The current queen acceded to the throne on 6 February 1952. This is the event that Britain and the Commonwealth are commemorating this week. (The decision to hold the commemoration in June was presumably taken in an attempt to beat the British weather – an attempt which we now know to have been unsuccessful.)
The details surrounding the new queen’s accession 60 years ago were decided upon not by her courtiers or herself but by the United Kingdom’s elected government, as was only fitting in a long-standing constitutional monarchy.
In 1952, that government was headed by Sir Winston Churchill, and at 11.30 am on 6 February, just a few hours after George VI’s death, he gathered his Cabinet in 10 Downing Street for a discussion of the most pressing arrangements that needed to be made.
To mark the Diamond Jubilee, I have reproduced the conclusions of that brief meeting below. Rather oddly, the only agenda item was entitled ‘The Demise of the Crown’. Initially I took this to be a mark of respect for the old king, but did think that it was at odds with the typical ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the New Queen’ attitude that is supposed to prevail on such occasions.
In actual fact, ‘the Demise of the Crown’ is a formal and legal term for the process by which the crown passes from one person to another in British imperial and commonwealth countries. Before the twentieth century, it was a major undertaking, entailing parliament being prorogued and all civil servants losing their jobs (though usually they were immediately re-employed).
The note below is interesting for the mixture of the personal and the ceremonial that it contains, and especially for the image it brings to mind of a young woman, far from home, learning of the death of her father.
CONCLUSIONS OF A MEETING OF THE CABINET HELD AT 10 DOWNING STREET
WEDNESDAY, 6TH FEBRUARY, 1952, AT 11.30 AM
1. The Demise of the Crown. The Prime Minister informed the Cabinet of the grievous news that His Majesty The King had died in his sleep at Sandringham during the previous night. The Cabinet had been summoned at once to authorise the immediate action which had now to be taken.
The Cabinet agreed that the meeting of the Privy Council to proclaim the Accession of the new Sovereign should be held at 5 p.m. that day. When the House of Commons met at 2.30 p.m. they would be informed of the Demise of the Crown. The sitting would then be suspended until the Accession Council had been held. Thereafter, the House would meet again for the sole purpose of enabling the Speaker to take the oath of allegiance and to swear in such other Members as were present. Arrangements would be made for other Members of the House to take the oath on subsequent days. Similar arrangements would be made in the House of Lords. No tributes would be paid to His late Majesty in Parliament until the following week, when Addresses would be moved. The ordinary business of Parliament would not be resumed until after the Funeral.
The Cabinet then discussed the question of the return of the new Sovereign from Kenya. It was felt that She would wish to return at once by air. After discussion the Cabinet decided not to offer any advice to the contrary.
The Cabinet agreed that messages of condolence should be despatched on their behalf to The Queen and to the Queen-Mother. These messages were drafted, approved by the Cabinet and despatched.
The Cabinet invited the Lord Chancellor [Lord Simonds], the Home Secretary [Sir David Maxwell Fyfe] and the Commonwealth Secretary [Lord Ismay] to consider the form of the Accession Proclamation, and to report to a further meeting of the Cabinet…
The Cabinet invited the Prime Minister to broadcast to the nation on the following evening on the death of His late Majesty.
It was agreed that for the present Ministers should not attend any public banquets or similar functions.
The Prime Minister undertook to inform the Leader of the Opposition [Clement Atlee] of the points of procedure which had been decided by the Cabinet.