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Childhood memories of Queen Elizabeth II's 1953 Coronation

As a six year-old boy, I was lucky enough to attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, back in 1953.

Edward Carpenter with Orb at 1953 Coronation pngpng
Dr David Carpenter's father, Edward Carpenter, carrying the orb at Queen Elizabeth II's 1953 Coronation.

My father, Edward Carpenter, had read both History and Theology at King's College London and obtained a first in both degrees. (He features in a photograph of the History Department in 1930 displayed on the eighth floor of the Strand Building). Edward was then ordained as a priest in the Church of England and in 1951 was appointed a canon of Westminster Abbey. In the 1953 Coronation procession he carried the orb and can be seen, with his short fuzzy hair, in several photographs. As a canon of Westminster, Edward had several tickets for the Coronation at his disposal and bestowed one on me, his eldest son.

Memories of childhood are usually episodic and unconnected. One remembers one incident but nothing about what happened during the rest of the day. There are only two days in my early childhood where I can do better than that. The first was the day in 1951 when I travelled up with my father from Stanmore in Middlesex, where he had been rector, to Westminster Abbey. We started the journey in a car driven by one of my father's former parishioners and (it was dark) I saw the bright lights of London from the window. Then, when the car broke down, I found myself sitting on the back seat of a London bus and playing with a blue plastic man I had with me and long after retained. 

On arrival at No.2 Little Cloister, Westminster Abbey, standing beside the Aga in the kitchen (higher than I was), I was told sternly not to touch it as it was hot. I was then taken upstairs and my final memory of the day is of being bathed.

David Carptener - CREDIT- Damien McFadden
Dr David Carpenter today, pictured at Westminster Abbey (Image credit: Damien McFadden)

The second day for which I have a string of memories is, of course, that of the Coronation. No.2 Little Cloister was a house built after the war to replace one damaged in the bombing. The architect, Lord Mottistone, had a very exaggerated idea of what was affordable in post-war conditions on a canon of Westminster's salary, for the house had backstairs for the servants and had a servants' room with bells. We used the room for most of our meals and there we had breakfast before the service. Our party consisted of Nanny and Grandad (my father's much-loved parents) and my cousin Gillian, daughter of my father's brother, Harry. (My mother could not come as she was pregnant with my brother Paul). Security was quite tight and I still have a pass, signed by the Dean, but filled in by my father allowing 'the bearer' to proceed to the Little Cloister on Coronation Day.

I had been dressed for the day in red trousers and a cream shirt with a bow tie. In the Abbey we had splendid seats high up in the north transept. (As at many previous Coronations, stands had been built up in both transepts to give the congregation a better view). Only subsequently have I realised how good the seats were, for they were central and thus we could see all the 'action', whereas if they had been further to the left the actual crowning would have been obscured. On the left, on the ledge of the triforium, someone had placed their top hat.

It was a long service for a six year-old and my grandmother kept me going with small toasted sandwiches. I was so small that sitting down I could not see very much and my grandparents told me to stand up at key moments. Thus it was that, gripping the rail in front of me, and telling myself 'remember this', I saw the crown descending on the Queen's head. There seemed an awful lot of ceremonial after the crowning (I realise now it included the acts of homage). When finally it was over, we stood outside the Abbey and watched coaches depart before we all went to a buffet in Tothill Street.

Form and Order 1953 Coronation
The official order of service handed out at Queen Elizabeth II's 1953 Coronation.

I retain various relics from the Coronation. One is the chair on which I sat, now much faded and mauled by a succession of Carpenter cats. Another, handsomely bound in a red cover, is the order of service. Looking through this today one realises how much has changed since 1953 and how much the Coronation service of 2023 may change with it. I doubt if King Charles will swear to govern according to their laws not merely the peoples of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but also those of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon, though perhaps there may be a reference to the Commonwealth. Will he also swear to maintain the Church of England and 'Protestant Reformed Religion established by law'? Charles himself has raised the question as to whether he might be 'the Defender of Faith' rather than just 'the faith' of the Church of England.

David Carpenter 1953 invite
Dr Carpenter's pass to the 1953 Coronation at Westminster Abbey.

Inserted into my service book are a series of instructions from the Earl Marshal about dress code, including a great deal about Velvet Court Dress with its coat, waistcoat, breeches, hose, shoes, buckles, hat, sword, and sword belt. I suppose there may still be some people dressed like that on 6 May. It would certainly add to the colour and gaiety of the occasion. In 1953, 'oriental dress' could be worn by ladies and gentlemen for whom it was the 'usual ceremonial costume' and indeed the Queen of Tonga, dressed accordingly, was a great hit on the day. My father often used to recall the rhyme 'Linger longer Queen of Tonga'.

So, much may be different on 6 May (including no stands in the transepts), but the essence of the Coronation, going back to Anglo-Saxon times will be the same: the oath binding the King to rule justly, the anointing pouring into him the blessings of the Holy Spirit, and the crown placed on his head 'for a sign of royal majesty'.

In this story

David Carpenter

David Carpenter

Professor of Medieval History

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