The Queen Is Dead,
Long live the king!
By Tony Rothwell
Sounds harsh doesn’t it? But that’s the way it’s been for a thousand years.
As London, and much of the world, prepares for another large helping of English pomp and circumstance, I can’t help thinking back to a cold, gloomy February day in Whitby, Yorkshire. The year was 1952. I was at a boarding school, in a spelling class. We were 9-year-olds. The door opened and in came a teacher who announced he had sad news — King George VI had died. He asked us to bow our heads in a minute of silence, after which he told us that Princess Elizabeth was now our queen.
King George had been an unassuming monarch, rather overshadowed by Winston Churchill in the public eye, and the truth was we didn’t know much about him. Yes, his head was on the back of our pennies and thruppenny bits but we had no real impression of him.
However, matters royal were about to change as year-long preparations were made for the coronation of our new queen. England had had a tough time of it since the beginning of World War II in 1939, and we were still suffering from shortages, rebuilding, even rationing. Now here was something we could all look forward to.
It wasn’t long before the date of the coronation was announced — June 2, 1953. Over a year of preparations lay ahead, and England went into overdrive. Long-made plans were dusted off for the service in Westminster Abbey, the procession, the invitation list and, out in the country, celebrations and street parties were planned in every town and village. Meanwhile, all manner of coronation merchandise was popping up in shops. I still have my treasure trove — a commemorative mug, a special coronation crown coin, first day cover postage stamps, a paperweight, the souvenir programme and BBC’s Radio Times for coronation week, in its original binder.
The big news was when the BBC announced that the coronation was to be televised, though only a handful of people had access to a set. My brother and I had recently watched TV for the first time when the English FA Cup final was shown in a hut in our village to a packed audience. The reception was terrible. Every vehicle that went by produced a snowstorm over the screen, but it was still very exciting. We heard our parents discussing getting a set and did all we could to encourage them. Then suddenly it was there. A beautiful, mahogany, floor-standing piece of furniture containing a tiny 12-inch screen behind double doors placed next to the fireplace in our living room.
The day of the coronation finally came. TV coverage began early, and we were all gathered round the cathode ray tube — my parents, brother Bill, our corgi Taffy and myself — at our house south of Manchester in northwest England with the Radio Times in hand. It perfectly reflected the all-consuming mood of patriotism and coronation-mania the country was experiencing. The pages were devoted to every conceivable aspect: the “Form and Order” of the 2 hour, 50 minute service with the crowning expected at approximately 12:30 p.m.; the symbology of the many trappings of the monarchy; the glorious music and who would be singing; a map of the route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey where a congregation of 7,000 would await the young queen; and, after the service, the much longer route back to Buckingham Palace to be cheered on by the huge crowds who had come from all over Britain.
Even the Times’ advertisements were in on the act. Shell Oil did it with poetry:
Along Pall Mall, along St. James
Old buildings echo with the din
Old streets remember famous names
Lord Byron, Wellington and Gwyn
While Guardsmen’s plumes awake the air
Like pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
Two days later the United States had its moment with a radio tribute to coronation week titled “A Star-Spangled Salute,” starring Burl Ives, Gregory Peck, Sam Wanamaker and Master of Ceremonies Ben Lyon.
My most vivid memories of the day are the arrival of the queen at the Abbey to the ear-splitting acclamation “Vivat! Vivat! Vivat! Regina”; the glorious coronation coach (it was black and white television, of course, but we were assured it was gold); and the massive, Union Jack-waving crowds lining the processional route.
In the year 1066 William the Conqueror was the first monarch to be crowned in Westminster Abbey, and 957 years later, on Saturday, May 6, King Charles will be the 40th monarch to process up the Abbey’s aisle. Once seated on the throne he will have the St. Edward’s crown, made in 1661 for Charles II, placed upon his head, and Camilla, as queen consort, will wear the crown made for Queen Mary in 1911. Incidentally the St. Edward’s crown weighs 4.9 pounds, which will explain the care exercised when it is being placed on Charles’ head.
The contrast between the two sovereigns, mother and son assuming the throne almost exactly 70 years apart, could not be greater — a pretty, sheltered, 25-year-old queen, and a 74-year-old, twice-married king. We are promised a somewhat scaled back service in the Abbey to that of the late queen, the king being sensitive to Britain’s current economic and social climate, but there will be three days of events and concerts and a national holiday on the Monday. For millions of Brits born after June 1953 and seeing their very first coronation, it will be a truly memorable occasion with celebrations up and down the country and glasses raised to the newly crowned sovereign — “Here’s a health unto His Majesty.”
Meanwhile our KCIII commemorative mug has just arrived. PS
Tony Rothwell moved to Pinehurst in 2017, exchanging the mind-numbing traffic of Washington, D.C., for less traffic, better weather and the vagaries of golf. He spent 50 years in the hotel business but in retirement writes short stories, collects caricatures, sings in the Moore County Choral Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.