Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation: A New Elizabethan Age

Dressed in an elaborate robe made of cloth-of-gold, Queen Elizabeth receives the Sceptre with the Cross, the symbol of royal power, from the Archbishop of Canterbury at her Coronation on June 2, 1953. AP Images

Newsweek's latest special edition examines the 63-year-long reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's longest serving monarch. On the day of the Queen's coronation, Britain once again had the eyes of the world trained on its Royals. Newsweek was there.

From the Newsweek Archives June 8, 1953

"I was awoke at 4 o'clock by the guns in the Park," wrote Queen Victoria on June 28, 1838, "and could not get much sleep afterwards on account of the noise of the people, bands, etc., etc." Now, on June 2, 1953, as another young Queen dressed for her Coronation, the same sounds penetrated the Royal apartments overlooking the gardens in the rear of Buckingham Palace.

Elizabeth II made the last adjustment to her magnificent dress—yards of heavy, lustrous white satin, embroidered with hundreds of pearls and diamonds and gold and silver, showing the emblems of England, Scotland and the 11 Commonwealth countries. A hair dresser and makeup expert gave the final pat to the Queen's brown hair—it had to support the 5-pound weight of St. Edward's Crown for half an hour—and made the last touches on her make-up. For the newsreel, press and television cameras, she wore a new lipstick, light red rouge with a faint blue undertone, and a little eye shadow. The Queen swept through the palace and emerged into the courtyard—a vision fit for The Day.

The Duke of Edinburgh was at her side as she climbed into the immense old, gilded State Coach. (The Queen could recall how her father complained of the discomfort of the swaying, 4-ton vehicle after his 1937 Coronation; now it had been renovated and cushioned with rubber.) The eight Windsor grays drawing the coach—the lead horse was named Eisenhower—gave a start, and the coach rolled through the palace gates.

A flourish of brass and drums sounded from the resplendent band of the Household Cavalry. The long column of troops and dignitaries jingled and rumbled into motion under the ceremonial arches of the Mall. The Queen caught the first full sight of her people—thousands upon thousands in vast stands lining St. James's Park, creeping up the noble facade of Carlton House Terrace, and clustered thickly around the Admiralty Arch. Some had been there since the previous day, through the long, rainy night and the cold, cloudy morning (scores were treated for exposure).

Royal Canadian Mounted Police pass through London's Piccadilly Circus on June 2, 1953, as they parade to Buckingham Palace after the coronation. AP Images

As the coach swung into the Mall, the cheers lifted and broke like waves on a beach. Through the wide windows of the coach, the Queen began to smile, to bow her head from side to side and to repeat slowly: "So kind, so nice, so very, very loyal"—a little litany devised for this occasion when she had to move her lips and smile for more than two hours as she proceeded to and from the Abbey.

"So very, very loyal."

They had not always been so. They had broken the windows of this very coach with George III inside it. They had forced George IV to return from his Coronation through country lanes to avoid inciting riots. They had shown signs of wanting a Republic during the long dreary years of Queen Victoria's enforced mourning for Prince Albert.

But now, even the weather appeared to pay tribute to the perfect Queen of the perfect Monarchy. As the State Coach passed through the Admiralty Arch, the sun broke through the clouds. The procession swung into Trafalgar Square and past Whitehall. Another Queen had known it as Whitehall Creek. It was a little stream when Elizabeth I—two years younger than Elizabeth II [at her Coronation]—drove through the caparisoned and welcoming city of London to the Abbey in the marshes of Westminster.

Down Northumberland Avenue, along Victoria Embankment and into Parliament Square rolled the coach of the second Elizabeth. "I had to pinch myself," cabled Newsweek's correspondent, Geraldine Hill, "to realize that this was not the 16th century and the Coronation of Elizabeth I. Parliament Square looked like a jousting yard with the painted stands, jammed with 10,000 spectators, and the constant arrival of ancient coaches, cavalry escorts and crimson-robed dignitaries. As the hands of Big Ben neared 11, the Queen's progress was heralded by the cheers of thousands of school children on the Embankment. Then she was here—as beautiful as a bride as she stepped from the golden coach, holding a bouquet of white flowers." The Abbey bells pealed, the Queen disappeared into the annex—and the sun vanished behind the overhanging clouds. Inside the Abbey, the trumpets filled the nave with a salute of silver sound. The Queen moved up the long blue carpet. Six Maids of Honor in gold and white held her train and crimson robe.

"Vivat Regina!" "Vivat Regina Elizabetha!" The high-pitched voices of the Queen's scholars of Westminster School broke through Parry's anthem, "I Was Glad." To the left, among the mass of dignitaries, the Queen could glimpse a small, hunched figure wearing the large diamond-studded badge of the Order of the Garter—Sir Winston Churchill. On she went, up the steps into the theater, past the throne on its dais, past King Edward's Chair, to her own Chair of Estate.

"Sirs, I here present unto you Queen Elizabeth, your undoubted Queen: Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service, are you willing to do the same?"

