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Queen Elizabeth II, The Day She Became Queen

Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 60th year on the throne.

The World War II had taken its toll not only on Britain, a country that was once hailed the mistress of the sea, but also on the frailing health of King-Emperor George VI. His constitution, already weak since childhood, severely suffered after reluctantly receiving a crown that his brother, the former Edward VIII, passed on to him in order to marry the woman he loved. Mixed with his chain-smoking habits and his restless efforts throughout the war, the king, who was the last emperor of India, eventually succumbed to thrombosis on his sleep at Sandringham House today, 60 years ago. A new era ushered in. The reign of Elizabeth II arrived in earnest while resting on a treetop lodge while on tour in Kenya. Her reign was one of the longest in British history and hers witnessed an upheaval that saw Britain relinquished her role as a leading world power while leading the task of modernizing the royal family and bringing it closer to the masses.
Prior to his death, King George VI had already relinquished his commitments to tour the Commonwealth, which could have brought him to his first post, Canada. However, by the summer of 1951, the king had already showed signs of ill-health, which necessitated him to undergo lung operation. Instead of postponing the tour, the task fell on his heiress presumptive, 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth. Before she left, a suit of black clothes was already set aside in case the king should die. But the king lived, at least a little less than a year more. He showed signs of recovery and the royal tour of the princess and her dashing Greek-born husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, was pushed further to a later date, January 1952. The king himself was due to embark on a trip to South Africa to recuperate, where he would be the guest of the prime minister, D.F. Malam. On the eve of the tour, the royal family watched the widely popular stage play, South Pacific. On Jan. 31, the princess and the duke set off from Heathrow. Little did Princess Elizabeth know that he would never see his father. She left her country a princess and she returned home a queen.

Of the king's frail appearance, Lord Candos, Colonial Secretary commented: “I well remember the last time I saw the King. When Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip left Heathrow for Kenya, the King and Queen came to see them take off… I was shocked by the King’s appearance. I was familiar with his look and mien, but he seemed much altered and strained. I had the feeling of doom, which grew as the minutes before the time of departure ebbed away. The King went on to the roof of the building to wave goodbye. The high wind blew his hair into disorder. I felt with foreboding that this would be the last time he was to see his daughter, and that he thought so himself.”

Feb. 1, the royal couple arrived in Nairobi and were warmly welcomed by Sir Philip Mitchell, Governor-General of Kenya. They were driven to the Government House were a garden party was awaiting them.

The following day, they joined civilians at a luncheon held in their honor. The event progressed with a tour to the Nairobi National Park. They then proceeded to their accommodation, the Sagana hunting lodge, the infamous place where the princess got news of her father's death a few days later. The lodge was a wedding gift by the South African government.,

John Jochimsen, who worked for the Central Office of Information, who was one of the official press photographers to accompany the couple on the tour recorded the princess as “happy and carefree.” Furthermore, he said, “she hadn’t been married long and didn’t have the weight on her shoulders as she would on becoming Queen. The Duke, on the other hand, would say what he thought to anybody at any time – he hasn’t changed at all!

“It was a real scrum in Nairobi … something we London press photographers had not witnessed before. We had always been used to working out the pictures with one another, but this was different, so much so that the Duke looked at me saying: ‘I will be taking my own bloody picture next!’”

Feb. 3, Eric Sherbrooke Walker, founder of Treetops Hotel in Aberdare National Park, where the couple were to stay: “Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip reached the Sagana Lodge, 20 miles from Nyeri. The situation in Kenya at that time was becoming tense. The Mau Mau troubles [the military conflict involving the anti-colonial Mau Mau and the British Army] were about to burst open.”

Furthermore, R.J. Prickett, author of ‘Treetops: Story of a World-Famous Hotel’ noted: “That visit was strictly private, and Kate Challis [arranging flowers at the Lodge] relates that one of the press came up to her and asked her price for smuggling him up in the back of her car. Her reply, apparently, was not polite.”

On Feb. 5, the royal couple went on a press call where they were photographed watching the animals. These took place in the morning. They spent the rest of the day resting.

