Responding to the Death of King George VI

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

George VI in royal dress with scepter
King George VI

King George VI of Great Britain died on February 6, 1952, at Sandringham House.  He had come to the throne in December 1936 upon the abdication of his brother Edward VII.  Edward gave up the throne in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.  George, as the second son, had not expected to take the throne and was supposedly less prepared for that post than his brother.  That was not borne out as he performed well, restored the reputation of the monarchy, and reigned for 15 years.  Particularly noteworthy was his performance during World War II.  While his children, Princesses Elizabeth and Mary were sent away from Buckingham Palace and spent much of the war at Windsor Castle, the King and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, stayed and experienced the German aerial blitz along with other Londoners.

In June 1939, King George and Queen Elizabeth visited the United States.  George became the first reigning British monarch to make that visit.  While in the U.S., President Roosevelt hosted the royal couple in the White House and at his family estate in Hyde Park, NY.  Among the informal activities at Hyde Park, the President hosted a picnic where guests ate hot dogs, among other things.  The picnic menu can be seen below. The two men developed a strong friendship which carried over into U.S. relations with Great Britain during soon-to-break-out World War II.

menu listing VA ham, hotdogs, cold turkey, cranberry jelly, salad, rolls, strawberry shortcake, coffee, beer, soda
Menu for Picnic at Hyde Park, June 11, 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Official news of the King’s death arrived in Washington at 7:05 a.m. on February 6, in a “Priority” telegram from the U.S. embassy in London.  It read “It was announced from Sandringham at 10:45 a.m. today, February 6, 1952, that the King died in his sleep early this morning.”

Receipt of this telegram and of formal notification from the British embassy in Washington set off a flurry of activity in the White House and the Department of State resulting in the dispatch of several telegrams later in the day.  President Harry Truman personally approved the following telegrams to the King’s widow, Queen Elizabeth, the King’s mother, Queen Mary, and the King’s oldest daughter, now the new Queen Elizabeth.  All the messages were sent through the Department of State.

expresses condolences on the death of her husband
Telegram from President Truman to Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), Feb 6, 1952 (NAID 302021)
Telegram from President Truman to Queen Mary, Feb 6, 1952
Telegram from President Truman to Queen Elizabeth, Feb. 6, 1952

Secretary of State Dean Acheson also sent messages to Queen Mary and the new Queen Elizabeth.  He also sent the official U.S. message of condolence to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Telegram from Secretary of State Dean Acheson to the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth
Telegram from Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth
Telegram from Secretary of State to Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Acheson represented President Truman at the King’s funeral on February 15.  He wrote about that experience in his memoir Present at the Creation.

The Department of State also replied to notifications of the death of King George received from other parts of the British empire.

The formal coronation of Queen Elizabeth took place on June 2, 1953.  See this earlier post for more information about that.

Sources: All of the documents referred to herein come from file “741.11” in the 1950-54 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.