The Queen is crowned

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 6 June 1953.</strong>

Few countesses hav

Miss Lane, who contributes the following personal impression of the Abbey ceremony, is by marriage the Countess of Huntingdon.

When it was all over, and we came out into the scudding wind and rain (weather seemingly bent on proving the sublime indifference of heaven to human affairs), what was the impression, the emotion, uppermost in the mind? First, undoubtedly, a revelation of sumptuous, grave and stirring beauty: a beauty that almost burned and dazzled the eye, and left mine weary; a man-made beauty, in splendid and defiant contrast to the rain-whipped world outside. A stirring beauty, that had carried us through hours of shivering and fatigue, and made us indifferent to the chilled claret cup and withered lobster patties with which we were now refreshed.

After seven hours in the Abbey, in an extremity of cold which must have taxed the resources of even the English summer climate, one’s thoughts are not easy to sort out. But the great emotional moments are unforgettable; and for me the moment of enthroning, when the Queen, stiff, golden and glittering as one of those brocaded waxen figures in a Spanish church, was supported up the steps of the throne after the crowning, was the one which really caught the breath.

After that, an element of pity and sympathy crept in; for between the inhuman magnificence of the crown, and the glittering of the vestment-like golden robe, the Queen’s face was very young, very human and very tense. The eyes were downcast, the small hands holding the rod and sceptre anxiously rigid, the cheeks pale and the mouth grave in its concentration of the huge responsibility of the moment. It is surely impossible, whatever one’s beliefs, not to be moved by the spectacle of a young Queen, newly crowned, enthroned in her first splendour. And we were so moved. A kind of sigh of sympathy and satisfaction went up. In beauty, in solemnity, it was a perfect moment.

All that had led up to it had been fascinating, amusing, endlessly interesting; but until the Queen herself had come under your eyes in the Abbey, that special tenderness of sympathy had been wanting. Our attention had been busy everywhere since seven o’clock, enjoying the splendour of the Abbey, hung in blue brocade and carpeted in gold, the medieval brilliance of the heralds, the glittering uniforms (making all the men handsome), the sumptuous appearance of the peers and peeresses, who, since all were dressed alike in crimson and ermine, made up a decorative mass which obliterated the oddity of individuals.

But the cold! The peeresses were confined to what was, in effect, a wind tunnel. A draught as strong as those artificial ones so cleverly manufactured in the Underground blew on our backs, and to judge by the temperature, it had come straight from Everest. Our teeth chattered, we quaked inwardly with cold, we wrapped ourselves in our trains and watched our arms turn blue.

This was the only unpleasant feature of the long waiting; everything else was rich in incident and interest, and time passed quickly. The royal ladies began to arrive, each with her train-bearer, each giving her own version of the proper management of a royal train. The technique is for the royal lady to wait, when she reaches the steps of the Queen Mother’s box, while her lady-in-waiting deftly folds the train double, then takes it up in three-yard-long lengths and places it neatly over her mistress’s arm. The Princess Royal and Princess Margaret performed this little ceremony neatly and gracefully, bestowing a smile of thanks when it was finally done; but there were some scowls and bungling as well, which were less pretty to watch. And when the Queen Mother’s procession was all safely in, there was a moment of absurdity so unexpected and complete that there was a gust of laughter. From nowhere, on to the honey-gold carpet all around the throne, rushed, to the tune of Greensleeves, four white-overalled figures, three women and a man, and performed a frantic ballet of carpet -sweeping. What were they supposed to be removing? The carpet was flawless, the congregation hushed and expectant, waiting for the Queen. Could one believe that she would be heralded with sweepers and brooms? Or was it a deliberate device, to ease the long tension and waiting with comic relief?

It was throughout a very curious and unlikely blend - the high ecclesiastical pomp of the ceremonial, and the extreme worldliness, in appearance, of the congregation. There was no room, at any time, to kneel, and no one attempted to do so; the orchestra played; there was great coming and going of splendid figures over the soft carpet; sometimes, following the lead of the duchesses in the front row, we stood up, and sometimes we sat down; and everywhere there was a lively murmur of talk.

But with the trumpeted arrival of the Queen, all that was changed. The small figure, moving slowly, isolated in the midst of her procession, almost quiveringly intent, made one - again by sympathy- partly aware for the first time of what the ceremony must mean to her. Is it right, one wonders in a moment of puritanical misgiving, so to load a moment of consecration with pageantry and show that the human being at the heart of it must tremble under the weight? The rituals are ancient, but some have no longer any relevance, and symbols that were powerful in the Middle Ages are now no more than relics. (Of all the symbols carried so reverently in the Abbey, perhaps only two, the crown and the sceptre, are still potent, the crown on its cushion, certainly still carries its little aura of sacred magic.) No doubt a simpler ceremonial would be equally solemn, and, in a sense, more true; the dead wood could be cut away and the core remain. But there are elements in this Coronation ceremony which are unexpected, emotional, and difficult to explain. I had a sudden feeling, craning at my glimpse of the bare-headed Queen at her anointing, sitting motionless with lowered eyes under her gold canopy, a sensation that was like something spoken aloud: “There is a secret here”. It came again at the crowning, which I saw narrowly between the heralds’ heads and shoulders, like an ikon in a rich frame; and again at the incomparable moment when the crowned Queen between her Bishops, ascended the steps of the throne. What that secret was, I could not say. Now doubt it was the primitive and magical feeling which ancient and beautiful ceremonials still evoke, no matter how rational a breast. That tiny golden figure was the point of light under a vast burning glass; the vision of an uncounted multitude was narrowed down to this.

For her part, no conviction could be deeper than the conviction conveyed by the Queen in every part of the ceremony. If ever a woman consciously and visibly dedicated herself to a solemn destiny, this was she. The impression was powerful and moving, and we shared in it. The putting on of the coronet, to the shouts of “God Save the Queen” ceased to be an absurdity, or an anachronism, or any of the self-conscious, self-mocking things it had been up to this moment, and became a symbol with surprising life in it, a symbol of sharing that experience and dedication - though to what, precisely, we were dedicating ourselves to, it would have puzzled some of us to explain. We were “with her”; we were “on her side”. I can get no nearer to it than that; but it left one with the feeling that the Coronation ceremony, as it is, enormously long, elaborate, ostentatious and exhausting, has some profound (and not only aesthetic) satisfactions to offer, even to the cynical.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Wealth and terror