- Queen Elizabeth II took over the throne at just 25 years old when her father, King George VI, died in 1952.
- Her Majesty was in Kenya on a tour of the Commonwealth at the time of her father's death, but her trip was cut short when she learned the news.
- Over one year later, Elizabeth was crowned and officially was recognized as the Queen of England.
Queen Elizabeth II has been the leader of the royal family for roughly 68 years, officially making her the longest-reigning British monarch ever.
She fell into the position at just 25 years old in 1952 after her father, King George VI, died of coronary thrombosis at 56 amid his battle with lung cancer. Although she was not officially crowned until June 2, 1953, Elizabeth was asked to lead the minute the King died — as is set to be shown in CNN's new docuseries, The Windsors: Inside the Royal Dynasty.
Despite being overcome with grief when he was laid to rest, the royal family was reportedly aware of the King's declining health by the early 1950s and knew that Elizabeth's time was coming. After all, the King was forced to postpone a tour of New Zealand and Australia because of his condition. What's more, he suffered an arterial blockage in 1949 and had to have his left lung removed in the summer of 1951. During his struggles, George had allegedly been showing his daughter state papers and "the ways of the monarchy." There were black clothes in Elizabeth's suitcase whenever she traveled. She was prepared, though it's not certain she was ever really ready for what was ahead.
The Princess's Trip to Kenya
On February, 6, 1952, the day George VI died at Sandringham House, Elizabeth wasn't by her father's side — instead, she was working on his behalf. At the time, the British monarchy was under intense scrutiny in Kenya. Mau Mau fighters were gaining power in their fight against British colonialism and for independence (which they eventually won in 1963). Though the safety of the royal family was a big concern among British officials, the King felt it was necessary to show face on the African continent.
Knowing that the King was too ill to travel, Elizabeth set off on the Commonwealth tour with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (who became Prince Philip in 1957). Little did Elizabeth know that when she departed Heathrow on January 31, 1952 that it would be the last time she'd ever see her beloved father.
Lord Chandos, the Colonial Secretary, told The Telegraph at the time:
"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.”
The royal couple arrived in Kenya on the first of the month, where they attended a garden party, greeted the Governor of Kenya, and enjoyed time at the Treetops Hotel, which was located in the heart of the forest. Five days into their trip, King George VI took his final breath.
Just hours before she learned that her father had died, the Princess was having the time of her life taking photos of elephants at a nearby watering hole. The night before George died, Time reports that the Princess was "too excited to sleep" and "kept leaving her cot to watch other nocturnal visitors at the watering hole."
British hunter Jim Corbett, who was also staying at Treetops at the time, later wrote the now famous lines in the visitors' guest book:
"For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen."
From Princess to Queen
While it's believed by many today that the Treetops Hotel is where she found out her father had died in his sleep in the early morning hours of February 6, The Guardian reports that this isn't exactly true. The Queen had gotten up that morning and eaten breakfast while "tossing bananas to baboons below," totally unaware of what was going on in London.
BBC's Frank Gillard penned at the time:
"How tragic to think that even this morning, as she sat at breakfast, talking about her father, and proudly describing how bravely he'd stood up to his illness, how well he'd recovered — sitting there in her yellow bush shirt and brown slacks — even at that moment her father was lying dead and she had succeeded to his vast responsibilities."
In the early afternoon, Philip was the one to first learn that George VI had died after a local newspaper reporter told him. And later on in the afternoon, when the royal couple was at a fishing lodge 20 miles away from the hotel, Philip finally told his wife.
After hearing the tragic news, Elizabeth took a walk around the grounds with Philip. She then immediately began writing letters to leaders apologizing that she'd have to cancel the rest of her trip.
According to Robert Lacy, author of The Queen: A Life in Brief, she reacted stoically, and showed almost no distress. "She was sitting erect, fully accepting her destiny," Martin Charteris, the princess's private secretary, says in the book. No one actually saw Elizabeth shed a tear. It is said that as Elizabeth departed the lodge, no photographers took a single shot of the historic moment, per Her Majesty's request.
Accepting Her New Position
On February 7, after a thunderstorm delayed her departure, Elizabeth arrived in London. The mood was somber, as the whole nation mourned the death of their sovereign. Flags were at half-mast, many businesses were shut down, and sporting events were canceled, according to The New York Times. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already addressed the nation in a broadcast.
A day later, Commonwealth representatives and privy counselors attended an Accession Council at St. James's Palace where Elizabeth officially recognized her new role.
“By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty," she explained. "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."
On February 15, a funeral for the deceased king took place at St. George's Chapel. There, George was interred in a vault. Later on that day, a commemoration service was held at Westminster Abbey.
Looking back on King George's death, the new Queen penned a letter in March of 1952 to her father's former private secretary Sir Eric Mieville. In it, she detailed how much she missed her father.
"We have been so comforted to know that we are not alone in our sorrow, as it seems so many people feel they have lost a friend as well as a king."
Over one year later on June 2, 1953, Elizabeth was officially crowned and recognized as the Queen of England.
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