It was so on the 6th February 1952, when the news of the death of His Majesty King George VI of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the last Emperor of India, the Defender of the Faith, was broken to the Kingdom. The King had been suffering from a painful illness for a long time and he had had surgeries to cancer, but no one really expected his death on that particular moment. On the week before, he had attended theatre with his wife, Queen Elizabeth, his daughter and his son-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh. Then he accompanied Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh to the airport and bid farewell as they set on a trip through the Commonwealth, that had been due to be taken by the sovereign.
On the 3rd of February, the first stage of their five-month Commonwealth tour, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh explored the hunting lodge given to them as a wedding present by the people of Kenya. The lodge allowed views of Mount Kenya, snow-covered throughout the year, and was situated in the middle of a forest. The previous day had seen a visit to a Kenyan National Park, where the Princess saw a lion for the first time.
Two days later, Princess Elizabeth and her husband travelled to the Treetops Hotel to spend the night during their tour of Kenya. The Princess wore slacks and a bush jacket for the trip, which involved a walk through game-infested country to reach the small hotel, comprising five rooms built into a tree. It was to be Princess Elizabeth’s last night as Princess. Her Majesty is probably the only person in the whole of history to have gone up a tree as a Princess and come down as a Queen. The last occasion on which a Sovereign acceded to the British Crown while abroad had been over 200 years previously, when King George I became king on the death of Queen Anne in 1714. He was in Hanover as Elector of the Kingdom when he was summoned to England to accept the Crown.
The King and Queen had retired to the Royal Sandringham Estate for the Winter break, where His Majesty was expected to relax, being his favourite royal residence. King George was in good spirits and went hunting and he spent the last evening of his life with his wife and youngest daughter. Princess Margaret played the piano, and the King did a crossword and visited the kennels before they listened to the BBC radio news to hear about the journey of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
His Majesty King George VI died peacefully in his sleep from coronary thrombosis, during the early hours of the morning of the 6th of February. He was found by his valet at 7.15 am, in bed at the Royal Sandringham Estate. He was 56 years old. It was also in Sandringham that the then Prince Albert had been born to HRH the Princess Mary in 1895. News of the King's death was first broken to his family, including his wife, the new Queen Mother, his younger daughter, Princess Margaret, and his mother, Queen Mary, the new Queen Dowager. Then calls were made to London and officials from Buckingham Palace drove to Downing Street to break the news to the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. At 10.45 am the announcement of the King's death was made from Sandringham House, and the news swept over the country and Commonwealth.
From the very moment of His Majesty’s death, Britain had a new sovereign, a new Queen. She was absent though: Her Majesty was in Kenya, and the news of her father’s death and her accession were broken to her by her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, actually only some hours after the King’s death. Immediately, the new Queen and her consort left for London, where on the evening of the accession day itself, proclamation was issued in London, with 191 signatures of Privy Councillors.
The new Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a long black coat and hat, arrived at London Heathrow airport on the mid-afternoon of 7th February to be met by the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, Mr. Clement Atlee, Leader of the Opposition, HRH the Duke of Gloucester and other Privy Councillors. The Queen travelled with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh by car (Lady Pamela Hicks, who acted as a lady-in-waiting during the tour, revealed that the Queen, when she spotted the black Daimlers at the airport said: “Oh no, they brought the hearses!”) to Clarence House, and immediately approved arrangements for the King’s funeral. Big crowds waited at the home of the couple, where the Queen met her grandmother, HM Queen Mary, the Queen Dowager, who apparently curtseyed and kissed the new Queen’s hand, just before giving her a tell-off for wearing too short skirts.
The Prime Minister spoke to the nation on the radio on the evening of 7th February: “The King was greatly loved by all his peoples and respected as a man and as a prince far beyond the many realms over which he reigned. The simple dignity of his life, his manly virtues, his sense of duty - alike as ruler and servant of the vast spheres for which he bore responsibility - his gay charm and happy nature, his example as a husband and a father in his own family circles, his courage in peace or war - all of these were aspects of his character which won the glint of admiration, now here, now there, from the innumerable eyes whose gaze falls upon the throne.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, issued a statement saying: “The King was a grand leader of his people by reason of his courage, his simple humanity, his selfless regard for others, his single-minded devotion to duty. We thank God for his example.” Cardinal Griffin, on behalf of Roman Catholics, sent a telegram to the Royal Family. In it he said: “We mourn the loss of a great King. By his selfless devotion to duty, by his loving interest in the welfare of his peoples, by his courage in the face of illness and by his magnificent example of family life, King George VI won a unique position in the hearts of his subjects.”
On the morning of 8th February the Queen was ready for the first official duty of her reign, driving to St James’s Palace where 150 privy counsellors were assembled for the meeting of her Accession Council, where she made her Accession Declaration. Apart of that, her principal piece of business was to sign the act guaranteeing the security of the Church of Scotland. In her Declaration, the Queen said: “My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than that I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to uphold constitutional government and to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over.”
The Accession proclamation, signed by members of the Privy Council on 6 February, was then read publicly, beginning at 11 a.m.. In London the proclamation was first read at St. James's Palace by the Garter King of Arms, who then proceeded with cavalry escort to read the proclamation at Charing Cross, Temple Bar and the Royal Exchange. Gun salutes were fired from Hyde Park and the Tower of London. The process was repeated in Edinburgh, Windsor and York and at Shire Halls and Guildhalls throughout the country.
Later on the 8th February, the Queen travelled to Sandringham with the Duke of Edinburgh, where she was present when the coffin was moved to St. Mary Magdalene Church for a short service. In London, everything was being prepared for the King’s lying in state at Westminster Hall and state funeral ceremonies through London and in Windsor.