The Moment Queen Elizabeth Broke Down in an Airplane Bathroom After Her Father's Death

The Queen secretly wept on the journey home from Kenya to the U. K. after King George VI’s death

Princess Elizabeth , who left England last week with the Duke of Edinburgh on their Commonwealth Tour , returned to London Airport
Princess Elizabeth returning to the UK as Queen after the death of King George VI. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

When King George VI died, Princess Elizabeth not only lost her father, but her life as she knew it.

It was on February 6, 1952, during a visit to Kenya on a tour of the Commonwealth that Prince Philip told his wife the tragic news of her father's death. At age 56, King George VI had died of coronary thrombosis — making his elder daughter and heir the new monarch.

Forced to cancel the rest of the tour, the royal entourage made their way to the Nanyuki airstrip after leaving the Treetops resort where they had been staying to begin the long journey home. Managing a stoic, subdued smile and a wave to the crowds, Elizabeth boarded the plane quickly, with none of the usual pomp and ceremony. It was on this flight, according to Nicholas Best, biographer of Eric Sherbrooke Walker — the founder of Treetops — that the monarch finally wept.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
King George VI and his daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"The mask slipped once they were airborne. The Queen left her seat after a while. Her face was set when she returned, but it was obvious to the other passengers that she had been in the loo, having a good long cry," Best previously told The Guardian.

Witnessing history on that fateful day was Lady Pamela Hicks, cousin to Philip and lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth. Hicks recalls that after Philip broke the news to his wife during a walk in the gardens at the nearby Sagana Lodge, the Queen returned to apologize to everyone for having to return to the U.K. in haste.

"That must have been one of the last times her natural modesty could be played out. She was only thinking of all of us and there were not many opportunities later on," she recalled during a chat with her daughter, India, on The India Hicks Podcast.

Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh admiring the view from a bridge in the grounds of Sagana Lodge
Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth At Sagana Lodge in Kenya. Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The royal couple had been enjoying a short break on the first week of their tour and were staying in a treehouse perched on an enormous fig tree at Treetops in Aberdare National Park. The news of her father's death didn't reach the Queen for several hours, partly due to the fact that a telegram sent to Government House in Nairobi could not be decoded and also due to the remote location of their accommodation.

Postcard of the Treetops resort in Kenya
A postcard of Treetops from the 1950's.

"We were the last people in the world to hear the news," said Lady Pamela. "They were going to have a couple of days holiday, which meant we were going to this wonderful place, Treetops . . . in those days [it] had just two guest rooms and you climbed up a tree. The ladder was pinned to the tree. She goes up that ladder as a princess; the King dies that night; she comes down that ladder a Queen."

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Elizabeth Returns From Kenya
Queen Elizabeth arriving back in the UK on Feb 7, 1952. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When the Queen arrived back in the U.K., she had changed into a black outfit and was greeted by Prime Minister Winston Churchill before being driven away in the royal limousine. The following day, she met with representatives from the City of London and the Commonwealth at St. James' Palace and read an official Proclamation declaring her reign as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.

"By the sudden death of my dear father, I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty," she said. "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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