Entertainment

Crowning glory that healed the nation writes ROBERT HARDMAN


She was a glamorous 27-year-old when Britain first huddled round the telly, put out the flags and trestle tables in the street, dressed up, danced, ate, drank, laughed, shed the odd tear and generally felt better about itself. 

That was in 1953, as the country and the world celebrated the Coronation of Elizabeth II, just over a year after her accession to the throne.

Fast forward to 1977 and she was a middle-aged mother-of-four as she marked her Silver Jubilee.

Yet Britain reacted in exactly the same way. Another 25 years later, as silver turned to gold, it was a proud grandmother who brought the country together once again in 2002 to mark her half-century as monarch.

Her Majesty alights from the Gold State Coach at Westminster Abbey for the ceremony where she is to be crowned

And, a decade further down the line, in that delirious Olympic summer of 2012, she was, by now, a great-grandmother as we marked only the second Diamond Jubilee in our history.

So all the indications are pretty clear about what Britain, the Commonwealth and much of the planet can look forward to in the months ahead as we prepare to salute the first Platinum Jubilee Britain has ever seen.

The idea of a jubilee comes from the Old Testament. According to the book of Leviticus, there would be great celebrations across ancient Israel every 50th year, involving the release of prisoners and the forgiveness of debt.

The idea only took off as a royal concept during the long reign of George III, following a suggestion in The Times.

The Queen at the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in June 2012, the second time the country has celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of a monarch

The Queen at the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant in June 2012, the second time the country has celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of a monarch

As he approached his 50th anniversary on the throne in 1810, it was decided that there should be great celebrations.

King George might have lost America and he had already suffered one mental breakdown, but he was seen as wise, extremely dutiful, devoted to his wife and a focal point of national pride in the face of the predatory Napoleon Bonaparte across the Channel.

His even longer-reigning granddaughter, Victoria, would mark both Golden and Diamond Jubilees.

It was her grandson, George V, who then had the idea of also marking 25 years.

He was well aware he would not reign for 50 years but the country believed that 25 was certainly worthy of a great celebration. His Silver Jubilee was, therefore, the catalyst for wildly successful festivities in 1935. Now his granddaughter has beaten the lot of them.

As we dust off the bunting once again, some things will remain unchanged from these previous occasions, notably the sense of uncomplicated pride and affection, and the blend of grandeur, fabulous pageantry and down-to-earth community-focused fun.

The Platinum Jubilee will be a moment to reflect on how much the country has changed yet how the central figure at the apex of our society has not changed one bit.

For all the distractions and problems within her family, the Queen has always treated her duty to the nation and her people as a completely separate obligation.

As we shall see, some of the greatest moments of her reign have been set against a backdrop of crisis and tragedy. Once again, like many of her subjects, she has endured personal loss in the midst of an international crisis but she has always believed in the power of finding positives amidst the gloom.

The Platinum Jubilee, she fully accepts, will certainly be an excuse for some shameless nostalgia but it will also embrace the young just as much as the old, if not more so.

For if we can plot one theme running through these heady high points in our post-war royal history, it is that when the Queen holds a national party, everyone is invited.

A SPECIAL SHOW THAT SAID BRITAIN STILL MATTERS

Newly crowned, Elizabeth waves from the Palace balcony to the crowd at Buckingham Palace

Newly crowned, Elizabeth waves from the Palace balcony to the crowd at Buckingham Palace

In the first few months after the Queen came to the throne in February 1952, it was abundantly clear to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and to the Palace, that there was a lot of work to do before Britain was ready to invite the world to tune in for the biggest moment since the end of the Second World War.

‘Can’t have a coronation with bailiffs in the house,’ warned the PM, observing – in a very Churchillian way – that Britain was tatty and more or less broke.

The country was still on rations and large parts of the capital were still a bomb site. So there was to be no rush.

Britain needed to get its act together and make this a very special show. For if there was one message which we wished to impart from this great show of pageantry it was this: Britain is back, Britain is rejuvenated and Britain still matters.

In time-honoured fashion, Churchill and the Palace old guard began by looking at the plans for previous coronations and working from those.

After all, this is a ceremony rooted in ritual which has barely changed since the earliest recorded coronation rites on these shores, the crowning of King Edgar at Bath in 973AD.

The key elements have been the same ever since: the presentation of the new sovereign to the people, the swearing of an oath, the anointing with holy oil and the placing of the crown upon the head.

In pretty short order, however, it was clear that this was going to be a very different sort of event from anything that had gone before.

That is because a post-war, aspirational democracy was not content to let this historic moment be some sort of private bash for the aristocracy.

Everyone wanted to be there and, thanks to the new medium of television, they could be.

Initially, the powers that be – notably the Church of England but also the Palace and the Government – took a dim view of this vulgar medium gatecrashing a sacred constitutional moment.

