The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was a day of stunning pageantry and ritual that was celebrated around the world, and marked the beginning of a long and historic reign.
The Queen's Accession
King George VI died in his sleep at Sandringham House on the night of 6 February 1952. He was aged just 56. Long illness and the strain of leadership during the dark days of World War Two had taken their toll on the much-loved monarch.
Princess Elizabeth, the elder of the king’s two daughters, was away in Kenya at the beginning of a royal tour of Commonwealth states, standing in for her father because of his ill health.
The news of his death was broken to her by her husband Prince Philip.
Elizabeth, aged just 25, faced not only the grief of losing her father, but the daunting prospect that she was now Queen of the United Kingdom and Head of the Commonwealth.
Although Elizabeth had acceded to the throne, it would be another 16 months until her coronation.
Elizabeth was born on 21 April 1926 in London. Four years later she was joined by a little sister, Princess Margaret. Their father, the Duke of York, was the second son of King George V, and so not expected to become king.
But all this changed in 1936, when their father’s elder brother, King Edward VIII abdicated because of his determination to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, which was seen as incompatible with his role as Head of the Church of England. Elizabeth’s father became King George VI, and she became heir to the throne.
Even as a child, Princess Elizabeth’s strong character and responsible attitude were remarked upon. During the Second World War, she made radio broadcasts to help raise the spirits of other children, supported charities, and aged 18 joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a driver and mechanic.
In 1947, the Princess made her first royal tour with her parents to South Africa.
"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."
Princess Elizabeth first met Prince Philip in 1934 when she was just 8 years old. Philip was a Greek prince whose family had been forced into exile in 1922 when he was still an infant.
After another meeting in 1939, when Princess Elizabeth was just 13, she declared that she had fallen in love with Philip, by now a Royal Navy officer cadet, and the two began to write to each other regularly.
A Royal Wedding
Prince Philip spent World War Two on active service in the Mediterranean, but after the war the Prince and Princess were able to resume their courtship. Their engagement was announced in 1947 and they were married at Westminster Abbey on 20 November. On the same day, Prince Philip was ennobled as the Duke of Edinburgh.
Britain in 1953
Britain in 1953 was still living in the shadow of World War Two. Food rationing was still in force for sugar and meat, and was deeply unpopular. Bombsites still scarred many cities.
Britain’s position as one of the world’s great powers was under threat, and the Empire was slipping away.
But the 1950s marked the beginning of recovery from the age of post-war austerity. Wages were on the rise, rationing was on the way out, and the government had launched a large-scale house-building programme.
The coronation of a new Queen – young, beautiful and conscientious – seemed to herald a brighter future.
"The coronation was like a phoenix-time. Everything was being raised from the ashes … getting better and better."
Preparations for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II began the moment she acceded to the throne in February 1952. But it was not until 16 months later, on 2 June 1953, that she was crowned queen.
The much-anticipated day began with a procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey, the site of English and British coronations since Harold II’s in 1066. Thousands of eager spectators bagged prime spots along the route by camping overnight, despite heavy rain.
On the day itself there were an estimated 3 million people lining the streets to cheer the new queen. There were sporadic showers throughout the day, but the weather held off for the procession itself.
It was led by the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards, followed by contingents of the armed forces of the Commonwealth nations. Heads of state and foreign royalty travelled by coach. They were followed by the Queen herself in the Gold State Coach.
Hillary and Everest
On 29 May 1953, the New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. Because they were low on oxygen they were only able to spend 15 minutes at the summit, which is at an altitude of 29,029 feet.
News of their extraordinary achievement reached Britain on the very morning of the coronation. It was immediately hailed as a coronation gift to the young queen, and as the news swept through the thronged streets of London, it provided further cause of jubilation.
Hillary and the expedition’s leader Colonel John Hunt were later knighted by the new queen, and Norgay received the George Medal.
The British monarchy has more than 100 coaches and carriages. The most prestigious is the Gold State Coach, used by Queen Elizabeth for her coronation. The coach was built in London in 1762, is pulled by 8 horses and weighs 4 tons. It is heavily gilded with gold leaf (hence its name) and decorated with painted panels.
Recently, the most commonly seen of the royal coaches has been the 1902 State Landau, used both for the wedding of William and Kate and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
Queen Elizabeth’s arrival at Westminster Abbey, where 8,000 guests awaited, marked the beginning of the religious ceremony that would conclude with her coronation.
She was dressed in white silk embroidered with the emblems of the Commonwealth nations, and on top of it, the velvet Robe of State, more than 5 metres long, its train supported by seven maids of honour.
At the altar, the Queen took the Coronation Oath, swearing to uphold justice and the laws of her realms and to defend the Anglican faith. Then, in the most ancient and sacred moment of the ceremony, the Queen was anointed with holy oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury whilst seated in the Coronation Chair. As she received royal sceptres, orb and robe, and finally the crown itself, the congregation responded with a shout of ‘God save the Queen!’
"The things which I have here promised, I will perform, and keep. So help me God"
After the Ceremony
Following the coronation ceremony, the Queen travelled back to Buckingham Palace in the Gold State Coach. A huge crowd quickly gathered at the railings of the palace and began chanting ‘We want the Queen!’
The Queen, accompanied by the Royal Family, duly made the first of several balcony appearances that day. She was greeted by enormous cheers from the crowd. She then went inside for the first of two Coronation Banquets, attended by family, foreign royals and visiting dignitaries.
At the second of these ‘Coronation Chicken’ was served for the first time – a dish featuring cold chicken in a creamy curry sauce created for the occasion.
At 5pm (it had to be delayed several times due to the bad weather) there was a flypast of Buckingham Palace by more than 150 aircraft. The Queen’s final balcony appearance was at midnight.
"Let us hope we are witnessing the beginning of a new Elizabethan age no less renowned than the first."
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II became an important moment in the history of television. The ceremony itself had never been filmed before, and although Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn’t think it should be, the Queen believed it should. Less than a third of British homes had a television set in 1952, but demand to watch the coronation was huge. In the build up, the BBC worked feverishly to increase coverage, and sales of TV sets rocketed.
On the day itself, people crowded into living rooms, cinemas and concert halls to watch the 11 hours of live coverage. The live broadcast was in black and white, although it was filmed in colour. The TV audience in the UK was estimated at 20 million (40% of the population). It marked the moment that television became mainstream entertainment in the UK.
Long to Reign Over Us
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II marked the beginning of a remarkable reign, that is to date the second longest in British history.
In that time she has undertaken countless tours of foreign and Commonwealth states, and become the most travelled head of state in history.
Her reign has witnessed remarkable and dramatic changes in the United Kingdom and the world beyond, not least in the gradual dissolution of British imperial power.
The royal family itself has endured its own traumas, including the breakup of the marriages of three of her four children, and the tragic and untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.
Yet the Queen, with Prince Philip at her side, has remained steadfast, dignified and dutiful. She has retained enormous popularity both at home and abroad, as demonstrated by the huge public enthusiasm that greeted her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
— Toby Groom, Documentary Producer & Historian
— Mike Lewis, CEO & Founder, Historvius.com