On this day in 1952, after a long illness, King George VI of Great Britain and Northern Ireland dies in his sleep at the royal estate at Sandringham. Princess Elizabeth, the oldest of the king’s two daughters and next in line to succeed him, was in Kenya at the time of her father’s death; she was crowned Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953, at age 27.
King George VI, the second son of King George V, ascended to the throne in 1936 after his older brother, King Edward VIII, voluntarily abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. During World War II, George worked to rally the spirits of the British people by touring war zones, making a series of morale-boosting radio broadcasts (for which he overcame a speech impediment) and shunning the safety of the countryside to remain with his wife in bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace. The king’s health deteriorated in 1949, but he continued to perform state duties until his death in 1952.
Queen Elizabeth, born on April 21, 1926, and known to her family as Lilibet, was groomed as a girl to succeed her father. She married a distant cousin, Philip Mountbatten, on November 20, 1947, at London’s Westminster Abbey. The first of Elizabeth’s four children, Prince Charles, was born in 1948.
From the start of her reign, Elizabeth understood the value of public relations and allowed her 1953 coronation to be televised, despite objections from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others who felt it would cheapen the ceremony. Elizabeth, the 40th British monarch since William the Conqueror, has worked hard at her royal duties and become a popular figure around the world. In 2003, she celebrated 50 years on the throne, only the fifth British monarch to do so.
The queen’s reign, however, has not been without controversy. She was seen as cold and out-of-touch following the 1996 divorce of her son, Prince Charles, and Princess Diana, and again after Diana’s 1997 death in a car crash. Additionally, the role in modern times of the monarchy, which is largely ceremonial, has come into question as British taxpayers have complained about covering the royal family’s travel expenses and palace upkeep. Still, the royals are effective world ambassadors for Britain and a huge tourism draw. Today, the queen, an avid horsewoman and Corgi dog lover, is one of the world’s wealthiest women, with extensive real-estate holdings and art and jewelry collections.