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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Coronation Day: Ask a royal historian
Queen Elizabeth II

Royal historian Robert Lacey answered your questions on the Queen's coronation.



This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Queen's coronation.

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2 June 1953 in Westminster Abbey.

The Queen succeeded to the throne a year earlier in February 1952, after the death of her father King George VI.

Elizabeth was in Kenya at the time and became the first Sovereign in over 200 years to accede to the throne while abroad.

As part of the celebrations of the anniversary, the Queen and other members of the Royal Family attended a special service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey on Monday, 2 June.

You put your questions on the coronation to historian Robert Lacey.

You can also tune in to Robert Lacey's five part series The Year 1953 on BBC Radio 4, starting on Monday, 2 June until Friday, 6 June, at 1445GMT/1545BST.


Transcript:


Susanna Reid:

Hello and welcome to this BBC News interactive forum, I'm Susanna Reid. Today, June 2nd, is the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation. The royal event captured the hearts and minds of a nation, and sales of the new medium of television doubled, as people all over the country were eager to see the ceremony, which was screened live. To mark the occasion today, the Queen and members of her family have attended a special service at Westminster Abbey, and our guest has been watching the proceedings. He's Royal historian, Robert Lacey, and he joins me now from Westminster to answer your many questions. Thanks very much indeed for coming in.

There's a couple of questions here on a similar theme and a popular question. Carolyn Cumming, UK asks: Why was there such a long gap between the Queen acceding to the throne in February 1952 and her Coronation in June 1953? And what was her "official" status during this gap?

Paul in the UK asks a similar question: If the Queen was officially crowned Queen in 1953 and she acceded to the throne in 1952, why was last year her 50th jubilee year if she hadn't been declared Queen yet?


Robert Lacey:

A very good question. Well she had been declared Queen the moment her father died. There is this great constitutional doctrine - the King is dead, long live the King. The Royal Standard never drops. So in some mystic way, the Royal succession went immediately to her - as we know famously back in '52 she was up a tree in Kenya somewhere looking at wildlife - and her legal status, her constitutional status, was not affected in any way. From that moment she was a full queen and the coronation ceremony really confirmed it, I suppose.

Now why the long gap? Several reasons: firstly it was a great international event - people had to come from all over the world. That involved heads of state and travel, which, in those days, was much more cumbersome than today. More to the point however, the tradition says that the Monarch must be crowned in the sight of all the people and that has always been interpreted as meaning that Westminster Abbey has to be rebuilt virtually. A sort of entire football stadium created inside with scaffolding and wood seats, trebling the capacity from about 2,000 that we saw today in a normal setting, up to about 8, 000 - 9,000. Now that took and would still today take a long time except nowadays that wouldn't be allowed by health and safety standards.

It looks as if next time we have a coronation, it will be a television event out in the streets. All sorts of stands had to be built - the Mall was created as a sort of racecourse with great big solid wooden stands. There was a lot of controversy about the wood. What was going to happen to it after the event - and it was made very clear that it would go to help the housing problem of the times. The stands were designed so that the planks could be reused to build local authority housing. I don't think, however we're ever going to see a gap like that again. When in the course of time, either Prince Charles or Prince William comes to the throne, I imagine with television that will be interpreted as being in sight of all the people and the coronation will be held pretty rapidly. And then there are all sorts of other questions, which we maybe will come to later, about whether the next coronation will be a Christian service, given that Prince Charles, for example, wants to be defender of all the faiths - but that's another issue.


Susanna Reid:

We'll get onto who succeeds the Queen a little later on. But was there anything significant about June 2nd being picked as the date?


Robert Lacey:

Yes, it was picked because the metrological experts at the time in 1952 said that is the sunniest day of the year and as everybody who can remember that day famously will recall, it was just about the wettest day of the year. It is supposed to fall right in the middle of the dreamy English mid-summer. It was a bit like, in that sense, the Queen's official birthday - fixed on exclusively for the convenience of everybody who would come and in the hope of good weather.


Susanna Reid:

You mentioned how many people watched the Coronation and how many people were watching that service today. Andrew Elsden, England asks: Was the 1953 Coronation planned to take proper account of television cameras that were present at the time?

It was broadcast live and many people went out to buy televisions in order to watch it. But how much was the planning organised around the televising?


Robert Lacey:

Not an enormous amount because to start with the plan was it wouldn't be televised. The Queen was dreadfully scared and nervous - she was pretty young then in her mid-20s. Also she'd had dinned into her by her father, George VI, an extraordinary dinner party routine that he'd worked up of all the gaffs and mistakes that had been the case at his own coronation in 1937 - with archbishops tumbling over and nearly dropping the crown and how his heart was in his mouth. And the Queen was dreadfully nervous that this would happen live on television. She didn't mind having it filmed for the newsreels which could be edited. But she was scared - when she confided in Winston Churchill he said, that's alright we won't have it televised.

