• History

Why We Don’t Know the Exact Moment Queen Elizabeth’s Reign Began

4 minute read

On Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth II will become the longest-serving monarch in British history. A royal spokesperson told Maclean’s that the record-breaking moment at which she surpasses Queen Victoria’s 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes is set to happen around 5:30 p.m. local time.

That “around” is puzzling, given the precision of royal records. The reason for the approximation is that there is no gap between the periods of rule of British monarchs. The second one dies, the next is in charge. So, while Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation didn’t come until mid-1953, she became queen the very moment her father, King George VI, died, on Feb. 6, 1952.

Queen Elizabeth II's Life in Photos

1926. The Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother) pictured with their daughter (later, Queen Elizabeth II) as she sleeps in a precious christening robe, which has been used in the Royal Family for generations.
On April 21, 1926, the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother) welcomed their daughter Elizabeth Alexandra Mary to the world. Shortly after, the family was photographed with baby Elizabeth cloaked in a christening robe that had been in the royal family for generations.Popperfoto/Getty Images
George's Snapshot
Elizabeth stands in a field picking flowers circa 1930. As the eldest child, Elizabeth, often called Lilibet by her family, was treasured among family members, including her father, who snapped this photo.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Royal Family
The family poses on the grounds of Windsor Castle in the English county of Berkshire in June 1936. With the arrival of Elizabeth's sister Princess Margaret Rose on Aug. 21, 1930, the family was complete.Lisa Sheridan—Getty Images
Coronation of King George VI of England
The royal family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after the coronation of King George VI on May 13, 1937. After George's older brother Edward abdicated the throne to marry a socialite divorcée named Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth's father became King. As the oldest child, 11-year-old Elizabeth became the heir presumptive to the throne.Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
British Royalty, 1940, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II), right, broadcasting with her sister Princess Margaret alongside
Princess Elizabeth (right) reads a broadcast in 1940 with her sister Princess Margaret at her side. The future Queen was making her first royal address to Britain and the Commonwealth during the BBC's Children's Hour. She sent her best wishes to all the children who had been sent overseas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. for safety during the war.Popperfoto/Getty Images
Royal Thespians
Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth stage a rehearsal of Cinderella on Dec. 21, 1941, the first royal pantomime at Windsor Castle. Both Elizabeth and Margaret were educated at home, with lessons concentrating on history, language, literature and music.Lisa Sheridan—Getty Images
Princess Elizabeth
Princess Elizabeth, age 15, poses amid Syringa flowers at Windsor in the summer of 1941. Even at a young age, friends and relatives uniformly say, the royal was responsible and sensible.Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
Princess Elizabeth
Princess Elizabeth stands next to her father King George VI on April 11, 1942. Unlike her younger sister, who was often considered feisty, Elizabeth had the characteristics more suited to her future position as she was respectful, traditional and calm.Lisa Sheridan—Getty Images
Elizabeth II [RF: England RF]
Princess Elizabeth, on her 16th birthday on April 21, 1942, reviews the Grenadier Guards, the most senior regiment of the British infantry. She was appointed as the Colonel-in-Chief as part of her expanding royal duties.David E. Scherman—Time&Life Pictures/Getty Images
Princess Drives Ambulance
Princess Elizabeth drives an ambulance on April 10, 1945. Just two months earlier, the Princess had joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the women's arm of the British army. She trained as a driver and mechanic.Popperfoto/Getty Images
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip
Princess Elizabeth stands with her fiancé, Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, Prince of Greece and Denmark, at Buckingham Palace on Aug. 19, 1947. Though the pair had known each other for years and were very much in love, their engagement sparked some controversy. To appease critics, foreign-born Philip renounced his Greek and Danish titles and converted to Anglicanism.Bettmann/Corbis
Wedding Day November 1947 Wedding Of The Princess Elizabeth (queen Elizabeth Ii) And Prince Philip (duke Of Edinburgh) On 20th Nov 1947. Their Royal Highnesses Photographed At The Palace After The Wedding Ceremony. 1947
The happy royal couple, photographed on their wedding day, Nov. 20, 1947, at Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth's dress was designed by Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell and was purchased with ration coupons because of the economic hardship Britain faced after the war.Associated Newspapers /Rex USA
Princess Elizabeth With Baby Prince Charles
Princess Elizabeth with her 1-month-old son Prince Charles of Edinburgh in London on Dec. 21, 1948. Charles was born shortly after Elizabeth's father stated that the couple's children would be bestowed with the titles of prince and princess, even though Philip was no longer a royal prince.Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
Princess Elizabeth greets Winston Churchill at Guildhall on March 23, 1950. Under her reign as Queen, Elizabeth has seen 13 Prime Ministers, including Churchill, from both the Tory and Labour parties.Keystone France/Gamma Keystone/Getty Images
Royal Mourners
Princess Elizabeth, along with her mother, sister and husband, watches as her father's coffin is lifted from a train before heading to Westminster on Feb. 11, 1952. When King George VI's health started to decline the previous year, Elizabeth began standing in his place for royal duties. She and Prince Philip were abroad in Kenya on one such mission when word came that the King had passed away on Feb. 6. Elizabeth was immediately proclaimed the Queen.Fox Photos/Getty Images
Three Queens
Elizabeth, her grandmother Queen Mary and her mother Queen Elizabeth stand in mourning at the funeral of King George VI. The following year, just 10 weeks before Elizabeth's official coronation, Queen Mary would pass away from lung cancer at the age of 85. Before her death, she insisted that the coronation not be postponed.Ron Case—Getty Images
Royal engagement
