On the cold and rainy morning of June 2, 1953, nearly 3 million people lined the streets of London as the dark-haired queen “rode in her golden coach, amid a thunderous tide of cheers” to her coronation, the London Herald Express reported. “All the panoply and colour, the rich warm texture of age-old ceremony formed a brilliant and unforgettable canvas on which were focused the hopes and prayers for the young and beautiful Queen as she took her place in the nation’s ancient story of Kingship.”
One of the 8,251 people jammed inside the abbey was 78-year-old Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The “proud old lion acclaimed his young Queen today with his eyes brimming with emotion,” the Associated Press reported. “The man who served Queen Victoria more than a half century ago repeated once again what for him were magic words, ‘God save the Queen.’”
Millions more watched the coronation on the new medium of television. Churchill and other British leaders at first opposed televising the ceremony as undignified. But the British public sided with the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who argued that televising the event would help modernize the monarchy. The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that more than 20 million of Britain’s 36 million people watched the telecast, and 11 million listened on radio.
Film of the celebration — which took place five hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time — was flown to ABC-TV, NBC-TV and CBS-TV in New York in time to be shown that same evening. More than 32 million Americans watched the coverage, according to the American Research Bureau. The event was “probably the greatest moment of television’s young life,” the International News Service reported, spurring sales of TV sets both in the United States and England.
“Don’t miss the Coronation. See it Best on RCA VICTOR,” blared an ad for a 17-inch black-and-white TV selling for $329.50, equal to about $3,700 now.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower watched part of the coronation on TV at the White House. Eisenhower had met then-Princess Elizabeth when he was supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II.
At the time of the coronation, the United States was winding up negotiations to end the Korean War. The No. 1 song in both the United States and the United Kingdom was “The Song From Moulin Rouge.”
More than 2,000 journalists and 500 photographers from 92 nations covered the coronation. One photographer was a 23-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier, the soon-to-be fiancee of U.S. senator and future president John F. Kennedy. For an article distributed by the Chicago Tribune News Service, Bouvier asked people outside Buckingham Palace: “Do you think Elizabeth will be England’s last queen?” The article quoted Alma Santos, a housewife from Cardiff, Wales, who said, “O, I couldn’t say. I hope we will have Prince Charles after her, but in future times you never know what will happen, do you?”
Elizabeth was awakened at 6 a.m. on her coronation day, to be given the news of another historic event 4,000 miles away. On May 29, as part of a British expedition, New Zealand beekeeper Edmund Hillary and Nepali-Indian mountaineer Tenzing Norgay had become the first climbers confirmed to reach the summit of 29,000-foot Mount Everest, between Nepal and Tibet. Elizabeth sent congratulations “and retired again,” United Press reported.
The top coronation question was what the queen would wear. “The biggest fashion secret of the Coronation was revealed today,” the New York Daily News reported. “Queen Elizabeth will wear a white satin dress, glitterly jeweled and embroidered, when she is crowned tomorrow.” The dress was embroidered with emblems of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth.
Though Charles has said he plans a less lavish coronation than his mother’s, he will lead a three-day celebration fit for a king, including a concert with Katy Perry and Lionel Richie. In 1953, England went all out because Elizabeth’s coronation was the first for a queen since Queen Victoria was crowned in 1838. At the time of her coronation, Elizabeth had actually been queen for 16 months since her father, King George VI, died on Feb. 6, 1952.
The queen, escorted by thousands of military troops marching or on horseback, paraded to Westminster Abbey in her covered Gold State coach pulled by eight gray horses with such names as Snow White, Tipperary and Eisenhower. Philip wore a blue Navy admiral uniform laden with ribbons and medals. “To a fanfare of trumpets,” the AP reported, the queen entered the abbey wearing “a scarlet robe, its long train carried by six maids of honor in white.” The ceremony began at 11:15 a.m. with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding.
Elizabeth initially sat in the Chair of Estate for the “recognition,” with the archbishop proclaiming her “our undoubted queen.” Then she moved to the King Edward’s Chair, made in 1300 for King Edward I, for her anointment with holy oils. Next, she was presented with symbolic items, including a sword with a jeweled scabbard and the “bracelets of sincerity.” After donning the Robe Royal of gold cloth, she was given a gold orb and two royal scepters.
Then, “the moment the world awaited came when the Archbishop of Canterbury held high above the Queen’s head St. Edward’s Crown with its dazzle of diamonds, its arches aglow with pearls and its bejeweled cross,” the Derby Evening Telegraph reported. The gold crown, which weighs nearly five pounds, was made in 1661 for King Charles II and is a replica of the crown of the 11th-century king Edward the Confessor.
The archbishop, holding the heavy crown with two hands, gently placed it on Elizabeth’s head. She was officially crowned the queen of England. “Out from the abbey flashed a signal, and the guns at the Tower of London, Hyde Park and at Windsor Castle and on the Thames fired royal salutes,” the AP reported.
For the first time, she sat on the gold throne to receive homage from her husband and other royals. The abbey rang with shouts of “Long Live Queen Elizabeth.”
“With the splendour and solemnity of an historic ritual … Elizabeth II was yesterday crowned queen,” the London Daily Telegraph reported. Some American journalists were less reverent. “The British did everything during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth except sail a battleship into Trafalgar Square at high noon,” AP columnist Hal Boyle wrote. The New York Daily News ran a front-page headline declaring: “Long Live Liz.”
Finally, after switching to the lighter Imperial Crown, based on the crown made for Queen Victoria’s coronation, Elizabeth walked slowly out of the abbey, “her face showing no sign of strain” from the nearly three-hour ceremony “which she had borne with such dignity,” the Birmingham Post reported. Now dressed in a purple velvet robe, she returned to her coach for a meandering 4.5-mile, two-hour procession through London streets to Buckingham Palace as spectators cheered. At the palace, at 5:42 p.m., “her Majesty” came to the balcony and waved to the crowd as 168 Royal Air Force fighter jets flew low overhead in a royal salute. The queen came to the balcony five more times, the last at midnight. “People danced in Piccadilly Circus until 3:30 a.m.,” the London Telegraph wrote.
Newspapers reported nearly every movement of 4-year-old Charles. The boy sat on a stool in the Royal Gallery to watch the coronation. “Look, it’s Mummy,” he said. “Prince Charles, in white shirt and knickers and with his hair scrumptiously parted … sometimes seemed baffled by it all,” the Birmingham Evening Despatch wrote. But as he left, “he looked as though he had thoroughly enjoyed his stay. All eyes were upon the little figure as he waved to those about him and disappeared.”
The St. Edward’s Crown was recently removed from display at the Tower of London in preparation for the coronation of King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla. On May 6, just one month short of 70 years after his mother’s coronation, the historic crown will be placed on Charles’s head. Then, for the first time at a coronation since his grandfather’s in 1937, Westminster Abbey will ring with shouts of “God save the king.”
Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “Breaking News All Over Again,” a collection of his Retropolis columns.