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One of two official portraits of the Queen taken for Accession Day. This photo was taken in the Centre Room of Buckingham Palace in December 2011. (Royal Household/John Swannell)

The Diamond Jubilee weekend is still several months away, but today (February 6) is the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne.

While the upcoming Jubilee celebrations will emphasize the joyous nature of the Queen’s reign, today’s anniversary brings with it more than a touch of sadness, as it recalls a young woman’s personal grief at the death of her father, as well as the Commonwealth’s communal loss of its ruling monarch, King George VI.

“As I mark 60 years as your Queen,” the Queen said in her Diamond Jubilee message, speaking directly to her subjects, “I am writing to thank you for the wonderful support and encouragement that you have given to me and Prince Philip over these years.”

The Queen and Prince Philip in the second of two official portraits taken for Accession Day in December 2011. (Royal Household/John Swannell)


In the message, released over the weekend, she promised that she would use the occasion of “this special year” to “dedicate myself anew to your service.”

The British people are used to hearing Elizabeth present herself as their servant.

Just two days after her accession, on February 8, 1952, the 25-year-old Queen spoke about the heavy burdens thrust upon her: “By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty,” she told the special Accession Council at St. James’s Palace, and, by extension, the entire Commonwealth. “My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over.”

On the day of her father’s death, Elizabeth was traveling on a royal visit to Kenya, and there was a delay of several hours in getting her the news. Prince Philip was the one to tell her.

Historian Hugo Vickers, in a piece in The Telegraph last week, gathered the recollections of some of the Queen’s contemporaries during that hectic time.

Eric Sherbrooke Walker, founder of Treetops Hotel in Aberdare National Park, where the royal couple was staying, said: “Many centuries ago another Princess Elizabeth was sitting under a great tree in Hatfield Park when couriers announced to her that she had become Queen Elizabeth I. The remains of that tree still stand and bear a plaque. Similarly, a plaque was affixed to our mgugu tree commemorating the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth II.”

Elizabeth’s private secretary at the time found her back at the hotel.

“She was sitting erect, fully accepting her destiny,” he said, seeing her shortly after she had spoken to Philip. “I asked her what name she would take.”

“My own name, of course,” she answered. “What else?”

Then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, like many Britons, wept when he heard that the King had died, and five days later addressed the House of Commons about Elizabeth.

“A fair and youthful figure, princess, wife and mother is the heir to all our traditions and glories never greater than in her father’s days, and to all our perplexities and dangers never greater in peacetime than now. She is also heir to all our united strength and loyalty,” said Churchill, who just several days earlier had expressed his concerns to his private secretary that the new Queen was “only a child.”

“Let us hope and pray that the accession to our ancient throne of Queen Elizabeth II may be the signal for such a brightening salvation of the human scene.”

Since then, she’s reigned through no less than 12 prime ministers (and all the presidents since Eisenhower). As the press has been pointing out, Elizabeth had already been Queen for 14 years by the time Britain’s current Prime Minister David Cameron was born.

This weekend, Cameron offered effusive praise in a tribute to the Queen for her “magnificent service.”

“Always dedicated, always resolute and always respected, she is a source of wisdom and continuity,” Cameron said. “All my life, and for the lives of most people in this country, she has always been there for us. Today, and this year, in the 60th anniversary of her reign, we have the chance to say thank you.”

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By Paul Hechinger