The last time Britain saw a coronation was in 1953 and to this day this country remains one of two in Europe (the other being the Vatican) where the head of state is enthroned in a centuries-old ritual steeped in religion and tradition. The build-up leading to and what happened on 2 June 1953 has been told and re-told several times and this documentary could have been like previous ones but this has a unique twist.
Two in fact. For arguably the first time, the Crown Jewels and regalia were filmed in close range and using high definition cameras which meant that viewers could see the detail and workmanship of each crown and regalia featured. Secondly and more importantly, the viewers have Her Majesty the Queen as their guide. Watching both official and home footage, the Queen shared her memories of the event and whilst she has not seen the footage from her own coronation for 65 years, she recalled that it was “a very long day. When you’re taking part in something you don’t see it.”
This was a far cry from the coronation of her father George VI in 1937 where despite it being held over 70 years ago, she can still remember how it all unfolded: as she cheerfully admits that she didn’t have a role in the ceremony, she was only present to sit and watch. George VI wanted his daughter to be prepared when her time came and insisted that she write down her memories of the big day and the result now resides in the Royal Archives – an impression of a sacred ceremony through the eyes of an 11 year old.
The Queen’s coronation is significant as it was the first to be televised and aware that more people would be watching the ceremony than in any previous coronations, the stakes were high – no mistakes on the same scale as those that plagued Victoria or George VI’s coronation were to be allowed. Sixteen months were given in order to prepare and rehearse for the ceremony itself, and Lady Anne Coke (now Lady Glenconner) who served as one of the six maids of honour and James Wilkinson, one of the 400 choir singers who took part, were on hand to share their memories of the build up to and during the big day.
Juxtaposed too with the footage of the actual event was the Queen talking through two of the most important pieces of the regalia – the two crowns she wore for the ceremony. For the first time in 65 years Her Majesty was reunited with the St Edward’s Crown which weighs five pounds and was made in 1661 for the coronation of Charles II. “Is it still as heavy?” she wondered as the crown was placed in front of her. “Yes, it is,” she nods picking up the crown. “It weighs a ton!” The documentary mentioned a little-known fact about this crown – only the sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Crown Jeweller are permitted to touch it.
More manageable was the Imperial State Crown which weighs around three pounds but as the Queen herself observed she has to be careful while wearing it especially during the State Opening of Parliament while she’s reading her speech: “You can’t look down in it, though, or your neck would break. And it would fall off.” While the Imperial State Crown might be the newer of the two crowns, it is studded with historic gems from the Black Prince’s Ruby (actually a spinel) reportedly worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt to the sapphire from the ring of Edward the Confessor and the pearls that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and which were purchased by her cousin Elizabeth I. The latter’s namesake mused as she held the dangling gems in the palm of her hand: “Pearls are sort of living things. They need warming up and these have just been hanging here. Quite sad, really.”
Discomfort was also the order of the day. Not only did Her Majesty have to contend with two heavy crowns and sit through a five hour ceremony, even her mode of transport was uncomfortable as well. The Gold State Coach made in 1760 for George III had been used for every coronation since 1821 and despite its magnificent appearance never endeared itself to the monarchs who have had to ride in it. Victoria was not a great fan of its “distressing oscillations” and William IV himself despite having spent much of his life in the Navy described riding the carriage as like being tossed about a rough sea. Count the present Queen then as also not a fan as she told Alastair Bruce: “Horrible! It’s not designed for travelling in at all. It’s only sprung on leather, you know.”
While the focus of the programme was the Queen, the regalia took centre stage as well. In the capable hands of narrator Keeley Hawes and former Historic Royal Palaces curator Anna Keay, the commentary was informative and concise as they took the viewer through the history and significance of the regalia and the ceremony itself, with a few significant anecdotes along the way – such as how the Cullinan diamond was sent to Britain (via ordinary mail) to the Crown Jewels being hidden during the Second World War. The Queen mused about how lucky it was that the one person who knew where they were hidden didn’t die before the war was over and the jewels could be retrieved.
However the weak link in the documentary was Alastair Bruce, he’s described as an expert on royal ceremony but he added nothing new or insightful about the ceremony or the regalia and his conversation with the Queen sometimes bordered on the fawning. But that’s one quibble; the real star of this documentary was the Queen herself – smiling, giggling, looking in awe at her younger self and as sharp as ever. For Her Majesty alone, watching this was a privilege and worth it!
The Coronation with Her Majesty the Queen was telecast on BBC1 on 14 January 2018