20 February 2012

Royal Splendor 101: The Coronation Scene

Westminster Abbey, with special annex
As promised, we're going to be digging into the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and we have plenty to talk about. But first, I thought we might set the scene a little bit for one of the grandest events in (relatively) recent royal memory with just a few of the facts and tidbits surrounding it.

The coronation was held on June 2, 1953 at Westminster Abbey. Every coronation for the previous 900 years had been held there (prior coronations were held in various locations throughout the country).The last coronation had been that of her father and mother, George VI and Elizabeth, in 1937, which Queen Elizabeth had attended. June 2nd was a rainy and cold day, and the crowds outside - including many that had slept on the streets - were wet but happy: news reached London that same morning that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had reached the summit of Mount Everest. The victory for New Zealand's adventurer was hailed as a coronation gift, and yet another reason to celebrate.

The Queen's procession
Sixteen months of preparation went into the coronation, after the queen's accession on February 6, 1952. The event planning was headed by the Earl Marshal, a post held by the Duke of Norfolk as dictated by tradition; the coronation committee was chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh. The queen's grandmother, Queen Mary, had died on March 24, 1953, but left specific instructions that the coronation was to go on without disruption by mourning. Rehearsals were held at Westminster Abbey. The queen attended some of the rehearsals (the Duchess of Norfolk filled in when she wasn't there) and practiced on her own as well.

The coronation was attended by 8,251 guests, including the peerage and dignitaries from around the world. As a comparison, the 2011 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge filled the very same venue with just around 1,900 guests. The coronation guests were packed in on two levels, and media personnel inside were chosen for their slight builds. An annex was built on the west end to allow the long processions to form under cover, since there wasn't room inside.

During the ceremony
The ceremony was just short of 3 hours long, beginning at 11:15 a.m. and ending at 2:00 p.m. In order to fit the thousands of guests in an orderly fashion, the doors opened at 6:00 a.m. for guests to start arriving; big name guests arrived after 8:30 a.m. Because people were stuck inside for so long, many brought sustenance. Peers were said to have used their coronets to conceal snacks, and the stalls after the event were filthy with trash, discarded wrappers and the like (even some lost jewels!). When asked if it was true that the peers had hidden sandwiches in their caps, the Duke of Norfolk said "Probably. They're capable of anything."

Princess Marie Louise, one of Queen Victoria's grandchildren, was one guest who went a slightly different route: she brought a supply of gin and tonic. Once she made it back out to her carriage (assistance was required, as you might expect), she hung out the window in the rain to wave to the crowds all the way back to the palace (much to the frustration of her carriage-mates). Marie Louise was 80 years old and was one of a select group in the audience who were attending their fourth coronation. She witnessed the coronations of Edward VII, George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II.

Another guest impervious to the rain was the cheerful Queen Salote of Tonga. The instantly recognizable monarch - she was over 6 foot tall, with a frame to match - became a crowd favorite when she rode in her carriage without any cover despite the damp conditions, waving all the way.

This was the first coronation service to be televised (in 1937 just the procession was filmed), and it was the first major worldwide BBC television broadcast. Some estimates say that 27 million people watched the 27-year-old monarch be crowned. Winston Churchill and others were against televising the ceremony, but Queen Elizabeth wanted as many people as possible to be able to watch. Still, the anointing - the most sacred portion of the ceremony - was performed underneath a canopy and shielded from the cameras.
Crowned, with peers all around
The service had six parts: the recognition, the oath, the anointing, the investiture, the enthronement, and the homage (the order of service in full can be read at this link). It was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who was joined for the first time by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. The service is derived from the one used in 973 to crown King Edgar and was performed in Latin until the coronation of Elizabeth I. The coronation is on YouTube in several parts, the first of which is embedded below.
The queen rode to Westminster Abbey in the magnificent Gold State Coach. The coach has only been used twice since then - for the Silver and Golden Jubilees. After leaving the coronation, her route took her through London so she could be seen by as many on the streets as possible. The procession itself was 3 kilometers long and included 16,000 members; it took two hours to get everyone back to Buckingham Palace.
The Gold State Coach
Once back at the palace, the royal family and attendants appeared on the balcony. Most all of the royal family attended the coronation, including 4-year-old Prince Charles who could be heard whispering to his grandmother during quiet parts of the ceremony. His younger sister Anne skipped the abbey but joined in once the party returned to Buckingham Palace.
On the Buckingham Palace balcony
Later that night, Queen Elizabeth appeared again to turn on the lights that lit London that night down the Mall, at Admiralty Arch and floodlights all over for the celebrating crowds. The coronation day was over, but there was still plenty more for the new sovereign to do to introduce herself to her people, including a 6 month world tour for the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Lights and crowds on the Mall
In the coming weeks, we'll talk about the regalia used in the coronation as well as what Queen Elizabeth wore and what some of her guests wore, so stay tuned.

Photos: Corbis