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London's Big Day
The Coronation 60 Years On
By David Long, Gavin Whitelaw
The History PressCopyright © 2013 David Long & Gavin Whitelaw
All rights reserved.
The King is Dead, Long Live the Queen
The historic proclamation signifying the continuity of a traditional hereditary monarchy is especially heavy with meaning when the deceased was loved and respected. That was certainly the case on 6 February 1952 when the death was announced of His Majesty King George VI of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the last Emperor of India – and with it the accession of his daughter as Queen Elizabeth II.
Born at 2.40 a.m. at her maternal grandfather's Mayfair townhouse at 17 Bruton Street on 21 April 1926, it was only the abdication of her uncle a decade later that placed the young HRH Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of York directly in line for the throne. And now, on the death of Britain's wartime king, as Queen Elizabeth II she became Sovereign Head of the Commonwealth and Queen Regnant of seven independent countries of the Commonwealth.
The death was sudden but cannot have been entirely unexpected in establishment circles as the king had been suffering from a painful illness for a long time, and had undergone surgeries for cancer. At the time, however, few knew the full details of his condition, and certainly no one expected his death to come when it did. Just a week earlier he had visited the theatre with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, and shortly afterwards His Majesty had accompanied Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh to the airport, bidding them farewell as they set out on a lengthy trip through the Commonwealth on his behalf.
The king's death occurred while the princess was travelling in east Africa, specifically while she and Prince Philip were staying at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya. (It was afterwards observed by a lady-in-waiting, one of Lord Mountbatten's daughters, that Elizabeth had gone up the giant fig tree a princess and come down a queen.) Travelling to Sagana Lodge – a modest hunting lodge which had been given to the royal couple as a wedding present from the colony – it fell to Prince Philip to break the news to his wife who thus became the first British monarch since the Elector of Hanover, George I, to be outside the United Kingdom at the moment of succession.
In fact with the king's health evidently in decline since the previous year, Princess Elizabeth had already been undertaking many of his duties. Now she was to do so on her own behalf, and once she had decided on her regnal name – confirming that she would reign as Elizabeth – the news of her accession was proclaimed throughout the Commonwealth, and plans were made for the royal party to travel back to England.
It transpired that, having retired to his Sandringham estate for the winter break, a place where he could relax and go hunting, the king had spent his last evening doing a crossword puzzle while listening to his younger daughter Princess Margaret playing the piano. After tuning in to the BBC to hear news of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, he had gone to bed, passing away peacefully in his sleep of a coronary thrombosis during the early hours.
The sad discovery of the king's death was made by his valet at 7.15 a.m., the news being first broken to his wife, now the Queen Mother, then his younger daughter, Princess Margaret, and his mother, Queen Mary, the new Queen Dowager. Calls were made to London after which officials from Buckingham Palace made the short crossing to Downing Street to inform the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. At 10.45 a.m. the aforementioned formal public announcement was made from Sandringham House, to the country and the Commonwealth, and a declaration in London signed by nearly 200 Privy Counsellors.
Dressed in mourning black, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II arrived on British soil during the afternoon of 7 February. Following a statement from Downing Street saying that, 'the Prime Minister feels that it would be in accordance with the wishes of the public that the return of the Queen to London should be as quiet as possible and that Her Majesty should be met only by those whose official positions make it appropriate for them to be present', there was no public gathering at Heathrow Airport. Instead Her Majesty's aeroplane, the DC4M-4 Argonaut Atalanta of the British Overseas Airways Corporation, was met by Sir Winston Churchill, Mr Clement Atlee as Leader of the Opposition, HRH the Duke of Gloucester, and a number of members of her Privy Council. Conveyed by black Daimler car to Clarence House, she immediately approved arrangements for the king's funeral before being met by her grandmother, HM Queen Mary, who as custom required curtseyed and kissed the new queen's hand.
That evening the Prime Minister made a broadcast to the nation. The king, he said:
was greatly loved by all his peoples and respected as a man and as a prince far beyond the many realms over which he reigned. The simple dignity of his life, his manly virtues, his sense of duty – alike as ruler and servant of the vast spheres for which he bore responsibility – his gay charm and happy nature, his example as a husband and a father in his own family circles, his courage in peace or war – all of these were aspects of his character which won the glint of admiration, now here, now there, from the innumerable eyes whose gaze falls upon the throne.
Another statement was issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, describing the late king as a grand leader of his people 'by reason of his courage, his simple humanity, his selfless regard for others, his single-minded devotion to duty. We thank God for his example.' Cardinal Griffin similarly, on behalf of Britain's Roman Catholics, sent a telegram mourning the sad loss 'of a great King'. By his selfless devotion to his duties, said the Cardinal, 'by his loving interest in the welfare of his peoples, by his courage in the face of illness and by his magnificent example of family life, King George VI had won a unique position in the hearts of his subjects.'
