After a long illness, King George VI died peacefully in his bed at Sandringham seventy years ago this month on 6 February 1952. An Assistant Private Secretary from Buckingham Palace went to 10 Downing Street to inform the Prime Minister. The news hit Winston Churchill hard.
“When I went into the Prime Minister’s bedroom he was sitting alone with tears in his eyes,” recalled Churchill’s Private Secretary, John Colville. “I had not realized how much the King meant to him.” But there was much work to do. Churchill called a meeting of the Cabinet for 11:30 that morning and another at 2:45 in the afternoon to discuss the formal processes that had to be gone through in Parliament and the Privy Council to announce the death of the King and the accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II—who was in Kenya.
The next day Churchill was driven to London Airport to welcome home the new Queen. With him was his secretary Jane Portal. “He was going to broadcast that afternoon,” she remembered. “On the way down, he dictated. He was in a flood of tears.” At the airport, Churchill stood with Leader of the Opposition Clement Attlee and other government leaders as the Queen descended the stairs from the B.O.A.C airplane that had brought her home.
During the drive back from the airport, Churchill completed dictating the text of his broadcast. Upon their arrival at Downing Street, however, Miss Portal deliberately told everyone that the Prime Minister still needed “half an hour to finish it.” “I wanted them to layoff,” she remembered. “He was exhausted.”
In his broadcast, Churchill spoke of the late King, with whom he had worked so closely during the war, as having walked with death for the last few months “as if death were a companion, an acquaintance, whom he recognized and did not fear.” Churchill moved on to note that the second Queen Elizabeth, like the first, ascended “the Throne in her twenty-sixty year.”
The Prime Minister concluded by saying: “I, whose youth was passed in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian Era, may well feel a thrill in invoking, once more, the prayer and the Anthem, ‘God Save the Queen!’”
The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations will take place later this spring.
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