On June 2, 1953, the Queen's coronation took place at Westminster Abbey in London. It marked the first time a royal coronation was televised.AP
Duke of Edinburgh taken to hospital
The newly named Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh wave from a balcony to the crowds at the gates of Buckingham Palace after the coronation on June 2, 1953. Norman Hartnell designed Elizabeth's coronation gown; she had specifically requested that it be embroidered with the national flowers of each Commonwealth country.AP
The Coronation Of Queen Elizabeth Ii 1953
The royal family poses for a portrait on the day of the coronation, with Queen Elizabeth II in the center.Keystone France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth at a Picnic with the Royal Family
A family portrait during a picnic at Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on Sept. 8, 1960. After the births of Prince Charles and Princess Anne, Elizabeth and Philip's family continued to expand with the arrival of Prince Andrew on Feb. 19, 1960.Bettmann/Corbis
Young Prince Charles, Britain
The royal family spends time together at home. With the arrival of Prince Edward, far left, on March 10, 1964, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II's brood of children was complete.Willi Schneider—Rex USA
West Germany - Royalty - Queen Elizabeth II in Bonn
Queen Elizabeth II waves to onlookers from a balcony in Bonn, Germany, on May 19, 1965. The Queen and her husband were on an 11-day state visit. Throughout her time as Queen, Elizabeth would become the most widely traveled of any previous monarch.dpa/Corbis
Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth Aboard Airplane
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip return from a visit to Yorkshire in an Andover of the Queen's Flight in 1969. In addition to attending to her more traditional duties, the Queen pioneered additional practices like walkabouts, which involved meeting ordinary citizens.Bettmann/Corbis
Queen Elizabeth II retrospective
Prince Charles kneels before his mother at Caernarvon Castle on July 1, 1969, during his investiture as the 21st Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. The title is reserved for the heir apparent to the throne. Charles is the oldest and longest-serving holder of the title.Reginald Davis—Rex USA
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip kneel during a ceremony for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977. Celebrations throughout Britain and the Commonwealth reaffirmed the monarch's popularity among the public.Rex USA
Prince Charles and Princess Diana After Royal Wedding
Prince Charles and Princess Diana greet the public on a Buckingham Palace balcony, along with members of the royal family, following their wedding on July 29, 1981. Their tumultuous marriage and messy divorce would be fodder for the British press for years to come.Wally McNamee—Corbis
A fire broke out in Windsor Castle on November 20, 1992, when a curtain caught fire from a spotlight. Rex USA—
The Queen, along with Prince Philip, survey the flowers left in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, on Sept. 5, 1997, the eve of her funeral. Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris the week before, and although she was no longer married to Prince Charles, as the mother of Princes William and Harry, she was honored with a national public funeral.Rex USA
Queen And Prince Philip Cholmondeley
The Queen, with Prince Philip, is led by the Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Duke of Norfolk during an event that marks the beginning of a session of Parliament. Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth II has opened every session, except in 1959 and 1963, years when she was pregnant.Tim Graham—Getty Images
Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, smile as they leave St. George's Chapel on their wedding day on April 9, 2005. Queen Elizabeth II, who gave the longtime lovers her blessing, looks on.Rex USA
Royal Wedding - Buckingham Palace
Prince William stands with his bride, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, on a balcony at Buckingham Palace, surrounded by family, on April 29, 2011. The future King's marriage to his longtime girlfriend, a commoner by birth and the first female member of the royal family to graduate from a university, marked a shift in the mores of the monarchy. The Queen officially approved the marriage, as required under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, by signing a document stating that she accepts the union between her grandson and the "well-beloved" Kate Middleton.Hubert Boes—dpa/Corbis
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip Diamond Wedding Anniversary at Broadlands in Hampshire, Britain - 18 Nov 2007
To mark their Diamond Wedding Anniversary on November 20, 2007, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh re-visit Broadlands, where they spent their wedding night 60 years earlier, in November 1947.Tim Graham—Rex USA
File photograph shows Britain's Queen Elizabeth touring the Royal London Hospital in east London
Britain's Queen Elizabeth tours the Royal London Hospital in East London, on Feb. 27, 2013.Ian Gavan—Reuters
Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip wave during a pageant in celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in London
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip wave from a boat during a pageant in celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee along the River Thames in central London on June 3, 2012.Andrew Winning—Reuters
Britain Queen's 90th
In this image released by the Royal Mail on April 20, 2016, Britain's Prince George stands on foam blocks during a photo shoot in mid-2015 in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace in London, for a stamp sheet to mark the 90th birthday of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. He is photographed with Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II and his father, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.Ranald Mackechnie/Royal Mail—AP
In this undated photo released by Buckingham Palace on June 10, 2016, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, pose for a photograph to mark the Queen's 90th birthday in Windsor. The queen, Britain’s oldest and longest-reigning monarch, turned 90 on April 21. She usually celebrates her birthday privately, but this year’s milestone served as the jumping off point for weeks of celebrations.
In this undated photo released by Buckingham Palace on June 10, 2016, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, pose for a photograph to mark the Queen's 90th birthday in Windsor. The queen, Britain’s oldest and longest-reigning monarch, turned 90 on April 21. She usually celebrates her birthday privately, but this year’s milestone served as the jumping off point for weeks of celebrations.Annie Leibovitz—Buckingham Palace/AP

