22nd January 2012It was a photograph that captured the youth, glamour and femininity of what would come to be called the new Elizabethan age.
Britain’s 27-year-old Queen had been crowned in Westminster Abbey earlier that day, June 2, 1953, and now she poses for photographs in Buckingham Palace. She is wearing the Imperial State Crown and the exquisite Coronation gown designed by Sir Norman Hartnell. The 21ft ermine-trimmed velvet Purple Robe of Estate flows from her shoulders.
She is flanked by her Maids of Honour: six of the country’s most blueblooded young women, all single, beautiful and, like the Queen, wearing gowns by Hartnell.
Flanking the Queen from left as they were then titled: Lady Moyra Hamilton, Lady Anne coke, Lady Jane Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Lady Mary Baillie-Hamilton, Lady Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby and Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill
The picture, taken by official Coronation photographer Cecil Beaton, delighted Her Majesty and became one of the defining images of the day. What it does not reveal, however, is the human hinterland behind the pomp and splendour. It gives no clue to the Maids’ discomfort: their gowns were rib-crushingly tight.
Lady Mary Baillie-Hamilton arranges the Queen's robes
According to The Lady Glenconner, now 79, then 20-year-old Lady Anne Coke, daughter of the Earl of Leicester, they were seen as the Spice Girls of their day.
It is an appropriate analogy, for the Maids’ wardrobes and social lives were gossip-column fodder, and sometimes even front-page news, from the moment their identities were revealed amid a media storm six months before the Coronation. In their New Look suits and demure hats and heels they would be endlessly photographed as the nation, still in the grip of post-war austerity, hungered for some light relief.
Queen Elizabeth followed a precedent set by Queen Victoria by having Maids of Honour instead of pages to bear her Coronation train. It was their duty to unfurl the cumbersome train as she alighted from the Gold State Coach outside Westminster Abbey and hold it aloft using six silk handles invisibly stitched into its underside.
‘Ready, girls?’ the Monarch asked her attendants as they paused at the Abbey doors to begin their historic procession to the altar.
Their delicate choreography delighted even notorious perfectionist Beaton, who described the Maids, whose ages ranged from 18 to 23, as the Queen’s ‘retinue of white, lily-like ladies’.
Now, in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, they relive a momentous day they can still vividly recall, six decades on . . .
I had my hair washed and set the afternoon before and on the day girls from Elizabeth Arden came to do my make-up because the light from the television cameras was so strong.
But then I heard about the conquest of Everest [by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay – the news came on the day of the Coronation] and I was brimming with tears and cried it all off. It had to be re-done.
The ceremony was deeply moving, intensely religious and affecting. Back at Buckingham Palace it was all immensely relaxed and Prince Charles and Anne were having fun with their mother.
Charles made us all sniff his hair as he was wearing his father’s hair lotion and had smarmed his hair down for the occasion.
After the balcony appearance, I went back to my grandparents’ house, changed out of my frock and went to Green Park in time to see the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh appear on the balcony in their evening clothes.
It was one of the great privileges of my life, being a Maid of Honour for the Queen. I would have rolled under a bus for her you know, anyone of us would.
'The Archbishop of Canterbury produced a flash of branky. It was very reviving.'
The night beforehand London was crammed and I had nowhere to sleep. I ended up on a makeshift bed on the floor of my great-uncle’s flat, which wasn’t very glamorous. I remember my make-up being done for television, but my hair was awful. I’d had a perm and when the electric rollers were taken out I looked like a sheep. I was almost in tears.
The dresses were exquisite but they were prickly because of all the embroidery and they were terribly tight. On the day we were told to wiggle our toes to keep the circulation going but it didn’t help.
Part of the way through the Coronation I felt a bit shaky. Black Rod was standing next to me and saw me go green. He pinioned me against a pillar with his arm. I was determined not to go down.
During the recess the Archbishop of Canterbury produced a small flask of brandy and asked if anyone needed a nip. It was very reviving.
Back at Buckingham Palace the Queen was very relaxed. Charles was playing underneath her train and Anne was darting around.
That night my uncle was taking care of some sheiks and I went out to a club with them. I didn’t thump back down to earth until the next day.
Lord Tryon pulled a handful of toffees from the Privy Purse
I rode in a coach in the procession with Rosemary Spencer-Churchill and Lord Tryon the Keeper of the Privy Purse, which was on his knee, looking like some sort of gold- braided school satchel.
As we got nearer the Abbey, I said: ‘Oh I’d give anything for a bar of chocolate!’ After a pause he said ‘Well, how about one of these?’ And he pulled a handful of Scottish toffees, which happened to be my favourite sweets, from the depths of the Privy Purse.
My main memory of walking down the aisle was how long it took and the nagging worry that one might slip or faint. I was fine after my toffees but Anne Glenconner was standing directly behind me during the ceremony and I felt her figure press against me as she began to faint.
The smelling salts in our gloves ensured all was well though. The anointing brought a lump to my throat.
In her white linen shift and without her Crown the Queen looked like a frail little girl, so slim and lovely, yet we knew she was about to have the weight of the world on her shoulders.When we got back to Buckingham Palace the Queen put her crown on a side table while we all had a cup of tea.
I saw Charles make a beeline for it, but a Lady-in-Waiting had also seen him and put it quickly out of his reach.
Being on the balcony also made a huge impression on me, all these people cheering from the Mall and the waves of love being directed at the Queen.
After all the bombing and the deprivation and the rationing, it felt like the dawn of a new era; the day we threw off the yoke of sadness that was the result of the war and the losses we, as a country, had suffered.
All I could think of was how heavy the embroidery felt
At the Abbey we sat in a waiting room for hours since we’d arrived so early but we were able to listen to the news of the Conquest of Everest. It seemed just right for such a historic day.
When the Queen arrived, it was my job as the smallest to get her and her train out of the coach. I did it with Jane Rayne who was also little. It was an incredible moment but all I could think about was how heavy the embroidery felt.
Her Majesty seemed so young, so vulnerable. But she was calm and at ease, it was her destiny. There was a huge sense of release when it was over and we were back at the Palace. It was only then I realised I was really jolly hungry.
The sixth Maid of Honour, Lady Jane was the daughter of Nancy Phyllis Astor and granddaughter of Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor, the first woman to sit as an MP.
Her younger brother Timothy, born in 1936, heir apparent to the Earldom of Ancaster, went missing at sea in 1963.
Today she is the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, a title inherited upon the death of her father in 1983, when the Earldom of Ancaster became extinct.
She inherited 75,000 acres in Lincolnshire and Perthshire. She is a joint hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain and sat in the House of Lords as a crossbencher. Aged 77, she is unmarried. She declined to be interviewed for this article.
Soul-searching and self-doubt is such a modern thing, as is casual dressing
Soul-searching and self-doubt is such a modern thing, as is casual dressing. Back then you couldn’t be seen in London without nylons, white gloves and a hat.
We were fantastically well rehearsed by the Duke of Norfolk. Everything went without a hitch until the recess for the anointing when the Archbishop of Canterbury shook me warmly by the hand, so warmly he squashed the phial of smelling salts in my glove and there was the most terrible smell of ammonia wafting about.
After my balcony appearance, I went home to Blenheim where we were roasting an ox in the garden. I was to be married two weeks after the Coronation in a ceremony with 950 guests. You took these things more in your stride back then.
The exhibition, Queen Elizabeth II By Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from February 8 until April 22. For tickets go to vam.ac.uk/cecilbeaton, or call 020 7907 7073. Queen Elizabeth II: Portraits By Cecil Beaton, by Susanna Brown (V&A Publishing) is available from vandashop.com priced £19.99.