Comparing Coronations, 1953 & 2023

Glittering ceremonial celebrations for the King’s coronation have been unveiled, detailing the procession route, the carriages, and the priceless Crown Jewels have been chosen to play a starring role. The coronation service on May 6 will begin at 11 am. Charles and the Queen (Consort) Camilla will travel in a shorter procession route than the late Elizabeth II and break with tradition by only using the elaborate 260-year-old Gold State Carriage one way – on their return. The monarch and Queen Camilla have personally decided to make the 1.3-mile outward journey – known as the King’s Procession – from Buckingham Palace in the more modern, comfortable Diamond Jubilee State Coach, which has shock absorbers, heating, and air conditioning. They will travel, accompanied by The Sovereign’s Escort of the Household Cavalry, down The Mall via Admiralty Arch, along the south side of Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall and Parliament Street, around the east and south sides of Parliament Square to Broad Sanctuary to arrive at the Abbey.

The Royal Wedding & Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation:

Initially, it had been unclear how the monarchy would fare in post-war Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Attlee’s ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is almost no sign of it in their private diaries and memoirs either. But there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Yet the Windsors triumphed, as they would again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects.

The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth to the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle, the first of its kind. It was an explosion of pageantry and colour in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to ‘pomp’ and pageantry. A wedding dress by Norman Hartnell was created out of clinging ivory silk trailed with jasmine, similax, seringa, and rose-like blossoms, encrusted with pearls and crystals. The wedding was a radio broadcast event, still, rather than a television one, though newreels of it packed out cinemas around the world, including in devastated Berlin. In its lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that, despite everything, Britain was back! But the wedding also reminded the ‘club’ of European royalty just how few of them had survived as rulers into the post-war world. Faded uniforms and slightly discoloured tiaras worn by the exiles were very much in evidence: Princess Margaret remarked that ‘people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.’

The Second World War had swept away much that was familiar; not just the buildings brought down by the Blitz, but the sense that the old world had passed. In housing, there were grave shortages, partly caused by the bombing, but in large part by the lamentable state of the pre-war housing stock, while the reintegration of millions of service personnel into the economy had caused severe disruption. There was a yearning for something new, for an escape, a need partly met by the arrival of the ‘New look,’ a fashion trend that tried to make the most of limited means with long, swirling skirts. Conversely, there was a political flight to safety when the Labour government was defeated in the 1951 general election and the familiar though ageing face of Winston Churchill returned to Downing Street. George VI, who had been the nation’s figurehead throughout the war, died on 6th February 1952, leaving his twenty-five-year-old daughter Elizabeth to succeed him. The planning for the new Queen’s Coronation began almost immediately, but the actual ceremony only took place fourteen months later.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953 was, therefore, primarily a moment for the nation to celebrate with lavish ceremony and age-hallowed pageantry. British coronations were always occasions for pomp and display, but Elizabeth II’s took place under the glare of unprecedented publicity. After a bitter behind-the-scenes argument, television cameras were allowed to film the ceremony, leading to the event being watched by over twenty million viewers, at a time when there were only 2.7 million television sets in Britain, many of them bought specifically to watch the Coronation.

The Route to the Abbey & Back:

The three million who lined London’s streets did not see the Queen enter the Abbey preceded by St Edward’s Crown, based on the medieval original, and used since the Coronation of Charles II, nor her gown designed by Norman Hartnell embroidered with emblems from the main Commonwealth countries (a Tudor rose for Great Britain, a maple leaf for Canada, a wattle for Australia and a lotus flower for India). But they did catch a glimpse of the fairy-tale carriage in which she was transported down Whitehall, Piccadilly, Oxford Street and Regent Street along the circuitous five-mile route back from the Abbey to the Palace. The line of the ten thousand servicemen who marched as part of the parade stretched for almost two miles.

The contemporary maps, above and below, illustrate the planning for a day which brought a sense of relief to the people of the United Kingdom after the trials and tribulations of the Second World War and the years of austerity which had followed. The procession through London’s streets, which followed the coronation ceremony itself, snaked through the city’s historic heart, beginning at Westminster Abbey, before arriving back at Buckingham Palace nearly two hours later.