However, the press and public, along with MPs on all sides, were adamant that a new sort of Britain needed a new sort of coronation.

The Queen could see the argument. Her main concern was not the intrusion but the fact that any glitches would be shown up for the world to see.

In the end, popular opinion won out and television sales saw the biggest spike in British history.

THE NOTION OF COMMUNITY CELEBRATION TOOK ROOT

Well-wishers line the streets as the procession approaches Admiralty Arch. Above: Coronation crowds eager for a glimpse of their Queen

Well-wishers line the streets as the procession approaches Admiralty Arch. Above: Coronation crowds eager for a glimpse of their Queen

Westminster Abbey’s normal seating capacity of 2,200 was extended to more than 8,000 through the use of temporary grandstands and by cramming seats into every available nook.

The BBC went as far as measuring the heights of all its cameramen and selecting the smallest in order to give them optimum room for manoeuvre.

Millions made plans to head for the centre of London to enjoy a glimpse of the pageantry. But what about everyone else? Right across the country, people began to plan two things.

First, how were they going to watch the event? Second, how were they going to celebrate? The answer, in both cases, was to get together with the neighbours. And thus, this notion of community celebration took root.

Thanks to the medium of television, everyone could be there

The country had seen it eight years earlier with the celebrations to mark Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945, the day the lights came back on and the bombings stopped.

Back then, there had been celebrations in the street on an ad hoc basis. Yet VE Day could not really be planned.

It was all fairly last minute, there was no focal point and there was no television. The Coronation, announced a year in advance, allowed for plenty of forward planning.

So committees were drawn up; different neighbourhoods began organising food and parades and competitions for children.

It meant the whole country was invested in the sense of fun, excitement and pageantry months ahead of time. And come the day, it more than lived up to expectations, not least because of another sensational triumph immediately before it: the conquest of Everest.

The two legends who pulled it off, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, might not have been technically British.

However, the expedition was British (its patron was the Duke of Edinburgh), the flag on the summit was British, and Hillary, as a Kiwi, was a subject of the Queen at a time when Commonwealth realms were regarded much like an extension of the Home Counties. Hence the Daily Express headline on Coronation morning: ‘All This – And Everest Too.’

POURING RAIN COULD NOT DIMINISH THE ENTHUSIASM

Coronation crowds eager for a glimpse of their Queen - Mrs Birch and her eight-year-old son John, who had been sitting in The Mall outside London's Buckingham Palace since the morning before

Coronation crowds eager for a glimpse of their Queen – Mrs Birch and her eight-year-old son John, who had been sitting in The Mall outside London’s Buckingham Palace since the morning before

Britain was fit to burst with pride long before the public had gasped at the first sighting of the Gold State Coach leaving Buckingham Palace on 2 June 1953, with the young Queen and her consort at her side.

An unseasonal chill and pouring rain did nothing at all to diminish the enthusiasm of the crowds. Some had been camping out all night.

The lucky ones had secured one of the 110,000 seats along the route which had been erected using 4,300 tons of scaffolding. A London businessman called Denis Thatcher managed to purchase a pair for himself and his new bride, Margaret.

It had been an extremely early start for the 29,200 members of the Armed Forces from across the Commonwealth taking part.

Reveille had been sounded at 2am. Bleary-eyed journalists – of which 2,000 were accredited to various parts of the processional route, including the future Jackie Kennedy who was a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald – noted that the first lights were seen coming on inside the Palace at 5am.

By then, the five royal choirs due to take part at the Abbey were already up and about, though under strict instructions regarding their breakfast.

‘It is advised that no tea or coffee be taken on the morning of the Coronation,’ said the operational note sent to all the choristers.

Along with the crowning moment, the other abiding memory which many of those inside the Abbey would retain of that day was the difficulty of finding a lavatory.

Despite the democratic advent of telly inside the service, the guest list was still dominated by the old guard and every member of the House of Lords was assured of a seat (the oiks from the Commons had to enter a lottery).

The Queen Mother, Charles and Princess Margaret watch the Queen being crowned on 2 June 1953

The Queen Mother, Charles and Princess Margaret watch the Queen being crowned on 2 June 1953

A special London Underground shuttle was laid on to transport ticketed guests from Kensington High Street station to Westminster. Many peers had rented their Coronation robes, since a full set with proper ermine cost £800.

A hired outfit, with rabbit fur instead of ermine (the underbelly of a stoat), could be found for a fraction. That was out of the question for Viscount Furness, the 24-year-old heir to a vast shipping fortune.

He ordered the full works to be tailor-made. ‘I want to look my best on Coronation Day,’ he explained, ‘and wouldn’t feel proper dressed in bunny.’

Some peers, like the Marquess of Bath, were certainly not going to travel by Tube and chose to ride in their own horse-drawn family carriages.