Then in October 1952, it was announced, it was going to be on newsreels but not on television. And there was the first of those outcries which have actually marked the Queen's reign. In the 1990s, when were told here in Britain we would have to pay of repairing Windsor Castle, there was a sort of national uprising expressed in the media and on the call-in shows etc. Well back in 1952, no call-in shows, but the same thing in the paper - there was a great outcry and then of course we got the soft soap from the Palace - oh well, yes, the Queen actually wanted to have it on the television all the time and it was her silly advisers. That wasn't the case - we didn't discover until about the 1980s what really went on behind the scenes. So it was lit and designed for the old-fashioned newsreel cameras and then at a later stage the TV was fitted in.


Susanna Reid:

Was it deemed to have been a success?


Robert Lacey:

A massive success - oh yes. American television took it - there were no satellites in those days and so they filmed it and then the film was put on jets. There were no civilian jets in those days, so fighter planes from the RAF and the US Air Force were standing by - they jetted it across the Atlantic. That night in America, every single TV network showed the Coronation. So in one sense it was the biggest television show ever in American history since it got total ratings, there was nothing else to watch.


Susanna Reid:

R Carter, England wants to know about the crown. He asks: As the Queen was crowned with the gold St Edward's crown, why is she wearing the silver Imperial State Crown in footage taken after the ceremony?


Robert Lacey:

I'm not much of an "anorak" on crowns myself. But the St Edward's crown is the great holy crown. Of course all things were remade after the Restoration. They all got melted down by the Parliamentarians but the regalia got restored in the 1660s and as I understand it, Sir Edward's crown, named after Sir Edward the Confessor, who founded the Abbey, who is buried in the Abbey - the first king to be crowned in the Abbey and therefore is a sort of patron saint of royalty. That's the sacred crown but its very, very heavy. Therefore, it's only used for the ceremonial crowning. But that's the imperial state crown that she wears, for example, in the carriage.

Also sharp eyed viewers of the footage will see that as she rides along, apparently holding the orb in her hand in the carriage, in fact in the carriage there's a special metal ring to carry the heavy orb which she couldn't possibly have carried all the way. But it was considered interesting in those days, very important for her ceremonially symbolically actually to carry the orb all the way back to Buckingham Palace symbolising her authority.


Susanna Reid:

You mentioned the weather, it was supposed to be a sunny day, it turned out to be one of the dampest. Bruno Bragoli from Canada asks about a character who a number of people have asked about: Was one of the crowd favourites in the Coronation procession fifty years ago in London Queen Salote of Tonga? I recall her ability to face the wet elements on that day. Her spirit touched all the Londoners who watched and cheered her.


Robert Lacey:

Well Queen Salote was an enormously large but very genial and smiling lady who, as Bruno rightly says, became a unofficial star of the Coronation. And there's a famous joke told about her. She rode in the carriage totally undeterred by all the rain that was pouring down, refusing the umbrella that some other people used. And apparently Noel Coward was watching the procession and as he saw the carriage go by with Queen Salote and a rather insignificant little man in front of her, who was king or prince of some other part of the Commonwealth in those days. Somebody said to Noel Coward - who is that sitting with Queen Salote - and he looked very hard and then pronounced "her lunch"! That became one of the great jokes of the Coronation.


Susanna Reid:

Andy Rogers from London has just e-mailed us to ask what Prince Phillip did during the Coronation ceremony 50 years ago?


Robert Lacey:

Very interesting. Two things: behind the scenes he was really the grand impresario of the whole thing right from the beginning. There was a committee at Buckingham Palace consisting of everybody organising it and Prince Phillip was in charge of that with his customary naval efficiency. Then at the ceremony, he in fact was the first person to render homage to the Queen.

And it's speculative, but it's an interesting precedent for the next coronation if that involves Prince Charles. People say, how can Prince Charles make Camilla queen if he marries Camilla Parker-Bowles. Well, if he does marry Camilla Parker-Bowles - and I've no way of knowing one way or the other about that - it is generally thought that when he marries her, she will certainly obviously not become Princess of Wales, but she will take one of his titles - maybe as Duchess of Cornwall or something like that, he has Scottish titles too. Therefore, when he is crowned as king, if he outlives his mother, once again Camilla will not become queen, she will be like a female Duke of Edinburgh, on the side. And I think that will take care of many people's anxieties - that while they're quite happy for Charles and Camilla to get together, they don't like the idea of her becoming queen and certainly, I don't think, she ever will.


Susanna Reid:

A number of people asking about the status of Prince Charles. Betsy Parker, USA asks: Why hasn't the Queen abdicated in favour of Prince Charles? Apart from his marital scandal, does she not trust his abilities or qualities as a future king?

John Wildman, Ireland asks: It is time for the Queen to step down, and let Prince William be King?


Robert Lacey:

There's nothing to stop the Queen abdicating tomorrow or effectively being made to abdicate by all of us. In the recent Paul Burrell affair, people said, the Queen couldn't appear in court. Well what would happen if the Queen committed a murder or stole so that she had to appear in court - well she would be forced to abdicate and then she would appear in court. So it is a perfectly possible thing. But of course, it would be a traumatic thing for the Queen to abdicate. She was pushed into the line of succession by the abdication of her uncle which shattered her family. So (a) she doesn't want it for that personal reason and (b) her vision of the monarchy is something that you are born with and do until you're dying day. Perhaps Prince Charles's destiny will never be to become king but actually as she gets older he will become more and more of a support to her and take her place with some of the duties that she can't fulfil anymore.


