Dazzling displays of pomp and patriotism, drawing in dignitaries and ordinary folk alike, the coronations of our monarchs represent the openings of new chapters in British history. Let’s look back at how previous milestones played out.
Queen Elizabeth II - 1953
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953 was unlike any in history, for the simple reason that it was the first to be fully televised. Hundreds of commentators from across the globe followed every moment of the procession and ceremony, making this not just a seminal piece of pageantry, but one of the events that ushered in the age of television and mass media.
In fact, such was the novelty of having cameras capturing all the action that one MP thought it was downright ‘unseemly’. Few others thought so, as they took in the sight of the young Elizabeth looking resplendent in a gown that had taken eight months to create and which featured emblems of the UK and the Commonwealth, from Welsh leeks to Indian lotus flowers. The garb was highly appropriate, signalling the devotion to the Commonwealth that was one of the hallmarks of her reign.
The dish we know as coronation chicken was specifically invented for this coronation, by food writer Constance Spry and chef Rosemary Hume.
George VI - 1937
When George VI was crowned alongside his wife Elizabeth on 12th May 1937, it wasn’t quite the event that the nation had envisaged when the date was originally announced. That’s because it was supposed to have been the coronation of his brother Edward VIII. When Edward abdicated the previous December due to establishment opposition to his relationship with Wallis Simpson, George immediately became the new king and the date of the coronation was simply retained.
In fact, as historian Roy Strong recounts in his book Coronation, during the first coronation committee meeting following the abdication, ‘no reference was made at all to the change of sovereign, everything immediately being assumed to have been done for the new king.’
It was a suitably lavish event, with the procession (but not the ceremony) being televised. George was concerned about his stammer, but it all went well thanks to the help of his colourful speech therapist Lionel Logue. The king was so grateful that he wrote Logue a letter afterwards, saying that the success of the coronation, ‘was due to your expert supervision and unfailing patience with me over recent months, and I truly don't know how I could have done it without you.’
George V - 1911
On 22nd June 1911, George V and his wife Mary were crowned, like monarchs before and since, at Westminster Abbey. The lead-up was as spectacular as the big day itself, with a giant exhibition called the Festival of Empire being held at the Crystal Palace. The sprawling glass-and-steel structure – which had been built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was destroyed by fire in 1936 – hosted various exhibits showcasing the nations of the Empire, in what was intended as a celebration of the new king’s imperial might.
Though the assembled dignitaries couldn’t have known it, the day itself represented one of the final gatherings of the great and the good of Europe before the continent was re-made by the Great War. One of the guests was the son of the German Kaiser, who became a commander leading troops against British forces in the war.
The event also featured a new addition to the etiquette of the coronation: following the procession back through London from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace, the king and queen made an appearance on the balcony – much to the delight of the assembled crowds.
Edward VII - 1902
The coronations of Edward VII and his wife Alexandra turned out to be a debacle. The event was scheduled for 26th June 1902, but Edward suddenly fell badly ill just days before. The issue was appendicitis, a potentially lethal predicament that required urgent surgery. This was carried out by the celebrated surgeon Frederick Treves, who is today best remembered for his friendship with Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man.
Treves operated on the king in the music room at Buckingham Palace, and it went so well that the king was happily up and puffing a cigar the next day. The trouble was, many dignitaries had already arrived in Britain for the cancelled coronation, and many of them would not return when the big event finally took place on 9th August.
And, when it did unfold, things didn’t quite go according to plan. Leading the ceremony was an ailing, near-blind Archbishop of Canterbury who had to have prayers printed on cue cards in gigantic type, but still misread some of them. He also placed the crown back-to-front on the king’s head, and at one point told a concerned colleague to ‘Go away!’ loudly enough for the congregation to hear.
Victoria - 1838
On 28th June 1838, the woman who became one of the longest-serving monarchs in the nation’s history was crowned at Westminster Abbey – and it turned out to be a fairly shambolic affair.
The event hadn’t been properly planned or practiced, so that – in the words of future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli – the participants ‘were always in doubt as to what came next'.
While approaching Queen Victoria to give homage, a peer named Lord Rolle lived up to his name by falling and – in Victoria’s own words – rolling ‘quite down’ some steps. What’s more, the Archbishop shoved the coronation ring onto the wrong finger causing Victoria ‘great pain’ when she tried to pull it off afterwards, and at one point she mistakenly got up to leave thinking the ceremony was over.
Despite it all, Victoria later wrote that she would ‘remember this day as the proudest of my life!’