Inside the Coronation – from Queen’s heavy robes mishap, to ‘mixed emotions’

When the glittering coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on 2 June 1953 at Westminster Abbey, she became only the sixth woman in history to ascend to the British throne.

It was the first coronation ever to be televised, and the jubilant occasion almost 70 years ago was watched by 27 million people in the UK, with 11 million tuned in via radio.

Many of those who remember the event describe it as a much-needed celebration which signified a new optimism for Britain’s post-war recovery. For the 27-year-old monarch, the day was clearly the most surreal in her young life.

“Her emotions would have been very mixed,” says royal biographer Deborah Hart Strober. “She was Queen because her beloved father had passed on, and she must have been thinking, ‘I’m only here because I’ve lost him.’

"It’s a situation Prince Charles is going to face too when he becomes King.” The Queen had ascended to the throne upon the death of her father, King George VI, on 6 February the previous year.

The coronation of any new sovereign always takes place many months later, allowing for a period of mourning and for the ceremony to be planned with military precision.

In a BBC documentary screened in 2018, the Queen said of her coronation, “It’s the beginning of one’s life really as a sovereign. It is sort of a pageant of chivalry and an old-fashioned way of doing things.

"I’ve seen one coronation and been the recipient in the other, which is pretty remarkable.”

While the date for the coronation was chosen because meteorologists said it was statistically most likely to have sunny weather, the heavens rather typically opened.

The Queen was spared a soaking, as she and the Duke of Edinburgh made the journey from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey in the splendid Gold State Coach, which was pulled by eight horses.

As the Queen’s consort, Philip played an important part in the ceremony, but in keeping with tradition, he was not crowned. Bizarrely, the wife of a king is usually crowned queen.

Over the years there have been many rumours that the duke resented the custom, but according to the Queen’s former press secretary Dickie Arbiter, this was not the case at all.

“We’ve seen programmes like The Crown depict Philip as arrogant, jealous and very grudgingly paying homage to her at the coronation. But that’s absolute rubbish,” says Dickie.

“He was very loyal, and he always knew his role was to support her. As a consort there is no defined role. He had to create a role for himself, and he did just that.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the historic day itself…

The Ceremony

Coronations have been held at Westminster Abbey for 900 years and the Queen was the 39th sovereign to be crowned there.

Steeped in custom, the ceremony was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who began proceedings at 11.15am, with the service lasting nearly three hours. Some 8,251 guests had filled the cavernous abbey, including dignitaries from around the world.

But while Prince Charles, who was almost five, was allowed to witness the occasion, Princess Anne, then nearly three, was considered too young to attend.

Despite all the meticulous planning, the ceremony kicked off with a minor hitch – the Queen was unable to walk! The friction between her robes and the carpet prevented her from stepping forward, and she reportedly told the Archbishop, “Get me started!”

Although she had practised wearing the robes with her six “coronation maids” using yards of linen to replicate the long train, they hadn’t considered the weight of the heavy materials for the real thing.

She later recalled, “I remember one moment when I was going against the pile of the carpet and I couldn’t move at all… They hadn’t thought of that.”

Her maids of honour – Lady Jane Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Lady Anne Coke, Lady Moyra Hamilton, Lady Mary Baillie-Hamilton, Lady Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby and Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill – were elevated to celebrity status before the event, with the newspapers full of stories and gossip about their lives and clothes.

Looking back on their exciting time in the spotlight, Lady Glenconner (then the 20-year-old Lady Anne Coke) said last year, “We were like a girlband in a way – rather like the Spice Girls.”

Having rehearsed for weeks before the big day, their main role was to hold the Queen’s long, fur-trimmed train. They also headed the abbey procession of 250, made up of church leaders, Commonwealth prime ministers, royals and civil and military leaders.

On a 2013 episode of BBC radio series, The Reunion, the maids spoke of how tiny and vulnerable the young Queen looked in her coronation regalia. They also told of their huge surprise when the Archbishop of Canterbury produced a bottle of brandy from under his robes and offered them a nip!

The service itself had six separate sections, including the sacred oath, in which the Queen promised to rule according to law and to exercise justice with mercy, and the anointment – the most moving part.

Before the anointment, her jewellery was removed and her dress covered by a simple white linen shift.

Made from oils of orange, roses, cinnamon, musk and ambergris, the anointment oil had to be made from scratch, as the previous batch was destroyed during a bombing raid in May 1941.

After her anointment, the Queen was presented with the emblems of monarchy – including the orb, which is a golden globe surrounded by precious stones, the sceptre, and the coronation ring, often referred
to as the Wedding Ring of England.

