When Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history she was also the only one to become monarch while in the branches of a giant tree. Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine, looks at the extraordinary story of how the Princess became Queen
When Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip left England on 31 January 1952 on a flight to Nairobi for the start of a Commonwealth tour, they both knew she might never see her father again. As a precaution the Princess was given a sealed dossier containing the draft Accession Declaration, to be opened in the event of King George VI’s death. A royal standard was included in the luggage, as were black mourning clothes.
It had been agreed the royal couple could travel despite the tense situation in Kenya at the beginning of the Mau Mau uprising. The highlight of their tour would be a night at Treetops, the renowned game-viewing lodge in the Aberdare Forest reserve 100 miles from Nairobi. The lodge was built in the branches of an enormous tree overlooking a lake with a salt lick – a favourite watering hole for big game – and accessible only by ladder.
A dining area and three narrow bedrooms led on to an elevated viewing platform where the royal party, including lady-in-waiting Lady Pamela Mountbatten and Prince Philip’s equerry Michael Parker, were to spend the night. They had been warned of the possibility of being charged by an elephant on the way to the lodge, but unsurprisingly Prince Philip wanted to continue and the group moved as silently as they could. There was a 50-yard stretch of comparatively open ground to cross before reaching the narrow wooden struts of the ladder. The Princess did not falter and walked straight towards it, ignoring a nearby elephant, which was standing right underneath flapping its ears menacingly.
Once in the tree the Princess filmed the unfolding scene with her cine camera and couldn’t be drawn from the array of game that gathered at the water hole. When the sunset had faded and it was no longer possible to film, the group talked in hushed voices about the game they had seen and what to expect later. Concern was expressed for the Princess’s father, who had stood hatless at London airport on a bitterly cold day in order to wave her goodbye.
Eric Sherbrooke Walker, the owner, recalls in his book Treetops Hotel that the Princess replied warmly: “He is like that. He never thinks of himself.”
“She then referred to her father’s long illness and the family’s great pleasure when it was believed he had reached the turning point. She told us that one day he raised his walking stick to his shoulder and declared, ‘I believe I could shoot now.’ She was closely informed of her father’s plans and was able to say he was planning to shoot on the following day. Clearly from the tone of her conversation when she said goodbye to her father, she was hoping for a complete recovery.”
At sunrise, the Queen – as she had unknowingly become during the night – was out on the balcony with her cine camera to film a rhino silhouetted against the African dawn, at the salt lick. Philip was keeping an eye on another rhino, which arrived at the scene puffing and blowing as if a bitter battle might ensue. Mike Parker believed he was with her when the reign began as they looked at the dawn coming up over the jungle and an eagle hovered over their heads.
“I never thought about it until later,” he recalled, “but that was roughly the time when the King died.”
After a breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked over the wood-burning stove they all climbed down from the tree and walked back through the clearing, again without incident. Mindful of the previous afternoon, Walker turned to Elizabeth and said rather pompously, unaware that he was talking to a princess who had overnight become queen, “If you have the same courage, Ma’am, in facing what the future sends you as you have at facing an elephant at eight yards, we are going to be very fortunate indeed.”
As the Princess drove away, she waved and called, “I will come again!”
Four hours later the royal party were resting back at Sagana Lodge some 20 miles away when the news of the King’s death gradually filtered through.
Concerned by rumours, Mike Parker turned on his shortwave radio and heard the announcement from the BBC. He then woke a slumbering Prince Philip to tell him. It was 2.45pm local time, 11.45am in London.
According to Parker, Philip looked as if the world had dropped on his shoulders. “He took the Queen into the garden and they walked up and down the lawn while he talked and talked to her.”
In the following hours, while preparations were made to return to England as quickly as possible, the Queen wrote letters and telegrams. Philip sat beside her. “She was sitting erect fully accepting her destiny,” Martin Charteris, her private secretary, recalled. “I asked her what [regnal] name she would take and she said ‘my own, of course’.”
“Poor guy,” Parker recalled, talking about Prince Philip in 1999. “He needed something to do. But he was there with the Queen; that was the thing; he was like a bloody great pillar.”
Back in London, the news had reached Prime Minister Winston Churchill four hours previously. “Operation Hyde Park Corner” with coded plans for the death of the King was already in full swing. Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, recalled that when he went to the premier’s bedroom he was sitting alone with tears in his eyes staring into space. “I had not realised how much the King meant to him,” Colville said. “I tried to cheer him up by saying how well he would get on with the new Queen, but all he could say was that he did not know her and that she was only a child.”
A child she was not. The mourning clothes that had been packed so carefully had gone on ahead with the official luggage and the new Queen was forced to wear a floral frock instead of her black dress. She requested no photographs be taken as she left Sagana Lodge, where a small group of photographers had gathered outside.
“We stood silently outside the lodge,” one recalled. “As the cars drove away in a cloud of dust, not one of us taking a shot at that historic moment. Seeing the young girl as Queen of Great Britain as she drove away, I felt her sadness, as she just raised her hand to us as we stood there silent, our cameras on the ground.”
It was an emotional moment. They were the first members of the press to see the new monarch. Word quickly spread that she was heading home to a lifetime of duty.
As the Queen said in her first Christmas broadcast in that year, looking to her Coronation the following June: “I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day – to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully service Him, and you, all the days of my life.”
Ingrid Seward is editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and the author of The Queen’s Speech, recently published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20.
Main image: Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Charles at Windsor Great Park, during a polo match, 1956. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Image top: Royal Collection
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