In London, crowds gathered in the rain outside Buckingham Palace following news of the death of her father, George VI. Cinemas and theatres shut their doors and television cancelled, except for news bulletins. Flags fell to half mast and by 9pm, growing numbers of mourners were pushed back from the palace gates. Despite the bitterly cold and wet night, a weeping crowd stayed gathered until long after dark. It was if they had lost a friend, people said.
The King died in his sleep, a servant finding him at 7.30am on Wednesday, February 6, 1952 in his bed at Sandringham, his death made public four hours later. His long-weakened health had given way to a period of relative wellness but, officially, a coronary thrombosis killed him in the night, aged just 56. Later, his lung cancer diagnosis was revealed.
Just five days before, the King waved his daughter off on a world tour with the Duke of Edinburgh. The night her father died, Elizabeth and her husband watched the elephants gather around a waterhole at the Treetops Hotel near Nyeri, thousands of miles away. As the story goes, she went up the ladder that night to her treehouse a Princess, and came down a Queen, her inherited duty passed on to her as she slept.
She motored 45 miles to Nanyuki airport from the Treetops that morning, the road lined by people, their heads bowed as she passed in the first signals of her new status. The liner, Gothic, which was waiting in Mombassa to take them on the next stag of their trip to Australia, was never put to sea. Instead, she travelled home – and into a world forever turned.
In the deep tributes that followed the death of George VI, who reigned for 16 years following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, he was described as not just a good king, but a good man – a king dearly beloved in both cottage and castle. Not least, he was the man who did not want to be king. His daughter, doubtlessly, did not want much to be queen. She was just 25 and living a relatively modest military life with her husband and her first children in Malta. Duty, however, had long been drilled into her.
Elizabeth arrived back at Heathrow on Thursday, February 7, around 4.20pm. She emerged, in black hat and black coat, after her uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, boarded the plane to meet her. A family moment quickly gave way to official business and as she descended the steps, she was greeted by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Labour leader Clement Atlee and Clement Davis, leader of the Liberals, and she shook hands with them all.
After around six minutes, a car took her to Clarence House to meet her mother – now a Queen Dowager. On arrival, the Royal Standard was broken from the staff, the first time since the days of King William IV, to symbolise the end of her father’s reign. There were no parental shadows to comfortably shield in any more.
As the Queen navigated the early, blank shock of grief, the burden of greatest duty quickly fell upon her. The day after her return from Africa, she delivered her Accession Declaration before 200 Privy Councillors at St James Palace, her husband among them, having been appointed by George VI the year before.
In this most masculine of environments, and wearing full mourning dress, she delivered her short declaration to “advance the prosperity and happiness of my peoples” and to follow her father’s “shining example”.
“I pray that God will help me to discharge worthily this heavy task that has been laid on me so early in my life.” Many prayed for her.
A few minutes after her return to Clarence House, the ancient proclamation of a new monarch was delivered. The words “God Save The Queen” were delivered at the gates for the first time and – it is said – the clouds parted to let through a little weak winter sunshine.
Elizabeth was styled Queen Elizabeth II to acknowledge her namesake, Elizabeth I of England, and to avoid the double numbering of some monarchs after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, such as her ancestor James VI of Scotland and I of England.
Her reign was announced in towns cities and villages across the UK and Commonwealth on the Friday. In Edinburgh, thousands of residents and visitors circled the Mercat Cross for the proclamation in a “stunning scene”, according to accounts.
Members of the Lyon Court gathered in their brilliant blue, old and scarlet tabards. They were joined by a guard of honour by the kilted Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Company of Archers, dressed in dark green. The Senators of the College of Justice joined the procession in their deep red robes. A 25-gun salute boomed over the city, with similar explosions heard in Australia and Canada, the first Commonwealth country to proclaim Queen Elizabeth II as reigning monarch.
In Aberdeen, around 8,000 people gathered in heavy snow showers at the Mercat Cross for the proclamation, with some waiting more than two hours for the ceremony . In Elgin, the proclamation arrived late by train and in Inverness, hundreds gathered for the announcement.
Today, there will be no celebrations for the Queen, who is said to prefer a day of quiet contemplation on the anniversary of her Accession Day. She will spend the day with family at Sandringham, where her father passed away. As the longest reigning monarch in British history, there will be much to reflect on, 70 years to the day she came down the ladder a Queen.