KING'S LYNN, England – Personal sorrow mingled with royal history as Queen Elizabeth II reached a bittersweet milestone Wednesday, somberly marking 50 years as monarch on the anniversary of her father's death.
Golden Jubilee celebrations are planned later this year, but for the queen, Feb. 6 is typically a day of quiet reflection. This year, she broke her tradition of commemorating Accession Day privately to visit cancer patients at a hospital in King's Lynn, near the royal estate at Sandringham, in Norfolk, 100 miles north of London.
Her father, King George VI, succumbed to complications from lung cancer in 1952, making Princess Elizabeth queen at 25.
Her black Rolls Royce — with the royal standard banner waving on top — swept up to the Macmillan cancer center at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to waves and applause from about 50 well-wishers. Wearing a green coat and matching hat over her gold-colored dress, the queen chatted with patients, guests and hospital staff for about 45 minutes. Nurses and orderlies crowded around windows to catch a glimpse.
The queen made no public comments, but in a written message to the nation, she told all Britons they should be proud of the past and look optimistically toward the future.
"Prince Philip and I have been deeply touched by the many kind messages about the Golden Jubilee," she said. "This anniversary is for us an occasion to acknowledge with gratitude the loyalty and support which we have received from so many people since I came to the throne in 1952."
Red, white and blue Union Jack flags fluttered across Britain to mark the anniversary. A 41-gun salute at noon in London's Hyde Park was followed by a 62-gun salute from the Tower of London an hour later.
Dorothy Cornwell, 69, traveled 50 miles to see the queen at the hospital, where the monarch's fans waited for more than an hour in chilly weather to wave and give her flowers.
"I felt I had to come and give my support because today is rather a sad day for her," Cornwell said. "We should be very, very proud that we have got her as queen and long may she reign."
Cornwell recalled the day Princess Elizabeth became queen.
"We heard this dreadful news on the radio, that the king had died quietly in his sleep. I just wept silent tears and bought all the newspapers," Cornwell said.
Concerts and parties are planned this summer to celebrate Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee and the queen, 75, has a travel schedule filled with visits around Britain and to other countries in the Commonwealth of its former colonies.
But Wednesday was a more personal occasion.
Princess Elizabeth was in Kenya on an official trip when she got word of her father's death.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill greeted her at the airport when she arrived back in Britain as queen. More than 300,000 people paid their respects as George VI lay in state at Westminster Hall.
He had won the respect and affection of his subjects after he took the throne following the abdication of his older brother Edward VIII, who stepped down to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
The king and his wife Queen Elizabeth — now the 101-year-old Queen Mother — were a steadying presence through the war years. Older Britons recall how the couple stayed in London through the Blitz and visited badly bombed neighborhoods.
Britain was still drained and depressed by the war when the king, a heavy smoker, grew ill and died at 56. Rationing was still in force and the economy was shattered.
"During these last months, the king walked with death as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognized and did not fear," Churchill told the House of Commons at the time.
The accession of the young queen with her handsome husband, Prince Philip, and two small children helped usher in a more hopeful time.
Elizabeth II's reign — already among the longest in British history — has brought major changes to the role of the royal family.
Despite the sometimes embarrassing and painfully public antics of the queen's children, support for the monarchy remains strong.
Two thirds of Britons rated the queen and her family hardworking and highly respected in a MORI opinion poll of 1,000 adults in December, and 70 percent wanted to keep the monarchy.