No fanfare marked Accession Day...
"This is London. It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement. It was announced from Sandringham at 10.45am today, February 6 1952, that the King, who retired to rest last night in his usual health, passed peacefully away in his sleep earlier this morning."
It was the voice of John Snagge, on BBC radio, that broke the news of the Queen's Accession.
For BBC Radio 4's Sunday Worship, the Dean of Westminster reflects on that momentous event and celebrates the exemplary life of service which followed.
On this day, on Accession Day, we must pay attention to the fact that Her Majesty’s reign began as bereavement. They had already broken the bad news to the Prime Minister. "Bad news?" said Churchill, "the worst!" The death of the King was deeply felt. It was shock and loss. A nation and Commonwealth mourned. The BBC ceased broadcasting, save for news bulletins and the shipping forecast. Parliament adjourned. A test match was rescheduled, pubs closed, concerts, cabarets, dancing all ceased. And our new Queen navigated a profound and personal grief.
Sovereignty is formal and it is continuous, and on Accession Day we are left in no doubt of that.
On the afternoon of the 6th, the Accession Council met and the necessary Proclamation was drafted:
WE… do now hereby with one voice and Consent of Tongue and Heart publish and proclaim that the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is now, by the death of our late Sovereign of happy memory, become Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of all Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
The language of sovereignty is formal and it is continuous. That continuity is at the heart of the idea of monarchy. At Sagana Lodge, in Kenya, the new Queen made hurried plans to return home, she did not though, cancel the Commonwealth tour which she had begun, she postponed it. Responsibility for Realm and Territories passed on in an instant. Sovereignty is formal and it is continuous and on Accession Day we are left in no doubt of that. Yet, for one person, for the monarch, sovereignty, is felt.
Sovereignty is writ large here in Westminster Abbey; this is the place of Coronation. As you come in through our west doors you pass the coronation chair. Beside it, is a large, striking portrait of Richard II; the first royal portrait of its kind. He gazes back at us, crowned, imperious and on a golden ground. The Abbey, where we also have the shrine of the king and saint, Edward the Confessor, we sustain and celebrate the idea of monarchy. Yet, we know that sovereignty is so much more than an idea. It is made a reality in a life. It is experienced, felt as life is felt, and it is lifelong.
For 70 years our Queen has lived our monarchy. News reports, which have now passed into history, have recorded national and international politics, the Korean War, Suez, the Kenya Emergency; De Gaulle, Adenauer, Kennedy, Nyerere, Indira Ghandi. We note and record the facts, the rise and fall of fame, the manifestoes and policies. At the heart of our nation however, there has been one for whom this has been relationship and lived experience. Amidst the push and pull of conflicting opinion, the divided, tribal loyalties of our age, we have, in Her Majesty the Queen, a constant reminder that we are never ruled by mere ideas. We share a humanity that can reach across division, share joy, overcome grief.
That picture of Richard II, is a glimpse of a chilly vision of sovereignty understood as something other. It was an experiment soon over, ending in failure. In truth, the important – the crucial – thing about our monarchy is that it must work at its own humanity and set that humanity at the heart of nation and Commonwealth.
We have, in Her Majesty the Queen, a constant reminder that we are never ruled by mere ideas. We share a humanity that can reach across division, share joy, overcome grief.
There are so many attempts in working life, in daily life, to offer us only a vision, to burden us with strategy and agenda, to give us straplines, soundbites, and policies. These are the half-truths that beg us to look to tomorrow in the hope that it might be better than today. A reading from Proverbs 8:1-17 offers us something else. It looks for wisdom. Wisdom that is the knowledge of God and lifelong. Wisdom that sustains virtue and binds us together. Wisdom as a study, woven joy and sorrow. Neither policy, nor a pledge. Wisdom as the thing that you work at and live. Wisdom we can share. On the heights, at the crossroads, by the door.
No fanfare marked Accession Day for the Queen who was, that morning, in the foothills of Mount Kenya. There was no job description and no strategy to deliver. Shaped and informed by the father she succeeded, she began what she has continued ever since. A life of duty and service. A life, her life, at the heart of nation and Commonwealth, relationship, constancy and principle in the churn of world affairs. It is a very particular calling and only possible because this life is the wisdom of God. It is the gift of God. It is why we say "God save the Queen".