As her father’s health deteriorated, Elizabeth was called upon more than ever to stand in for her father when he was too sick to do so. It was soon apparent that both Elizabeth and Philip were needed to represent the sovereign. King George VI was seriously ill with cancer. They would need to go on a long-planned state visit to Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon and decided to add a few days in Kenya. On 31 January 1952, the King and Queen went with Elizabeth to the airport to wave them off. Winston Churchill later said, “I think he knew that he had not long to live.”1
He returned to Sandringham the following day, and on 5 February, he was out shooting hares and rabbits. He apparently spent the evening quite happily and planned the shooting for the next day. He ate dinner with Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, and several friends. He went to bed around 10.30 and was spotted after midnight by a watchman as he fiddled with the window. In the early morning of 6 February, the King was found dead in his bed – the cause of death was a blood clot in his heart. He was found by his valet, James MacDonald, around 7.30 a.m. Immediately, “Hyde Park Corner” was set in motion.
It took a while to contact Elizabeth and Philip in Kenya. Elizabeth had become Queen while watching rhinos at a waterhole from Treetops Hotel high up in a fig tree. At dawn, Elizabeth, Philip and Philip’s equerry Michael Parker returned to Sagana Royal Lodge, which had been given to Elizabeth and Philip by the people of the Kenya Colony as their wedding present. Elizabeth’s Private Secretary Martin Charteris informed Michael Parker of the news, and Michael Parker told Prince Philip. Michael Parker later said, “He looked as if you’d dropped half the world on him.”2
It was Philip who broke the news to Elizabeth. She apparently did not cry but was “pale and worried.” They then took a long walk along the river. When asked what her name should be, she answered, “My own name, of course. What else?” Martin Charteris later said he found her “very composed, absolute master of her fate, we thought.”3
After a 19-hour flight back home, Elizabeth emerged as Queen dressed in a simple black coat and hat. At Clarence House, Elizabeth found her grandmother Queen Mary waiting to kiss her hand, though she added, “Lillibet, your skirts are much too short for mourning.”4
Her Accession Council took place the following day at St. James’s Palace, and she declared, “By the sudden death of my dear father, I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty. My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are the world over… I pray that God will help me to discharge worthily this heavy task that has been lain upon me so early in my life.” On 15 February, her father was laid to rest.
Little did anyone know that this would be the start of a record-breaking reign. She became the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch, and in 2022, she celebrated 70 years on the throne. Sadly, she passed away on 8 September 2022.