To celebrate the 65th anniversary of her coronation, Queen Elizabeth gives a rare interview about the tradition-steeped ceremony that formally launched her reign in The Coronation, a documentary debuting Sunday evening on the Smithsonian Channel. In the film, which also features commentary from historians, Queen Elizabeth shares her memories of the 1953 ceremony and is reunited with her coronation regalia. Though the monarch is her usual picture of properness, she does drop her guard for a few moments of delicious, no-nonsense commentary. Ahead, the documentary highlights and most surprising revelations about the ceremony itself.
Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, was so determined to prepare his daughter for her own coronation that he had her, at age 11, write a complete review of his coronation.
“I thought it all very, very wonderful and I expect the Abbey did too,” wrote the future queen. “The arches and the beams at the top were covered in a sort of haze of wonder as Papa was crowned, at least I thought so.”
Despite the incredible personal significance of the coronation, the future queen, then just a child, could not help but be brutally honest about the ceremony’s downside: “At the end the service got rather boring as it was all prayers,” Elizabeth wrote. “Grannie and I were looking to see how many more pages to the end, and we turned one more and then I pointed to the word at the bottom of the page and it said ‘Finis’. We both smiled at each other and turned back to the service.”
In the documentary, the queen notes that, in retrospect, the assignment was “quite helpful.”
The coronation was going to be so long—approximately three hours—that guests snuck food, “strong drink,” and even smelling salts into Westminster Abbey.
Though the 8,000 coronation guests were mostly well-mannered aristocrats and heads of state, they knew that the ceremony was going to be long and planned accordingly, by hiding sandwiches and beverages in their coronets. (Sneaking snacks in crowns to coronations was not a new ritual: after the coronation of George V, some peers expressed worry that the butter in their wrapped sandwiches might have leaked through the lining of their coronets.)
The maids of honor, meanwhile, tucked capsules of smelling salts inside their gloves in the event that, after hours of standing, they felt faint. One maid of honor, Lady Anne Glenconner, nearly fainted—but the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, stationed to her left, managed to prop her up until she regained her footing. Another maid of honor accidentally shattered her vial of smelling salts while shaking hands with the Archbishop of Canterbury, releasing the odor of ammonia into the abbey.
The Gold State Coach, which transported Queen Elizabeth to the coronation, was “not very comfortable.”
The queen admits that the four-ton gilded carriage, which has been used for every coronation since George IV, was “horrible. It’s just not meant for traveling in. . . it’s only sprung on leather.” Queen Elizabeth was carried through half of London that day but, because of the carriage’s weight, could only be transported “at a walking pace. The horses couldn’t possibly go any faster.”
The recipe for anointing oil: sesame and olive oils perfumed with roses, orange flowers, jasmine, musk, civet, and ambergris.
Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honor were their own sensation.
“We were kind of like the Spice Girls,” admits Lady Glenconner, who, along with the other maids of honor, lent a bit of glamour to post-war Britain. “We were in all of the newspapers.”
“We had to be the daughters of earls, marquesses, or dukes, and had to have sort of nice figures, and that sort of thing,” explains Lady Glenconner of the selection process. There was such frenzy for details about the coronation that participants and workmen involved were offered the equivalent of $600 today by reporters for tips.
When Lady Glenconner’s shawl blew open after a dress rehearsal, revealing her Norman Hartnell-designed gown, photos of the accidental dress reveal made the front page of newspapers. Lady Glenconner was so horrified that she thought she would be disqualified from the ceremony.
The regalia was protected at Westminster Abbey the evening before the coronation by a dozen Yeomen Warders of the Tower, each armed with a revolver and 12 rounds of ammunition.
The scepter alone contains the largest colorless cut diamond in the world—the 530-carat Cullinan I, which, unbelievably, was sent to Britain in the mail after it was discovered in 1905. In the documentary, Queen Elizabeth wears a brooch crafted from the sizable diamond remnants cut off the gem.
The Crown Jewels comprise 140 items, containing 23,000 precious stones. During World War II, when Britain was threatened by a Nazi invasion, the jewels were relocated from the Tower of London and hidden 60 feet below Windsor Castle in a room accessible only by tunnel. The most valuable gems were even removed from their settings and hidden inside a cookie tin in case the royals needed to make a hasty escape.
Queen Elizabeth has only worn the St. Edward’s Crown once in her six-decade reign.
The queen was reunited with the nearly five-pound crown in Buckingham Palace’s Throne Room. Intriguingly, this particular crown, which was made in 1661 for the coronation of Charles II, and is kept in the Tower of London, is only allowed to be handled by three people in the world: the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the crown jeweler, who presents the crown to the queen wearing white gloves.
“Is it still as heavy?” Queen Elizabeth wonders when it is presented to her. Lifting the crown, which is encrusted with 440 precious and semi-precious stones from the table, she observes, “Yes, it is.” Tapping its solid gold frame—designed to emit a halo of light —the queen points out the crown’s design flaw: “It is impossible to tell what is front and back.” (In fact, while crowning Elizabeth’s father George VI, the Archbishop of Canterbury lost the thread indicating which side of the crown was the front. George VI wrote in his diary that he was not sure the crown was even placed on his head correctly that day.)
The most human moment of the documentary comes when the queen is presented with the Imperial Crown, which she wore at a different point of the coronation and has worn for most state openings of parliament since. “This is what I do when I wear it,” the queen announces giddily, spinning it around to find her favorite gem: the Black Prince’s Ruby, which is said to have been worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt. “Can I look at this end?” she asks, pointing out the hole in the ruby where Henry V stuck a feather to finish off his helmet decor. “The idea that his plume was put into the stone for his helmet. . . a bit rash but that was the sort of thing they did in those days.”
Of the extravagant crown, she says, “George IV invented that. . .can you imagine a man having that made for him? Fascinating.”
Though the documentary is carefully crafted to preserve reverence and respect for the medieval coronation traditions, the most delightful moments in the program come when Queen Elizabeth momentarily drops monarchical pretense to admit that the trappings, while impressive, aren’t so comfortable.
Speaking about wearing the crowns during her coronation, the Queen remembers, “You can’t lean down to read your speech. You have to bring [the speeches] up. Because if you did your neck would break and it would fall off.”
“Nothing like that is comfortable,” the queen admits with a smile. “So there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Photos: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s Youthful RomanceThe newly crowned King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, with their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, May 12, 1937.
From Popperfoto/Getty Images.
Princess Elizabeth with her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in a box at the London Coliseum theater, March 1939.
From Keystone/Getty Images.
Elizabeth on her 13th birthday with a pony in Windsor Great Park, April 21, 1939.
From Central Press/Getty Images.
Elizabeth, with her sister, Margaret, at her side, makes her first public broadcast, addressing children displaced by the war, October 1940.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.
An amused and delighted Princess Elizabeth is presented with a toy cooking stove for Prince Charles by the Honorable Piers St. Aubyn at a flower ball at the Savoy Hotel, London, May 1951.
By George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images.
The Queen with Prince Charles and Princess Anne at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, 1952.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.
Queen Elizabeth II on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after her coronation, with Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and Prince Philip, June 2, 1953.
From Fox Photos/Getty Images.
Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fair’s website.