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The Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, June 1953. The Queen is center, waving. From left to right are Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Philip, and the Queen Mother. Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret is beside her among the ladies on the left. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The coronation

The coronation

Richard Lambert recalls the excitement at the start of the second Elizabethan age. In 1953 Britain was a deferential society and adulation of the Queen was the order of the day

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Richard Lambert, who was Chair of the British Museum and editor of the Financial Times from 1991 to 2001 reflects on her 70-year reign and the ways in which society changed under her rule. 

Transcript

June 1953. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and a good time to be alive in Britain. The bleak post-war years are drawing to a close. The streets of London and other great cities are littered with bomb sites, but the scars are healing. Britain still has pretensions of being a great military power, with its armed forces numbering 868,000 – six times today’s total – and scattered all around the world. 

Its industries continue to outpace those of continental Europe and Asia by a wide margin. There seems every reason for confidence about jobs and the economy. Roughly a third of the new ships built around the world this year are made in the United Kingdom; nearly a quarter of world manufacturing exports come from this country.

And new excitements have fired national pride. Britain’s Roger Bannister has just become the first athlete in the world to run a mile in under four minutes. And on the morning of the coronation itself comes the news that a British-led team has conquered Mount Everest. All this, and Everest too, shouts the front page of the Daily Express.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill has for months been rolling out sonorous phrases about the glories that await the country under the sceptre, as he put it, of its new queen. And even Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour opposition – and not one for florid turns of phrase – is moved to hope for a new Elizabethan age, no less renowned than the first.

The eight year-old me has no doubts about where Britain stands in the world. We had won the war, thanks in good measure to the ethics of people like my father and his friends. The world map on my primary school wall is still splattered with imperial pink. They haven’t got round to redoing India yet.

Street Party decorations in Pinnington Road, Gorton North, Manchester, May 1953

I don’t care much for the Young Elizabethan, the children’s newspaper that my parents insist on buying. Just two weeks before the coronation, its name has been changed from Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls, but it’s still as worthy and dull as its old name suggests. Much more exciting is the centre spread of my favourite weekly read, The Eagle, which carries detailed illustrations of the latest British technological triumph. A new aircraft carrier. The world’s first commercial nuclear power station. A gas powered motorcar.

And sweet rationing had come to an end just a few months earlier, in February. My first purchase: a small bar of Fry’s Chocolate.

Then came the build-up to the big day, 2 June. We talked about little else at primary school. My sister and I were given free coronation mugs. By the end of May, traffic congestion triggered by the crowds gathering in London had become such that the police banned all but priority and public service vehicles from an area within a two mile radius of Westminster. On the night of 1 June, half a million people were already bunking down along the coronation route in the pouring rain and wind.

And there was one big and new excitement: after initial opposition on the part of both the palace and Downing Street, it had been agreed that most of the service in Westminster Abbey would be televised.

In anticipation, the number of television licences in the country had doubled to around 3 million in the run up to June. And it’s reckoned that as many as 27 million Brits watched at least part of the service on the day. 

New Yorkers watching the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a display television in a shop window

The Lambert family clustered uncomfortably around a neighbour’s small black-and-white TV set, and waited for the action.

Television clip from the Coronation. 

After all that anticipation, it turned out to be a long – and for me, a bewildering and intensely tedious – way of passing the near three hours that the new queen spent in Westminster Abbey. The service itself was a weird hodgepodge of the ancient and the modern – but it was to have a decisive impact on the life and reign of the new queen.

Winston Churchill was determined that the coronation would outdo the Festival of Britain in 1951, which he saw as a piece of socialist propaganda that had more or less ignored the armed forces and the Commonwealth. And he was desperate to sustain the fantasy that Britain remained what he called “a great power”, to be ranked alongside the United States and the Soviet Union in the world order. Seventy-eight years old and losing his grip. This was going to be his final shot at telling that story.

