Becoming Queen: Elizabeth II’s coronation
Despite grey skies and rain, a moment of colour, glamour and optimism was watched by millions in a dreary postwar Britain. Victoria Arbiter details the preparations, pomp and even humour of the Queen’s coronation day
As dawn broke on Tuesday 2 June 1953 – coronation day – so too did some other momentous news. A British-led climbing team had conquered Mount Everest, with Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay becoming the first men to set foot on the world’s loftiest summit. Though their feat had been achieved on 29 May, it took four days for word to reach the UK.
Dubbed by the press “a coronation gift for the new Queen”, their success added to the palpable sense of excitement felt across the country. Following the 15-year reign of her father, George VI, and the significantly shorter reign of her uncle, Edward VIII, Elizabeth II was to be crowned the 40th English monarch – and only the sixth queen – since William the Conqueror took the throne at Westminster nearly 900 years earlier. Epic in scale, the occasion was the perfect tonic for postwar Britons.
The months before the event had been tinged with sadness. On 24 March, 10 weeks before the ceremony was due to take place, Queen Mary – widow of George V, mother and grandmother of successive sovereigns – succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 85. Described by Winston Churchill as “practical in all things”, she had earlier insisted that her granddaughter’s coronation, 14 months in the planning, should go ahead even in the event of her death.
The date of the ceremony, declared by the Coronation Commission under the chairmanship of Prince Philip, allowed an appropriate length of time to pass between George VI’s death and a nationwide celebration. The Duke of Norfolk, Bernard Fitzalan-Howard, was charged with organising the festivities while David Eccles, minister of works, handled the physical preparation and the decorations lining the route. Norman Hartnell, the man responsible for creating Elizabeth’s wedding dress in 1947, was commissioned to make her gown. Bearing embroidered floral emblems representing Commonwealth coun-tries, the white satin dress also featured England’s Tudor rose, the Scottish thistle, the Welsh leek and the Irish shamrock. On the gown’s left side, where the Queen’s hand would rest for much of the day, sat a four-leaf clover stitched in gold and silver thread.
The weeks leading up to the event were filled with endless rehearsals. Anxious thoughts for the Queen’s welfare flowed in from all quarters, notably from Winston Churchill. “I fear they may ask her to do too much,” he said. The Queen’s response was always the same: “Did my father do it? Then I will, too.” When ministers suggested she take a brief rest halfway through the ceremony, she replied: “I’ll be alright. I’m as strong as a horse.”
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Six young noblewomen were invited to serve as the Queen’s maids of honour, among them 20-year-old Anne Coke (now Lady Glenconner). Reminiscing about the occasion during an interview for BBC Radio 4, she said that “I was in America selling pottery, getting over a sad love affair, when I got a telegram saying: ‘Come on, come back, you’ve been chosen.’ My mother was also asked to be a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, so I think we were the only mother and daughter in the procession.” With the Duchess of Norfolk standing in for the Queen at several of the rehearsals, the girls practised every aspect of the service. As they later recalled: “It seemed we were constantly trooping off to the Abbey. The Duke of Norfolk was a choreographer, apart from everything else.”
At Buckingham Palace, the ivory-and-gold ballroom was transformed into a replica of Westminster Abbey’s “theatre” area, where the primary action would take place. Sheets were pinned to the Queen’s shoulders, mimicking her six-metre-long train, and a formation of chairs stood in for the carriage. In order to become accustomed to the Imperial State Crown’s weight and feel, Elizabeth donned it while going about her daily business. Worn by the Queen during her return to Buckingham Palace after the coronation (having been crowned with St Edward’s Crown), it is adorned with 2,901 precious stones including the Cullinan II diamond, St Edward’s Sapphire, the Stuart Sapphire, the Black Prince’s Ruby and four pearls reputed to have been set in earrings worn by Elizabeth I.
“She used to wear [the crown] when she was writing letters,” Lady Anne recalled. Discussing the 1kg headpiece in 2018, the Queen noted: “You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up. Because if you did, your neck would break and it would fall off. So there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they are quite important things.” When asked if she had ever tried it on, Lady Anne responded: “I wouldn’t dare touch it… it’s completely sacred.” She did reveal, however, that Prince Charles, then four years old, “got his paws on it” post-coronation. The Queen “put it on the table and Prince Charles made a beeline for it”, she said. “And we thought he was going to drop it… Oh my goodness, that would be a bad omen. But luckily I think my mother, as a lady-in-waiting, seized it from him and took it away.”
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In order to become accustomed to its 1kg weight, Elizabeth donned the Imperial State Crown while going about her daily business
In spite of pouring rain and driving wind, half a million spectators eager to secure the best vantage point spent the night before the coronation camped along the processional route. Three million more swarmed into London the next morning. Across the country, others gathered around television sets purchased specially for the occasion. “I remember people saying: ‘We’ve got a television set,’” recalled cultural historian Robert Hewison, who celebrated his tenth birthday on coronation day. “The picture wasn’t as impressive as 35mm newsreel in the cinema – it was more grey and brown than black and white – but you were seeing something live.”
