It was said of Queen Victoria and her son (eventually Edward VII), “The Queen continues to reign, and reign and won’t let the son shine.” It might be said of her great-great granddaughter, Elizabeth, “The Queen continues to shine, and shine and won’t let the son reign.” But if one looks to her coronation, held sixty years ago on Sunday, it is not difficult to see why she feels bound to retain the reins and make her sexagenarian son wait.
As Hugo Vickers describes in his authoritative and fascinating Coronation (Dovecote Press, 2013), the primary source for the service came from Edward II’s coronation in 1308 but elements were drawn from as far back as the crowning of King Edgar in 793. A solidly arcane ritual was in place on that wet morning of June 2 in Westminster Abbey in 1953 when the 99th Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher (Bubbles’ father-in-law) placed the King Edward Crown on the young head of Elizabeth II.
The Archbishop had just anointed her with the ancient words: "As kings, priests and prophets were anointed, and as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest . . . so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the peoples whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule." Time magazine described the moment: “The Crown itself sparkled in the candlelight. The Archbishop of Canterbury moved to the high altar, clasped it in both hands and raised it before him. "Oh God, the Crown of the Faithful," he prayed, "bless, we beseech Thee, this Crown, and so sanctify Thy servant Elizabeth, upon whose head Thou dost place it . . . that she may be filled by Thine abundant grace, with all princely virtue." With the Crown borne before him, Canterbury approached the Queen. He raised it high above her, paused for all to see, and placed it on her head.” The congregation, now her subjects, cried out: "God save the Queen! God save the Queen!"
Trumpets sounded, a thousand peers and peeresses rose and put on their coronets and then the Archbishop, Prince Philip, two of her uncles, and a representative from each of the five degrees of peerage (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons) all paid homage. Then again came a roar throughout the Abbey:
"God save Queen Elizabeth!
Long live Queen Elizabeth!
May the Queen live forever!"
Six decades on, it seems that she might. But what seems certain is that the young Queen saw the ceremony as a solemn pact with her God and with her people. This was no mere investiture. As the late Ben Pimlott put it (in his superb biography, The Queen) “Not all the water in the rough rude sea,” wrote Shakespeare wrote in Richard II, “can wash the balm from an anointed king.” The ceremony sanctified the pledge she famously made in Africa, eight years earlier on her 21st birthday. "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
Charles attended his mother’s coronation, the first young royal to do so. “Look, it’s Mummy” he exclaimed. He was only four so his memory of it may be faint, although a witness claimed that, as his mother took the Sovereign’s Sword, advanced with it to the altar and offered it to God, he watched enraptured.
As Pimlott observed, the coronation “was the most magnificent and affecting royal ceremonial of the century – despite, or because of, the decline in the importance of the Monarch.” He also considered that it “helped to define, not just royalty, but the British identity for the next generation.”
As the historian, Sir Charles Petrie, wrote of the Queen, “For the first few years of her reign, she was the subject of adulation unparalleled since the days of Louis XIV.” At the age of 25 and at the height of her beauty, she held much promise for Britain, still drained and rationed after the War. A new Elizabethan Age was declared. Charles III could well be beyond his biblical allotment of three score years and ten when St Edward’s Crown is placed on his head. No heir could be better prepared, but it can herald no new Caroline Age.
Recognising the spread of beliefs, Charles has said that he would prefer to be ‘Defender of Faiths’ – more than a gesture to the millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Catholics among his subjects. But will the hierarchy of the Established Church allow this, and will the godless majority of the rest of the Commonwealth care?
Prime Minister Menzies and a former PM and retired Australian High Commissioner, Stanley Bruce, were there to witness the crowning of the Head of the Commonwealth (a title coined and acquired only two years before). The Abbey was packed with coroneted peers. John Grigg had suggested that they might be “replaced by eminent Canadians, Australians, Pakistanis and other Commonwealth leaders” but he met a wall of opposition from Geoffrey Fisher and the Earl Marshal. The Abbey was instead packed with peers. They will continue to play a role but 1953 will surely be the last coronation where they will predominate.
The current republican Prime Minister has stated that Australia would remain a monarchy for the rest of the Queen’s reign. The newly minted alliance between Wayne Swan and Malcolm Turnbull may produce a presidential model but can there really be a level-headed referendum on the monarchy while an increasingly revered monarch lives? Unless there is a rough-and-ready referendum between her death and the crowning of Charles III, we shall be represented in the Abbey again to witness the coronation of the King of Australia.
Mark McGinness is a regular contributor to Quadrant