Simon Schama: Celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee


Sixty years and three months ago, on Feb. 5, 1952, the heir presumptive to the British throne spent her last night as a princess up a giant fig tree.

Treetops Hotel was perched in the game park of Sagana, where a hunting lodge had been given by the “Kenyan people” to Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, as a wedding present five years before. They had stopped in what was still an African colony on their way to Australia to show the flag for Britain and its monarchy, now that Elizabeth’s chronically ill father, King George VI, was unable to take trips around what was left of the empire.

A violent, bloody Kikuyu insurrection was about to break out in Kenya, but the good looks and easy grace of the princess and her tall, impossibly handsome husband disarmed everyone who saw them in action. Then came the news that her father had died of a coronary thrombosis. There are no reports of how the young woman, instantly become Queen Elizabeth II, took the news. But the duke’s equerry, Michael Parker, who had conveyed it, noticed that Philip looked as if “half the world had dropped on his shoulders.” Elizabeth, on the other hand, switched immediately to duty.

Elizabeth was 26: the age of a graduate student, but she had graduated from the select academy of national-symbols-in-waiting. “Lilibet” was 10 before the possibility she might one day be queen arose, for it was assumed her uncle David, not her father, would succeed when the much-loved, gruff George V died in 1936. But what followed was an abdication rather than a coronation, as Edward VIII opted to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson rather than remain on the throne. From the day in 1937 when Elizabeth’s pallid, decent, stammering father had the crown set on his head in Westminster Abbey, she must have sensed both the weight and the perils of the destiny that awaited her.

During the war it was Winston Churchill and not George VI who had personified British bulldog indomitability. But Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret became symbols of the royals’ refusal to play it safe from some distant imperial exile, for they remained in Britain through the Blitz. “They will not leave without me,” said their mother, “and I will not leave without the king, and he will never leave.” Buckingham Palace took a bomb in the courtyard, and the girls’ lodging at Windsor Castle was actually right on the line of Luftwaffe bombing from London to Bristol.

After the war Britain shrunk into austerity, and so did George VI, looking ever more gaunt. In November 1947, with the worst winter in living memory already gripping Britain, her wedding to Philip in Westminster Abbey was a desperately needed festive moment for a country where meat, confectionery, and most forms of glee were still strictly rationed. Already she understood public tact, saving clothes-ration cards for the bridal outfit, which, since 2,000 pearls were sewn in, must have been a truckload of coupons. The day after the ceremony, the princess laid her bouquet of orchids and myrtle (a sprig from Queen Victoria’s tree) on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the nave of the Abbey. The country was full of bitterly grieving families, so the gesture was money in the bank for the future of the British crown.

The coronation would have to be another such moment when a stripped-down country—paying a high price for its wartime sacrifices, its Indian empire gone, unsure about its place in the world—could look at its young queen and somehow see, through all the pageantry of the ages, a picture of the future. The balance had to be just right: enough of the past to give the British the reassurance of immemorial continuity; enough of the present and future for them not to feel entombed in their ancestry. As it turned out, Elizabeth had an acute instinct for this tricky equilibrium. Above all, there was the critical issue of television. Elizabeth’s coronation would be the opportunity to make the monarchy, in all its splendor, spectacularly visible. And it would be the BBC’s chance to revolutionize its place in the public life of the nation. Its radio commentators and war correspondents sonorously resolute in adversity, jubilant in victory, had already established themselves as the collective voice of Britain.

But when the issue was taken to Churchill’s cabinet, both the prime minister (media savvy as he was) and the archbishop of Canterbury, who would preside over a ceremony that was as much a religious as national rite, balked. Geoffrey Fisher, the archbishop, grumbled that television lights would create acute discomfort for the multi-robed young queen, who already had enough to bear. But his real objection was that somehow television would demystify the proceedings. He would rather Christian Britain gather in ancient stone churches up and down the country to echo the solemnities. For his part, Churchill was anxious lest the spectacle of massed ranks of coroneted and ermined aristocrats give the impression to the public that the country was still ruled by the upper crust (as if they didn’t know). On the other hand, he was also anxious about the impression of grand remoteness a decision to exclude the cameras would give.

An announcement was made that there would be no television in the Abbey. But someone forgot to persuade Elizabeth of the decision. “The cabinet is not being crowned, I am,” she is said to have told the government, taking hold of the process while the 77-year-old prime minister, on his last campaign, dithered. Struck by her clear resolution, Churchill gave in. In the end, 56 percent of Britain’s 36 million watched the spectacle: the procession in the gold coach, made for King George III’s coronation in 1761, and pulled by six gray steeds, including a horse called Eisenhower, from Buckingham Palace to the Abbey; and then three hours of service and the long parade back before massed crowds who had once again endured soaking rain overnight to camp along the route. Another 32 percent of the country listened to the plangent tones of radio commentators posted in the Abbey and watching the procession. A live feed reached millions more in Europe while film was flown at jet speed to Canada, from where it reached a huge American viewing public as well.

queen-elizabeth-fe02-schama Toby Melville / Reuters-Landov

The archbishop could not have been more wrong. Instead of “disintegrating” the country, it brought it together on June 2, 1953. My own family had one of the few television sets on our street—a nine-inch screen made a bit bigger by a magnifier strapped to the massive walnut cabinet. Just like people throughout the country we invited the neighbors in for sandwiches and cakes while resisting the gruesome “Coronation Chicken” invented for the occasion, consisting of fowl sitting in pale curried slop cheered up by a scattering of apricots and sultanas.

