This Sunday, February 6 will mark seven historic decades since Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. But don’t expect to see her on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the occasion — not yet, at least. The Platinum Jubilee festivities will happen later this year, including a four-day bank holiday in June.
Her Majesty has made Accession Day, as the anniversary is known, less about her public role as queen and more about her private grief over the death of her father. Elizabeth was 25 years old when he passed; King George VI was 56. His 15-year tenure was a tumultuous one as he sought to stabilize the monarchy after the chaos of his brother’s abdication and through World War II.
The Queen’s choice to honor her father each year is, to me, a reminder of the special bond they shared. I was particularly touched by the photographs taken last month and released today of the Queen admiring the jubilee cards she has received. Her Majesty is wearing a pair of aquamarine and diamond brooches, which were a gift to her from her father on her 18th birthday.
Below I have done a bit of a deep dive into the Queen and her father, examining their intertwined and unexpected fates. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this historic moment. Please scroll down and share in the comments.
* * *
Queen Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI, was born Albert Frederick Arthur George on December 14, 1895. He arrived during the 63-year reign of his great grandmother, Queen Victoria, and on the 34th anniversary of the death of her beloved husband, Albert. The occasion reframed what had been a dark day, as captured in this letter by Queen Victoria’s eldest child to her mother:
So strong was Victoria’s relationship with Albert that most of her male offspring included his name in theirs. Victoria’s son, who went on to become King Edward VII, was Albert Edward; her grandson, King George V, was George Frederick Ernest Albert; her great grandson, King Edward VIII, was Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David (he was the one who abdicated — more on that in a minute! — and wins for most names).
All of this is to say it was not terribly surprising that the new prince born on December 14 would be named Albert in honor of his late great grandfather. His family called him Bertie.
As the second son to then-Prince George (later King George V), Bertie was the “spare” rather than the heir, with little expectation of ascending to the throne. According to biographer Denis Judd in “George VI”:
The young prince faced a number of health problems, which later got in the way of his professional pursuits. He wore painful splints to correct his knock knees as a child; as was customary at the time, Bertie was forced to write with his right hand although he had a natural tendency toward the left. As an adult, painful gastric ailments put an end to his navy career. Albert was tormented for a speech impediment for years, a struggle that was famously dramatized in the (fantastic) 2010 movie, “The King’s Speech.”
“It is little wonder that his frustrations and disabilities sometimes erupted in fits of ungovernable rage,” wrote Judd.
Bertie’s marriage to Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in April 1923 at Westminster Abbey, was the first public royal wedding in centuries. The pair, who became the Duke and Duchess of York, were very much in love. Bertie’s parents, King George V and Queen Mary, were thrilled. “I am quite certain that Elizabeth will be a splendid partner in your work & share with you & help you in all you have to do,” the king wrote to his son.
Slightly off topic but I particularly love this little sartorial insight about the hat the duchess wore as she left on her honeymoon. It was small and off her face, which Elizabeth Longford remarked upon in her book, “The Queen Mother”:
Two years into their marriage, Bertie and Elizabeth had yet to have a child. There was a growing sense of urgency, given that Bertie’s elder brother and heir apparent, Prince Edward (the family called him David), had yet to marry let alone produce his own heir.
So it was with great joy that Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on April 21, 1926. She was the third in line to the throne at the time of her birth, behind her uncle and her father. The thought of her ascending, however, was remote at best. Her Uncle Edward was just 31 and had plenty of time to have a family of his own; furthermore, Elizabeth’s parents could still have had a son that would overtake her in the line of succession.
In fact, Albert worried he had displeased his parents by having a daughter, writing to his mother, Queen Mary, according to Sir John Wheeler-Bennett’s biography: “I do hope that you & Papa are as delighted as we are to have a grand-daughter, or would you have sooner had another grandson.”
The new father’s fears were placed. Both the Queen and King were thrilled at the “little darling with a lovely complexion & pretty fair hair.”
For the first decade of her life, Princess Elizabeth lived with all of the privilege of royalty but none of the expectations of ascending to the throne. (Her position was equivalent to Princess Beatrice today.) The arrival of her sister, Margaret Rose, four years later completed the family. They spent weekdays in the bustling heart of London and weekends at the Royal Lodge in Windsor with her family’s menagerie of ponies, dogs, and parrots.
Marion Crawford, the Queen’s former governess, wrote about these carefree times in her memoir, “The Little Princesses”:
Crawford’s insights into the Duke, including his love of needlepointing or willingness to join a game of hide-and-seek in the gardens with his girls, paint a portrait of a content husband and father. Elizabeth’s parents helped with bath time each night and preferred evenings by the fire over elaborate dinner parties or outings to the theatre. The pair were “happy in each other,” as Crawford described.
Elizabeth’s life, and the course of history, changed in 1936 when her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated after less than a year on the throne. He walked away to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American. Can you imagine? Nothing in modern royal history can compare to a monarch willingly stepping down — and for love!
Albert reluctantly became King George VI, choosing that name to signal continuity from the reign of his father, King George V. Elizabeth was 10 years old at the time, Margaret was 6. On the day the abdication happened, the young princesses gave their father a big hug as he left their London home. As Crawford tells it, Elizabeth’s mother was in bed with chills so it was up to her to inform the girls.
