Sixty years ago today we heard the sad new that King George VI had died. I was eleven years old. The King was at Sandringham in Norfolk. Our home didn’t own a television but I’d seen footage of King George standing on the tarmac a few days before, bare headed in a cold wind waving goodbye to his older daughter and son in law as they flew to Africa. He seemed to stay there waving for a long time. In retrospect one wondered whether he had a premonition that he wouldn’t see Elizabeth again in this life. His death, at least to us was unexpected. King George had recently survived an operation for lung cancer, another victim of cigarette smoking. In those days it was still regarded as an acceptable habit, even touted in advertisements as being good for one’s health.

Four women intimately mourned his death. Queen Mary, the king’s mother, was still alive, the matriarch of the family and widow of King George V. The king’s wife, immediately become the Queen Mother. Princess Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret also mourned. A few days later, once our new Queen arrived back from Kenya, photographs were published of the mourning women, clad in black. The prime minister was Winston Churchill. He met the Queen’s flight upon her return.

I was at school, in Norfolk, a few miles from Sandringham. I was in class. The door swung open, and the Headmaster, in his usual cap and MA gown entered. We instinctively stood, as we did whenever a teacher entered the room. He doffed his mortarboard and simply said, “The King is dead. Long live the Queen.”  I remember filing out into a cold East Anglian day. Radio, then a monopoly of the BBC played mournful music. It seemed to go on for days. Crowds flocked to London to file past the coffin in the ancient Westminster Hall, next to Parliament and the Abbey. On the day of the funeral, we listened to the service at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

By 1952, the Empire was beginning to shrink. George was the last King Emperor, a title he relinquished when India and the new nation of Pakistan were created in 1947. Apart from that significant subtraction and that of the Republic or Ireland, our world maps were still colored pink in all those vast Dominions and territories to which Queen Elizabeth now became monarch. England was recovering slowly from the grim after years of world war two. Some things were still rationed. The post war Labour Government had nationalized a large number of industries. We had an ambitious National Health program which gave medical care to all. A remarkable project to build “council houses” had made affordable housing to the thousands bombed out of their homes during the war and to make a dent in eradicating the slums which blighted the larger towns and cities. A Conservative government succeeded the worn out Labour administration a few months before. The Church of England seemed to be regaining its position. It too was rebuilding ancient buildings bombed during those dreadful war years and building new parish churches near the new housing estates. The autocratic former Public School headmaster, Geoffrey Francis Fisher was Archbishop of Canterbury and would preside with great presence and dignity at the coronation in 1953. My grandfather bought my mother and me a television so that we could watch the Coronation.

Despite family woes and the bewildering changes of a modern world, Elizabeth II, Queen now for sixty years, has set a steady example of devotion, faith and duty. In another three years she will equal in length the reign of her great-great grandmother Victoria. Standing above party and politics, the Queen remains a living symbol of continuity and unity in what is now, in Great Britain a multi-ethnic and religious society. Long may she reign.

One Response

  1. I said matins for the accession from the 1662 bcp and then said the accession service. I tolled the church bell 60 times for Her Majesty’s reign.

    Btw there’s a misprint in your article, the Coronation was in 1953.


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