The Queen Opens the Vault on Her Coronation
Among the private details Elizabeth II reveals about her 1953 coronation in a BBC documentary airing on Sunday: The crown was too big for her head.
LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch on the planet, is not afraid to spill tea.
The queen opens up the vault, if you will, in a BBC documentary that examines what she calls her “horrible coronation” nearly 65 years ago.
Her dry sense of humor is on full display as she trots out the crown she wore and gives deadpan reviews about the lavish and long ceremony, summing up what it all means in an interview with the royal family reporter Alastair Bruce.
He told InStyle that she had described the 1953 coronation as a “pretty challenging day for her as a 25-year-old.” The monarch also watched scenes of the coronation she had never seen before.
Here’s what we learned from “The Coronation,” which will be broadcast Sunday night on BBC One at 8 local time in Britain and on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern in the United States.
A gilded carriage isn’t as much fun as you’d think.
“Horrible,” she opined of riding in the enormous golden carriage. “It’s only sprung on leather, not very comfortable. We could only go at a walking pace. The horses couldn’t possibly go any faster. It’s so heavy.”
Asked if she was in the carriage for a long time, she replied dryly, “Halfway around London.”
The big day began with her parading around the British capital, going from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey and stopping at Trafalgar Square.
Mr. Bruce told InStyle: “There is a tradition in the English coronation that if you have a monarch who slips or drops something or anything like that — in fact, Richard II’s slipper fell off when he was being carried back to bed because he had fallen asleep during the ceremony, and everyone saw that as a bad omen.
“That sort of pressure that you mustn’t make an error, for the first time being filmed and televised to the world: This is a huge challenge, I would imagine, for anybody to perform without fault through a medieval ceremony that has unbelievable symbolism and meaning.”
The crown was too big for her head.
The version of the Imperial State Crown that the queen wore at the end of the ceremony was also donned by her father, George VI, at his coronation in 1937.
It is set with 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and hundreds of pearls. It features a gemstone known as the Black Prince’s Ruby, believed to have been worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
The rest of her regalia was already a handful, but the crown was its own challenge. So she practiced wearing it before the coronation, while going about her ordinary day, such as reading the newspaper or taking tea.
The crown, which she has worn for most state openings of Parliament since the coronation, was adapted slightly after the death of her father, with its arches lowered to create a smaller, more feminine object for the queen.
“You see, it’s much smaller isn’t it?” she says in a BBC trailer, gesturing to the height of the crown’s arches. It had been “very unwieldy,” she added.
“Fortunately, my father and I have about the same sort of shaped head. But once you put it on it stays. I mean, it just remains on.”
The crown could break your neck.
The queen notes that the crown forces one to take a certain posture when giving a speech.
“You can’t look down to read the speech; you have to take the speech up,” she said, “because if you did, your neck would break; it would fall off,” she said, smiling.
“So there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things.”
As the queen handles the crown, she points to four pearls hanging underneath the arches, two of which are believed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots and bought by Elizabeth I.
“They were meant to be Queen Elizabeth’s earrings,” she said, joking, “They don’t look very happy now. Most pearls like to be sort of living creatures, so they’ve just been out, hanging out here for years. It’s rather sad.”
The Crown Jewels were once buried in a biscuit tin.
The Crown Jewels are usually kept under armed guard at the Tower of London. But gemstones from the collection were hidden in a biscuit (cookie) tin at Windsor Castle for safekeeping during World War II to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis.
The stones, including the Black Prince’s Ruby from the Imperial State Crown, were placed in the metal box and buried below a secret exit on the orders of King George VI.
The rediscovery of those mysterious details were credited to Oliver Urquhart Irvine, the librarian and assistant keeper of the Royal Archives.
Documents describe a hole being dug in chalk earth, which had to be covered to hide it from enemy bombers, and two chambers with steel doors being created. The trap door used to access the secret area at Windsor Castle, where the queen spent the war years for safety, still exists today.
The queen, who at one point in the documentary wonders aloud what she has done with her scepter (her own scepter!), intimates that her favorite gem in the Imperial State Crown is the Black Prince’s Ruby.
Her robes became stuck on the carpet.
The queen’s coronation gown and robes were so heavy that they got caught in a thick carpet pile as she glided through the abbey.
“I couldn’t move at all,” she declared.
Mr. Hartnell and the queen chose motifs from across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth: maple leaves for Canada, wheat sheaves for Pakistan, lotus flowers for South Africa, the English Rose, Welsh leeks, Scottish thistles and Irish shamrocks.
Diamonds, crystals, pearls, amethysts and rose-color stones were used as twinkling embellishments to the gold and colored silk threads.
Six embroiderers took 3,000 hours to complete the design.
In footage of the coronation, a maid of honor is seen tripping while the queen giggles, and a young Prince Charles and Princess Anne play underneath her robes.
“Not what they’re meant to do,” the queen remarked.
She told Churchill no.
Elizabeth prepared 14 months for the coronation ceremony. Initially reluctant to have it televised, an idea strongly opposed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, she eventually agreed to a live broadcast, and her coronation was the first major event televised around the globe.
Looking back, she said: “It’s the sort of, I suppose, the beginning of one’s life, really, as a sovereign.
“It is sort of a pageant of chivalry and old-fashioned way of doing things, really. I’ve seen one coronation and been the recipient in the other, which is pretty remarkable.”