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King George's death caught Parliament in the midst of one of the fiercest debates in its recent history, and instantly stilled that debate (see above). On Wednesday afternoon, the House of Commons met briefly to hear the news officially announced by the Prime Minister, and then recessed. The government ministers, together with leaders of the Opposition, the Privy Council and other prominent Britons, had a more important meeting to attend: the meeting of the Accession Council, the oldest governmental convocation in England, 192 of whose members gathered at St. James's Palace to determine formally the new sovereign's accession and title. The council's task was complicated by the fact that Elizabeth, the first British monarch since George I to be out of the country when her predecessor died, was still 4,000 air miles from London and hence unavailable to proclaim, as required, that she is a Protestant. Nevertheless, in two hours, the councilors decided that she was indeed the rightful sovereign, and at 7 p.m. the House of Commons met again to hear their report and swear allegiance to the new Queen. Then they adjourned. That night London was dark and still. The neon lights in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus had been turned out and, except for restaurants, all public places were closed tight.
Next day the Queen herself arrived at London's airport. Winston Churchill had urged Londoners to stay away, and a mere handful of reporters and officials were there to greet her. A black coat hiding her greyish-blue dress (she had taken a black dress with her, but there had been no time to unpack it), her face a pale, wan oval beneath a tight black hat, Elizabeth stood in the door of the plane, looking down at the bared heads of the men who had come to meet her. With a brave half smile, she came quickly down the steps. The black-clad semicircle bowed as one man. Elizabeth shook hands with the Prime Minister. Then, followed by Philip, she walked gravely along the line of Privy Councilors, shaking hands and murmuring a word to each. The Argonaut's eight crewmen disembarked and saluted, and the Queen shook hands with each of them. Then she climbed into her waiting car and rode to Clarence House, past rows of silent, bareheaded subjects lining the road, mile after mile. As she stepped from the car, a guardsman tugged on a halyard and sent the Royal Standard fluttering up the flagstaff of Elizabeth's house.
The High & Mighty. When King George's only sister, the Princess Royal, distracted at the news of her brother's death, had rushed into her mother's apartment, hair askew, 84-year-old Queen Mary had told her: "Please do your hair properly when you come before the Queen." More than anyone, perhaps, Queen Mary was conscious of the great destiny that had come to her granddaughter, the princess whom she had so often reproved and scolded in the past. When Elizabeth entered Clarence House, Queen Mary was waiting, perfectly prepared, to curtsy before her. The Queen talked with her grandmother for half an hour, put in a call to Sandringham to her mother and sister, and went over the arrangements for the King's funeral with the Duke of Norfolk (Earl Marshal of England)* and the Earl of Clarendon (Lord Chamberlain). That night, while all Britain listened to Churchill's eloquent eulogy of her father, she rested.