I can remember being an 11-year-old girl listening to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as it took place thousands of miles away. It was broadcast live on a hissy shortwave radio, and I was lying on my bedroom floor in Cape Town. In front of me was a pop-up cardboard model of Westminster Abbey, specially produced for those in “the colonies” where there was no television. It was June 1953.
I suppose it was a little disrespectful to the new Queen to be listening to her coronation lying on the floor. This was after all a time of deference – when people in Britain and the Commonwealth stood up for the National Anthem in the cinema.
It was only by the skin of their teeth that the BBC had managed to get permission to place television cameras into the Abbey. The then prime minister Winston Churchill had thought it was not a good idea to allow people to watch the solemn ceremony while having their tea.
Now, almost six decades later, I’m sitting in a radio studio with the women who were the Queen’s maids of honour on that day, retelling the story of what they all agree was the greatest day of their lives. Their memories of events are still sharp, and though from time to time there is disagreement about exactly what happened when, they are still evidently good friends who enjoy the odd tease.
They were in their late teens or early 20s at the time of the coronation, each eligible to be a maid of honour as the unmarried daughters of two dukes, three earls and a marquess. Two of them – Lady Jane Vane-Tempest-Stewart and Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill – were allowed to make the journey from Buckingham Palace to the Abbey in a rather splendid coach, just one behind the Queen’s own golden coach. No wonder Lady Rosemary had postponed her own wedding so she could take part.
Their companion in the coach was Lord Tryon, Keeper of the Privy Purse, which looked, says Lady Jane, “like some sort of gold-braided school satchel”. Neither girl had had any breakfast that morning and halfway to their destination Lady Jane announced she’d do anything for a bar of chocolate. Lord Tryon came to the rescue. “How about one of these?” he said, and produced from the Privy Purse a bag of Scottish toffees.
One of Lady Anne Coke’s most abiding recollections (she’s now Lady Glenconner) is of how she was made up at home before setting off, specially for the TV cameras. “The girl from Elizabeth Arden came. I looked in the mirror and saw these huge eyebrows and scarlet lips. I looked just like music-hall star George Robey!”
Lady Rosemary, the “senior” maid of honour, has brought in her family album of coronation memorabilia for us to see, including the original invitation – or rather, command – to attend. We study the Duke of Norfolk’s strict list of duties, for everything from the endless rehearsals before the event (how to carry a heavy velvet train without mishap) to the timings for every part of the day so it would go without a hitch. In the end it did all go pretty impeccably – the three-hour Abbey service overran by a mere four minutes.
Away from the cameras, though, there were some glitches – the young Lady Anne almost fainted (she too had missed breakfast) and was revived by a supportive Black Rod; and Lord Cholmondeley, whose duties as Lord Great Chamberlain included the right to dress the monarch on Coronation Day, evidently hadn’t practised enough, as he almost came to grief when dealing with the press-studs on the back of the special garment worn by the Queen for her Anointing. “I thought,” Lady Anne tells us, “how awful for the Queen to have the Marquess of Cholmondeley with his heavy fingers going down her spine.” (Just as well the cameras didn’t see that.)
We also learnt that the Archbishop of Canterbury had unwittingly during the Recess crushed a phial of smelling salts secreted in Lady Rosemary’s glove with too firm a handshake – which caused a strong smell of ammonia to waft over everyone in the vicinity. “The Queen noticed it,” remembers Lady Rosemary, “and we all had a bit of a laugh about that.”
They were all very touched by the madly cheering crowds along the route between the Palace and the Abbey. Lady Moyra Hamilton, like many others, specially remembers the Queen of Tonga. “She was one of the stars of the day. I later called a newborn colt ‘Tonga’ in her honour, but sadly he wasn’t quite the success she was!”
Eventually, back at the Palace, everyone dropped the formality before the balcony appearance and the fly-past – even the newly crowned monarch, who joined her young maids of honour by flopping back on the sofa in relief and kicking up her heels.
Later, in the evening, the girls all came back to earth in their own way. Two of them joined the crowds in The Mall, Lady Anne went out on the town with her father and a clutch of Arab sheikhs, while Lady Rosemary remembers going home to Blenheim Palace, where they had more indoor servants than the Queen (“much grander,” she says), to a fabulous outdoor party. “My mother was roasting an ox in the gardens for the villagers from Woodstock. I’ve got a picture of her carving away at this huge animal.”
Not many of us can say that after a special celebration.
Where are they now?
Perhaps all those hours standing in Westminster Abbey in 1953 helped train the maids of honour to be stoical. Even now, they show no signs of flagging…
1. Lady Moyra Campbell
Born: Lady Moyra Hamilton Age: 82
Today: Lives in Randalstown, County Antrim, where she works to support children’s charities, including the NSPCC and the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children.
2. Lady Anne Glenconner
Born: Lady Anne Coke Age: 80
Today: Lives in Norfolk. Her husband, Lord Colin Glenconner, died in 2010, having long lived in the Caribbean and been a great favourite of Princess Margaret.
3. Lady Jane Rayne-Lacey
Born: Lady Jane Vane-Tempest-Stewart Age: 80
Today: Lives in central London and is a frequent theatre-goer. She tells RT: “I gave a talk at a school. At the end, a little girl put her hand up. She said, ‘How many years older than the Queen are you?’ I had to say, ‘I think the Queen’s a bit older than me.’”
4. Lady Mary Russell
Born: Lady Mary Baillie-Hamilton Age: 79
Today: Lives at Combe Manor, Berkshire, with her husband David Russell. “We have a big barn, which we let out for weddings. We also put on an annual musical occasion, to raise money for our local orchestra, the Southern Sinfonia, which is very good indeed.” She has five children and 13 grandchildren.
5. Baroness Willoughby de Eresby
Born: Lady Nancy Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby Age: 78
Today: Granddaughter of Nancy Astor, she inherited her title on the death of her father in 1983, along with 75,000 acres of land in Lincolnshire and Perthshire. she has never married and has no children. She did not take part in The Reunion.
6. Lady Rosemary Muir
Born: Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill Age: 83
Today: Lives in Binfield, near Bracknell, Berkshire. Widowed in 1972, she “conquers the garden, looks after the dogs and sees the few friends still with us. I have seven grandchildren, who take up quite a lot of time, one way or another.”
The Reunion is on Sunday at 11:15am and Friday at 9:00am on Radio 4