The Daily Telegraph

Glorious tradition and pageantry have lost none of their power to move us

If the new King opts for a smaller coronation, it may be more out of necessity than due to public demand


Goodness knows how the Queen’s immediate family and other participan­ts in the ceremonial­s attending her death must feel; but many of us are already emotional wrecks just watching the proceeding­s on television. The rituals for such an occasion are so powerful that they evoke feelings we never realised we possessed.

Even an old curmudgeon like me has welled up many times watching these extraordin­ary events wending their stately way across history towards the funeral and interment of our dear departed monarch next Monday. It is evidently a perception shared by many of my fellow compatriot­s, judging by the reverentia­l silence of the vast crowds that have turned out to bid farewell to the late Queen. Some may have attended to witness a moment in history; others to pay their respects. But the numbers have been phenomenal and will continue to be so throughout the coming week when the Queen lies in state in Westminste­r Hall.

The queue along the Thames has already started to form and as many as one million people are expected to file past by Sunday, which would be more than for Winston Churchill or King George VI. Westminste­r Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminste­r, has been used for lyings in state only since the end of the 19th century; before that a church or chapel was chosen.

Queen Victoria’s coffin was brought from Osborne House to the Albert Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle but was not on public view. The first lying in state to be held in Westminste­r Hall was for William Gladstone and there have been five since, all for Royals apart from Churchill in 1965.

The latter’s was famously captured by the journalist Vincent Mulchrone: “Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people ... it flows through Westminste­r Hall, eddying about the foot of the rock called Churchill.” We will see that river in spate this week ahead of the state funeral, which will be another emotion-jangling experience for participan­ts and onlookers alike, and for King Charles in particular.

The stamina of the new King is remarkable, matching that of his mother. On Monday, his day began at Westminste­r Hall to meet the Lords and Commons for the first time as Sovereign before flying to Edinburgh where he joined a procession from the Palace of Holyroodho­use, walking up the Royal Mile to the high kirk of St Giles’ behind the cortège in the full dress uniform of a Field Marshal.

After the service, he headed for the Scottish Parliament to hear the condolence­s of MSPS and pledge his service to the democratic process. Then he was back to St Giles’, now kilted in the Royal Stuart tartan, to stand vigil by his mother’s catafalque. It was a day to tax a fit man half the King’s 73 years and yet he was not even midway through a punishing schedule that began with his dash to the dying Queen’s bedside last Thursday and continued yesterday with a full day of meetings and events in Northern Ireland.

It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that the King is said to be considerin­g cutting back the ceremonial when he is crowned. Writing in this space yesterday, Andrew Roberts expressed the hope that there would be a coronation worthy of 1,000 years of monarchy. The template for this is the Queen’s in June 1953, which even across almost 70 years retains a grip on the national imaginatio­n as an event of unsurpasse­d majesty.

It was the first to be televised at a time when the earliest sets were appearing after the war. At the start of 1953 there were fewer than two million TVS in the UK but a further 500,000 were sold in the run-up to the coronation. I grew up with the stories of people cramming into the sitting room of the only house in the street with a set, alongside memories of what a cold and wet day it was for the time of year.

The coronation itself lasted some three hours, which was exhausting enough for 27-year-old Elizabeth; Charles and his Queen Consort will be forgiven for wanting something significan­tly shorter. In any case, outside Westminste­r Abbey we are not in a position to put on a similar spectacle.

A comprehens­ive study for the Constituti­on Unit described in detail the background to the 1953 coronation, planned by a committee chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh and an executive arm under the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal. The latter took control of the Abbey for ten months, erecting stands outside for 96,000 paying spectators, with covered seats costing £6 (around £180 today).

The five-mile procession through London took 45 minutes to pass any one point. More than 40,000 British, Commonweal­th and Colonial troops took part, many bivouacked in the parks overnight. It could be done because, back then, with conscripti­on still in place, there were 860,000 troops based in the UK and around the world. Today, the British Army is less than 80,000 strong.

As part of the celebratio­ns, a Fleet Review was held at Spithead, involving 190 vessels and more than 300 naval aircraft. The muster included one battleship, eight carriers, 12 cruisers, 20 destroyers, 40 frigates, 18 minesweepe­rs, 30 submarines, and 62 other vessels.

As the Constituti­on Unit observed: “We no longer have the capacity to mount anything like this spectacle. The next coronation will inevitably be smaller.” But even if the post-war extravagan­ce of 1953 is no longer feasible, the trick will be to retain the glorious traditions and magnificen­t pageantry that have been so much to the fore in recent days. Recession or not, the country will not want a demotic or gimcrack coronation.

It must be remembered, however, that the coronation is a religious event, an Anglican service centred round the Eucharist. At one point it seemed that Charles wanted to change the wording so that he was crowned “defender of faith’’ rather than “the Faith” but that seems to have gone by the wayside. Certainly his accession oath used the traditiona­l wording even though he wants to stress his protection for all faiths, recognisin­g the nation’s greater diversity.

The late historian Sir Ben Pimlott said a coronation defines not just royalty but British identity. How that comes to be reflected when Charles is crowned will be a pivotal moment early in his reign.

‘The Queen’s coronation retains a grip on the national imaginatio­n as an event of unsurpasse­d majesty’

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