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The secrets of a king’s physician – what really happens when a monarch is seriously ill

There was a time when the palace not only hid royal diagnoses from the public, but even from the patient themselves. Harry Mount reveals how the royal household is determined to do things differently following the announcement King Charles is being treated for cancer

Tuesday 06 February 2024 17:51 GMT
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Unlike under Charles III, in George VI’s time, euphemism and secrecy were the order of the day
Unlike under Charles III, in George VI’s time, euphemism and secrecy were the order of the day (AP/PA)

It was 72 years ago, on 6 February 1952, when the nation heard that George VI had died at Sandringham. He had been suffering from lung cancer, and the sad news came as a great shock to the country. Although the king had been ill for several years, the full facts of his condition had been kept secret from his subjects.

His last public appearance had been the previous Thursday at a London airport as he bade farewell to Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh as they set off on their Commonwealth tour. When the announcement from Sandringham came at 10.45am a week later, it simply said: “The King, who retired to rest last night in his usual health, passed peacefully away in his sleep early this morning.”

How different the revelation of Charles III’s illness has been. Buckingham Palace was first extremely candid with the revelation of his diagnosis of, and successful treatment for, an enlarged prostate. Then came the devastating news that he is now being treated for cancer.

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