Then there was Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury – who, after the space of 70 years, looks more like a scheming cleric from a novel by Hilary Mantel than anything imaginable today. His goal was to demonstrate that, despite the evidence of decreasing churchgoing, the Christian faith in general – and the Church of England in particular – remained an essential cornerstone of British national life. And he played a large part in the shaping of the service with that in mind. He didn’t go quite so far as to talk about the divine right of the Monarch, but he did make it clear that in his view, the young Queen had been God-called. Her authority came not from the state or the government, but directly from the Almighty. At the coronation, he declared subsequently, this country and Commonwealth were not far from the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Crowds line the route of the procession, many camped out on the streets overnight despite the rain

Along with a stirring music that reverberated all around the Abbey, there were two key moments in the service. First came the oath.

Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury: Is your Majesty willing to take the oath?

Queen Elizabeth: I am willing. 

Geoffrey Fisher: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?

Queen Elizabeth: I solemnly promise so to do. 

And not just that – but also, to preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, while maintaining all the rights and privileges of its bishops and clergy.

Then came the most sacred part of the proceedings – the moment when the television cameras were obliged to swing up towards the roof and blank out what was happening below. As the service sheet explained, the Queen, rising from her devotion, having been disrobed of her crimson robe and being uncovered, shall go before the altar, supported and attended as before. Four Knights of the Garter held a canopy over her head to guard her privacy, as the Archbishop dabbed sacred oil on her hands, breast, and head, and uttered a mysterious prayer: “As Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples.”

Geoffrey Fisher: I here present unto you, Queen Elizabeth, your undoubted queen. Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service, are you willing to do the same?

Nathan, for those who have forgotten, was the prophet who didn’t hesitate to put King David right when he strayed off the straight and narrow. A clear message here for the new queen. The oil had been made to an ancient recipe – including, among other things: rose, cinnamon, sesame, musk, and ambergris, a waxy substance taken from the intestine of a sperm whale.

Royal footmen, dressed in glittering uniforms raise their glasses in a toast to the Queen

This, we were invited to believe, provided a link to ancient times. As Shakespeare had put it in Richard II, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea could wash the oil from an anointed king.” Maybe we couldn’t go quite that far in 1953, but the anointment ritual was obviously intended to be deeply symbolic.

Taken as a whole, the Westminster Abbey service was not just about invoking the power of leadership. In the words of biographer Ben Pimlott, it was also about sacrifice. By bringing the Queen into the presence of the living God at the anointing, the service defined a special relationship with the deity – a relationship based on self-denial.

And this was no passing responsibility. The service made it clear that her commitment must extend to the point of her death. There could be no abdication, no passing of the load. She was in it for life.

That morning’s Times newspaper reflected the same theme. The Queen was willingly sacrificing herself to the service of God and the nation. Having made service her career, she has the reward of the selfless, in the pure joy of duty amply, generously done. The anointment was said to have moved the queen deeply. And how could it have been otherwise? She was young and inexperienced, and her education – to put it politely – had been strange. As she demonstrated throughout her life, she had deeply held Christian convictions, and she would remain true to her word.

After what seemed to me like an eternity, the coronation service finally drew to a close, and things started to pick up. Bands played and soldiers marched, including representatives of all the Commonwealth countries in colourful uniforms. Lots of big guns were fired, and the long procession back to the palace featured a charismatic figure who people of my generation were to remember for years afterwards: Queen Salote of Tonga, a large woman who insisted on keeping her carriage roof open despite the pouring rain, and waved enthusiastically to the crowds all along the road.

For some time after the coronation, the Queen continued to be regarded with something close to adulation by the public in Britain and beyond. In November that year, she set off with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, on a marathon tour of the Commonwealth that was to last five and a half months. And the Pathé news reels back home showed the scenes of wild enthusiasm that greeted her everywhere, from Bermuda to Gibraltar, by way of Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, and Uganda.

Criticism was not to be contemplated. I will remember the sensation caused in 1957, when Lord Altrincham, then a little-known hereditary peer, published an article that criticised the Monarch in personal terms. She came across, he said, as a priggish school girl – captain of the hockey team, a prefect. The Crown, he argued, had become complacent and hidebound.

Robin Day: Why did you write this article about the Queen? 