As reported by the BBC, it was Her Majesty who formally proclaimed herself queen, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith, doing so from the sovereign's official London residence, St James's Palace, and in the presence of the Lords of the Council. These numbered 150 in total, and were joined by representatives from the Commonwealth, the Lord Mayor of London and other City of London dignitaries.
Before them all Elizabeth read an official proclamation, declaring her reign as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second. 'By the sudden death of my dear father,' she declared, 'I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty. My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over.'
Following the formality of this official Accession Declaration, the new queen held her first Privy Council meeting when her proclamation was signed by the Prime Minister, the Lord Chancellor and others present. It was then taken to the people, proclaimed at St James's Palace by the Garter King of Arms, who with a cavalry escort then proceeded to Charing Cross, where he read it once more, and then to Temple Bar, the entrance to the Square Mile, and to the Royal Exchange. Ceremonial gun salutes were fired from Hyde Park and the Tower of London, and the process repeated at Edinburgh, Windsor and York and – albeit with somewhat less pomp – at shire, town and guild halls around the country.
The body of the late king remained at Sandringham until the queen's arrival in Norfolk on 8 February. Once she had paid her respects to her father privately, his coffin, draped in the Royal Standard and accompanied by a bunch of white flowers from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was moved to St Mary Magdalene's Church where estate workers kept vigil, day and night, until 11 February. On that day a small cortege accompanied the coffin to the station where the royal train was waiting to return the king's body and the royal family to London.
In London, as was only to be expected, tens of thousands of people lined the streets to see the king's coffin pass on a gun carriage from Victoria station to Westminster Hall. The crowds were silent and their mood tangible, one of unbearable loss, of actual loneliness for some, and of profound sadness for many. Pulled by Windsor Greys and closely followed on foot by TRH the Dukes of Edinburgh and Gloucester, and then by the other members of the royal family, the procession made its way to the historic Palace of Westminster where the late king was to lie in state.
Once there members of the two Houses of Parliament, the Lords and the Commons, would assemble to pay their respects, as later would more than 300,000 loyal subjects, ordinary members of the public being admitted to the ancient, lofty and silent hall once the royal family and establishment grandees had withdrawn.
For Queen Mary it was to be the third time she had buried a son. Prince John, an invalid, had died when still a teenager and was buried on the Sandringham estate. HRH the Duke of Kent had been killed in a flying boat crash in Caithness in 1942, leaving three young children. And now, a frail old lady widowed sixteen years previously, the Dowager was mourning the loss of her beloved Bertie, King George VI. Notwithstanding the sadness of such a thing, the occasion provided an opportunity for a unique and historic portrait of three queens and three generations: Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II, gathered together to see the passing of a son, a husband and a father.
The scene inside Westminster Hall was no less unique. Upon the dais the Royal Standard covered the king's coffin. Above this set on a cushion was the magnificent Imperial State Crown, set in turn with many diamonds and other precious stones, including Edward the Confessor's sapphire. Alongside this the King's Orb and the Royal Sceptre rested, the latter the very symbol of royal power and justice, while eight guards mounted a vigil over the coffin both day and night.
Preparations for the king's funeral were meanwhile well underway, in London and in Windsor, with heads of state from all over the world making their way to the capital. In Britain and in many countries abroad flags were flown at half-mast, and on the day itself, 15 February, an estimated two million people flooded onto the streets of London as, veiled and in mourning dress, the royal party arrived at Westminster Hall. (Queen Mary was sadly too frail to attend, and instead closely followed television images of her son's final journey from a room at Marlborough House.)
Servicemen and women from all three branches lined the streets from the Palace of Westminster to Paddington station, where a platform had been prepared for the departure of the king's body for interment at Windsor Castle. At 9.30 a.m. exactly, a volley of gunfire, the first of fifty-six marking each year of the late king's life, coincided with the half-hour chime from Big Ben as eight officers emerged from Westminster Hall carrying the coffin. Placed on a gun carriage, and pulled by ninety-eight members of the Royal Marines (with a further forty behind to act as a brake) the late king was conveyed through London as part of a grand cortege accompanied by bands playing slow, sombre marches.
The queen, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and the late king's sister (Princess Mary, the Princess Royal) followed immediately behind in the Irish State Coach. Behind them came the four royal dukes of Edinburgh, Gloucester, Kent and Windsor – the latter in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. The former King Edward VIII had made a rare return to Britain to pay homage to the younger brother who since the 1930s had shouldered the real burden of his own abdication.
