If you want to understand the baffling popularity of the Royal Family, one place to start is the multimedia imperial modernist spectacle of the 1953 coronation.

Queen Elizabeth II after her coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey, London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place in June 1953, was an occasion like never before. The first British coronation to be fully televised, with cameras being allowed inside Westminster Abbey for the ceremony itself, it was a fully public event that sought to construct a particular type of royal identity for the new Queen. The ceremony created a spectacle of monarchy that was designed simultaneously to shock and awe as well as to provoke feelings of pride, ownership, and even perhaps sympathy in the viewing British public. The event was also, crucially, a moment of imperial myth-making, the construction of a Commonwealth monarchy that was intended to knit together imperial populations across the globe.

Elizabeth had been on holiday in Kenya with her husband, Phillip, when she heard the news of her father’s death, and indeed she was a frequent traveller across the British Empire-Commonwealth throughout her life. The speech she gave on her twenty-first birthday, broadcast on the radio, which affirmed her devotion to the service of the British people ‘and the great imperial family to which we all belong’, had been given during a trip to Cape Town. Once she became Queen, she continued to build her royal identity around protecting and sustaining Britain’s imperial commitments (indeed, on her death, it was frequently noted that she had ‘overseen the expansion’ of the Commonwealth, although with little acknowledgement of the role that decolonisation of the empire had also played in this process).

The Queen insisted during her coronation that her gown be embroidered with the symbols not only of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but also those of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, India, and the then-Ceylon. Footage of the coronation was flown across the Atlantic for same-day transmission in Canada and made it to Australia on a plane in under three days, a new record for the trip. And, of course, the jewels on show were largely drawn from the empire: the coronation necklace included the Lahore Diamond, taken from the Lahore treasury in the Punjab by British colonialists and given to Queen Victoria in 1851; the coronation earrings included diamonds that had originally been part of the setting of the controversial Indian Koh-i-noor Diamond (which was itself in the Queen Mother’s crown for the event); the piece that Elizabeth was actually crowned with, the Imperial State Crown, includes one of the stones of the Cullinan Diamond, the second ‘star of Africa’. And imperial and Commonwealth troops — less than a decade after their unprecedented mobilisation as part of the empire’s Second World War effort — lined the route to the Abbey and marched in the procession.

Ordinary people across the metropole and empire were encouraged to mark and celebrate the coronation. Across the empire there were street parties, military parades, horse races, fireworks displays, and coronation lunches — some doubtless featuring the especially devised recipe of ‘coronation chicken’, itself drawing on imperial legacies in its inclusion of curry powder. In London, the street architecture of the coronation was designed by Hugh Casson, who two years earlier had worked on the Attlee Labour government’s Festival of Britain as its director of architecture. In turning his attention to the coronation he took a similarly celebratory approach, seeking to elevate the existing identity of the metropole via decorative motifs: the decorations on Hungerford Bridge focused on trains, while those on Oxford Street included celebrations of different clothing producers such as milliners and shoe-makers. Around the country, many local celebrations incorporated maypole dancing, mummers’ plays, tableaus, and fancy-dress parades: all drawn from traditional folk celebrations, many associated with spring and early summer.

This collision of high and low culture, the sacred and the profane, the Queen of England’s diamond crown and the local May Queen’s ribbon sash, all served to create an event which inscribed the meaning of monarchy into a British and imperial population for years to come. The solemn and awe-inspiring ceremony in Westminster Abbey, with the enormous — 8,000 strong — audience chanting ‘God Save The Queen’ at set points throughout the ceremony, was juxtaposed with sandwiches and bunting and an extra day off work; and so the everyday and the ornate were knitted together to create a particular image of this particular monarch. The British audience certainly watched the ceremony and felt the might of the empire massed behind them, and they stood secure in their understanding that they were at the centre of an empire that was yet to truly decolonise — Ghana, the first British African colony to gain independence, would not do so for another four years, but many of the colonies were deeply ambivalent about the meaning of the new monarch.

It was recently announced that the new King Charles seeks to slim down his coronation ceremony, to reflect a ‘smaller’ and ‘more modern’ monarchy and to better embody the spirit of our times. It was similarly noted that his wife, Camilla, will not wear the Koh-i-noor as part of her jewellery, presumably to avoid the unavoidable imperial undertones and the controversy over its return. But his attempts to present a monarchy shorn of history miss both the point of monarchy itself and one of the key secrets of his mother’s longevity: the framing of the ruler in relation to tradition and the past, which is most critical to the monarchy’s sustained popularity in Britain.


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