Made for King William IV in 1831 at a cost of £157, it has been worn at every coronation since, with the exception of Queen Victoria, whose fingers were too small for the ring.

Finally, the high point of the ceremony was reached when the Archbishop placed the St Edward’s Crown on the Queen’s head.

In unison, the guests shouted, “God save the Queen!” three times and a 21-gun salute was fired from the Tower of London. This signalled to the crowd outside that the royal parade would soon be on its way and the streets were filled with raucous cheering.

The TV Coverage

BBC coverage of the ceremony was ground-breaking, as it was not only the first coronation to be televised, but it was also the first time many people had ever watched a live event on TV.

There had been much government debate over allowing the broadcast, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill against the idea.

But the Queen went against his advice and decided in favour of her big moment being screened. The late Peter Dimmock, BBC’s head of outside broadcasts from 1954 to 1972, recalled the opposition from the British Establishment.

“It was an era of privilege, them and us,” he said. “They felt if they were going to sit there and watch it, they should retain that privilege and other people shouldn’t see it.”

When the palace eventually agreed to the black and white broadcast, there were many conditions, and they insisted there were to be no close-ups and that the anointing part of the ceremony was not to be televised.

The Three Crowns

The coronation involved not just one crown but three. On her way to Westminster Abbey the Queen wore the George IV State Diadem – the crown we see depicted on stamps.

Made in 1820, it features roses, shamrocks and thistles with 1,333 diamonds and 169 pearls.

During the actual coronation, the St Edward’s Crown, made in 1661, was placed on her head.

Weighing a hefty 4lb 12oz, it is made of solid gold. Then, on her return to Buckingham Palace, the Queen wore the slightly lighter Imperial State Crown, which weighs in at 2lb 13oz.

It’s the same crown she always wears during the state opening of Parliament, but in the BBC documentary, she revealed that wearing it still requires considerable endurance.

“You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up. Because if you did, your neck would break, it would fall off.”

Made for her father George VI’s coronation in 1937, this crown contains 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and hundreds of pearls, including four believed to have come from Queen Elizabeth I’s earrings.

“Fortunately, my father and I have about the same sort of shaped head. But once you put it on, it stays. I mean, it just remains on,” she said.

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The Dress

The Queen’s coronation dress, designed by Norman Hartnell, was made of white satin and embroidered in gold and silver thread with the emblems of the UK and the Commonwealth.

Attached to the shoulders of her dress was a six-yard (5.5m) long, hand-woven silk velvet cloak lined with Canadian ermine.

Such secrecy surrounded the design of the dress that a policeman guarded the door of the room where the dress was being sewn by the Royal School of Needlework.

The maids wore gowns by the same designer, and Lady Glenconner recalled, “I remember the absolute joy of receiving my Norman Hartnell dress, which was wonderful, laden with silk, and heavily embroidered.”

Meanwhile, the Duke of Edinburgh wore full-dress naval uniform and while in the abbey, he wore a coronet and his duke’s robe over his uniform.

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The Parade

Royal fans were so keen to see the coronation procession that many camped out for two days, sleeping on the pavement in spite of soggy weather.

The return route taken to Buckingham Palace was planned so the Queen and her two-mile procession could be seen by as many people in London as possible.

One of the things she remembered most about the two-hour journey was that the Golden State Carriage was not built for a smooth ride.

“It was horrible – it’s only sprung on leather, not very comfortable,” she remarked.

The procession involved almost 30,000 servicemen and women and thousands of policemen, while more than 2,000 journalists and 500 photographers from 92 nations lined the route.

The Celebrations

Many of those who gathered in London to view the procession celebrated throughout the evening.

After the parade, the Queen appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to wave to the crowd outside the gates.

The day finished with a spectacular firework display on Victoria Embankment.

All around Britain and the Commonwealth, thousands of people also threw street parties to mark the coronation.

It is estimated that a quarter of the world took the day off, and here in Britain, the Ministry of Food granted 82 applications for permission to roast oxen – a welcome concession in a country where meat rations were still minimal.

Unsurprisingly, barbecued oxen did not feature on the menu for the 350 guests at the Queen’s own coronation lunch.

Dish of the day was coronation chicken – still popular for sandwiches and buffet lunches.

Prepared by Cordon Bleu cookery student Angela Wood, she later told the BBC she spent a month perfecting the recipe, saying, “I was cooking a chicken a day and we had to alter the balance of the spices in the sauce to get it right.”

As befits any new Queen, the dish was washed down with plenty of Her Majesty’s favourite fine French champagne…

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