On 6th February 1952 Princess Elizabeth was watching wildlife in Kenya when her father, George VI, died. She immediately returned home, now as Queen Elizabeth II. Planning for her coronation was soon underway and Tuesday 2 June 1953 was as the date for the ceremony.
On 1 January 1953 the Abbey was closed to the public and preparations to transform the church began. A 200-strong labour force began building the 'theatre', tiered seating for 8251 guests, staircases, and the annexe.
Meanwhile in Glasgow 31 blue and gold carpets for the nave and 'theatre', totalling an area of 2964 square yards, were being made, and in Bradford 4000 yards of velvet was been woven to cover 2000 chairs and 5700 stools.
In Braintree, Essex, it took ten weeks to weave by hand 20 yards of purple velvet for the Queen's coronation robe. 1500 yards of silk for the hangings that would adorn the Abbey, and material for the peers' robes was also made. As a gift from the Queen to mark her coronation five blue and gold silk copes, incorporating images of a lion and a unicorn on each, were made for the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. The four Canons wore their copes at the service, whilst the Dean wore a cope made for Charles II's coronation.
By 20 May the construction works were finished and daily rehearsals, often attended by the Queen and the Royal Family, began.
The first full music rehearsal with the 60-strong orchestra and 400-strong choir was held just one week beforehand. The sheer size of the orchestra and choir made it impossible for all to see the Director of Music's baton movements so two assistants were employed to relay his instructions.
On 29 May the final full rehearsal was held. On 1 June the priceless Coronation Regalia were brought to the Deanery in preparation for the ceremony. By dusk that night the processional route between Buckingham Palace and the Abbey had already attracted half a million people.
After sixteen months of preparations Tuesday 2 June finally arrived. The Abbey opened at 5.00am and by 5.30 reporters and cameramen began to take their positions in the Abbey. By 7.00am the guests began taking their seats.
The Abbey’s choristers, who had been woken at 5.00am, breakfasted and assembled for a final practice. Hidden in their cassock pockets were a few small sandwiches and barley sugar sweets for sustenance.
At 10.15am the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh left Buckingham Palace in the Gold State Coach, bound for Westminster. The Queen entered the nave of the Abbey at 11.20 and was crowned at 12.34. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh left Westminster Abbey at 2.53 and rode in the State Coach through the streets of London before returning to Buckingham Palace.
The anointing of the Sovereign has the deepest significance during a coronation. The recipe for the oil is secret but it contains oils of orange flowers, roses, jasmin, cinnamon, musk, civet and ambergris. Under the authority of the Surgeon-Apothecary the oil for the 1953 coronation was made up at Savory and Moore Ltd by J.D.Jamieson, to a formula devised by Peter Squire. The consecration of the oil is arranged by the Dean of Westminster and performed by a bishop. In 1953 the Bishop of Gloucester, a former Canon of Westminster, performed the blessing.
Coronation Dress and robes.
The Queen’s coronation dress was made by Norman Hartnell (who had also made her wedding dress). It was of white satin embroidered with emblems of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth : rose (for England), thistle (Scotland), leek (Wales), shamrock (Ireland), lotus (Ceylon), protea (South Africa), wattle (Australia), wheat and jute (Pakistan), maple leaf (Canada) and fern (New Zealand). Thousands of tiny seed pearls set in ‘saucers’ of silver covered the dress. The Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, the Duchess of Kent, Princess Alexandra and the Queen’s six Maids of Honour had complimentary dresses made.
The Queen’s velvet robes, robes for the Peers and the silk hangings to decorate the Abbey were made by Warner & Sons of Braintree, Essex.
Chairs for the peers and peeresses were made by B.North & Sons and W.Hands & Sons. The stools were made by B.North & Sons, Thomas Glenister Ltd., Castle Bros. (all firms in High Wycombe) and Waring & Gillow. The blue velvet coverings were made at Listers Mills in Bradford, Yorkshire. After the ceremony those who occupied the chairs and stools had the option to purchase them. Otherwise the Ministry of Works, who are responsible for making all new furnishings for a coronation, put them up for auction to regain some of the costs of staging the coronation.
There were no floral displays within the Abbey, only in the annexe area. These were designed by Constance Spry, who flew in exotic blooms from Commonwealth countries, including a rare Malay orchid.
Music played at the Coronation (PDF, 14KB)
Musicians who took part in the 1953 coronation (PDF, 484 KB)
Further reading and listening:
(The first four items are available from the Abbey Shop)
DVD “A Queen is Crowned”, colour film of the coronation narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier.
DVD “Happy and Glorious. The Royal Wedding 1947 and Coronation 1953 from original newsreels”.
CD “Music from the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” with the Westminster Abbey choir.
“The Queen’s Coronation. The inside story” by James Wilkinson (2011)
“Elizabeth crowned Queen. The pictorial record of the Coronation” (various contributors), Octopus Publishing, 2006.
“Coronation June 2 1953” by Conrad Frost, 1978
“When the Queen was Crowned” by Brian Barker, 1976
“The year that made the day. How the BBC planned...coronation day broadcasts”, issued by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
“The Coronation and the BBC – guide to the sound and television broadcasting”, issued by the BBC.
“Coronation. A history of kingship and the British Monarchy” by Sir Roy Strong, 2005.
Click on the images to enlarge