The late Queen rode both ways in the Gold State Carriage for her 1953 coronation, famously describing the bumpy experience in the carriage, suspended on leather straps, as “horrible.” Her outward procession was 1.6 miles long, but her return procession was five miles, taking her down Piccadilly, along Oxford Street and Regent Street and Haymarket. It took two hours to complete, featured sixteen thousand participants, and was designed to allow her to be seen by as many people as possible.

The 260-year-old Gold State Carriage will be used only for the King and Camilla’s return procession (Yui Mok/PA)
The coronation routes in 1953 and 2023 (PA)

The newly crowned Charles and Camilla will travel just the 1.3 miles back in the Gold State Carriage after the ceremony, reversing their outward journey as they wave to the crowds, with the King wearing the Imperial State Crown. The route is understood to have been chosen for practical reasons, being a familiar tried and tested journey for many royal occasions. Apparently, however, the carriage has been refitted with ‘modern’ suspension and air conditioning to make even the shorter journey more comfortable. A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said:

“The carriages chosen reflect the smaller procession to the Abbey and the larger procession back to Buckingham Palace. They were the personal choice of Their Majesties.”

The Gold State Coach features, above each wheel, a massive triton figure in gilded walnut wood (Yui Mok/PA)

The Palace declined to comment on whether the decision to opt for the Diamond Jubilee State Coach at the start has anything to do with the ongoing back pain the King has suffered for many decades. Camilla has also endured back problems over the years.

Elizabeth II, accompanied by Charles and Camilla, in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach in 2019 (Yui Mok/PA)

The black and gold Diamond Jubilee coach, built in Australia and first used by the late Queen at the State Opening of Parliament in 2014, is the newest in the Royal Mews. It features modern technology, with six hydraulic stabilizers to stop it from swaying, and traditional craftsmanship with interior wooden panels made from objects donated by more than a hundred historic sites, including royal residences, the Mary Rose, 10 Downing Street and the Antarctic bases of Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. Charles’ Coronation Procession in the Gold State Carriage will feature a cast of hundreds of members of the Armed Forces from the UK, Commonwealth and the British Overseas Territories, as well as the Sovereign’s Bodyguard and Royal Watermen.

Sally Goodsir, curator of decorative arts at the Royal Collection Trust, said:

“The Gold State Coach will be the centrepiece of the much larger procession from Westminster Abbey back to Buckingham Palace on coronation day. It will take longer than his outward journey because the historic gilded carriage, which will be drawn by eight Windsor greys, is so heavy it has to travel at a walking pace…

“It weighs four tonnes and because of that it can only be used at a walking pace which really adds to the majesty and stateliness of this great royal procession.”

The Ceremony as described by an eye-witness:

People began to speak of a new Elizabethan age following the death of George VI and the accession of his daughter in 1952 and in anticipation of the great national event of the Coronation. The Establishment took up their usual positions at Westminster Abbey. Sir Henry Chips Channon occupied almost the same seat as the one he had at the previous Coronation. He wrote the following account in his diary:

“… All was comfortably, smoothly arranged … as a covered bridge had been built from St Stephen’s entrance to the East Door. But there was a slight drizzle and an overcast sky. … Below, empty in the golden light, stood the throne. Opposite, the peeresses’ benches were gradually filling up; the front row of thirteen Duchesses was a splendid sight. … The long wait was enthralling as every few minutes a procession of distinguished guests, relations, minor royalties entered and were escorted to their seats. Finally, the Royal Family. …The Duchess of Kent was fairy-like, as she walked in with her children…

Her Majesty with six of the ‘thirteen Duchesses’

“… Finally came the magic of the Queen’s arrival: she was calm and confident and even charming, and looked touching and quite perfect, while Prince Philip was like a medieval knight – the Service, Anointing, Crowning, Communion were endless, yet the scene was so splendid, so breath-taking in the solemn splendour that it passed in a flash. The homage was impressive… The Great Officers of State swished their robes with dignity… Privy Councillors in their uniforms, men in levee dress, the little Queen at one moment simply dressed in a sort of shift, and then later resplendent: the pretty pages; the supreme movements… the nodding, chatting, gossiping Duchesses; the swan-like movements when they simultaneously placed their coronets on their heads… it was all finer, and better organised than the last time, although the Archbishop’s voice was not as sonorous as that of the wicked old Lang…

“…What a day for England, and the traditional forces of the world. Shall we ever see the like again? I have been present at two Coronations and now shall never see another. Will my Paul be an old man at that of King Charles III?

