Sixty years after her coronation in Westminster abbey, Elizabeth II can look back on an era of profound and awesome change
‘A coronation is a nation’s birthday,” wrote the great patriot historian Arthur Bryant in the official guide to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, “a nation is a union in both space and time. We are as much the countrymen of Nelson, Wesley and Shakespeare as of our own contemporaries. Our queen is the symbol of that union in time.” Thus the official tone was set: the June 1953 coronation of the new Elizabeth was not just a moment to anoint a monarch, but to rededicate a nation to its historic purpose.
The symbolism of coronation provided a golden opportunity to reaffirm the magic of monarchy, revel in the blessed sweep of British history, and spiritually rejuvenate a war-weary people. As the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, contentedly put it: “The country and the Commonwealth last Tuesday were not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Yet, despite all the medieval mummery and consecrated oil of the Westminster Abbey service, it would be wrong to regard June 1953 as a moment of backward-looking indulgence, an Establishment answer to the modernism of the Festival of Britain. Instead, with its live TV coverage and deft manipulation of the young Queen’s image, it was a vehicle to upgrade the Windsor brand and to focus on the postwar future.
To cap it all, by more than happy coincidence, on coronation day itself came news of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Everest. It was too good to be true. “Be Proud of Britain on this Day,” ran the Daily Express headline.
“The coronation was like a Phoenix-time,” recalled Princess Margaret of the postwar moment. “Everything was being raised from the ashes … and nothing to stop anything getting better and better.” For the spirit of the age was clear: the young Queen offered Britain (but principally England) another go at the golden rule of Elizabeth I. “It is our hope that Her Majesty may live long and happily and that her reign may be as glorious as that of her great predecessor Queen Elizabeth I,” announced Clement Attlee on behalf of the Labour party. “Let us hope we are witnessing the beginning of a new Elizabethan Age no less renowned than the first.”
Yet if Elizabeth I had built an empire, the young Queen was already presiding over its rapid dismantling. In the House of Commons, Tory MP Bernard Braine thought “the old Elizabethan age great precisely because the spirit of adventure led great men in little ships to sail into the unknown”. That vision now had to be revived among the “simple, backward, unsophisticated peoples” of the British Dependencies.
However, those poor benighted souls had other ideas: between 1945 and 1965, the number of people living under British colonial rule shrank from 700 million to five million as the empire melted away. The 1948 British Nationality Act had inaugurated modern, multicultural Britain. And with the British monarch no longer head of state in Ireland, it was in vain that the romantic old colonialist Winston Churchill argued for the traditional coronation script of “the Imperial Crown of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the seas”. Instead, the proclamation was changed to “Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth,” reflecting Elizabeth II’s passion for the Commonwealth and its status as the post-imperial club.
Yet if the Commonwealth was sanctified by the coronation, the Mother Country felt less secure. For all the inclusion of Union symbols within the ceremony, the backdrop to June 1953 was growing Scottish nationalism and discontent with the title of Queen Elizabeth II (Scotland had never had a Queen Elizabeth I). On Christmas morning 1950, the Stone of Scone – crowning stone of the kings of Scotland since the 10th century – was stolen from beneath Westminster Abbey’s coronation chair by an undergraduate brigade of Scottish nationalists and driven back to Scotland in the boot of a Ford Anglia. Four months later it was handed over at Arbroath abbey, scene of the declaration of Scottish independence in 1320. Fearful of provoking Scottish nationalism, the government did not prosecute the protestors.
It was a telling prelude to a reign which would see the eclipse of Britishness as a default form of national identity. The natural, instinctive, 1950s sense of British nationhood – forged through two world wars, a Protestant faith and an imperial project which suffocated the tensions of internal UK differentiation – would not see out the second Elizabeth’s reign.
Yet one of the few symbols to unite the nation remained the monarchy. Even if the coronation was itself, as David Cannadine put it, “a cavalcade of impotence” and palliative to the loss of world-power status, the show successfully rebooted the House of Windsor.
Much was made of the royal couple’s modernity (the aeroplanes, radio and television), and the young Queen’s femininity, able to juggle children and a handbag, along with the crown of state and orb and sceptre. It certainly inspired the future Mrs Thatcher. “Women can – AND MUST – play a leading part in the creation of a glorious Elizabethan era,” the young Margaret Roberts wrote on the eve of coronation. “Why not a woman chancellor – or a woman foreign secretary?” Or, indeed, prime minister alongside Queen.
Of course, there were concerns about the cost of the occasion amid a huge budget deficit on the back of the Korean war, but the minister in charge was adamant. “The argument is unsound that because we are forced to cut the people’s bread we should also cut their circuses,” declared David Eccles. “Whether one thinks of the stability of our institutions, or of morale in a difficult year, or of earnings of the tourist trade, a fine show is justified.”
It was certainly a fine show, with the Queen’s beauty and composure much remarked upon. And across the country, the popular response was elemental and heartfelt. A mass observation panellist reported that in Fulham’s working-class Lillie Walk, there were “rows and rows of bunting … every house has pictures of the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Anne pasted in the parlour window … the outer walls of the front parlours are completely hidden with Union Jacks.”
In Birmingham, Mary King tried in vain to record her own response to the coronation: “It was such a wonderful ceremony. At the end I was too dazed, too emotionally disturbed physically and spiritually, to write any details.”
As the postwar realities of Britain’s diminished place in the world started to dawn, the coronation of Elizabeth II offered one final testament to our unique sense of national purpose. The crowning of the beautiful Queen saw England as Israel once more: a country gifted a special, Protestant, imperial place in the world.
“A fair and youthful figure, princess, wife and mother, is the heir to all our traditions and glories,” as Winston Churchill so poetically put it, “and to all our perplexities and dangers never greater in peacetime than now. She is also heir to all our united strength and loyalty … That it should be a golden age of art and letters we can only hope but it is certain that if a true and lasting peace can be achieved … an immense and undreamed of prosperity, with culture and leisure even more widely spread can come … to the masses of the people.”
This successful conjoining of monarchy to the masses would be the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. And her great ability has been to manage it over 60 years of such profound and awesome change.