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. Find out the “facts” about Queen Elizabeth that just aren’t true.
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. Don’t miss these rarely seen photos of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
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.