Read about changes to Time.com

The challenge for anniversary-minded royal-watchers is that King George died in his sleep. It was widely reported in 1952 that he was found dead by a servant around 7:30 in the morning—meaning that he died, and Elizabeth’s reign began, at some unremarked-upon moment prior to that time.

In fact, it wasn’t until later that day that the new queen—who was on a trip to Africa—even found out about her father’s death and her subsequent change in status.

“It was not until early in the afternoon that Philip got the news (by telephone from a local newspaper) that changed their lives,” TIME reported. “He sent an equerry to call London for confirmation, then gently led his wife down to the river’s edge and told her that her father was dead. The Queen returned to the lodge on her husband’s arm, shaken but in full command of herself.”

As she came to terms with her new role and began to make her way home, the article continued, the signifiers of her rule snapped into place:

But even as the shocking news interrupted the smooth flow of past into future, a new present was making itself felt. The King was dead, but the Crown remained, and it must be fitted promptly to a new head. In London’s High Court, King’s Counselor Harold Shepherd had just finished cross-examining a defendant when the news came. The court adjourned. Ten minutes later, the lawyer resumed the floor as Queen’s Counselor. Painters at another London court set to work painting out the sign “King’s Bench” and replacing it with “Queen’s Bench.” “Who goes there?” sang out the sentries in a traditional nightly ritual at the Tower of London. “The Queen’s Keys,” came the new answer. There were a multitude of adjustments to be made in a nation where everything is run in the name of the sovereign. Six months hence, for instance, a new coinage would appear bearing a likeness of the Queen, facing, in accordance with tradition, in the opposite direction from her predecessor. But first, there was the complicated procedure of establishing without question the sovereign’s identity and right to sit on the throne.

King George’s death caught Parliament in the midst of one of the fiercest debates in its recent history, and instantly stilled that debate. 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.

Read more from 1952, here in the TIME Vault: Elizabeth II

See Every TIME Cover Featuring Queen Elizabeth II

Apr. 29, 1929
Then-Princess "Lilybet" on the Apr. 29, 1929, cover of TIMETIME
Mar. 31, 1947
Then-Princess Elizabeth on the Mar. 31, 1947, cover of TIMECover Credit: BORIS CHALIAPIN
Feb. 18, 1952
Queen Elizabeth on the Feb. 18, 1952, cover of TIME, following her ascension to the throneCover Credit: BORIS CHALIAPIN
Jan. 5, 1953
Queen Elizabeth, as Person of the Year for 1952, on the Jan. 5, 1953, cover of TIMECover Credit: BORIS CHALIAPIN
June 29, 1959
The Queen on the June 29, 1959, cover of TIMETIME
May 3, 1976
Queen Elizabeth (at top)—along with Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Juan Carlos of Spain, Margrethe of Denmark, and Bernhard and Juliana of the Netherlands—on the May 3, 1976, cover of TIMECover Credit: (TOP, CLOCKWISE) SERGE LEMOINE-SYGMA; AGENCE NORMA; EDDIE ADAMS; HUBERT LE CAMPION-SYGMA; DANIEL SIMON-GAMMA/LIAISON
June 3, 2002 - TIME Europe
Queen Elizabeth on the June 3, 2002, cover of TIME's Europe edition, marking her Golden JubileeCover Credit: KARSH / CAMERA PRESS
Apr. 17, 2006
Queen Elizabeth on the Apr. 17, 2006, cover of TIME's Europe edition, at the time of her 80th birthdayCover Credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY ANWAR HUSSEIN COLLECTION -- LFI
May 14, 2007
The Queen appears (near the bottom right) as a member of the TIME 100 on the May 14, 2007, cover of TIMECover Credit: PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY SEAN MCCABE
June 4, 2012
Queen Elizabeth on the June 4, 2012, cover of TIME's Europe edition, marking her Diamond JubileeCover Credit: EQUANIMITY BY CHRIS LEVINE (ARTIST) AND ROB MUNDAY (HOLOGRAPHER)
The Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022
© Cecil Beaton— Victoria and Albert Museum, London

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com