Simon Schama: Celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee

Roundup: Talking About History

Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994, his art criticism winning the National Magazine Award in 1996.

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...

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