“I had to explain to them that when Papa came home to lunch at one o’clock he would be King of England, and they would have to curtsy to him,” she wrote. Her bit of advice? “Try not to topple over.” By Crawford's account, they remained admirably composed:
The young princesses were left to connect the dots on what this news meant for Elizabeth’s fate. “Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?” Margaret asked her sister, according to Sally Bedell Smith’s biography, “Elizabeth the Queen.”
“Yes, someday,” Elizabeth said, to which Margaret replied: “Poor you.”
Perhaps more rattling to the young princess was the realization that the family had to move to Buckingham Palace. “What!” Lilibet said to Crawford. “‘You mean forever?” The new residence was a big adjustment for the family. Dark and drafty, with mice scampering about, Crawford described it as “camping in a museum.”
The family’s close, carefree dynamic changed, too. Now king, Elizabeth’s father no longer had time for the garden romps he once famously enjoyed. However, two life-sized rocking horses were placed just outside his office door. Crawford speculated in her memoir that perhaps those were positioned on purpose, “so that he could hear the thump, thump of the little girls riding them while he worked, and could feel them still near him.”
King Edward VIII did not have a coronation before his abdication in 1936, which meant his brother, as the new king, could step into the plans already underway. The festivities took place just five months later, in May 1937. It was Elizabeth’s first chance to grasp just how grand her future was.
“I thought it all very, very wonderful,” she wrote in her journal that day. The young princess was called the heiress presumptive at the time, rather than the heiress apparent, because some were still hoping her parents would produce a son.
The once-reluctant king took to his new role quite quickly, with biographer Judd describing him as “markedly more assured and self-confident as the early months of his reign passed by.” But having not been groomed to be king, Elizabeth’s father was determined to better prepare his daughter. A studious and serious Elizabeth seemed to grasp the gravity of her fate. From Bedell Smith’s biography:
On her 21st birthday, during a tour of Southern Africa with her parents that was intended to show the princess the ropes, Elizabeth pledged herself to her future role: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.”
The strain of leading the country through World War II took an obvious and visible toll on the king’s health. A longtime smoker, he dealt with a persistent cough; he also suffered from pain and numbness due to arteriosclerosis, at one moment facing the possibility that one of his legs might need to be amputated.
Meanwhile, during the post-war years, Elizabeth blossomed into a princess full of promise. She married Prince Philip in 1947, when she was 21. Prince Charles arrived a year later and then came Princess Anne two years after that. Through Philip’s naval career, the young family lived for a few brief years as normally as they ever would.
But by the summer of 1951, it became clear that Philip would need to leave his post so that the couple could devote their days to representing the sovereign. That fall, the king had his left lung removed; the diagnosis of cancer was kept a secret. Elizabeth and Philip delayed a planned tour of Canada and the United States for a few weeks, traveling only when the king reassured them of his recovery.
The young couple stepped in once again several months later, undertaking a long-planned tour to Australia and New Zealand on behalf of the king. The gaunt monarch joined his daughter at the airport to see her off on January 31, 1952, waving to her from the tarmac. It was to be their final moment together.
King George VI died in his sleep on the morning of February 6, 1952. The official cause of death was coronary thrombosis. He was at Sandringham, the royal family’s much-loved country estate, and had gone shooting the day before. According to Jane Dismore’s book, Princess, he enjoyed “a relaxed dinner with his wife and daughter, Princess Margaret, who would always remember her parents joking together that evening.”
Before the official royal tour began, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip took a holiday to Sagana State Lodge in Kenya. The couple had gone off for a night at Treetops Hotel, a three-bedroom cabin in a forested wildlife preserve, where Elizabeth delightedly used her movie camera to film the animals around them.
When the party returned to the Sagana Lodge, it was Michael Parker, Philip’s private secretary, who took the call from England. Parker then told Philip, later remarking: “I never felt so sorry for anyone in all my life.”
Philip delivered the news to Elizabeth in private. “She shed no tears, but looked ‘pale and worried,’” Bedell Smith wrote. When her private secretary later inquired what name she would take as queen, Elizabeth replied: “My own name, of course. What else?”
The new queen flew back to England the following day. Amid the many matters to be addressed, there was one particularly pressing issue: Elizabeth needed a black dress. Although members of the royal family often travel with a black ensemble for unexpected occasions of mourning, the Queen’s hasty departure from Kenya meant she left in the summer clothes she had been wearing (People magazine said it was a beige dress with white shoes.) Proper winter black attire was smuggled onto the plane, allowing the Queen to change before making her first public appearance. Her grandmother, Queen Mary, later said — after curtsying — “your skirts are much too short for mourning,” Bedell Smith wrote.
The following day, at St. James’s Palace, 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth II appeared before the Ascension Council. “By the sudden death of my dear father, I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty,” she said. “I pray that God will help me to discharge worthily this heavy task that has been lain upon me so early in my life.”
* * *
But mostly: The 95-year-old Queen will mark Accession Day this weekend at Sandringham with her family. She is reportedly staying at the (relatively) modest Wood Farm Cottage on the estate, which was home to Prince Philip in the time before his death last April. The Queen was spotted by photographers this week as she was being driven around the estate, sporting bright lipstick and one of her signature silk headscarves.
The thought of this historic moment, and the ways in which Queen Elizabeth II has risen to her fate, takes my breath away. How proud her father would be! Long may she reign.
* * *
I would love to hear your thoughts on Queen Elizabeth II marking 70 years on the throne. Please scroll down and leave a comment. You can also send me an email at Hello@SoManyThoughts.com.