They eventually proceeded to Treetops where they spent the night watching the game at the salt lick.
Colonel Jim Corbett, a British hunter and conservationist, noted the princess' trip: “In the course of a long lifetime I have seen some courageous acts, but few to compare with what I witnessed on that fifth day of February. The Princess and her companions, who had never previously been on foot in an African forest, had set out that glorious day to go peacefully to Treetops and, from the moment they left, their ears had been assailed – as they told me later – by the rampaging of angry elephants. In single file, and through dense bush where visibility in places was limited to a yard or two, they went towards those sounds, which grew more awe-inspiring the nearer they approached them. And then, when they came to the bend in the path and within sight of the elephants, they found that they would have to approach within 10 yards of them to reach the safety of the ladder. A minute after climbing the ladder the Princess was sitting on the balcony and, with steady hands, was filming the elephants.”

While the princess was enjoying the beauty of the African wildlife, his father the King died peacefully at Sandringham House in the early hours of 6 February. He was 56. Sandringham House officially issued a Court Circular at 10:45 am, saying the King had retired in his usual health, but passed away in his sleep and was found dead in bed at 7:30 am by a servant. According to medical bulletin, the King's death was due to coronary thrombosis - a fatal blood clot to the heart - soon after falling asleep.

The news of the king's death hasn't reached Kenya yet, and about the same, Commander Michael Parker, the Duke of Edinburgh's private secretary, invited the Princess Elizabeth to witness the sun rise over the jungle. As an eagle hovered above them, he feared it might dive onto them. “I never thought about it until later but that was roughly the time when the King died,” he later noted.

Meanwhile, at Sandringham House, Queen Elizabeth, now a dowager, sent a message to Queen Mary, who was in London: “I was sent a message that his servant couldn’t wake him. I flew to his room, and thought he was in a deep sleep, he looked so peaceful – and then I realised what had happened.” The queen, who would be affectionately known as The Queen Mother, was inconsolable, but she has to held her own. She survived his husband by 50 more years, dying at the age of 101, one of the longest-surviving queen in history.

Meanwhile, Queen Mary was stunned to hear of his son's death. At 84, she had survived her husband, the beloved King George V, endured the Abdication Crisis a year after, and grieved at the death of his youngest son, the Duke of Kent. What more could be more painful for an old lady to endure and make it through the death of another son? “I got a dreadful shock when Cynthia [Colville] asked to see me at 9.30, after breakfast, to tell me that darling Bertie had died in his sleep early today,”said Queen Mary.

Edward Ford, one of the King’s Private Secretaries, informed the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill of the king's death. “I’ve got bad news, Prime Minister. The King died last night. I know nothing else,” he said. Churchill, who was close to the king, couldn't believe. “Bad news? The worst,” he replied.

Churchill’s Private Secretary, John Colville noted: “When I went to the Prime Minister’s bedroom he was sitting alone with tears in his eyes, looking straight in front of him and reading neither his official papers nor the newspapers. I had not realised how much the King meant to him. I tried to cheer him up by saying how well he would get on with the new Queen, but all he could say was that he did not know her and that she was only a child.”

In Kenya, Major Norman Jarman, Manager of Treetops was one of the first people in Kenya to learn of the king's death prior to now-queen Elizabeth, “I was sitting having a sherry with Martin Charteris [Private Secretary to Princess Elizabeth] before lunch. The editor of the Nairobi Standard called me and told me they had had a message over the teleprinter saying the King had died and asking if they could print the story. We asked them to hold fire while we confirmed it was true,” he noted.

John Jochimsen, who overheard Granville Roberts of the East African Standard, while leaving the restaurant making a call in Nairobi to to inform of the King's death, said “The news had been released to the press before the Queen had been told, the rumour being that the Governor [Sir Philip Mitchell] was on his way to Mombasa to see the couple off to Australia and had the official codebook with him. The news had come through to Government House, but it could only be confirmed that the message had arrived but not decoded.”

