LONDON — In June, Britain and the Commonwealth nations are set to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s “Platinum Jubilee,” her record-breaking 70-year reign. The people will hoist pints aloft at street parties, nibble proper sandwiches at garden picnics and watch a huge parade roll through the capital, with a golden carriage led by thousands of honor guards bedecked in military finery.
That is the plan, in four month’s time, and all good health to the queen — who appeared briefly on Saturday, with a cane, to cut a cake and greet a few of her neighbors.
But Feb. 6, the exact day Elizabeth became sovereign in 1952? For the monarch, this is traditionally a more muted anniversary, a day of quiet reflection.
Because for a princess to become a queen? A king must die. This date marks when her beloved father, King George VI, passed away, asleep in his bedroom on the ground floor of Sandringham Estate, the country retreat where a more frail, more cloistered and widowed Elizabeth, aged 95, is residing now, waiting for the pandemic to recede.
“It is a day that, even after 70 years, I still remember as much for the death of my father, King George VI, as for the start of my reign,” she wrote in an anniversary statement released Saturday.
The story of the day and hour of Elizabeth’s accession to the throne has been told many times, but it remains a captivating tale. It’s history with echoes of Arthurian romance.
On the morning of her father’s death, 25-year-old Elizabeth was perched in a treehouse in Kenya, from which she’d watched a herd of elephants led by matriarchs come to a watering hole.
“There has been much speculation, not least because of historical parallels, about when precisely Elizabeth became Queen,” wrote Sally Bedell Smith, in her biography of the monarch. “It undoubtedly happened when she was atop the African fig tree, which draws a romantic line to the moment in 1558 when Elizabeth I, seated next to an oak tree at Hatfield House, heard that the death of her sister, Queen Mary, meant she was the monarch, also at age twenty-five.”
For many months, King George — known to today’s generations for overcoming a debilitating stutter in the 2010 Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech” — had been in declining health.
“The King, a heavy smoker, underwent a left total pneumonectomy in September 1951 for what euphemistically was called ‘structural abnormalities’ of his left lung, but what in reality was a carcinoma,” wrote Rolf F. Barth of Ohio State University in a “pathologists’ reassessment” last year.
“His physicians withheld this diagnosis from him, the public, and the medical profession,” he and co-author L. Maximillian Buja wrote.
Too ill to travel, 56-year-old George tasked Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, with undertaking a months-long tour of the Commonwealth, in what was then the twilight of the British Empire.
George saw his daughter off at London Airport on Jan. 31, 1952. Newspapers said the king looked “well and cheerful.” One of his biographers would later suggest “haggard” as a better description. The crowd let out a cheer as he waved goodbye to Elizabeth.
It would be the last time the two saw each other.
The young couple traveled to Kenya, where a BBC newsreel shows Elizabeth in a print dress and Philip in white naval uniform, bedecked in medals, emerging from the BOAC Argonaut plane.
“When the royal couple stepped off into the hot sunshine of Nairobi, no one knew then that the girl who had arrived here as Princess Elizabeth would leave five days later as queen,” the British broadcaster would report.
From the Kenyan capital, the two, accompanied by a small entourage, traveled three hours to Sagana Lodge, a villa alongside a trout stream, presented to them as a wedding gift from the Kenyan state.
“It was a dangerous time in the British colony. The Mau Mau campaign had just broken out across the White Highlands,” wrote historian Nicholas Best in the Observer. “The officials responsible for the princess’s tour of Kenya, Australia and New Zealand felt unable to guarantee her safety while she was in Kenya. It was only fear of ridicule that stopped them canceling the African leg of the trip.”
On Feb. 5, the couple traveled further into the forest, to Treetops Hotel, a game-viewing lodge. Their three-bed cabin was reached by a rickety ladder and built into the branches of an ancient fig tree, overlooking a waterhole and salt lick.
“Treetops is old hat now, but in 1952 it was the only place of its kind in the world,” wrote Best, who has been researching lodge founder Eric Sherbrooke Walker, a colorful character, former bootlegger and friend of royals.
In an interview, Best told The Washington Post that Walker positioned local men with spears at the edge of the forest to deter journalists, out of concern for Elizabeth’s privacy and also because the smell of more humans would frighten the wildlife.
Naturalist and big-game hunter Jim Corbett, who accompanied the couple, spent the darkest hours of the night at the entrance of the lodge with a shotgun, to keep curious leopards away, Best said.
That afternoon and evening, Elizabeth saw and filmed with her handheld movie camera rhinos, warthogs, baboons and a herd of elephants.
“Look, Philip, they’re pink!” Elizabeth told her husband, according to Smith’s account.
The elephants had been rolling in red dust.
That same day, King George had been shooting hares — he killed nine — at Sandringham Estate back in England.
“The King, a great shot, was on top of his form,” his neighbor Lord Fermoy told a newspaper.
George dined with his wife and younger daughter, Princess Margaret, before retiring to his bedroom at 10:30 p.m.
The Birmingham Gazette reported that the king died in his sleep sometime in the early morning hours of Feb. 6, after a “perfectly happy day.”
Newspapers later described the cause of death as “a blood clot in his heart.”
Because of the distance and difficulty of communications, it took hours for the news to reach rural Kenya. The message was relayed to Philip’s private secretary, and from Philip to his wife when they’d returned to Sagana Lodge.
Without ceremony or even awareness, but in accordance with British tradition, Elizabeth had become queen.
The newspaper front pages rang out, “Long Live Queen Elizabeth,” while noting, “Her Majesty, pale with grief, leaves by air for home.”
There was a proclamation of the accession at St. James’s Palace in London that day, signed by 150 members of the Privy Council.
More than a year later, on June 2, 1953, the over-the-top coronation of Elizabeth II took place in Westminster Abbey, a much more joyous, public, televised occasion, watched by millions.
But that is another story.