Behind the Scenes at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
The days leading up to HM Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation were a whirlwind of planning, preparation and last-minute adjustments, with Crown Jeweller Garrard at the heart of it all.
Written By Carol Woolton
In London during the late spring of 1953, preparations for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation were reaching their denouement. Couturier Norman Hartnell was completing a dress to outshine any other. Tucked away at the back of Hartnell’s lavish Mayfair townhouse, a team of embroiderers were finishing stitching a floral garland on the ivory silk bodice and crinoline. Pastel thread, jewels, sequins, beads and 10,000 seed pearls were sewn as Commonwealth emblems and British flora around an English Tudor rose scattered with diamond dewdrops.
Six young, aristocratic maids of honour, including 19-year-old Lady Anne Coke – best-selling author Anne Glenconner – were being drilled like guardsmen by The Duke of Norfolk, responsible for organising the coronation, as they rehearsed the walk to the Abbey alter, with his wife, the Duchess, standing in for The Queen. “If the Bishops don’t learn to walk in step,” he remonstrated, “we’ll be here all night.”
The photographer Cecil Beaton, well-versed in photographing crowned heads and aristocrats in the Vogue studios, was prepping a vantage point in Westminster Abbey, high up by the organ pipes, as the best location from which to capture the ceremony. It would be a long day; he’d fill his top hat with sandwiches to sustain him.
Nearby, at Garrard, the Crown Jeweller and his team of master craftsmen were hunched over workbenches altering the Imperial State Crown to fit the young Queen’s head. Garrard had made the Crown in 1937 for King George VI – a replica of the crown designed and crafted for Queen Victoria, which contained virtually all the same stones symbolic of centuries of Royal history, fitted around a purple velvet cap and ermine band.
Clusters of diamond-set crosses and fleurs-de-lis linked by swags of diamonds, supported by sapphires, emeralds and pearls in the form of oak leaves and acorns, dazzled around the massive 317.40 carat Cullinan II diamond, the Second Star of Africa, cut from the largest diamond ever discovered. Above it sat the Black Prince’s Ruby – in fact, a spinel, worn by Henry V at Agincourt – while the 104 carat oval Stuart sapphire gleamed at the rear of the band, with the cross atop the orb set with the sapphire from Edward the Confessor’s ring.
King George VI requested Garrard create an inner “hammock” style fitting, like a guard’s officer’s bearskin, to distribute the nearly three pounds of weight evenly on his head. Reshaping the circlet for Queen Elizabeth involved remounting the stones and motifs of which it is composed, as well as repositioning and lowering the arches, all of which required craftsmanship of the highest skill. The aim was to improve the strength of the crown with lightness of weight, which isn’t easy with large stones, and those which were cut nearly 300 years ago.
They were working against the clock. The new Queen required time before the ceremony to become accustomed to the crown’s feel and weight. “There are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they are very important things,” said Her Majesty, recalling its heaviness on the 70th anniversary of the coronation. “Fortunately, my father and I have roughly the same shaped head, so once you put it on, it stays.”
The media demanded constant updates on Garrard’s work, with the coronation making broadcasting history as the first service to be televised, adding to the sense of pressure. In addition, two gold Armill bracelets of security and wisdom, symbolic of the monarch’s bond with the people needed to be finished, which were replacing the 17th century enamel bracelets dating from the coronation of King Charles II. In previous ceremonies, the Armills had been carried, but these were made for the Queen to wear, decorated with two rows of engraving and Tudor rose clasps with red velvet linings. Garrard was also inundated with cleaning requests. “No one had worn their jewellery or tiaras during the war,” explains Lady Anne. “People were queuing to have their tiaras, which were like great fenders of diamonds, stomachers and necklaces cleaned.”
“Fortunately, my father and I have roughly the same shaped head, so once you put it on, it stays,” said Her Majesty of her crown on the 70th anniversary of the coronation.
On the day, it poured with rain. Lady Anne remembers arriving at the Abbey: “It was pretty dark and cold. Our dresses weren’t lined, there were clothing coupons after the war you see. A tiny thread of blue cotton had been placed on the floor in the Abbey, so the Queen knew where to stand. When the procession began, we walked past row upon row of tiaras, as well as people in their National dress. The Queen walked a bit faster than the Duchess had in rehearsals, so we had to adjust our steps.”
The ceremony ended at 2 o’clock in the afternoon; Hartnell left after watching his historic dress sweep down the aisle followed by the procession of royal pages, maids of honour, peers and peeresses sparkling with diamonds, looking, he remarked, “Like a lovely hunk of fruitcake, the damson jam of velvet bordered with clotted cream of ermine and sprinkled with the sugar of diamonds.”
Beaton rushed to Buckingham Palace to photograph the Queen theatrically against a painted backdrop, holding the orb and sceptre and wearing the Imperial State Crown. The Crown Jeweller Garrard remained until The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had taken lunch in the Abbey annexe, in case any last-minute adjustments to the diamond-encrusted Crown were needed.
“Cecil was waiting when we all returned from the Abbey,” Lady Anne continues. “He had everything set up for the photographs, and that’s when I really noticed the Crown and jewels glittering under the bright lights and took note of it all. The Queen looked so young, beautiful and vulnerable, so the contrast of seeing her crowned with all the regalia was extraordinary. She was weighted down a bit, but I remember thinking it was terribly poignant.”
A tense moment followed. “The Duke of Edinburgh was fussing around, and Cecil got irritated, put his camera down and said, ‘Oh Sir, would you prefer to take the photographs?’” Lady Anne laughs. “The Queen looked a bit horrified, and The Duke wandered off. You see The Duke would have liked the photographer Baron, but it was The Queen Mother who adored Cecil.”
“The Queen looked so young, beautiful and vulnerable, the contrast of seeing her crowned with all the regalia was extraordinary.”
Later, it was still rainy and dark outside. When the gleaming, crowned figure of The Queen appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony, she shone with a sense of tradition and permanence. With the Imperial State Crown, she wore the Coronation necklace and earrings, made in 1858 by Garrard and worn by Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, including 25 brilliants suspending the Lahore diamond drop. Time will tell if the Armills will return to being carried at the Coronation of HRH The Prince of Wales, and if he has inherited the Windsor head shape, but should substantial adjustments be required, the crown will appear once more unchanged. The historical continuity of the regalia, and the fact the crown is still in constant use, makes these jewels created in the Garrard workshop the most potent in the world.
About the Author
Carol Woolton is a jewellery historian who has been a contributing editor for British Vogue for 20 years, where she remains as contributing jewellery director. In 2021, she launched the podcast series, If Jewels Could Talk.