Sixty-three years ago today, on June 2, 1953, the official coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II of the UK occurred at Westminster Abbey, London. This was one of the most lavish and elaborate events in the recent history of Britain. Above, in the YouTube video embedded here, you will find the complete film record, in Technicolor, of the coronation which was made by a British film corporation. In addition to a record of the ceremonies and parades themselves, the film contains some pretty heavy-handed narration and propaganda about how great Britain really is, which is itself an interesting artifact of the times. The whole thing is 1 hour and 18 minutes, but if you want to cut to the chase, Liz officially gets her new hat beginning at 38:46.
In case you aren’t up on your points of royal procedure, don’t confuse the day of Elizabeth’s coronation with the day that Elizabeth actually became queen; that happened more than a year before, on February 6, 1952, when her father, King George VI, died. Under British tradition, coronations have usually occurred significantly after the accession, presumably to give the bereaved royal families time to get over whatever tragic event resulted in a change of monarch. This is in marked contrast to the Byzantine system, where emperors were crowned right away–sometimes with the bloodstains of the former ruler still on their clothes. In 20th century Britain they were well past that, of course, and what you see here is the full stage-managed spectacle of a monarchy in the modern age, trying (among other things) to demonstrate its national relevance in an era where temporal power has long since passed to elected representatives.
The coronation of the Queen contained a number of procedures set by long-held British tradition, such as the approach by the new monarch to the coronation chair.
The 1953 coronation is an interesting event in its own right because of what it says about our changing times. It was the fourth (and last) coronation to be held in the 20th century, the others having occurred in 1902, 1911 and 1937. It is the only coronation to have occurred in the age of television and thus the only ceremony to have been televised live–in fact the Canadian Broadcasting Company was experimenting with 3-D television technology, making this one of the first 3-D TV images ever shown. There was quite some debate about whether the ceremony should go out over the airwaves, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill reportedly against it. In 1953 Britain was only just coming out of the shadow of the Second World War, having lost most of her empire and a great deal of international clout. The British were just then trying to regain their footing on the world stage.
Yet this was also a world undoubtedly (now) of the distant past. The next coronation, which will almost surely occur in the next 10 or 15 years, will be that of King Charles III. If the question in 1953 was whether to allow television cameras, at the next coronation the question will be whether to allow cell-phone cameras and whether the event should be live-streamed on the Internet. The ceremony will be the same, having evolved over centuries, but coronations of British monarchs now happen so infrequently that each one has the potential to mark the place of the British royal family in an entire age–undoubtedly as Charles’s will, or perhaps William’s after him. This is interesting to think about if you watch the pomp and circumstance in the video above, and ponder the age-old question of how we bring long-held traditions into the modern world, and at what cost to them and to us.