Greatly swelled by further carriages and many more dignitaries marching on foot, the long, slow procession was to last almost three hours, finally arriving at Paddington station not much before 12.30 p.m. There, watched by the world, and in the presence of two queens and the two princesses, the king was about to leave London for the final time.
In Windsor itself the mood was much as in London. In the shadow of the ancient fortress tens of thousands had flocked to the streets to see the cortege, to see the Royal Marines pulling the gun carriage with its sombre load. Once more the queen, the Queen Mother, the Princess Royal and Princess Margaret followed behind, this time in a Windsor Landau, and behind them came the same respectful line of royal dignitaries and statesmen slowly making their way towards the shrine of St George's Chapel.
At 2 p.m., as the cortege entered the castle gate, another fifty-six-gun salute sounded. Throughout Britain and the Commonwealth, a two-minute silence was observed as the gun carriage stopped in front of the chapel. Inside some 900 people assembled to hear a short, twenty-five-minute service given by the Dean of Windsor, after which the late king's body was lowered down into the royal vault.
Before it disappeared from view the Imperial State Crown, the King's Orb and the Royal Sceptre were removed from the coffin along with the Royal Standard. Each represented an important symbol of continuity, together standing for the unbreakable chain of sovereignty which now rested in the queen. Only her mother's white flowers remained with the coffin, and in the final act of this arcane, occasionally mysterious but deeply moving drama, the Garter King of Arms, looking straight at Her Majesty, loudly proclaimed what was to be a new era with the words 'God Save the Queen!'CHAPTER 2
A Thousand Years of History
The coronation of the new sovereign traditionally follows some months after his or her accession, a delay which allows for a period of mourning for the late monarch – both personal and official – as well as proving necessary to accommodate the enormous amount of preparation required in organising the complexities and ritual associated with such an important ceremony.
In Britain it is a ceremony which has remained essentially unchanged for at least 1,000 years. For more than 900 of these all but a very few coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey in London, and been conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury whose task this has almost always been since the Norman Conquest. There have indeed been very few exceptions to this pattern. William II was crowned at Winchester Cathedral in 1087, and Henry III at Gloucester in 1216; but in the former's case the Archbishop of Canterbury travelled to Winchester to officiate and four years after his first coronation Henry wisely chose to be crowned again back at Westminster.
While doubtless an occasion for great celebration, the actual crowning of a new monarch is nevertheless a deeply serious affair. A moment of the greatest and lasting significance for Crown and Country, it is one in which great symbolic value has always been vested. This was perhaps never better demonstrated than by the French invaders in 1066, when their ruler chose to be crowned on Christmas Day in Edward the Confessor's new Westminster Abbey – and with the doors locked to prevent any Saxons gaining entry.
Above all, the coronation is a very public moment, one which by its nature the moment of accession may not always be. On hearing of her own accession in 1558 Queen Elizabeth I had observed, 'This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes', whereas five years earlier the tragic, ill-fated Lady Jane Grey had simply burst into tears after declaring that, 'The Crown is not my right, and it pleaseth me not'. In 1727 George II is also recorded as having expressed something approaching surprise, declaring in heavily accented English 'Dat is vun big lie!'
In many other cases, however, the new monarch's immediate reaction is simply not known: as consort Prince Philip has not surprisingly never publicly revealed any details about his wife's reaction to the news of her father's death. And while it seems quite likely that the new Queen Victoria exclaimed 'I will be good' – and that Queen Anne acknowledged that it was 'a fine day' – it is surely almost too good to be true that on hearing that his brother George III had died William IV announced he was going straight back to bed because he had 'never before slept with a queen'.
At the moment in question each of the individuals named above became in every sense the sovereign ruler of his or her realm, but of course not everyone who accedes to the thrown is eventually crowned. In April 1141, for example, Matilda, as the daughter of Henry I, was officially proclaimed 'Lady of the English' but she was never crowned. From April to June 1483 Edward V reigned, but on 25 June he was deposed before any coronation had taken place. The coronation of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's third wife, was postponed because of the plague only for her to die in childbirth before the ceremony could take place. (Arrangements were never even mooted for his fourth, fifth and sixth wives.)
Excerpted from London's Big Day by David Long, Gavin Whitelaw. Copyright © 2013 David Long & Gavin Whitelaw. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The King is Dead, Long Live the Queen,
2 A Thousand Years of History,
3 Went the Day Badly,
4 Preparations Begin,
5 Lights, Cameras ... Action,
6 Her Majesty's Gown,
7 Into the Abbey,
8 Rejoining London,
Finale: The Queen's Coronation Day Speech,
Appendix: The Queen's Beasts,