The Final Farewell

Prince Charles was born on 14 November 1948, just six days shy of his parents’ first wedding anniversary. When the birth was announced, cheering crowds once again congregated outside Buckingham Palace and along the Mall – even the waters in the iconic fountains of Trafalgar Square were dyed blue for the occasion.

Although overjoyed by the arrival of their son, the newlyweds’ first year together had not been without its problems. Whisperings of infidelity on Philip’s part dogged the couple, and although these rumours remain unproven, they persisted nonetheless. In addition, extensive renovations to their new home, Clarence House, meant that the pair was obliged to live with the bride’s parents at Buckingham Palace, a situation far from ideal for any newly married couple. Despite these aggravations, ‘the Edinburghs’, as they were now known to their select group of friends, had settled into a comfortable marital routine. The Duke continued with his naval career, while his wife diligently attended to her various royal duties, although her schedule was nowhere near as punishing as it would soon become.

In 1949, Philip received a promotion and was dispatched to a Naval Destroyer in the Mediterranean. Leaving the infant Charles behind in the care of his nannies and grandparents, Elizabeth joined her husband in Malta, where she spent an idyllic period, happily playing the role of a normal Navy wife, unencumbered by her royal status for the first and only time in her life. Returning to England in July 1950 to give birth to her second child, Princess Anne (born on 15 August), Elizabeth was surprised by the marked deterioration in her father’s health. Although never of a particularly robust constitution, the stress of the war years had sapped the King of whatever strength he once possessed, and now a persistent cough indicated that years of heavy smoking had taken their toll. Yet nobody was unduly worried – after all, George VI, who was in his mid-fifties,was still a relatively young man.

In November, Elizabeth rejoined her husband in Malta, again leaving her children behind in England. Philip had by now been given his first command (on HMS Magpie) and both had every reason to believe that their relatively carefree existence would continue for some time to come. But it was not to be. In July 1951, the pair were recalled to England. George VI’s health had continued to worsen, and Elizabeth was now required to take over the majority of his royal duties.

The King had been diagnosed with cancer, and had to undergo an operation to remove his left lung. For months, his condition was precarious, but by early 1952, he appeared to be improving – so much so that Elizabeth and Philip decided to go ahead with a tour of East Africa, Australia and New Zealand which had been planned for some time. Little did they know that, when the King made his way to London Airport on 31 January 1952 to bid his daughter and son-in-law farewell, it would be for the last time.

Six days later, after enjoying a day of shooting on his Sandringham estate, George VI died peacefully in his sleep. His eldest daughter was now Queen at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Mournful Homecoming

Elizabeth was in Kenya when she heard of father’s premature death. Philip, who was the first of the royal party to be told the news, took on the responsibility of informing his young wife. It was a task he clearly did not relish, with an aide later recalling that he ‘looked as though the whole world had dropped on him’ – a thoroughly appropriate description given the devastating impact the news would have on both their lives.

By all accounts, Elizabeth displayed remarkable stoicism in the immediate aftermath of her beloved father’s passing. Although undoubtedly shaken and grief-stricken, her first concern was for those who would be disappointed by the necessary cancellation of the rest of her trip. When a cousin commiserated with her on the loss of her father, Elizabeth’s response was characteristically dutiful: ‘Oh thank you. But I am so sorry it means we have to go back to England and it’s upsetting everybody’s plans.’ Even in this, her darkest hour, Elizabeth’s deadpan sense of humour – which would help her through many difficult times in the years to come – came into play. Upon arriving at Heathrow Airport and noticing the fleet of black official cars waiting to transport the royal party back to Clarence House, she is said to have quipped, ‘Oh look, they’ve sent the hearses.’

Elizabeth made a super-human effort to maintain a tight control of her emotions during this traumatic time. In the end, however, it was the meeting with her Accession Council, which took place the following day, that finally proved too much for her. After reading the Declaration of Sovereignty, she addressed the assembled officials: ‘My heart,’ she said, ‘is too full for me to say more to you today than that I shall always work as my father did.’ And with that, the new Queen was led to a waiting car by her husband, where she at last allowed the tears to flow. Perhaps the enormity of what now lay ahead of her had finally begun to sink in.

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