The King is Dead; Long Live the Queen

In her golden coach, Queen Elizabeth II sets out through the rain on her coronation day
In her golden coach, Queen Elizabeth II sets out through the rain on her coronation day

by Ray Setterfield


June 2, 1953 — She arrived in Kenya as a young princess. She was to leave seven days later as Queen and head of the Commonwealth. All that remained was the placing of the crown upon her head in a coronation ceremony – and that took place on this day in history.

Princess Elizabeth left London with her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on 31 January 1952 for a tour of Kenya, Australia and New Zealand.

In Kenya the royal couple were staying at Treetops, a game-viewing lodge built in a tree overlooking an elephant waterhole. Spearmen at the edge of the forest kept intruders at bay as the royals climbed the rickety ladder to the three-bedroomed branch hotel.

They had not been enjoying the facilities for long when, on 6 February the princess's father, King George VI, who had been ill with lung cancer, died. It would be four hours before Elizabeth was told. A telegram to Government House in Nairobi bearing the news could not be decoded because the keys to the safe holding the codebook were unavailable.

And the royal couple had gone 20 miles from Treetops to a fishing lodge called Sagana that Elizabeth had been given as a wedding present.

Reports of the death were emerging and the editor of the East African Standard phoned the princess's secretary, Martin Charteris, asking if the teleprinter reports were true. Shocked, Charteris contacted Sagana, where Prince Philip took the call.

He then took his 25-year-old wife for a walk in the garden and it was there, beside a trout stream in the foothills of Mount Kenya, that Philip told Elizabeth her father was dead and she was now Queen and head of the Commonwealth.

Partly ecause of the meticulous planning required, it was not until 2nd June 1953 – 16 months after her father died – that Elizabeth's coronation took place at Westminster Abbey. No amount of planning, however, could legislate for the English weather. And Coronation Day, weather-wise, was a stinker.

As James Lees-Milne recorded in his diary: "The weather was damnable. It rained all day. The moment the procession started it positively poured and the troops were soaked."

The historian, novelist and diarist went on: "Yet the procession was magnificent. The colour and pageantry cannot be described. Uniforms superb and resplendent.

"The most popular figure Queen Salote of Tonga, a vast, brown, smiling bundle with a tall red knitting needle in her hat: knitting needle having begun as a plume of feathers. Despite the rain she refused to have the hood of her open carriage drawn and the people were delighted. They roared applause.

"Extraordinary how the public will take someone to its bosom, especially someone not very exalted who is putting up a good show. All along the route they adored her.

"Beside her squatted a little man in black and a top hat – her husband. Noël Coward, when asked who he was, joked, 'Her dinner'."

Immensely popular, Queen Elizabeth went on to become the longest-serving monarch in the nation's history.

Published: May 13, 2018

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