The splendour of the ceremony at Westminster Abbey and the corteges, enriched by the magnificence of the Empire, caught the imagination of people during the 20th century and that made the international attention focus in London during the coronations of King Edward VII in 1902, of King George V in 1911 and of King George VI in 1937. Each one reaching levels of organization and coordination that had not been achieved before. The coronation of King George VI was the first to be recorded on television, inside the abbey. However, in 1952 there was a general feeling that a new era had come and that not only the coronation should be the most fantastic ever but also the whole people should be able to watch it on television.
After the announcement of the date of the coronation, which was to be held on the 2nd June 1953, all around the empire the excitement for the upcoming event started to grow. Countries prepared presents and tributes, while in London meetings to arrange the details of the coronation began. The Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, as first Peer of the Kingdom, was the main organizer of the coronation, with the help of the College of Arms (first picture of this page). During the six months before the date announced, Westminster Abbey was closed to the public so that the setting for the Coronation was fully prepared on the day.
So that as many people as possible could attend, tiered seating galleries were built in the Abbey, giving a most impressive sight of a scenario prepared to a unique event. But not only inside the preparations were made. During months and moths, the decorations and the tribunes for the public all the way of the cortege through the streets of London were designed and built so that during the Coronation week they would been in place. Portraits of the Queen, designs of the crown and monograms former part of the decorations, which flooded London on the days previous to the Coronation.
But many things happened in the year leading to the Coronation. On the 27th February 1952, thus merely 20 days after her accession, the new Queen held her first Investiture at Buckingham Palace, creating 55 new knights. Her Majesty’s first public engagement was the distribution of the Royal Maundy alms to poor elderly men and women in Westminster Abbey, on the 10th April, before it was close for the Coronation preparations. On the 5th May the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall, and Princess Anne, left Clarence House by car and drove up the Mall to Buckingham Palace to take residence there for the first time.
The first ceremonial events held by the Queen were the Trooping the Colour on the 5th June and the State Opening of Parliament on the 4th November. The Queen’s first Trooping the Colour was not actually the first time the Queen took the salute at the annual military pageant. In 1951, due to the King’s failing health, the then Princess Elizabeth had taken her father’s place. Then, in November, the first grand state occasion as the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, left Buckingham Palace in the Irish State Coach towards the Palace of Westminster.
The British State Opening of Parliament is known for its magnificence, the use of tiaras by the royal ladies and the use of the Imperial State Crown by the monarch, who sits in the Throne of the magnificent House of Lords to deliver the speech. However, since the Queen had not yet been crowned, she could obviously not wear the Imperial State Crown. And so, Her Majesty wore the splendid King George IV State Diadem, which she wore ever since on her way to the State Opening, from Buckingham Palace. But, on that first year, Her Majesty sat on the throne and delivered her speech wearing the diadem, giving a clear evidence that she was already Queen and still not crowned or anointed. Her Majesty wore the robe of crimson velvet trimmed with ermine and bordered with gold lace that had belonged to her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
On Christmas Day, when the Coronation preparations where already on its highest, the Queen made her first broadcast to the Commonwealth as sovereign, from Sandringham House. In it, Her Majesty asked people, whatever their faith, to pray for her on the day of her coronation. Britain’s excitement was, then, at its best. There was the sense that one of the most glorious days of British history was on its way and getting closer. Magazines and newspapers published details of the preparations, the BBC showed images of the rearrangement of the Imperial State Crown to make it lower for the Queen; everyone in Europe was curious to know everything about the ceremony to come.
This is why, amidst all this expectation, the news of the death of Her Majesty the Queen Mary came as a shock to everyone. It was clear that the Queen, seen as the very essence of royalty, was frailer after the death of her son, but with the expectation for the coronation her health had been somehow forgotten. She passed away on the 24th March 1953, thus a mere three months before the coronation. Her Majesty, though, left precise orders that there should be no disturbance to the Coronation, that the ceremony should be carried on with no change, despite her death. Court mourning was, thus, refrained to the lowest time possible and the preparation continued after the Queen’s lying in state at Westminster Hall and funeral in Windsor.
On the 16th April, The Royal Yacht Britannia was launched by The Queen at John Brown's Shipyard in Clydebank, in Scotland. An event that would definitely mark the Queen’s reign, since Her Majesty’s and the whole Royal Family’s personal attachment to the Royal Yacht grew over the years and the Yacht eventually became a symbol of the British Monarchy.
Earlier, yet in 1952, for several weeks it was debated in London whether the Coronation ceremony could be televised live throughout Britain and the world. The BBC and the whole press set up a pressure campaign so that the Royal Household would allow the ceremony to be broadcast. Apparently, Sir Winston Churchill and the Government opposed to such media coverage, as did the conservative Church of England. However, on Her Majesty’s personal decision, it was announced that the service would be broadcast live, with the exception of the anointing ceremony, considered too sacred to be broadcast on television.
That made the expectation grow even further, for everyone, sitting at home, would be able to witness a historic event, live on television. The BBC multiplied the reports about the preparations, the dress codes for Lords and for the general guests, the whole preparations and rehearsals in London and when the Coronation week had finally arrived, the mood in London was as magnificent as one could possibly expect. Inside the Abbey, all those of would take part in the service rehearsed it again and again on the days before the coronation. The wife of the Earl Marshal, the Duchess of Norfolk, took the Queen’s place at the rehearsals, which were also recorded by the BBC while preparing the broadcast.
There was a sense of real union, of devotion to the Queen and of unprecedented expectation for a day that would certainly mark British history…