When the Queen was crowned on 2 June 1953, the nation gathered to witness the extraordinary day, crowding around television sets that had sold in unprecedented numbers in the weeks beforehand. Editors worked night and day to turn the TV footage into a movie, and A Queen Is Crowned, narrated by Laurence Olivier, was airing in cinemas around the world within days of the event. Now, in a remarkable documentary to be shown on BBC1, the Queen herself talks on air for the first time about her own memories of it, and examines St Edward’s Crown with which she was crowned – and which she has never worn since.
The 1953 coronation was an unforgettable occasion for everyone involved. In bleak post-war Britain the inauguration of the young Queen in an ancient ceremony provided the ideal opportunity to celebrate British history and to anticipate a brighter future. As Winston Churchill put it, “Let it not be thought that the age of chivalry belongs to the past”, and a ceremony, both medieval and modern, was staged to rival any of any age. The high point was the moment of coronation in Westminster Abbey, when the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St Edward’s Crown on the sovereign’s head.
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This crown, with which the Queen is reunited in the programme, is a remarkable object. The oldest in the Royal Collection, it was made for the coronation of King Charles II in 1661. The solid gold frame weighs almost 5lb, so it sits, like the responsibilities of state, heavy on the head of any monarch. Twelve inches high and surmounted by an orb and cross, it is set with a collection of precious and semi-precious stones, including tourmalines, topazes, rubies, sapphires and garnets. Two royal crowns, a state and a coronation crown, had been melted down at the end of the Civil War, so when replacements were ordered by Charles II two new crowns were again commissioned.
Today the Crown Jewels are famous for containing some of the largest and most spectacular gems in the world – among them the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the Black Prince’s Ruby and the Cullinan diamonds. The Imperial State Crown, which the Queen wears to open Parliament every year, is encrusted with such stones. But the coronation crown, only ever used once in a reign, has a less glittery appearance.
For the first century of its existence, in fact, St Edward’s Crown wasn’t permanently set with stones at all: gems were hired for the coronation and then removed. Charles II paid the royal goldsmith Robert Viner a hefty £350 (almost £30,000 in today’s money) for “ye Loane of ye Jewells” for his coronation. After the diamonds and rubies were returned the crown was given imitation stones to please the visitors to the Jewel House at the Tower of London.
St Edward’s Crown fell out of use during the Georgian and Victorian periods, when its design was regarded as old-fashioned. On the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 there was a new interest in reviving old traditions, and it was proposed that the crown should be used once more. In preparation, it was refurbished and set permanently with precious and semiprecious stones. In the event Edward VII was too weak from appendicitis to manage the famously heavy crown. But his son George V, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II have all been crowned sovereign with it.
Because of the great length of the Queen’s reign it’s now almost 65 years since St Edward’s Crown was last used. This fascinating documentary is – like the crown itself – spellbinding.
Photograph: ITV Archive