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Remembering the Queen's Coronation, today in 1953 - by Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness​​ | Jun 02, 2024

The Queen's Coronation in Westminster Abbey Picture: Library and Archives Canada

It was said of Queen Victoria and her son (eventually Edward VII), “The Queen continues to reign, and reign and won’t let the son shine.” It might have been said of her great-great granddaughter, Elizabeth, “The Queen continued to shine, and shine and wouldn’t let the son reign.” But if one looks to her coronation, held seventy-one years ago today, it is not difficult to see why she felt bound to retain the reins and make her septuagenarian son wait till her death.

Hugo Vickers’s authoritative and fascinating Coronation (Dovecote Press, 2023) sheds a splendid light on the mystery and magic of that Coronation. This slim work is full of gems - characters and anecdotes woven through the pageantry and prayer. One key character is the M.C, the Earl Marshall - always the premier duke, the Duke of Norfolk. In 1953, it was Bernard, the efficient, precise 16th Duke with a fine sense of ceremony and astonishing eye for detail.

When a divorced peer expressed concern about not being invited, Norfolk retorted, “Of course you will. This is a Coronation; not Royal Ascot.”

His duchess, Lavinia, stood in for The Queen at rehearsals and she was one of 13 Duchesses sitting in the front row. A splendid sight according to the diarist, Chips Channon MP. In fact, the Abbey was packed with peers in 1953. The reformist John Grigg had suggested that they might be “replaced by eminent Canadians, Australians, Pakistanis and other Commonwealth leaders” but he met a wall of opposition from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Earl Marshal and so, as in the past, there was a galaxy of coronets.

A young reporter, the Washington Times-Herald’s ‘Inquiring Camera Girl’, one Jacqueline Bouvier, was sent to London to report. She reported “All the deposed monarchs are staying at Claridge’s”.

Well, not all - one of them, the Duke of Windsor, who sailed with her on the SS United States - disembarked with his duchess, and their pugs, at Le Havre. Those Windsors were not bidden. In London Miss Bouvier asked spectators outside Buckingham Palace, “Do you think Elizabeth will be England’s last queen?” Three weeks later, at home, she was engaged to John F Kennedy and would return eight years later as First Lady and a guest of the Queen whom she had wondered would be the last. As she told a cousin, that Coronation visit was “the last time I was truly free to be me.”

Strangely, reigning monarchs were not invited (they sent instead their Crown Princes, brothers, cousins).

An exception to the Sovereign rule was made for Colonial Rulers. And so, on the day, mounting her carriage was the majestic 20-stone Queen Salote of Tonga waving her fellow passenger, the diminutive Sultan of Kelantan, to sit - not beside her as he wished - but opposite her. Did Noel Coward really say, on being asked who was sharing the carriage with Queen Salote, “Her lunch”? Beaming and waving, insisting the carriage remained uncovered, despite the pouring rain, she was a great favourite of the crowds.

Each rank of peers - Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons - was represented by the most senior of their number to pay homage to their sovereign. As a bankrupt, the nonagenarian Marquess of Winchester was disqualified from representing the Marquesses but his extraordinary wife, Bapsy, still had her portrait painted in her coronation robes as if she had attended.

The 25th Lord Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton (his first title dating from 1283) representing the barons, was sat in front of the dukes. When his son told him how lucky he was to have such a good seat, he shot back, “Lucky? Lucky? These upstart Dukes were still tilling the fields when we were Barons.” He had his comeuppance. The Duke of Rutland stole his coronet, and his sandwiches within it.

In the run-up to the 1953 coronation, the brilliant Osbert Lancaster, master of the pocket cartoon, had much fun with his glorious creation monstre sacré - Maudie Countess of Littlehampton. Maudie, a political grande dame, whose topical, hilarious bon mots & put-downs, appeared in Lancaster’s pocket cartoons for The Daily Express from the late 40s until 1981. Maudie was inspired by a number of women, among them an old girlfriend and his second wife but chiefly by one of the Golden Guinness Girls, Maureen, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. (Maureen’s other distinction is that Barry Humphries copied her spectacles for Dame Edna). Among Maudie’s appearances in Hugo’s book is one of her buying pate from her grocer, ‘You know - the size that fits into an earl’s coronet & still leaves room for a packet of biscuits & an apple’.

