Renowned historian and royal commentator Hugo Vickers reflects on the Accession of Her Majesty Our Queen
It must have been an extraordinary way to become Queen – at an undefined moment, on a man-made platform up a tree, watching the animals feed at the salt-lick in Kenya. It would have been different had Princess Elizabeth been at home at Clarence House, and called to the telephone by her mother to be given the news from Sandringham. In retrospect the sad photographs of a drawn-looking George VI at London airport take on added poignancy. He was watching the aeroplane depart, taking Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on the first leg of their Commonwealth tour. It must have occurred to both the King and his daughter, that they might not see each other again. Yet no one knew the end would come so soon, otherwise surely she would not have gone.
The King died peacefully in his sleep sometime in the early morning of 6 February 1952. We know that a night watchman heard him open a window, and we know that when his valet brought in his morning tea, he could not wake him. He lay there peacefully in death.
Sometimes simple incidents take on import later. Commander Michael Parker, Prince Philip’s equerry, persuaded Princess Elizabeth to watch the sun rise. An eagle hovered overhead and he was frightened it might dive onto them: ‘I never thought about it until later but that was roughly the time when the King died.’
And so the new Queen flew back to Britain and descended the steps of the plane – a monarch coming home to claim her kingdom. She was met by her father’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. It fell to him to address the House of Commons on 11 February. Having paid tribute to the late King, the Prime Minister turned to the new Queen:
So far I have spoken of the past, but with the new reign we must all feel our contact with the future. A fair and youthful figure, princess, wife and mother is heir to all our traditions and glories, never greater than in her father’s day, and to all our perplexities and dangers never greater in peace-time than now. She is also heir to all our united strength and loyalty. She comes to the Throne at a time when tormented mankind stands uncertainly poised between world catastrophe and the golden age.
That it should be a golden age of art and letters we can only hope, science and machinery have their other stories to tell, but it is certain that if a true and lasting peace can be achieved, and if the nations will only let each other alone, an immense and undreamed of prosperity, with culture and leisure ever more widely spread, can come, perhaps, even easily and swiftly, to the masses of the people in every land.
Let us hope and pray that the accession to our ancient Throne of Queen Elizabeth II may be the signal for such a brightening salvation of the human scene.
Clement Attlee replied: ‘In King George we have lost a great King, and a very good man.’ He continued:
We turn to offer our loyal service to the young Queen. She comes to the Throne with the good will and affection of all her subjects. She takes up a heavy burden, but I am confident that she will sustain it. It is our hope that Her Majesty may live long and happily and that her reign may be as glorious as that of her great predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I. Let us hope we are witnessing the beginning of a new Elizabethan Age no less renowned than the first. We hope that Her Majesty the Queen and her Consort may live long and prosperously and may see more peaceful days than those which fell to the lot of His late Majesty whose loss we mourn today.
I find those words incredibly moving and in so many ways it has come to be. I appreciate that many continue to live difficult lives. But I cannot think of another reign in history that I would have preferred to live in under any economic circumstances. In many ways it has been a golden age. My generation has not had to go to war as my parents did. We have been lucky to have had a steadfast Queen, who has striven for conciliation between previously divided nations. She has worked tirelessly to move things forward, to put aside the differences of the past in quest of a better future. Her simple philosophy – to do your best each day and say your prayers each night – has served her well. She bestows an aura of stability and she cares about us.