Four times the resonant voice of the Archbishop of Canterbury reached into the far corners of the Abbey as he presented the Queen. "God Save Queen Elizabeth!" The "loud and repeated acclamations" came rolling back as specified in the Order of Service. The Archbishop approached the Chair of Estate. "Madam, is your Majesty willing to take the Oath?" She was. And perhaps as she promised the Archbishop to maintain the "Protestant Reformed Religion established by and the Sword, the Armills, the Stole law," she thought of the other Elizabeth and of how she had made the first Protestant breach in the then-Catholic service by insisting that part of it be conducted in English instead of in Latin. "Behold, behold, behold, O God our Defender!" The voices came swelling up in the opening of the long Communion Service. For some moments the Queen could relax. Then again she became the center of attention for that mystery of mysteries, the Anointing.

Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King. As Handel's massive anthem rolled out, the Queen slowly divested herself of her robe, her glittering diadem and the collar of the Order of the Garter. From his seat in the transept, Edward Weintal, Newsweek's correspondent, observed: "The Queen looked somewhat undressed, scared and lonely. She was led to King Edward's chair and became virtually hidden from view by a pall of silk canopy held by four Garter Knights. The audience felt something dramatic and mysterious was taking place out of sight. The effect was heightened by the attiring of the Queen in a plain linen garment carefully and deliberately buttoned up at the back by the Mistress of the Robes. It seemed to an unversed spectator that something dreadful was going to happen to the Queen at that moment."

Next, as the ceremony unfolded, the Queen received her regalia—the Spurs and the sword, the Armills, the Stole Royal and the Robe Royal, the Orb, the Ring, the Sceptre with the Cross, the Rod with the Dove. "O God the Crown of the faithful...."

The new Queen wears St.Edward's Crown as she awaits the homage of her loyal subjects in Westminster Abbey during her coronation. UNIVERSAL/AP Images

The Archbishop took St. Edward's Crown. He advanced from the Altar and reverently placed it on the Queen's head (this would be the first and the last time she would wear it). The jewels picked up the shimmering light for a moment, and then came the "loud and repeated shouts" of "God Save the Queen." The peers and the peeresses put on their coronets, the trumpets blared and in the distance the guns in the Tower and in Hyde Park boomed a salute. Along the route of the procession, two million people shouted.

"Stand firm and hold fast from henceforth the seat and state of Royal and imperial dignity...."

Now, from the throne, Elizabeth looked down on the Archbishop and the Great Officers of State. Now she was truly Queen, and all of them, high and low, owed homage.

"I, Philip, do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship." For the first time, Elizabeth's husband took his place in the ceremony, but as a subject, not as a husband. Only after she received the homage of the others and returned to the faldstool at the end of the Communion did the Duke join the Queen as her husband.

Queen Elizabeth, wearing her crown, center foreground, leads the procession through Westminster Abbey's nave after her Coronation. AP Images

Finally, as the choir sang the Te Deum, the Queen walked in state to St. Edward's Chapel. "More unlike a chapel than anything...ever seen," wrote Victoria; "What was called an Altar was covered with sandwiches, bottles of wine, etc." Elizabeth, unlike Victoria, lunched in the annex. As the organ, the orchestra, the trumpets, the choir and the spectators thundered out the National Anthem, the Queen emerged from St. Edward's Chapel—now she was wearing the lighter Imperial crown—walked through the Theater, down the nave and passed out through the great doors of the Abbey. The Coronation ceremony was ended.

The return procession to Buckingham Palace—the people's show—was still to come. After an hour's refreshment, the Queen and the Duke again mounted the steps of the State Coach. For nearly two miles ahead, troops were marching, bands playing. Again the Queen smiled, nodded and moved her lips: "So kind, so nice, so very, very loyal."

The sun broke through briefly, then down came the rain again. The dye in scarlet uniforms ran; caps drooped; admirals and Air Force officers slithered in their saddles. But no downpour could dampen the military panoply of an empire on parade. With the massive precision of the British Army parade step, the long lines twisted through the West End.

Along Pall Mall rolled the State Coach, up St. James's Street and down Piccadilly. In a house abutting Green Park, Elizabeth had been born, daughter of the then Duke of York. As third in line of succession to the throne, her accession seemed almost as remote as at one time did that of the other Elizabeth—originally also third in line.

Past Hyde Park, along Oxford Street, around the great curve of Regent Street, down Haymarket, and finally back into The Mall—the Queen was nearly home. As the State Coach approached the Palace, Elizabeth may have cast a glance at Clarence House—her first real home after marriage and her residence when she received in the treetop cottage in Kenya Colony the news that George VI was dead and she was Queen of England.

The coach came to a halt in Buckingham Palace courtyard. For a moment, the Queen stepped into the role of mother to greet her two children as she entered the palace. She took up the role of Queen again to pose for official pictures by Cecil Beaton, appear on the Buckingham Palace balcony for an RAF flypast, greet palace guests, broadcast to the nation and switch on special London Coronation illuminations. Then The Day was done.

It had been the world's Day. But, more than that, it had been her Day.

Back at home in Buckingham Palace after her coronation, Queen Elizabeth poses in the Throne Room with her regalia. AP Images

This article appears in Newsweek's Special Commemorative Edition, The Queen.

Geoff Pugh/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts