Up a tree a princess, down a Queen

Celebrating the sovereign's 60 years on the throne, and commemorating her father's death

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

I’ve got bad news for you, Prime Minister. The King is dead.—Edward Ford, private secretary to King George VI

Bad news? The worst!—British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Monday, Feb. 6, 2012 not only marks the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne; it’s also the anniversary of her beloved father’s sudden death; a tragic event that shocked both Britain and the Empire.

“His Majesty had ruled for 16 years and he was the figurehead for his subjects during one of their homeland’s darkest periods,” the BBC said. “As the news of the King’s death spread, shops, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres closed, and some employers sent their upset workers home.” Nurses at St. Catharines General Hospital in Ontario discovered what happened when they exited the wards to investigate why the hospital was so suddenly quiet—the staff was crying in the corridors.

In an era before television news and the Internet, word spread slowly. In fact, the 25-year-old princess and the duke of Edinburgh were watching African wildlife at a tree-top resort in Kenya during the night of Feb. 6, still unaware that the King had died in his sleep of a coronary thrombosis. Because George VI was physically unable to handle the stress of a royal tour, Elizabeth and her husband Philip were standing in for him. Kenya was only a stop over before continuing on to more formal duties in Australia and New Zealand.

The next morning, after breakfast, the royal party returned to Sagana Lodge, a home given to them by the Kenyan government. It was around noon when a shaken reporter told the princess’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, that Reuters was reporting the death. Unable to get through to Buckingham Palace, he sent Mike Parker, Philip’s aide, to quietly remove the radio from the royal study. Then they got the news from the BBC. It was left to Parker to break the news to Philip. “He looked absolutely flattened,” the Australian later recalled, “as if the world had collapsed on him. He saw immediately that the idyll of his life and their life together had come to an end. I never felt so sorry for anyone in my life.”

Philip took Elizabeth into the gardens and broke the news of her father’s death. When her closest advisors saw her later, they were struck by her composure. It was a tumultuous change she’d clearly wished had never come so early—her father was only 56—but one for which she’d been in training since her uncle, Edward VIII abdicated in 1936, leaving his unprepared brother the throne and forcing Elizabeth into the spotlight as heiress presumptive.

She took the preparations seriously. In 1947, she made a vow to the British Empire: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”

The day before the 60th anniversary of her accession, she updated that promise: “In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighbourliness, examples of which I have been fortunate to see throughout my reign.”

So, while guns fired salutes and her royal standard was raised at dawn on the main steps of Parliament in Ottawa, there are no great festivities to mark this momentous anniversary. (It’s such a rarity, in fact, that Queen Victoria is the only other sovereign who has hit the 60-year mark.) Instead Elizabeth II, now 85, got on with her day, which included a visit to the Dersingham Infant and Nursery School near her Sandringham estate in Norfolk and popping by the Town Hall in King’s Lynn for a loyal address.

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