Today marks the Blue Sapphire Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, commemorating her 65 years on the throne. Of course, there has never been a Sapphire Jubilee before, with the Queen surpassing the record of 63 years held by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in September 2015. So how will the Queen be celebrating? She won’t be. Instead she will spend the day quietly at Sandringham and neither she nor the Duke of Edinburgh will undertake any public engagements.
Indeed, this is how the Queen usually marks February 6th, which to her is not only the anniversary of ascending the throne, but the day she lost her much-beloved father, George VI. Thus the passage of 65 years is not only a milestone of her own career, but a reminder that its length is due to his premature death. For similar reasons she declined to make hay out of breaking Queen Victoria’s record to avoid the awkwardness of essentially celebrating a relative’s death.
Recently, Netflix debuted “The Crown,” following the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s marriage and reign. The series dramatized the reality of a young wife and mother shedding whatever semblance of domesticity or privacy she had been able to cultivate for the endless duty and isolation of the throne. The heart of that story is well-captured by the series, but today it’s worth examining the real figures and events behind the story.
On September 23, 1951 King George VI had his left lung removed during a surgery conducted by Dr. Clement Price Thomas after a malignant tumor was found. The King’s health had never been robust, but it had been particularly exacerbated by the stress of World War II and his near-constant smoking. Two months later he would be unable to read his own speech during the State Opening of Parliament and require assistance from the Lord Chancellor. His Christmas broadcast that year was edited in pieces, allowing the King to speak in short segments.
The King’s health forced the greater involvement of his eldest daughter and heir, Princess Elizabeth. By the end of 1951, Elizabeth was 25, she had been married to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh for four years and was mother to Prince Charles (3) and Princess Anne (1). The couple made their home at Clarence House when in London, but had intermittently resided in Malta as Prince Philip pursued a full-time career in the Navy. It’s this period of time for the Queen that I think best-reflects how today’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are breaking down their time between public and private – and why I suspect they have the blessing of the Queen as they do so.
And it was unexpected that it came to end as quickly as it did. Elizabeth and Philip stepped up to the plate in 1951 – as they had done at various other points since their marriage due to the King’s ill-health – and took on an increasing number of public engagements and overseas tours. On January 31, 1952 Philip and Elizabeth departed London for a tour of New Zealand and Australia, including a stop in Kenya on their way, as the King’s surrogates. Against the advice of his doctors, King George, along with Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, saw the couple off from the airport. Broadcast of the event can be viewed in the video clip below, which marks the last time the King was seen in public.
Six days later, after a day of shooting hares and then dining with his wife and youngest daughter, King George died in his sleep from a clot that blocked blood flow to his heart. On the morning of February 6, he was discovered in his bed at Sandringham House in Norfolk.
That same night, Philip and Elizabeth were in Kenya, visiting the Treetops Hotel in the Aberdare National Park near Nyeri. The hotel, built – as its name suggests – literally within the treetops, allowed guests to view the scenery and wildlife from a safe vantage point. Originally offering two-room accommodations, the hotel eventually grew into 50-room complex. While the structure at which Philip and Elizabeth stayed was destroyed by the Mau Mau upsrising in 1954, the lodgings have been re-built and can still be visited today.
After staying up most of the night to enjoy the sights, the couple returned to their home during their stay, Sagana Lodge – a residence gifted to the couple as a wedding present in 1947. Unbeknownst to them, Martin Charteris, Elizabeth’s private secretary, was calling Michael Parker, Philip’s private secretary, to share the news. When Parker told Philip what had happened, Philip responded that it would be “the most appalling shock” for his wife. He then retreated to Elizabeth’s bedroom where she was attempting to catch up on rest and shared the news. Apparently she responded without tears, but looked “pale and worried.” Philip and Elizabeth then took a long walk along the bank of the Sagana River.
The couple returned to London the next day where they were met by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and George VI’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, among others.
They then drove from the airport to Clarence House where Elizabeth was greeted by the rest of her family, including her mother and grandmother, Queen Mary, who, for the first time in her life, curtsied to her instead of the other way around. Queen Mary’s first words to her granddaughter as monarch were, “Lilibet, your skirts are much too short for mourning.”
Elizabeth then began the process of transitioning into the day-to-day existence of the monarch. That included moving her young family from Clarence House to Buckingham Palace, planning her father’s funeral, meeting with the Accession Council, and beginning to lay out the logistics of her future coronation. It also meant deciding on a name. When asked by Charteris what she intended to call herself (her father, for example, was known as “Albert” until he ascended the throne), she responded, “My own name, of course. What else?” The most Elizabeth response ever.
Later on, in the 1990s, she described this time with:
“It was all very sudden. [It meant] kind of taking it on, and making the best job you can. It’s a question of maturing into something that one’s got used to doing, and accepting the fact that here you are, and it’s your fate, because I think continuity is important.”
Never mind, that is the most Elizabeth response ever.
Also, God Save the Queen.