Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of Her Majesty The Queen to the thrones of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The nation is currently preparing for a fantastic summer of celebrations to mark the first royal Diamond Jubilee since that of Queen Victoria in 1897. Along with this year's London Olympic Games, the Jubilee will certainly make 2012 a summer to remember. However, unlike the summer festivities, which will commemorate The Queen's sixty years of exemplary service to her country and her people, today is a more quiet day, with Her Majesty making a short visit to the picturesque town of King's Lynn in Norfolk.
Part of the reason for that quiet is, of course, that today is not just the anniversary of The Queen's accession but also the anniversary of the death of her father, King George VI, who died in his sleep at Sandringham in 1952. The Queen, who was very close to both of her parents, was on holiday in Kenya when she received the news that her father had passed away; the news was followed by a short telegram from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, informing her, "Flash Emergency. Mr Churchill with his humble duty offers to your Majesty the profound condolences of the Cabinet on the death of your dear father the King. The Accession Council will meet this afternoon at St James's Palace to proclaim your Majesty's accession. The Cabinet in all things awaits your Majesty's commands." Back home, the Prime Minister led the nation in mourning with a moving broadcast, praising the King for the nobility and bravery of his "pilgrimage" of service.
King George, who was only fifty-six at the time of his death, had been in poor health for some time but had only been diagnosed with lung cancer in September 1951, after returning to London from Balmoral, the Royal Family's country home in Scotland. An operation, which removed part of the King's left lung, had failed to stop the progress of the disease, although he briefly recovered enough health to enjoy a happy family Christmas with his wife, two daughters, son-in-law and two grandchildren. He had been able to go hunting and to enjoy a performance of South Pacific at the theatre in London, accompanied by his wife and youngest daughter, Princess Margaret Rose. The last photographs of the King show him waving goodbye to his eldest daughter's plane as she set off for Kenya. On 5th February, the King shot hares in the afternoon and retired to bed, as usual. He passed away quietly in his sleep and was discovered by his valet, when he brought in the breakfast tray on the following morning.
Today, something of King George's personal bravery and dedication to duty is known because of the Oscar-winning biopic The King's Speech, which dramatised his battle with a speech impediment. But too often, George VI's legacy and commitment to his country is overshadowed by two of the figures closest to him - the self-indulgence of his brother Edward VIII, whose dereliction of duty has, quite bizarrely, been depicted as "the greatest love story of the century" and the indomitable charisma of his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who in 2002 was voted "the greatest Briton of all time" in a public poll. Today, high schools and institutions named after Churchill dot the American continent, where he is one of the few (if not the only) British political leader to enjoy anything close to affection. George VI, however, is almost forgotten.
Yet, as Churchill himself would have been at pains to note, throughout his sixteen years as Sovereign, George VI had reigned with grace, discipline, selflessness and quiet dignity. He had inherited a terribly difficult situation, both emotionally and politically, when his elder brother abdicated after only ten months on the throne. Along with his wife Elizabeth, George had rescued the monarchy from the scandal of Edward's actions; he had led the nation with firm patriotic resolve throughout the terrible years of the Second World War, maintaining public morale during the especially difficult period between 1939 and 1942 when Britain had, to all intents and purposes, stood alone in facing the criminal wrath of Nazism. He had maintained the public's respect and affection throughout the trying years of the post-war recession and the disintegration of the British Empire, watched over with glee by the Soviet Union and indifference by the United States, Britain's war-time allies. He had, above all, lived the values he preached; embodying the reserve, the self-discipline and the quiet patriotism of his generation. At the time, those who had lived through the War knew that their King was not only a good leader but, that rarest of things, a good man as well.
A schoolboy at the time, now an author, spoke today on the BBC News about his memories of George VI's death. He was in French class at boarding school, being taught by a French citizen, a veteran of the War, now living and working in England. Another member of staff stepped into the classroom during the morning lesson and whispered something in the teacher's ear. Tears began to stream down the man's face, "which was very extraordinary to us, because in that environment and in the 1950s, one certainly was not used to a fully-grown man making such a display of emotion, in public. But, after a moment, he gathered himself and walked to the blackboard, where he wrote the words, Le roi est mort, Vive la Reine." Throughout the nation, the reaction was similar, with millions coming to a halt over the next few weeks to pay their respects to their late King. Cinemas, theatres, sports grounds, schools, universities, public transport - all fell quiet and the edges of the newspapers were trimmed with black ink.
The London Gazette, seen here trimmed with that black, issued the official proclamation from Saint James's, confirming the accession of the new Monarch (below.)
George VI had reigned well; he had inherited a difficult position and ruled throughout a difficult time in mankind's history. He lived in the sure and certain knowledge that it was any person's duty, king or commoner, to be able to say, at the last, that they had done their very best. Throughout sixty years on the throne, his daughter and successor can justifiably claim to have done the same.