Sir Henry Channon, Diaries,edited by Robert James (1967), pp. 475-477.

Paul Channon was Sir Henry’s only son (b. 1935), and succeeded his father as MP for Southend West, serving from 1959 to 1997. He became Minister of State at the Civil Service Department when the Conservatives returned to power in 1979 led by Margaret Thatcher. He joined the Privy Council in 1980. After the Civil Service Department was abolished in 1981, he became Minister for the Arts, then Minister of State for Trade at the Department of Trade and Industry following the 1983 general election, finally serving as Secretary of State for Transport from 1987 until 1989. He died in 2007, aged 71, fifteen years before Her Majesty, and so will not be present at the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III. Clearly, like so many others present that day, ‘Chips’ Channon could not have envisaged the young Queen reigning for another sixty-nine years.

The Ascent of Everest & the Beginning of a New Elizabethan Age:

It seemed truly the beginning of a new Elizabethan age, filled with hope. That news of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s first ascent of Mount Everest reached London on Coronation Day only added to the excitement of the day’s events. Later, Hillary gave his account of the final ascent to the summit which had taken place earlier that morning:

The ridge curved away to the right and we had no idea where the top was. As I cut around the back of one hump, another higher one would spring into view. Time was passing and the ridge seemed never-ending. … I went on step-cutting. I was beginning to tire a little now. I had been cutting steps for two hours, and Tenzing, too, was moving very slowly. As I chipped steps around another corner, I wondered rather dully just how long we could keep it up. Our original zest had now gone and it was turning more into a grim struggle. I then realised that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away, … I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running up to a snowy summit. A few more whacks of the ice-axe and we stood on top.

‘My initial feelings were of relief – relief that there were no more steps to cut – no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalise us with high hopes of success. I looked at Tenzing and in spite of the balaclava, goggles and oxygen mask all encrusted with long icycles that concealed his face, there was no disguising his infectious grin of pure delight as he looked all around him. We shook hands and then Tenzing threw his arm around my shoulder and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless. It was 11.30 a.m.’

The news of this first successful ascent to the summit, therefore, reached London as the monarch prepared for her coronation. The fact that both New Zealand and Nepal were part of what was still the British Empire and Commonwealth meant that the triumph was considered a truly British achievement. But the ‘mother’ country still had ‘Everests’ to climb. The real future challenges it faced were its continuing near-bankruptcy after the war, the growing demands for independence among ‘the colonies’, and its economic retardation behind both the United States and the resurgent nations of post-war Europe and the Far East.

The Priceless Coronation Regalia:

The priceless array of coronation regalia from the Crown Jewels which will be used during the religious service in the Abbey on 6th May 2023 has also been confirmed. It will include the Sovereign’s Orb, the Golden Spurs, bracelets known as Armills, two maces, five symbolic swords, the Sovereign’s Ring, the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross and the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Dove. Camilla will be crowned, as previously announced, with the modified Queen Mary’s Crown, but she will also hold the Queen’s Rod with Dove – despite the controversial rod being made from ivory. The piece is said to symbolize equity and mercy, and the dove, with its folded wings, represents the Holy Ghost.

The Sovereign’s Orb will feature in the ceremony (Royal Collection Trust/HM King Charles III/PA)

Camilla will also hold the Queen’s Sceptre with Cross, which was originally made for the coronation of Mary of Modena, Queen Consort of James II, in 1685 and is inlaid with rock crystals. As part of the proceedings, she will receive the Queen Consort’s Ring – a ruby in a gold setting made for the Coronation of King William IV and Queen Adelaide in 1831, and used by three further Queens Consort – Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. As previously announced, Charles will be crowned with the 17th-century St Edward’s Crown which has been resized to fit his head. He will switch it for the lighter Imperial State Crown at the end of the ceremony as is the custom.

One addition to the events on the day is that the King and Queen will receive a royal salute in the Buckingham Palace gardens from the military troops on parade. They will take the salute from the West Terrace after the ceremony, and the servicemen and women will give three cheers – a special coronation tribute from the Armed Forces to the couple.


Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

Michael Clark & Peter Tweed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents, Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Marr (2007-9), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

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