1953 and all that
The 1953 Coronation is often represented to us now, in 2023, as a snapshot of a sort of Golden Age – the dawn of a ‘New Elizabethan’ era – though one that was largely recorded, even remembered, in black and white. 70 years ago, so the myth goes, many Britons bought their first television sets and many others crowded into their neighbours’ houses specifically to watch the solemn ceremony.
Thousands of street parties were held up and down the land, often with their own respectful imitations of the coronation. Local girls were crowned by local grandees – solemn, playful, provincial mirror-images of the national consecration. Communities which had applied for permits to the Ministry of Food were granted permission to roast whole oxen: a welcome repast when meat consumption was still strictly rationed. Others made do with wilting fish paste sandwiches, damp sausage rolls and slightly waterlogged trifle.
For much of the country the day was cold, blustery and increasingly wet. Still, an Ealing-ish spirit of resolute good cheer apparently prevailed. The Queen was successfully crowned and the nation approached a future which was, eventually, as free of rationing as it was of Empire.
It’s tempting to exaggerate the degree of consensus which characterised Britain in the 50s – there were race riots, youth riots, miscarriages of justice, industrial unrest, after all – but there was very little in the way of royal controversy or concerted opposition to the Monarchy.
Trouble at t’Palace
In a BBC Panorama documentary entitled Will King Charles Change the Monarchy?, the results of recent YouGov polls featured heavily. On all questions of any interest about the Royal Family (Are they good value for money? Are they in touch with ordinary people? Do they struggle with race and diversity? etc) they’re doing less well – sometimes much less well – than they did in the past.
Younger people, especially, are mostly either directly opposed to them or blithely indifferent. Charles himself seems committed to a ‘slimmed-down’ version of the Royal Family. This is perhaps driven more by pragmatic self-interest than anything else; he’s aware that a nation in the grip of economic turmoil is no mood to tolerate the full pomp and circumstance that he might privately crave.
That mood towards the Monarchy has fluctuated quite a bit over the decades. The death of Queen Elizabeth last year gave fresh impetus to republican calls for an end to the perceived anachronism of a constitutional monarchy with an unelected, hereditary head of state leading a swollen, increasingly problematic extended ‘family’ of pampered, privileged aristocrats and hangers-on. Recent controversies have simply added force to the republican arguments.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s – with Britain quietly shedding more and more bits of Empire every year – the Queen presided over a staid, largely uncontroversial institution. The Royal Family were available for big public ceremonies, ship launchings and carefully staged ‘family photos’ featuring horses, dogs, kilts and lots of Harris tweed. Their voices were heard only occasionally and almost never in anger. The notion that one of them might go on global TV to dish the dirt on family squabbles, racial slurs and mental health crises was simply unthinkable.
Still, nothing lasts forever: the tabloids got bolder and the kids grew up. It started with Princess Anne’s speeding tickets but soon degenerated into a Caligulan nightmare of infidelity, divorce, ‘off-colour’ remarks and a perception, by the time of Diana’s death in 1997, that the royals were completely out of touch with public feeling.
The entire nation, it seems, was convulsed by inconsolable grief at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Kensington Palace became a fluttering sea of floral tributes and the scene of determined, tearful, angry vigils.
There was also, however, public fury at the Royal Family’s apparent lack of concern over the tragedy. The Queen was painted as detached, cold, even callous. Prince Charles became a stock character from Victorian melodrama – the unrepentant, selfish cad, the bounder, the cheat, the love-rat. The country’s pity descended upon the semi-orphaned sons. Pale and vulnerable-looking, one felt that they were modern versions of the Princes in the Tower with ogre-like father Charles as a slightly straighter-backed Richard III.
At the funeral Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, delivered a pointed, bitter eulogy which took aim at both the Royal Family and the tabloid press. The nation’s presses churned out ominous editorials about the future of the Monarchy.
