Coronation Memories

Many of us remember the late Queen’s Coronation, but things will be quite different this time around...
Nothing could dampen the jubilation of the crowd waiting to cheer their new Queen – not even the pouring rain. It had been drizzling throughout the day on the heads of the thousands of well-wishers who had camped out overnight along the route to Westminster Abbey.

It was 2 June, 1953, and a 27-year-old mother of two was being crowned Queen Elizabeth II, far sooner than she – or the nation – had expected.

Despite the weather there was much to celebrate. As the crowds cheered the romantic sight of the Gold State Coach bearing Elizabeth to her destiny, pulled by eight Windsor grey horses called Cunningham, Tovey, Noah, Tedder, Eisenhower, Snow White, Tipperary and McCreery, there was very much a sense of a new era.

Everything was modernising rapidly – even the coverage of the Coronation embodied the changing times, as cameras were allowed inside Westminster Abbey for the first time and the ceremony was broadcast live on TV to an estimated 27 million people.

It was a huge event in almost everyone’s life – those who didn’t have television sets gathered at the houses of friends who were lucky enough to own one, or in pubs and cinemas to watch the event. There was even a new dish for the day – Coronation chicken was created by the Cordon Bleu chefs Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume. Spry was also a famous florist, and made many displays for the Coronation route and the abbey.

The Queen and Prince Philip – whose wedding in 1947 had also been seen as a cause for celebration and hope, were the glamorous couple of the moment.

They embodied a new beginning in troubled post-war times. Princess Margaret referred to the glowing feeling she experienced after the Coronation as a ‘phoenix time’, when everyone was filled with hope and happiness.

‘It was as if this smooth and glamorous 27-year-old’s beauty had been magnified to match the heavy sanctity of the occasion,’ wrote biographer Robert Lacey in his 2002 book Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. ‘As Elizabeth II came down the aisle after being crowned she looked Byzantine, a holy idol. The image was compelling. It transcended the old rules.’ The new Queen was described as something out of a fairy tale by royal reporters, and after the ceremony Prime Minister Winston Churchill said on the radio: ‘Gracious and noble are words familiar to us all in courtly phrasing. Tonight, they have a new ring in them because we know they are true about the gleaming figure whom Providence has brought to us.’

The Queen was indeed gleaming – she looked magnificent in her Coronation dress. It was designed by Norman Hartnell, the trusted couturier who had made her beautiful wedding dress. The sumptuous white duchess satin dress, covered in embroidered gold and silver emblems of the countries of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, was like something out of Camelot.

‘One October afternoon in 1952, Her Majesty the Queen desired me to make for her the dress to be worn at her Coronation,’ Hartnell wrote in Silver and Gold, his autobiography. ‘I can scarcely remember what I murmured in reply. Her Majesty required that the dress should conform in line to that of her wedding dress and that the material should be white satin.’

The dress he created had a corset bodice and wide skirt embroidered with beads, diamanté and pearls. The designer later said: ‘Her Majesty had told me graciously that the dress was triumphant. To me, it seems to take on the order of a holy vestment – both stood out and blended with that lovely honeycoloured carpet, and mingled sympathetically with the cloth upon the altar.’ It was so heavy that the Queen initially couldn’t get started down the aisle, as the dress stuck in the thick new carpet that had been laid for the event. She had to whisper to the Archbishop of Canterbury to give her a push. ‘At one moment I was going against the pile of the carpet,’ the Queen later told the journalist Alastair Bruce. ‘I couldn’t move at all.’

It was fitting that it looked like a wedding dress because the young Queen was now taking vows to the country and Commonwealth, ones she would keep until the day she died in 2022.

Four-year-old Prince Charles was the first child to witness his mother’s Coronation as Queen, and he even received a hand-painted invitation to mark the event. He later said he had only a ‘vague memory of glorious music and coronets’, and that his abiding memory was that the palace barber had cut his hair too short and ‘plastered it down with the most appalling gunge’, according to his biographer Jonathan Dimbleby.

‘Inside the abbey a television camera framed the prince at the moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the crown on his mother’s head. It was a fleeting glance, but seemed to say, “You, my child, will be next!”’ Dimbleby writes in The Prince of Wales: A Biography.

Charles was filmed tugging on his mother’s sleeve, but he said later he couldn’t remember what it was he wanted to say to her. Afterwards he stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with his parents, as the crowd roared below.

