by James Hunt

The Queen has broken a lot of records in her time as monarch. She has visited more countries than any other British King or Queen before her. She's the oldest monarch and, in case you managed to miss the stories on the subject last year, the longest-reigning British monarch ever. So it's odd to think that she almost didn't become Queen at all.

Queen (or rather, Princess) Elizabeth 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 further from the top job. Indeed, this is exactly what happened to the current Prince Harry when Prince George was born: he went from being third in line to the throne after his father and brother, to fourth after his newly inserted nephew. (And the birth of Princess Charlotte means he's now fifth in line.)

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. Since 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 in 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.