The reign of Elizabeth II has offered the world unique and unrelenting spectacle, inspiring numerous biographies, an Oscar-winning film (The Queen), and one of television’s most striking dramas (The Crown). In April, the funeral of the queen’s consort of sixty-nine years and husband of seventy-one, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, reminded us that subdued spectacle can sometimes be the best spectacle of all. A special issue of People magazine, “The Life-Long Love Story of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh,” ran ninety-six pages, and featured an old Lord Snowdon portrait of the couple on the front cover. The back depicted an aged, red-coated, bemedaled Philip, alone.
It brought to mind the forest of commentary that sprang up at the time of the queen’s coronation in June 1953. One example has not yet reached its sell-by date: “The Meaning of the Coronation” by American Edward Shils and Englishman Michael Young, published in The Sociological Review in December 1953. Both men would go on to careers of distinction.
Shils and Young argued that monarchy had its very “roots in man’s beliefs and sentiments about what he regards as sacred.” The moral standards that enable a society to hold itself together—generosity, loyalty, justice, the dignity of the individual, the right to freedom—are themselves rooted in the sacred in every society. The coronation of Elizabeth II, argued Shils and Young, flowed directly from this consensus: a ceremonial affirmation “of the moral values by which the society lives. It was an act of national communion.” This was bold even for 1953, when already some were downplaying the monarchy’s place in modern life.
Shils and Young went on to describe the coronation service, which is structured around a series of ritual affirmations of the moral values necessary to the good society. The queen agrees to respect justice and mercy and maintain the true profession of the gospel. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland presents her with the Bible as he proclaims: “Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.” Sitting in King Edward’s Chair, she is anointed with consecrated oil that sanctifies her in the regal office: “And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples.”
The presentation of the sword and the orb remind both monarch and subjects of her responsibility to confirm what is in good moral order and restore what is fallen away. According to Shils and Young, “The people are thus made aware of the protection which a good authority can offer them when they themselves adhere to the moral law, and of the wrathful punishment which will follow their deviation.” In the Benediction, the archbishop prays for the Lord to give the queen “faithful Parliaments . . . wise counsellors . . . useful clergy . . . and dutiful citizens,” and the circle of obligation is complete: the Queen has obligations to God and her subjects, and her subjects have obligations to the Queen “by the same standard.”
Shils and Young were interested not only in the coronation as experienced by the privileged few inside Westminster Abbey, but also in the experience of the general populace, many of whom watched the ceremony on television. They too “participated in the sacred rite.” Some contemporary commentators explained away their enthusiasm as mere consumerism, a desire to binge on spectacle. Manchester Guardian cartoonist David Low ridiculed it with a depiction of a hungover blimp-like figure in a paper crown, alongside a reminder that the royal bash had cost Britain 100 million pounds. According to Shils and Young, Low's cartoon reflected “the rationalistic bias of educated persons in the present century, particularly those of radical or liberal political disposition, which is liable to produce abhorrence towards manifestations of popular devotion to any institution which cannot recommend itself to secular utilitarianism.”
Low mistook the coronation spectacle as entertainment, missing its properties as religious ritual and communal experience. It affirmed social solidarity and awakened consciousness of membership in the group, gathering the British people from Land’s End to John-O-Groats, as well as thousands from the dominions and territories of a vanishing empire. This renewed sense of belonging was manifest especially in how individual families observed that coronation day. It knit them into a greater national family through identification with the crown. The heightened sense of membership was, as we might say today, inclusive: “The Colonial contingents sweep by. The crowd loves them. The crowd loves everybody.” Evidence of increased social unity popped up in surprising ways. London police reported that, despite the crowds, pickpockets were inactive on Coronation Day.
Was Shils and Young’s commentary just some romantic tosh? Not likely. Young was even a pronounced man of the left. They understood that Britain in 1953 was in a position to welcome the coronation as an act of national communion. The national unity forged by the Second World War contributed to an unusual level of social solidarity. The General Election of 1945 that handed power to the Labour Party, the implementation of a welfare state that did not utterly alienate middle and even upper classes, and the emergence of a new common enemy in the Soviet Union all played a part. Most important, the moral consensus on which social solidarity ultimately rests was still intact. On what we experience today as divisive “cultural issues,” there was between Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee and their followers little gap at all.
Queen Elizabeth II still reigns with the dignity and dedication she first brought to the job as a young queen. But Britain, and the world around her, has changed. Moral consensus across all classes and conditions dissolves before anti-values of diversity and equity. “Reticence,” “modesty,” and “duty” are words from a dead language—much as Philip’s funeral came to us as from another century. “The Meaning of the Coronation” reads in 2021 like Kipling: old-fashioned yet not outdated. We Americans have no institutional anchor equal to the monarchy to moor us to the past.
But no one—not yet, anyway—can forget the queen. People and the filmmakers won’t let us. As Shils and Young put it, borrowing from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons which the mind does not suspect.” In times like ours, when the idea of “national communion” seems like a joke, it is a good thing to remember.
Timothy Jacobson writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
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