guests were her immediate family and cousins, Prince Edward (now the Duke of Kent), aged three-and-a-half, and Princess Alexandra, a year younger, children of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. Other young guests included friends who lived near Royal Lodge. After they had tucked into Elizabeth’s two-tier birthday cake, they enjoyed a film show: a newsreel, a travel film and a Walt Disney cartoon.
Some things had changed since her last birthday. Her beloved maternal grandmother Cecilia, Countess of Strathmore, with whom she had often stayed at Glamis Castle or St Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire, had died the previous year. Soon the war would bring far greater changes, but the challenges ahead would be excellent preparation for her long reign.
Jane Dismore is the author of Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II pub. Lyons Press (USA) and Thistle Books (UK). Her website is www.janedismore.com