Sustenance and bladder control seem such vulgar topics to raise but the marathon that was the Coronation called for great self-discipline. Poor 80-year-old Princess Marie Louise, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, attending her fourth coronation, was so thirsty at the end of the ceremony she drank a whole bottle of water. It turned out to be gin and on her way home, she was close to falling out of her carriage.

Friends of the Royal Family were assigned seats in the Royal Box. It was said that in 1902 Edward VII invited his mistresses so it was dubbed the ‘Loose Box’. One of King Edward’s guests was La Favorita, the beautiful Alice Keppel, great-grandmother of Queen Camilla.

Andrew Parker Bowles had the distinction, as a 13-year-old, to be Page to Lord Simonds, the Lord Chancellor, who happened to be a friend of his mother. The young Andrew behaved impeccably but his Lordship suffered his own mishap when his coronet, fitted to sit on his judicial wig, fell onto his face.

In 1953, Bernard Griffin, the Archbishop of Westminster, would not enter the Abbey - a Protestant Church. The Tablet believed the last time a cardinal was involved in a coronation (until last year when Vincent, Cardinal Nichols imparted a blessing on Charles III immediately after the crown was placed on his head) was in 1543 when David, Cardinal Beaton presided at the crowning of the infant Mary Queen of Scots at the Chapel Royal in Stirling Castle.

And now to the soul of the ceremony. The primary source for the service came from Edward II’s coronation in 1308 but elements were drawn from as far back as the crowning of King Edgar in 793. A solidly arcane ritual was in place on that wet morning of June 2 in Westminster Abbey in 1953 when the 99th Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, placed the King Edward Crown on the young head of Elizabeth II.

The Archbishop had just anointed her with the ancient words: "As kings, priests and prophets were anointed, and as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest . . . so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the peoples whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule." Time magazine described the moment: “The Crown itself sparkled in the candlelight. The Archbishop of Canterbury moved to the high altar, clasped it in both hands and raised it before him. "Oh God, the Crown of the Faithful," he prayed, "bless, we beseech Thee, this Crown, and so sanctify Thy servant Elizabeth, upon whose head Thou dost place it . . . that she may be filled by Thine abundant grace, with all princely virtue."

With the Crown borne before him, Canterbury approached the Queen. He raised it high above her, paused for all to see, and placed it on her head.” The congregation, now her subjects, cried out: "God save the Queen! God save the Queen!"

Trumpets sounded, a thousand peers and peeresses rose and put on their coronets and then the Archbishop, Prince Philip, her uncle Gloucester, her cousin Kent, and those representatives from the five degrees of the peerage (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons) all paid homage. Then again came a roar throughout the Abbey:

"God save Queen Elizabeth!

Long live Queen Elizabeth!

May the Queen live forever!"

Until September 2022, it seemed that she might. But what seems certain is that the young Queen saw the ceremony as a solemn pact with her God and with her people. This was no mere investiture. As the late Ben Pimlott put it (in his superb biography, The Queen) “Not all the water in the rough rude sea,” wrote Shakespeare wrote in Richard II, “can wash the balm from an anointed king.” The ceremony sanctified the pledge she famously made in Africa, on her 21st birthday. "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Charles attended his mother’s coronation. “Look, it’s Mummy” he exclaimed. He was only four so his memory of it must be faint, although a witness claimed that, as his mother took the Sovereign’s Sword, advanced with it to the altar and offered it to God, he watched enraptured.

As Pimlott observed, the coronation “was the most magnificent and affecting royal ceremonial of the century – despite, or because of, the decline in the importance of the Monarch.” He also considered that it “helped to define, not just royalty, but the British identity for the next generation.”

The historian, Sir Charles Petrie, wrote of the Queen, “For the first few years of her reign, she was the subject of adulation unparalleled since the days of Louis XIV.” At the age of 25 on her accession and at the height of her beauty, she held much promise for Britain, still drained and rationed after the War. A new Elizabethan Age was declared.

Despite the hopes, hers was never to be a New Elizabethan Age. The fabric of Britain in 1952 was still rent by the Second World War and as it recovered, Europe emerged and the Empire crumbled. But what arose from the remnants of the empire was the Commonwealth and its survival, against extraordinary odds, is one of the Queen’s greatest achievements.

The coolness, sagacity and restraint of Elizabeth II were matched by her constancy and diligence - day in and day out, for 25,782 days - a model constitutional monarch.