Later, writes Dimbleby, ‘the prince would claim, “I am just an ordinary person in an extraordinary position”, but this exposure to the force of public emotion formed an elemental part of the process by which he came to appreciate how different he was from other children.’


Now, 70 years later, that ‘ordinary boy’ is a grandfather and is about to experience the same extraordinary ceremony in front of a worldwide audience. But while the beauty of the music may have remained with him, some of the detail, inevitably has had to change. Buckingham Palace says the Coronation, which takes place on 6 May, will be ‘rooted in long-standing traditions but will also reflect the monarch’s role today and look towards the future’.

So much did the music transport him at his mother’s Coronation that the King has personally overseen the musical arrangements to be played at his own. He has commissioned new music and chosen the programme for the service. The Coronation Orchestra will be made up of musicians from the King’s patronages, such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Andrew Lloyd Webber has composed a Coronation Anthem.

‘I am incredibly honoured to have been asked to compose a new anthem for the Coronation,’ says Lloyd Webber. ‘My anthem includes words slightly adapted from Psalm 98. I have scored it for the Westminster Abbey choir and organ, the ceremonial brass and orchestra. I hope it reflects this joyful occasion.’

While the Queen had 8,000 guests at her Coronation, the King has opted for a more modest number of around 2,000. He has also slimmed down and sped up the proceedings – the Queen’s Coronation service took three hours and the procession comprised a staggering 16,000 people, who took two hours to complete the four-mile route. It took 45 minutes for the procession to pass any one point.

‘Their Majesties the King and the Queen Consort will arrive at Westminster Abbey in procession from Buckingham Palace, known as “The King’s Procession”,’ says the official royal family website. ‘After the service Their Majesties will return to Buckingham Palace in a larger ceremonial procession known as “The Coronation Procession”. Their Majesties will be joined in this procession by other members of the royal family.’

The King has also made sure there will be more opportunities for public participation. Several thousand tickets for the Coronation Concert, which takes place at Windsor Castle on Sunday 7 May, have been allocated to the public via a ballot (details of how to apply will be posted on the website in due course). The climax of the concert will be the Lighting up the Nation section, when famous locations across the UK will be illuminated with lights, lasers and drones. On the special Coronation bank holiday the next day, The Big Help Out event will aim to inspire people to volunteer in the community.

Like the Queen’s Coronation, there will also be street parties across the nation. As to what to serve at the The Big Lunch on Sunday 7 May, the website has released three new recipes for alternatives to Coronation chicken. They include Ken Hom’s Coronation roast rack of lamb with Asian-style marinade, Nadiya Hussain’s Coronation aubergine, and Adam Handling’s strawberry and ginger trifle.

While the Queen had her dress commissioned, Philip wore full naval uniform and a Coronation robe. It is expected that Charles will continue this tradition, with some of the other highly symbolic robes. These include the Robe of State, which monarchs arrive in and subsequently wear at the State Opening of Parliament. The Queen had her Robe of State specially made, as well as the Robe of Estate, which is worn at the conclusion of the ceremony.

The other major difference between the two Coronations is that this time the spouse of our new sovereign will be crowned as well. Camilla will become Queen Consort – the first time this has happened since the Queen Mother, the wife of George VI, was crowned at their Coronation in 1937. Prince Philip was not crowned ‘King Consort’ at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 because, according to tradition, female rulers do not give their royal titles to male partners. Instead, Philip became Duke of Edinburgh on their wedding day in 1947, and Prince Philip in 1957.

When Camilla is crowned the ceremony will be similar to the King’s but shorter. The Queen Mother’s Coronation was much more like her husband’s: the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed her head with holy oil, the Queen’s ring was placed on her hand and the crown on her head.

Following her Coronation, Queen Elizabeth II had official portraits taken by the society photographer Cecil Beaton. It is rumoured that Charles and Camilla have commissioned Hugo Burnand, the only photographer with a royal warrant, to take theirs.

After the Coronation in 1953 the Queen made a speech: ‘I have behind me not only the splendid traditions and the annals of more than a thousand years but the living strength and majesty of the Commonwealth and Empire; of societies old and new; of lands and races different in history and origins but all, by God’s Will, united in spirit and in aim.

‘Therefore, I am sure that this, my Coronation, is not the symbol of a power and a splendour that are gone but a declaration of our hopes for the future, and for the years I may, by God’s Grace and Mercy, be given to reign and serve you as your Queen.’

Her sentiments are no doubt echoed by our new King.