Homes, pubs and community centres were packed with awestruck viewers, their eyes fixed on images emitted from modest screens. Adamant it wouldn’t be “right or proper” to televise the ceremony, Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged the Queen to spare herself the strain of the cameras’ heat and glare. Unconcerned by his protestations, and feeling that the nation had a right to participate, she went against his advice. Only the most sacred parts of the service – the anointing and communion – were hidden from the cameras; as author William Shawcross noted, the Queen “wanted her moments with God to remain unseen by the world”. It was the first event of its size to be broadcast on international television, and more than 20 million Britons tuned in to watch.
At 6am, Westminster Abbey – site of every coronation since 1066 – opened its doors to some 8,000 guests. Two hours later, the procession of foreign royalty, heads of state and dignitaries began, and at 10.29am the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh departed Buckingham Palace in the Gold State Coach. Commissioned in 1760, this enclosed carriage, drawn by eight horses, has been used for every coronation since that of George IV.
Asked in 2018 about that ride, the Queen described it as “horrible”. Just as the ceremony was ancient, so, too, was the carriage’s suspension system. “It’s only sprung on leather,” she said. “Not very comfortable.” Her predecessors agreed. William IV, a former naval officer, compared being driven in it to being on board a ship “tossing in rough seas”; Queen Victoria complained of the cabin’s “distressing oscillation”; and George VI described his journey to the abbey as “one of the most uncomfortable rides I have ever had in my life”. Yet, despite the incessant drizzle, a non-stop roar of delight serenaded the Queen as she rode by.
Personnel from all three branches of the military, selected from countries spanning the Commonwealth, lined the route. More than 200 microphones dotted the path, and 2,000 journalists and 500 photographers from 92 nations covered the day, including Jacqueline Bouvier – later wife of US President John F Kennedy – employed at the time by the Washington Times-Herald.
Recollecting their “great nerves, excitement” and the “unbelievable crowds”, the Queen’s maids described the scene as “incredible”. They were to head a procession of 250 people in a spectacle unlike any other, with millions observing their every move. “As the Queen arrived, it was apparent that for her this was a solemn and religious occasion,” recalled Elizabeth’s cousin, Margaret Rhodes. “But there were moments to make us smile, such as when one aristocrat knelt to pay homage and mothballs rolled from his robes.”
Entering the Abbey’s annexe, the Queen encountered a problem: the carpet had been laid with its pile running the wrong way, which meant that her robes didn’t glide smoothly over it, and the metal fringe on her golden mantel caught and clawed her back as she tried to move forward. She had to ask the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, to help get her going.
Carrying St Edward’s Crown, made for Charles II in 1661, the Lord High Steward of England preceded Elizabeth; the archbishop of Canterbury then announced her, and the three-hour service commenced.
Once the oath had been administered and communion conducted, the maids of honour removed Elizabeth’s scarlet robe, gloves and jewels, and helped her don a simple white linen dress for her consecration. As she took her seat in St Edward’s Chair, made in 1300 for Edward I, the choir sang ‘Zadok the Priest’, composed by Handel for the coronation of George II. Under a silk canopy held in place by four Knights of the Garter, the archbishop anointed Elizabeth with oil made from the same base as that used for her father’s coronation 16 years earlier. The Queen was then invested with the Armills, Stole Royal, Robe Royal and Sovereign’s Orb, followed by the Queen’s Ring, the Sceptre with the Cross and the Sceptre with the Dove.
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Duly regaled, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned by the archbishop of Canterbury. As St Edward’s Crown was placed upon her head, the congregation chanted three times: “God Save the Queen.” Donning the Imperial State Crown and carrying the Sovereign’s Orb and the Sceptre with the Cross, she departed through the great west door to be driven through the capital in her golden coach accompanied by 13,000 troops, 29 bands and 27 carriages. As the procession rolled through the streets, the church bells rang out and guns fired in salute.
That evening, the Queen broadcast a speech relayed through loudspeakers to the damp yet still exhilarated crowds filling the Mall. Reflecting on the day’s events, she thanked the public for their support and promised to serve the nation. “I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine,” she said. “Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
Few could have imagined then that Elizabeth, 27 years old on her coronation day, would live to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch
It is nearly seven decades since the Queen took her Coronation Oath. Recalling the experience, Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill, one of the maids of honour, said the Queen had been “very confident, really. She made us feel very confident, too. The minute she arrived, everyone just felt everything was going to be alright.” Prince Philip, she said, had been “just wonderful during the whole day… He was frightfully good looking; we were all slightly in love with him. It was the most perfect sort of fairy-tale coronation, with this youthful Queen and a wonderfully handsome consort – made in heaven, really.”
Few could have imagined the newly crowned Queen – only 27 years old on her coronation day – living to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. In September 2015, she surpassed the record set by her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria; today she’s the oldest serving head of state in the world. In her twilight years, she continues to break records. The first British monarch to celebrate a diamond wedding anniversary, in 2022 she will be the first to mark a platinum jubilee. Far from being a once-in-a-lifetime event, the occasion is likely to be a once-in-forever achievement.
Victoria Arbiter is an experienced broadcaster who has served as royal commentator for CBS, ABC and CNN
This article appeared in BBC History Magazine's 'The Queen' Special Edition, republished in 2022