King George VI died suddenly in his sleep on 6 February 1952. It was a moment that shocked the nation – cinemas, sports grounds and theatres were closed, television programmes were not broadcast, and even Parliament was adjourned as a mark of respect. However, nobody was more shocked than Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II), who was away in Kenya as part of a tour of the Commonwealth.
King George was a well-liked monarch, but he never expected to possess the throne. That was, until his elder brother Edward VIII abdicated in the midst of a 1936 scandal regarding his relationship with American divorcee Wallis Simpson. A nervous man, George wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of becoming king – and all the public attention it would entail – but he didn’t have much choice. Two years later, he was thrust into leading the nation during World War II, but his steadfast yet down-to-earth nature won him the hearts of the people.
Privately, however, he was suffering from a number of health problems. Anxiety, exhaustion and lung cancer were all a part of his life as king. Despite this, his friends reported that he had gone to bed at Sandringham House that night with nothing out of the ordinary, but a servant found him dead at 7:30 the next morning. It was later revealed that a blood clot had stopped his heart.
It was Philip who told Elizabeth of her father’s death, after his private secretary received the unexpected call. Despite her grief, Elizabeth is said to have reacted with a sense of duty, but later spent an hour alone.
The new queen was devastated. She immediately flew home to be with her family and read the Accession Declaration. Aged 25, many were sceptical about her competency, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, yet she remains Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
On this podcast, Denis Judd explains the appeal of King George VI, who went from being a shy stutterer as portrayed in The King’s Speech (2010), to a monarch who kept morale high during the Second World War: