Crowning QueenElizabeth II was a spectacular moment destined to lift her subjects out of the malaise of the postwar period. But this new Elizabethan Britain was still reeling from the financial and social fall-out of the Second World War, broke, with parts of its cities flattened by Nazi bombing raids.
The new Queen was just what the war-weary British and wider Commonwealth needed.
Beautiful, youthful and glamorous, with her dashing prince on her arm, she was like a fairy tale come true. After months of preparation, Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953. For the first time, the ceremony and the huge public celebrations were broadcast on television across the UK, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. It had not all gone smoothly.
There was a shortage of professional coachmen to help transport dignitaries to Westminster Abbey. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands saved the day by presenting them with a number of mounts as a token of thanks for the Royal Family’s help during the war.
The new Commonwealth, so precious to the Queen, was woven into the imagery of the day: along with the home nations’ rose, leek, shamrock and thistle, the emblems of other states of the Commonwealth were embroidered into the silk of the Queen’s coronation dress.
A stickler for detail, Her Majesty — still only 26 — ensured no one was missed out. More than 8,000 guests attended her coronation.
The position of head of the Commonwealth had not been enshrined in the constitution. In fact it had been India’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had clarified the role. When he had dispatched a telegraph of condolence to Elizabeth on her father’s death he had also, without any consultation, welcomed her as Head of the Commonwealth.
At the 1952 Commonwealth Economic Conference in London it was agreed that individual member countries could for the first time exercise independence from Britain by adopting different titles for their new monarch to their nations.
Her Majesty was officially known as Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. Other Commonwealth countries took the opportunity to make up their own titles. The Commonwealth was at the forefront of Elizabeth’s thoughts in her first year as sovereign.
She said: “We belong, you and I, to a far larger family. We belong, all of us, to the British Commonwealth and Empire, that immense union of nations, with their homes in all four corners of the earth.”
Despite her personal popularity, some of her subjects were less convinced about the new Commonwealth.
They wanted change, and to be a new nation — not one harping back to perceived glories of an imperial past. The Queen was determined to calm any fears in her second Christmas Day broadcast. Setting out her royal manifesto, she gave the clearest insight into her aspirations, saying, “Now this great Commonwealth, though rich in material resources, is richer still in the enterprise and courage of its peoples.” When she took the coronation oath binding her to serve the people and maintain the laws of God, 20 million people watched around the world.
They watched enthralled as Her Majesty swore to God in her oath to govern her various peoples across the world “according to their respective laws and customs”.
Then came four more pledges, to maintain: the laws of God; the protestant faith; the settlement of the Church of England; and the rights and privileges of its clergy. All these she affirmed on a copy of the Bible, “the most valuable thing that this world affords”.
On the day itself she later told how uncomfortable the journey to the abbey was in the golden carriage used by George IV for his coronation.
Measuring seven feet long, and weighing nearly four tons, it was pulled by eight horses. When she was shown the crown again in the documentary she picked it up the gem-encrusted diadem and moved it closer to her and said, “Is it still as heavy? Yes, it is. It weighs a ton!”