Lord Altrincham: I feel that her own natural self is not allowed to come through. It’s a sort of synthetic creature that speaks, not the Queen as she rarely is. And if she herself were allowed to speak, the effect would be wonderful. I’m a subject of the Queen, I care very much for her future, and I want her reign to be as successful as it possibly can be.

Robin Day: Are you at all repentant in view of criticisms? 

Lord Altrincham: I mean, anything controversial provokes criticism, but I’m quite sure this needed saying. 

The BBC blacked the story as being beneath its dignity, but the rest of the media were outraged. Coming out of a TV studio one night, Altrincham was confronted by a Mr. B.K. Burbage, who smacked him across the face and cried out, “Take that!”, from the League of Empire Loyalists. The picture was plastered all over the front pages the next day.

But fantasies about a second Elizabeth age were already fading. It’s hard to overstate the humiliation generated by the Suez debacle in 1956, when Britain, France, and Israel conspired together in an unsuccessful attempt to wrench back control of the Suez Canal from Egypt.

Winston Churchill in military uniform, prepares to leave Buckingham Palace in a horse drawn carriage to Westminster Abbey

Britain’s military weakness and its growing dependence on the United States had been exposed to the whole world. At the same time, the economies of continental Europe were growing from their low, post-war base at a much faster pace than that of the United Kingdom

Britain manufactured nearly two-and-a-half times more motor cars than Western Germany in 1950. By 1960, German vehicle output had multiplied by around eight times, and was a third higher than that of the United Kingdom.

Public attitudes to state institutions in general became less reverential, and deference was out of fashion as memories of wartime disciplines began to fade. In 1958, the Queen announced she would no longer be receiving debutantes, the daughters of posh people, at an annual presentation at court. Into the 1960s, cinemas continued to play the national anthem at the end of each night’s performance – but the trick now was to bolt for the exit as soon as the credits began to roll – only freezing to attention if you couldn’t quite make it to the door in time. And in 1962, the Beatles released Love Me Do.

The world was changing fast, and nowhere more obviously than in the Empire. In the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign, 32 countries around the world achieved their independence from Britain – sometimes at the cost of violence and brutal repression on the part of the departing colonialists.

Few people – apart from Mr. Burbage and his little band of far-right friends – appeared to care very much. As Philip Larkin wrote in 1969, following Britain’s decision to withdraw its troops from east of Suez, “It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen. But now it’s been decided, nobody minds. The places are a long way off, not here, which is alright. And from what we hear, the soldiers there only made trouble happen. Next year, we shall be easier in our minds.”

In the event, the second Elizabethan age turned out to be nothing like the pictures that were painted in the heady days of 1953. For most of her long reign, the country was riven with uncertainties about its place in the world and about the relatively poor performance of its economy. As it drew towards a close, there were growing doubts about whether its four nations could hold together as a United Kingdom.

The country itself changed almost beyond recognition in demographic, social, and cultural terms. The brand of the House of Windsor was frayed by the behaviour of some members of the royal family. The role of the Monarch as head of state became increasingly decorative. 

Models displaying Coronation evening gowns in Claridges

But through it all, there remained one constant figure. One who everyone in the country and most parts of the world had been familiar with throughout their lives. Someone who had been present through tragedies and triumph. Who had only very occasionally been seen to put her foot wrong.

Of the many millions of images that have been taken of her over the years, one that will certainly endure is that of her sitting alone and socially distanced in her pew in St. George’s chapel, Windsor Castle, in April 2021 – and mourning the death of her husband, Prince Philip.

Iron self-discipline as a model for the nation.

So it was that in February 2022, 70 years after her accession, she renewed her pledge to the public. She wrote then that “my life will always be devoted to your service”. And she signed herself off as, “Your Servant, Elizabeth R.” Whatever you may feel about the institution, you have to admire the consistency and the strength of purpose.

Credits: written by Richard Lambert, produced and sound designed by Oliver Sanders, executive producer Jasper Corbett

Photographs Popperfoto, Mirrorpix, Hulton-Deutsch Collection, David Levenson Collection via Getty Images