Susanna Reid:

David, Qatar/UK: How easy would it be to change to a Republic when the current queen dies?


Robert Lacey:

Very easy. At the end of the day, the British monarchy exists by the consent of the people. There's a very interesting part of the Coronation service which we saw referred to today when right at the beginning there is an acclimation - do you accept this person as your monarch - it's a two-way service. Once you get to the coronation stage of course everybody inside the Church, bellows out, yes. But if people didn't want a monarchy in this country it would be perfectly possible to pass the necessary laws, if you could get a majority of people in Parliament and then you'd have the whole business which Australia contemplated recently and decided was too complicated - what alternative system do you have?


Susanna Reid:

Benjamin Rodkin, USA asks: The Commonwealth has been of great importance to the Queen, but do you think that Canada, Australia and New Zealand will remain monarchies after Her Majesty passes from the scene?
Or is her particular personality that makes them want to continue being part of the monarch-led Commonwealth?


Robert Lacey:

I would agree with that. I would think there's a big question mark as to whether those countries would wish to remain monarchies as they are at the moment with King Charles III, say. Frankly they might feel differently if it was King William the V when he eventually comes to the throne. The monarchy in all countries does depend very much on the personality of the monarch involved. Having said that of course the future king would continue probably - and again this is another question - to be head of the Commonwealth and presumably would still be welcome in Canada and Australia and everywhere as the monarch of Great Britain. And it's even said that's the Queen's attitude towards Australia's doubts about the monarchy is well, in a way it would be a good thing if they didn't want her Queen of Australia anymore because then should could go welcomed as the head of the Commonwealth, head of Britain, everybody cheering, without this issue as to whether people are really happy with the monarchy still surviving there.


Susanna Reid:

Barbara Anderson, Australia asks: How much longer does the Queen serve before becoming the longest serving monarch?


Robert Lacey:

Good question. She's obviously got to get to her diamond jubilee which will be in 2012 and interestingly already being linked with our British bid for the Olympic Games. That will represent 60 years on the throne - Queen Victoria reached that in 1897, she died four years later. It's Queen Victoria that the Queen has got to beat. So we're looking at 2015, 2016 and if she makes it to then - she's only got to make 90 years of age and then she'll be the longest living and reigning monarch ever.


Susanna Reid:

That would be quite an extraordinary achievement. Elaine Wyllie, Scotland asks: Why is the Queen called Elizabeth II when she is Queen of Scotland and Scotland has never had a Queen Elizabeth I?


Robert Lacey:

Absolutely correct. There was a lot of fuss about this at the time of the Coronation and of course even to get more technical I don't think there's ever been such a thing as a Queen of Scotland - people talk about the Queen of Scots. Having said that of course the union of the two countries, England and Scotland, was really made possible when a Scottish royal family - the Stuarts - came south and took us over down here in England - so it's a two-way process. Also when the Queen was crowned back in 1953, she sat on something called the Stone of Scone, which was stolen from the Scots as a victory trophy back in the Middle Ages at the time of Robert the Bruce and Edward III. No future monarch will ever be crowned on that, in England certainly, because that was given back by John Major to the Scots in the 1990s.

When you look at the liner, the QE2, you may notice it is an Arabic two and not the Roman two - that is because the ship was built in Scotland and a lot of Scots said, we don't want a ship called the Queen Elizabeth II because we're Scottish and we've never had a second queen Elizabeth. So it has that "2" on it to indicate it is the second boat called Queen Elizabeth but not the second monarch.


Susanna Reid:

Phil Millington, UK asks: What is the significance of the Queen's "official" birthday. The date seem to be sometime in June but there doesn't seem to be a fixed date. Does it have something to do with the date of the Coronation?


Robert Lacey:

Only in the way that I referred to earlier that it is fixed for some day in the summer - usually a Saturday when the trooping the colour can be held when there is hope of good weather. Her actual birthday is in April. I think it was her grandfather or great grandfather, who started this habit of making a distinction between the natural birthday, if it fell at an inclement time of year and just having an official birthday at the time when everybody else could join in and celebrate and it fits in with things like Ascot and Garter Day etc.


Susanna Reid:

Now 1953 is a significant year obviously from the point of view of the Coronation - an enormous amount of other things going on in 1953 as well, not least the ascent of Everest for the first time.


Robert Lacey:

Yes, this week, if I may make a plug, on BBC Radio 4 at 3.45 every afternoon, Monday to Friday, I've got a radio programme about the year 1953 and everything else that happened in it apart from the Coronation. Yes indeed the ascent of Everest by a British expedition - not in fact scaled by two men who were Brits. - one, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and the other the New Zealander Edmund Hillary. But of course through happy accident really, the news reached England on the night of June 1st, so it was the headlines in the papers on June 2nd and one thing to cheer people up in the rainy conditions to which they woke up on that morning.


Susanna Reid:

Robert Lacey, thank you very much indeed for joining us and thanks to you for your many questions. From me, Susanna Reid and the rest of the News Interactive team here in London, goodbye.




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