All those who had a seat inside were later able to buy it for seven pounds (Coronation chairs now sell for upwards of £2,000 each), to offset the cost of the occasion. The wise had come well-prepared.

Sir William Walton, composer of much of the Coronation music, had hidden miniatures of whisky in his gown. The Keeper of the Privy Purse used his purse to conceal a supply of Mars bars.

THE COUTURIER’S HERALDIC DILEMMA

The Duke of Edinburgh smiles as his wife, the Queen, almost forgets her orb and sceptre

The Duke of Edinburgh smiles as his wife, the Queen, almost forgets her orb and sceptre

Though everyone knew precisely what was going to happen, the one surprise was to be the Queen’s Coronation gown, designed by court couturier Norman Hartnell.

He had come up with the idea of a floral theme, incorporating the emblems of the home nations. ‘Her Majesty liked the idea but if we had the British emblems we must, she told me, include the Commonwealth,’ said Hartnell.

‘It became, in the end, not so much a dress as a diplomatic plot.’ The stumbling block was Wales. ‘As we started on the pretty Welsh daffodils to be sewn in toning yellow silks, Garter King of Arms came in with his axe. ‘Leeks,’ he told me, ‘not daffodils’.’

One can almost picture the contretemps between the bristling dress designer and the stern custodian of all things heraldic.

The Mail's glorious front page day the following day

The Mail’s glorious front page day the following day

Hartnell complained he would be ‘dressing a beautiful young woman in vegetables’ if he was compelled to embroider leeks on to the dress. However, Garter King of Arms stood firm and the decision was final: leeks.

‘In the end they looked quite edible, shining with diamond dew drops,’ Hartnell recalled. The Queen’s response on seeing her finished gown? ‘Glorious!’

And that set the tone for the whole day. There was so much to take in and enjoy, whether you were watching on the box or on a rainy London street.

The first of the nine processions set off for the Abbey nearly three hours ahead of the Queen, led by the Lord Mayor of London and his army of pikemen.

One very famous support act would be Queen Salote of Tonga who sat beaming in the rain, a bright red flower in her hair, refusing to put the cover up on her carriage as she wanted to see and be seen by the long-suffering crowds.

Some of the biggest cheers were for the Irish State Coach carrying the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, and for the carriage carrying Sir Winston Churchill. Once inside the Abbey, the Prime Minister was supposed to wait in an annexe to greet the Queen.

But the old romantic could not resist a sneak preview as the Queen emerged from her coach.

John Talbot, then aged 11 and a page to the Earl of Shrewsbury, was also in the annexe.

He later recalled the reaction on Churchill’s face: ‘When he came back, he looked sort of emotional and said, ‘I had to have a private view. She is lovely.’

A TEMPLATE FOR FUTURE ROYAL CELEBRATIONS

An estimated 27 million of Britain’s 36 million souls were by now watching three million television sets.

They ranged from the Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor, sitting in self-imposed exile in Paris, to the Somerset village where future broadcaster Ned Sherrin was growing up.

He would recall that the villagers had clubbed together to rent a TV and even the squire had come along, sitting at the back on a shooting stick watching the screen through binoculars.

For those not in the Abbey, the best view of the lot was at Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick children where a new, experimental device called ‘colour television’ was being tried out.

Much of the world watched agog as one magical event after another unfolded – the procession through the Abbey, the crowning, the bellowing of ‘God Save The Queen’ as St Edward’s Crown was finally lowered into place, the Duke of Edinburgh paying homage as ‘liege man of life and limb’, the sight of an awestruck Prince Charles (aged four and a half).

When it was over, those in London had a good gawp as the procession returned to the Palace via a five-mile route to give an estimated three million spectators a proper sighting of the Queen.

By now, the first reels of film had been loaded onto aircraft and were heading across the Atlantic. Each plane had an on-board laboratory which could develop the film for transmission across Canada and the USA as soon as it arrived.

Her Majesty in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace, wearing the Robe of State made for the Coronation and the Diamond Diadem, created for George IV. Beside her is the Imperial State Crown

Her Majesty in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace, wearing the Robe of State made for the Coronation and the Diamond Diadem, created for George IV. Beside her is the Imperial State Crown

In streets all over Britain, it was the cue to head out into the road for a celebration.

Even nearly seven decades later, there is something extremely moving about the sight of all those children in fancy dress or in their ‘Sunday best’ clothes, tucking in to good things piled high on trestle tables.

Many had lost a father or uncle or big brother in the war. All had grown up on rationed food, erratic diets and tales of wartime deprivation.

Yet it was entirely understood that they represented the new Britain emerging from the weary, soot-stained, make-do-and-mend nation which had just come through war and the end of Empire.

Little did they know that they had also created the template for the way in which Britain would be celebrating great royal milestones for years to come.

Don’t miss Robert Hardman’s biography Queen Of Our Times – The Life Of Elizabeth II, published by Macmillan in March.



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