In deference to his mother’s unique reign, King Charles III turned down the idea of being crowned on the same day, 2nd June. Instead his big day, 6th May, melds in the calendar with the May Bank Holidays, the culmination of the football season and Eurovision in Liverpool.
It took fourteen months to make the preparations for the 1953 coronation following the monarch’s death. This time the turnaround has been done in a mere eight. The big day will doubtless be celebrated by the majority of the British population but, it is fair to say, there is much less excitement about it than there was seventy years ago.
In part this may be because of a surfeit of ceremonial, instead of pinched wartime austerity; global video audiences in recent decades have been able to see live coverage of Royal events including funerals, weddings and jubilees, not to mention an endless stream of dramas and documentaries.
Famously, the Coronation of Elizabeth II inaugurated the mass television age in the UK. The cameras were let into the Abbey and the number of licence payers doubled to three million to watch the BBC’s black and white transmission – with an estimated seventeen people viewing each set. There were no satellites. The RAF were mobilized for Operation Dominion to air lift cans of film to make sure the people of Canada could see a recording on the same day. The US TV networks were left to make their own arrangements.
The difference in coronation mood seventy years on is not just because novelty has been replaced by overfamiliarity. Not surprisingly, after the biblical life span of a human life, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland sees itself very differently today and so do foreigners looking in.
In an essay to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the last coronation, the constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor described Britain in 1953 as “a time of optimism and self-confidence, hopeful of what the future might bring”. Although the phrase “The New Elizabethan Era” never quite caught on there was so much talk about it that Elizabeth II used her Christmas broadcast to say that she “did not feel like my great Tudor forbear – who ruled as a despot and was never able to leave her native shores”
“We” had just “won the War”. Winston Churchill was back as Prime Minister and was ending wartime rationing. Weeks after the coronation, Churchill would suffer an incapacitating stroke, which was hidden from the public for months, while his son in law, Christopher Soames, and private secretary, Jock Coleville, all but ran the country. Churchill would also be knighted in 1953 (along with the Derby-winning jockey Gordon Richards) and be named winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Nobody has floated the idea of a New Carolinian Age. A second Restoration doesn’t apply since there has been monarchical continuity since Charles II – although the novelist Robert Harris has shrewdly explored parallels between the Civil War period and the vicious divisions of Brexit Culture Wars Britain. There is little optimism or self-confidence in the way this coronation is being styled. There is an apologetic tone, which seems to fit with what we know of the exasperated demeanour of the new King. This coronation is to be about “diversity and inclusion”, as organisers bust a gut to inject women and ethnic minorities into the fusty rituals accumulated from the middle ages and the Victorians. Peers of the realm have been left fighting for their places.
The coronation of 1953 was an imperial one, minorities were invited as guests, or satraps, of the Empire. Attitudes then were epitomized by Noel Coward’s widely circulated witticism that the comparatively small man, actually a Malayan Sultan, sharing an open carriage with Queen Salote of Tonga must be “her lunch”. Size-ist and racist, Coward subsequently disowned his politically incorrect quip, attributing it to a member of Whites club.
In practice the British Empire was already breaking down into the Commonwealth of independent nations, which its new head Queen Elizabeth would call “an entirely new conception.” With President Nasser installed in Egypt, the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was wrestling with independence for the Sudan and withdrawal from Suez.
Decolonisation proceeded less bloodily for Britain than for France and Portugal but, alas, settled peace and prosperity have never arrived in Africa or the Islamic world. The Suez question would destroy Eden’s premiership a few years later with a rude reminder to the British from the US that the “Big Three” were no more. The US and the USSR were the only superpowers.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
The guest list in 1953 was topped by hereditary monarchies. General George Marshall, then pre-occupied with the Marshall plan to reconstruct continental Europe, represented US President Eisenhower. Little precedence was given to European politicians, unlike this year, where President Macron of France will be arguably and piquantly the most significant foreign attendee.
The ascent of Mount Everest by the New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Tenzing Norgay, was hailed as a Great British triumph, even by the Prime Minister of New Zealand. The news of the “conquest” of the world’s highest peak was broken as a scoop by The Times journalist James Morris, later the transexual woman Jan Morris. This year Nepal has received over 400 requests for permits to climb Sagarmatha, as it is now called officially.
The most marked developments are within the United Kingdom. In 1950, four Scottish students abducted, and accidentally snapped, the “Stone of Scone” from Westminster Abbey, where it had been since 1296 as a trophy of war. In 1996 the UK government sent “the Stone of Destiny”, on which kings and queens are crowned, back to Scotland for good. It has been peacefully loaned back to Abbey for the Coronation. In addition the avowedly republican first ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland have gratefully accepted their invitations to attend the crowning.
There are other reasons to celebrate now rather than then. British society was brutal in 1953. Corporal and capital punishment were both still in force. In January Derek Bentley, a mentally impaired 19 year old, was hanged, as an accomplice to a murder, for which he was granted a posthumous Royal pardon in 1993. Parliament was barred from debating his execution while it was pending.
In an equally notorious miscarriage of justice concerning what became known as the 10 Rillington Place murders Timothy Evans had been wrongly executed in 1950. The full extent of what were actually crimes by John Christie was discovered in March 1953; Christie was sentenced to death on 25 June and hanged on 15th July. British justice is neither so quick nor so peremptory today. In 1953 Homosexuality was still against the law. Theatre and literature were subject to official censorship.
Enthusiasm for the monarchy may be tepid but Charles has weathered the attacks from within by Diana and now Harry. In the latest British Social Attitudes survey, two out of three continue to say that the institution is important (29% very important, 26% quite important). His subjects seem broadly content that he should symbolically represent the nation as it is now.
King Charles has got it right. The UK has come a long way over the past seventy years. Ours is a fairer and kinder society and a less powerful one. The coronation in 2023 should not be a nostalgic repeat of 1953.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at firstname.lastname@example.org