Why Queen Elizabeth II Was the Last to Know She’d Become Queen

At the precise moment then-Princess Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, she was not present in Britain to literally "ascend the throne." In fact, for nearly half of the first day of her reign, she didn't even know she'd become Queen.

Historical Collection 174 Queen Elizabeth Ii Wearing A Fur Stole and the George Iv State Diadem Waves to Crowds From Her Coach On the Way to Westminster For the State Opening of Parliament 1952Historia/Shutterstock

King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, died in his sleep sometime during the wee hours of February 5, 1952. The King’s health had been failing for months, reportedly from lung cancer and a circulatory ailment; in fact, having been too weak to travel much, he’d sent his daughter and heir to the throne, Princess Elizabeth, to Kenya in his place as part of a royal tour.

Still, no one was expecting the King’s death when it happened. Just the day before, he’d been out shooting—his favorite sport, after which he’d played with his grandkids, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, and dined with his younger daughter, Princess Margaret. No one even realized he had died until the next morning when his valet, preparing the King’s bath and thinking it odd that he hadn’t yet heard from the King, went to check on him and found him unresponsive in his bed. His death was declared soon after by a doctor. Church bells tolled, flags were lowered to half-mast, and Britain entered mourning, reported TIME magazine in 1952.

But the cries of “God save the Queen” were not heard by the newly ascended Queen of the United Kingdom. In fact, to her knowledge, she hadn’t ascended anything that day, except perhaps the steps to the tree house in which she was staying in at Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, where she and her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, had spent the night. After breakfasting on bacon and eggs and speaking admiringly of how courageously her father had been battling his poor health, the newly ascended Queen, who had no idea she had risen from “Her Royal Highness” to “Her Majesty,” spent the morning enjoying the view and feeding baboons bananas from her treetop perch.

In the early afternoon of February 5, as word spread from Britain to the rest of the world of the King’s passing, a local reporter informed Philip, who took his 25-year-old wife on a stroll riverside and broke the news. Although the news made her the monarch, it was nevertheless a personal tragedy for Elizabeth, but the reverse can be said as well: although the Queen was grieving her father’s untimely passing at the age of 56, she had a Commonwealth to rule, and so she spent the rest of the day on official correspondence, including canceling the remainder of her royal tour.

On February 7, 1952, the woman who had left Heathrow Airport as a princess arrived in London as Queen. Next, read on for 20 fascinating facts about Queen Elizabeth II.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.