But all our eyes were on the slight, dark-haired, graceful figure at the center of it all. She certainly knew the history of coronation disasters: the hideous image of the bloated and hated George IV, waddling down the nave in yards of crimson velvet in 1821 while his estranged queen was barred from the Abbey; poor Victoria, whose fingers were thought so little for a coronation ring that one was made especially for her pinky. But the archbishop had forgotten this, jamming the tiny ring on to her middle finger causing the queen excruciating pain.

But if Elizabeth had anything to do with it, nothing would go wrong this time. During the weeks of rehearsal at Buckingham Palace she tried on the Imperial State Crown (her “working crown” as she called it) so that there would be no hint of stoop or crick on the great day. Weighing in at more than five pounds, the even more massive solid-gold crown of King Edward—made, like nearly all of the regalia, for King Charles II, whose coronation in 1661 came just 11 years after his father’s head had been chopped off—was still more daunting. Noises were made about whether it would be too heavy for the crowning of the young woman, but she insisted.

Nothing would be left to chance. Carriage was everything. So by way of rehearsal, Elizabeth was fitted with a heavy sheet of fabric tied at neck and shoulders in which she practiced walking at the various paces demanded by the different stages of the ceremony, and the crucial kneeling moment everyone worried about except her. Even so, the many layers of her costume were a formidable challenge to a slight frame. In the gold coach to the Abbey, she wore an enveloping velvet and ermine robe, trimmed with gold lace and filigree and six yards of train carried down the nave by maids of honor. For her anointing, a ceremony so personal it was the one part of the proceedings she insisted would be concealed from the cameras, the robe was removed and the sign of the cross (in oil made from a recipe concocted for Charles I of jasmine, orange blossom, musk civet, distilled cinnamon, and ambergris) was made while she sat in a simple white pleated dress as a sign of humility.

Beneath that, however, was the stupendous satin gown made by Norman Hartnell, sewn with appliquéd botanical emblems of the kingdom and dominions beyond—rose for England, thistle for Scotland, wattle for Australia, fern for New Zealand. On top of that, for the crowning moment itself—the presentation as she sat on the “seat” made for King Edward I in 1300, to receive golden orb, scepters, and armbands signifying wisdom and sincerity—were placed a dalmatic of gold cloth, then yet another massive robe of purple velvet and ermine. It was in all this mega-mantling that she proceeded—slowly (some 250 people were in the train) out of the Abbey and into the gold coach to the cheering crowds.

June 2 had been picked as the day most likely to be sunny in the British calendar, so naturally it was raining. One of the countless royals, Queen Salote of Tonga, rode with the top of her carriage open, the downpour falling on her broadly smiling face, the crowds falling for her. “Oh linger longer, Queen of Tonga,” they sang. The thousands of brilliantly uniformed soldiers—mounted and on foot, then the vestigial military remnants of a disappearing empire—took hours to trot past and the people loved every minute of it.

queen-elizabeth-fe02-schama-2ndary Enthralled by the handsome couple, millions at home and around the world watched Elizabeth’s coronation, making her the first monarch of the television age. Hulton-Deutsch Collection-Corbis

As the day melted into the evening, the queen appeared with her mother, husband, and two children, one of whom (Charles, the little prince) had been the first royal child present at a coronation. They were greeted by the full-throated roaring of massed revelers on the Victoria Memorial, stretching up the processional mall, its road painted red for the first time. Later, Elizabeth threw a switch and lights turned on all over the ancient, still-sooty city—and the fountains of Trafalgar Square splashed with un-British, exuberant radiance. The sense of national family, found in the war and so quickly lost, returned in a great tide of sentiment, as street parties up and down the country polished off the sausage rolls and beer, and aunties in flowery frocks and shiny faces sang the “Windsor Waltz,” warbling, “You gave me your promise. I gave you my heart.”

But as the last of the strawberry ice cream turned to glop, and the coronation cakes crumbled, something more important for Britain remained than just a day of light relief from postwar austerity. The people of the small, crowded, economically exhausted island, much given to muttered self-deprecation and habitual grumbling about everything from politicians and the weather to needlessly high prices and the awfulness of foreigners, needed something or someone that would make them feel happy for once to be British. When she sat on King Edward’s “seat,” much encumbered by scepters and orb and answered the archbishop’s solemn questions whether she would fulfill all the burdens and sacrifices of a monarch with words more usually heard at weddings—“I do” and “I will,” uttered in Elizabeth’s slightly piping pitch—those words echoed through the ancient masonry of the Abbey, out into the streets, across the oceans, and not one person, republicans included, could be found to snigger in disbelief.

For the next 60 years, she would have the grandeur and the carriage processions, the trotting guardsmen and the palace tea parties, as well as her fair share of disasters and trials. But the simplicity and sincerity of that promise of 1953—handing over her life to the odd but indispensably comforting role of national matriarch so that a nation in all its stupendous peculiarity will endure—has never deserted her. That is why multitudes will throng the riverbanks and the streets of London to cheer her 60 years later, and why no one should begrudge her a sigh and a smile.

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