Major Norman Jarman: “I was alarmed, so I phoned Buckingham Palace. The man there was shocked. ‘You mean to say that she hasn’t been told? Please tell her as quickly as possible.’”

Major Charteris telephoned Commander Michael Parker, then hurried to Sagana Lodge. Parker turned on his wireless and heard the BBC announcement. He attracted Prince Philip’s attention.

Commander Michael Parker: “He looked as if you’d dropped half the world on him. He took [The Queen] up to the garden and they walked up and down the lawn while he talked and talked and talked to her.”

Major Charteris arrived just in time after the new Queen was back in the Lodge: “She was sitting erect, fully accepting her destiny. I asked what name she would take. ‘My own, of course.’”

Major Norman Jarman: “There were 32 journalists following the royal party, but they were all on a day off. I had to wake a lot of them and persuade them to attend a press conference, but we rounded them all up and locked the door so they couldn’t run off. We told them and the whole room erupted.”

John Jochimsen notes: “Myself and two other photographers drove to Sagana Lodge, hoping to take a photograph of the Princess, now Queen Elizabeth, leaving for London. An official told us Her Majesty requested no pictures be taken. We stood silently outside the lodge as the cars drove away in a cloud of dust, not one of us taking a shot at that historic moment. Seeing the young girl as Queen of Great Britain as she drove away, I felt her sadness, as she just raised her hand to us as we stood there silent, our cameras on the ground.”

Eric Sherbrooke Walker likened the Queen's accession with that of another queen, Elizabeth I, who like her, was informed of her accession while on top of a tree. “Many centuries ago another Princess Elizabeth was sitting under a great tree in Hatfield Park when couriers announced to her that she had become Queen Elizabeth I. The remains of that tree still stand and bear a plaque. Similarly, a plaque was affixed to our mgugu tree commemorating the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II.”

In London, Churchill met the Cabinet to discuss the impact of the King’s death. The House of Commons postponed its session in the king's honor. Before Parliament was adjourned Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered their condolences, saying, "We cannot at this moment do more than record the spontaneous expression of grief."

Britain was clouded by grief on the king's passing. It seems that life stood a halt to pay homage to a father that stood before his children on the wintry days of World War II and helped them make it through the devastation thereafter. The routine for the day came to a temporary stop, cinemas and theater shut down, television programs cancelled except for news updates. Flags all over the countryn were put to half-mast and sports fixtures cancelled.

In the afternoon, a swarm of crowd that flocked outside the gates of Buckingham Palace while diplomats from around the world arrived in official cars to extend their condolences in the visitors' book.

By 9 pm, police came to press the growing number of mourners back from the gates and on to the pavement. Not even the bitter cold nor the heavy rain silenced the weeping crowd who stayed until long after it grew dark.

The world over the king's death was met by shock and grief. In the United States, President Truman, in a formal statement from the White House, paid tribute to the King.He said, "He shared to the end of his reign all the hardships and austerities which evil days imposed on the brave British people.

"In return, he received from the people of the whole Commonwealth a love and devotion which went beyond the usual relationship of a King and his subjects."

Both the US Senate and the House of Representatives voted to adjourn out of regard for the dead King.

Harold Macmillan, Housing Minister, wrote in his diary: “The Cabinet was naturally concerned about the safe return of Princess Elizabeth, now Queen. Many felt that the dangers of an air journey were by no means negligible.”

Sir Harold Nicolson, diplomat and politician, noted: “Princess Elizabeth is flying back from Kenya. She became Queen while perched in a tree in Africa, watching the rhinoceros come down to the pool to drink.”

Churchill broadcasted to the nation: “During these last days, the King walked with death, as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognised and did not fear … I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian era, may well feel a thrill in invoking, once more, the prayer and the anthem: GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.”

In Chicago, Princess Andrew of Greece, Prince Philip’s mother, wrote: “All my thoughts are with you in this sad loss. I know how fond you were of your father-in-law and how much you will miss him. I think much of the change in your life this means. It means much personal self-sacrifice for you, as I am fully aware, but every sacrifice brings its reward in a manner we cannot foresee.”


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