By definition, Accession Day – the anniversary of when Queen Elizabeth II became the monarch – is as much a day of mourning as a celebration, because it’s also the 70th anniversary of the death of her beloved father, King George VI.
Thus, Feb. 6 has traditionally been a low-key affair, one the queen marks by somber reflection in private, usually at Sandringham, her Norfolk estate where the king died in 1952 at age 56 following surgery for lung cancer.
But this is simultaneously the 70th anniversary of the queen’s accession, the longest-ever reign for a British or English monarch, exceeded by only two other European monarchs in history (including Louis XIV of France, who was king for 72 years). It’s an important milestone and will be marked with royal hoopla during a four-day Platinum Jubilee beginning June 2, when the weather is (usually) better.
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There will be parties, parades, pageants, plantings and puddings – lots and lots of puddings.
“We will be commemorating an anniversary which is unique in over 1,000 years of monarchy and rarely seen anywhere,” says British royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams, who says the queen is already at Sandringham and expected to remain there until Feb. 7, as per her custom for more than 30 years. She is staying at Wood Farm, one of the smaller, unpretentious residences on the vast estate, according to the BBC and other British media reports.
“It isn’t palatial; there’s no liveried staff,” says Joe Little, managing editor of Britain’s Majesty magazine, a leading expert on all things royal. “It’s a much more relaxed environment, and intimate by royal standards.”
The queen, who as sovereign is supreme head of the Church of England, is an authentically devout woman, so it makes sense she would want to mark her official accession in private, leaving the ruffles and flourishes for the summer.
There are relatively few Brits alive today who carry her memories of where she was and what she was doing when she unknowingly became queen. At the moment of accession, the then-Princess Elizabeth, just 25 and a mother of two young children, was in a remote treetop hotel in Kenya on a brief holiday with Prince Philip before they embarked on a royal tour, standing in for her ailing father.
“For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen,” wrote British hunter Jim Corbett, who was also staying at Treetops Hotel at the time and signed the visitors’ book, according to the BBC.
Communications technology in 1952 was primitive by today’s standards, but eventually word reached the royal party by circuitous route. Philip took her for a walk at a Kenyan lodge, given to them by the Kenyan government as a wedding present, where he broke the news. Both were shocked, both knew their lives would change utterly, and sooner than they had expected, but she was stoic, according to her biographers and those who were with them at the time.
They swiftly organized to return to London, she wrote letters of apology to her tour hosts, decided on her reign name – “My own name, of course, what else?” she told an inquiring aide – and donned the black mourning dress royals now never go anywhere without.
The black-and-white photos and films of her arrival at London Airport show her walking down the plane stairs to the tarmac, followed by Philip, to be met by a line of ministers in black, including her father’s great friend, Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Two days after her father’s death, she read her official proclamation as Queen Elizabeth II at St. James’s Palace: “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.”
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But as the British tabloids never tire of reminding, this is a jubilee year, with its share of royal crises and reasons for the queen to grieve. Will all the sound and fury of recent years overshadow the celebrations?
“Since late 2019, there has been ceaseless bad news,” Fitzwilliams says. “The newspapers are, as they always have been, obsessed by royal matters. Add to that the online era, social media and the 24-hour news cycle.”
But Fitzwilliams is certain the Platinum Jubilee will be a success.
“When the spring turns to summer, the celebrations planned are something the country will look forward to and millions will celebrate here, in the Commonwealth and also worldwide,” he says.
Previous jubilees were preceded by crises, but usually not ones that distracted from the celebration.
Start with the death last April of Prince Philip, the queen’s husband of 73 years, which makes this her first Accession Day without him. Wood Farm is where he spent his last years after retiring from public life in 2017.
Move on to the 95-year-old queen’s recent health worries (she will turn 96 in April), the last-minute cancelations of appearances at major engagements, and the fact she’s been little seen in public since her Christmas broadcast and during the coronavirus pandemic in general. She’s lived mostly at Windsor Castle, forgoing even her annual Christmas holiday at Sandringham in 2021.
That she was strong enough to travel to Norfolk and spend a few weeks at Wood Farm was seen as a positive sign, Little says.
Then there are the scandals surrounding her nearest and dearest.
Prince Andrew has been benched as a senior royal, stripped of his military and patronage affiliations and ordered not to use the “His Royal Highness” style he was born to. It was long-predicted fallout from his former friendship with convicted American sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and a recent civil lawsuit in New York accusing him of participating in Epstein’s alleged sex-trafficking of a teen girl.
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Meanwhile, the queen’s grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, gave up their senior royal roles and moved to California, where they have produced another great-grandchild (whom the queen has yet to meet) amid a continuing swirl of recriminations and accusations of racism and bad treatment by the royal family.
Moreover, Harry is preparing to release a royal memoir of his life so far by the end of 2022, which some tabloids warn, with no hard evidence, will be full of more contentious or embarrassing revelations.
Pay no attention to doomsayers clutching their pearls, Little advises.
“Andrew and Harry, they are distractions, but they won’t detract from the importance of the Platinum Jubilee,” Little says. “They are blips. Royal life goes in cycles, there are highs and lows, and of late there have been more lows than highs.”
The Andrew situation has been ameliorated somewhat by putting “distance” between him and the royal family, Little says.
“The institution of the monarchy has been tarnished,” Little says. But “it won’t detract from the star player, although on a personal level it’s very distressing for the queen.” (Andrew has long been seen as the monarch’s favorite of her four children.)
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Will the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign be the end of the British monarchy?
Nevertheless, Republic, the leading anti-monarchist group, announced in January that it would step up its so-far futile campaign to end the monarchy once the queen dies. This despite polls that continue to show a comfortable majority believe the monarchy should continue, according to the latest YouGov survey in December.
“Once we’re past the end of the queen’s reign, all bets are off as to where public opinion is going to go,” predicted Graham Smith, chief executive of Republic, in an interview with Reuters.
Little quips he doesn’t expect to be editor of a magazine renamed “Republic” anytime soon. It might be that King Charles III will be king of fewer realms (Barbados just switched to an elected head-of-state), but the monarchy will prevail, certainly in the U.K.
“I’m not troubled too much by pronouncements by Republic,” Little says. “I’m pretty sure the end of (the queen’s) reign won’t see the end of the British monarchy.”
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That is the position of Buckingham Palace in planning for the Platinum Jubilee. It will feature many of the same elements of the queen’s previous jubilee celebrations, the most recent being the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. It was widely hailed as a huge success, despite Prince Philip’s hospitalization during the celebrations.
That forced the queen to attend the service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral without him, giving the nation an early glimpse of what her royal life would look as a widow.
The Platinum Jubilee bank holiday weekend will feature the annual queen’s birthday Trooping the Colour parade; the lighting of jubilee beacons, planting of jubilee trees and hosting of jubilee lunches; a concert and pageant of performers on The Mall; and the service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s.
Also on the agenda: The 2022 Epsom Derby, which the queen will attend on June 4. It will be the 242rd running of the U.K.’s most prestigious horse race and the only major contest the queen has not yet won. Already, racing fans are expecting one of her horses could win, which would surely be a thrill for the horse fan-in-chief.
But the tastiest celebration being served up: The Platinum Pudding competition, a nationwide bake-off to find a new creation dedicated to Her Majesty. The queen of British baking, Mary Berry, formerly of “The Great British Bake Off,” will be one of the judges of the competition, open to anyone over age 8.
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