On this very day in 1952, King George VI of the United Kingdom died peacefully in his sleep at Sandringham House, aged just 56, after a long battle with lung cancer. The heiress presumptive to the throne, King George’s eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth was in Kenya when she received the news of her father’s death and that she was now Queen.
The story of Queen Elizabeth’s accession actually starts on 31st January 1952. King George VI saw off Elizabeth and her husband on a tour that was destined for Australia and New Zealand, a tour the King himself was supposed to have taken, yet being unable to do so due to his illness. King George waved off his daughter as she embarks on the plane – some people say they both knew this was the last time they were ever to see each other again.
On the 5th February, King George retired to bed at Sandringham House in what was described as ‘his usual health’.
The following morning, when the footman came to wake up the King at 7:30am, it was discovered that he was dead – The King had died in his sleep.
News was broken to London at 10:45am in a special news bulletin. Below is a recording of the announcement of King George’s death.
BBC Radio Announcement
King George’s death came as a shock to the nation. George VI was very popular with the British people in his reign. He was seen as the King who led the nation through to victory during WW2, who had stood firm in London even in the face of Nazi bombings and whose radio broadcasts had reminded the nation of what it was they were fighting for.
Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh had stopped in Kenya and were staying at a place called Sagana Lodge in the Treetops. Since October the previous year, Princess Elizabeth’s private secretary began carrying draft accession papers, should the worst happen and then the Princess accede when outside of the UK.
On the morning of The King’s death, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister had been informed almost immediately as news broke as Sandringham. The message, however got to Nairobi in Kenya 4 hours after because the telegram sent could not be decoded until the safe containing the code book was unlocked.
Eventually, the codebook was obtained and the message was discovered. The message was received at Government House in Nairobi and Martin Charteris was immediately telephoned, once the shock had a moment to settle in and Charteris had composed himself, he immediately phoned through to Sagana Lodge where the Duke of Edinburgh answered the telephone. When news broke to the Duke, it is said he reacted ‘as if he had been hit by a lightning bolt’.
The Duke of Edinburgh had decided to take his wife out for a walk to a secluded spot in the garden, where at 2:45pm, he told her the tragic news. The King, her father, had died during the night and as a result, she was now Sovereign.
Above all else during the accession, The Queen’s quiet composure in the face of such tragic circumstances are always remarked upon by experts. In the words of a member of her household ‘she bore it like a Queen’.
The first thing Martin Charteris had to ask the new Queen, after offering his condolences, was what would she like to be called as Queen – as Monarchs can choose a different regnal name to be known by. Elizabeth’s father’s real name was Prince Albert, though his choice of name settled at George. In immediate response to the question on her regnal name Elizabeth retorted, ‘why my own name of course, what else?’
Later that evening, once Charteris had sent off the details of the new Queen’s wishes, Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal party left swiftly to fly back to England.
As London mourned the loss of a king, on the 8th February 1952, the Accession Council assembled met to proclaim the new Queen’s accession to the throne. The proclamation was read out across the country, including at the Royal Exchange in London and at St James’s Palace.
A video from the time of The Queen’s accession with interesting viewpoints of the time:
5th February 1952 – 10:30pm | King George VI retired to bed for the last time. He died in his sleep. His daughter became Elizabeth II.
6th February 1952 – 7:30am | King George VI is discovered dead by a servant at wake-up call.
6th February 1952 – 10:45am | An announcement on BBC Radio declares that King George VI died peacefully in his sleep and that Princess Elizabeth was Queen.
6th February 1952 – 2:45pm | Prince Philip takes Elizabeth for a walk whilst in Kenya to tell her her father has died and consequently, she is Queen.
7th February 1952 – 4:30pm | Queen Elizabeth II returns to the UK as Queen for the first time. She is greeted by Winston Churchill and other dignitaries.
7th February 1952 – 9:00pm | Winston Churchill makes a speech on BBC Radio declaring the sad loss of the King and his allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II.
8th February 1952 – 11:00am | The accession council for Queen Elizabeth II assembles and she is proclaimed Queen across Great Britain. Primarily at St James’s Palace the Royal Exchange and also at many places across the UK.