The Greatest Day of Her Life

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Schama

Queen Elizabeth II celebrates a glorious 60 years on the throne with her Diamond Jubilee. Renowned historian Simon Schama recounts the day a 27-year-old woman galvanized a modern nation.

Sixty years and three months ago, on Feb. 5, 1952, the heir presumptive to the British throne spent her last night as a princess up a giant fig tree.

Treetops Hotel was perched in the game park of Sagana, where a hunting lodge had been given by the "Kenyan people" to Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, as a wedding present five years before. They had stopped in what was still an African colony on their way to Australia to show the flag for Britain and its monarchy, now that Elizabeth's chronically ill father, King George VI, was unable to take trips around what was left of the empire.

A violent, bloody Kikuyu insurrection was about to break out in Kenya, but the good looks and easy grace of the princess and her tall, impossibly handsome husband disarmed everyone who saw them in action. Then came the news that her father had died of a coronary thrombosis. There are no reports of how the young woman, instantly become Queen Elizabeth II, took the news. But the duke's equerry, Michael Parker, who had conveyed it, noticed that Philip looked as if "half the world had dropped on his shoulders." Elizabeth, on the other hand, switched immediately to duty.

Elizabeth was 26: the age of a graduate student, but she had graduated from the select academy of national-symbols-in-waiting. "Lilibet" was 10 before the possibility she might one day be queen arose, for it was assumed her uncle David, not her father, would succeed when the much-loved, gruff George V died in 1936. But what followed was an abdication rather than a coronation, as Edward VIII opted to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson rather than remain on the throne. From the day in 1937 when Elizabeth's pallid, decent, stammering father had the crown set on his head in Westminster Abbey, she must have sensed both the weight and the perils of the destiny that awaited her.

During the war it was Winston Churchill and not George VI who had personified British bulldog indomitability. But Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret became symbols of the royals' refusal to play it safe from some distant imperial exile, for they remained in Britain through the Blitz. "They will not leave without me," said their mother, "and I will not leave without the king, and he will never leave." Buckingham Palace took a bomb in the courtyard, and the girls' lodging at Windsor Castle was actually right on the line of Luftwaffe bombing from London to Bristol.

After the war Britain shrunk into austerity, and so did George VI, looking ever more gaunt. In November 1947, with the worst winter in living memory already gripping Britain, her wedding to Philip in Westminster Abbey was a desperately needed festive moment for a country where meat, confectionery, and most forms of glee were still strictly rationed. Already she understood public tact, saving clothes-ration cards for the bridal outfit, which, since 2,000 pearls were sewn in, must have been a truckload of coupons. The day after the ceremony, the princess laid her bouquet of orchids and myrtle (a sprig from Queen Victoria's tree) on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the nave of the Abbey. The country was full of bitterly grieving families, so the gesture was money in the bank for the future of the British crown.

The coronation would have to be another such moment when a stripped-down country--paying a high price for its wartime sacrifices, its Indian empire gone, unsure about its place in the world--could look at its young queen and somehow see, through all the pageantry of the ages, a picture of the future. The balance had to be just right: enough of the past to give the British the reassurance of immemorial continuity; enough of the present and future for them not to feel entombed in their ancestry. …