The quarter-century since then, of course, has also been fairly eventful. Harry’s Nazi cosplay, Charles’ marriage to Camilla, Wills’ marriage to Kate, Harry’s marriage and the toxic fallout, sexual assault allegations against the Duke of York , the public racism of a lady-in-waiting, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the death of the Queen – it’s all been great tabloid fodder and miles more exciting than Princess Anne being nicked for speeding though that, too, is frequent enough to warrant a headline or several.
Desperate times for the British monarchy
Of the many Coronation news stories of the last couple of months, I have two favourites. Each, in its own way, illustrates the same point: these are desperate times for the British monarchy.
The first concerns the recipe for the holy oil, or chrism, which will be used to anoint the new king. The royal forehead, we’re told, will no longer be daubed, dabbed, smeared or greased with any animal products. This year’s chrism is a plant-based, vegan concoction including oil from the actual Garden of Olives. Previous versions of the sacred ointment included deer musk, squeezings from civet glands and ambergris from sperm whales. Not any longer.
As the recent YouGov polls made clear, the Monarchy means much less to younger people than it does to oldsters like me. Gen Zs and Millennials are largely indifferent, if not openly hostile, to the Royal Family. They’re also notoriously opposed to animal cruelty.
In a bid to show their progressive credentials in a cunning appeal to the younger half of the population, the King and his advisers have not only banned animal products from the holy chrism but they’ve also announced a meat-free menu for the Coronation Big Lunch.
No battery-farmed Coronation Chicken for this generation, thank you: we’re having spinach and broad bean quiche. ‘Coronation Quiche’, no less. The official recipe calls for eggs, milk, butter, double cream, and Cheddar cheese. The recipe doesn’t specify non-rennet Cheddar. It’s better, apparently, to scrape a cow’s stomach than a civet’s perineal gland.
The second story is this: the Pope has generously donated not just one but two splinters from the ‘true cross’ of Christ to be incorporated into Charles’ coronation cross. Now, it’s been estimated that over many centuries the number of splinters of wood which have been claimed to have derived from Christ’s actual cross would, if reconstituted, not only make a cross but a couple of Noah’s Arks, several fishermen’s boats, enough trestle tables for eighteen Last Suppers, a scale model of Herod’s biggest palace and a small Ikea bookcase.
If enough people convince themselves that the splinters are real – that they may in actual fact be steeped in the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus Christ, and were originally part of the rough beams of wood which the scourged Christ dragged painfully up to Golgotha, and to which he was brutally nailed – then they may come to believe that in a strange ceremonial moment of transfiguration Charles becomes King Charles, the Anointed King, possessor of the Divine Right to Rule, blessed by God, sanctified by the Blood of the Lamb, his forehead glistening with the vegan chrism.
With such heavyweight protection, Charles might think, the Monarchy could last just a little bit longer.
Time – the great healer
On the eve of his coronation, the nation seems to have forgiven Charles or, at the very least, colluded in some partial rehabilitation. It’s even accepted Camilla who, back in 1997, was regarded as a sort of cross between Cruella De Vil and Lucrezia Borgia. We appear to have agreed to call her Queen Camilla.
She’s now, if anything, less a wicked skinner of cute Dalmatian puppies and callous wrecker of marriages and more the country’s posh, kindly great-aunt. Wills and Kate are the ‘National Couple’, doing their utmost to get as many Express and Mail front pages as humans feasibly can in a calendar year. As the Sussexes’ trans-Atlantic cries of racism and bullying get louder, the Cambridges just get leaner, fitter and more hard-faced.
Such dedication should not surprise us, though; they are, after all, fighting for survival. Charles can’t last too long, after all, and then it’ll be King William and Queen Kate, they hope, presiding over what’s left of the Monarchy.
By then, of course, we may have decided to get rid, or at least pare the institution back a bit: nationalise the palaces, the land, the real estate, the grants, the households, say, and give them a little office above a branch of Superdrug.