The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by The Princess Margaret, were present this evening at a Ball at Hampton Court given by Officers of the Household Brigade.
—Court Circular, May 30, 1953
In the late afternoon of May 29, 1953, in one of the 775 rooms of Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth II dressed in a rose-colored crinoline gown to attend a ball at Hampton Court. Five feet four inches in height, with her mother’s “wonderful blue eyes,” her father’s dark hair, and a chin and cheekbones that advertised her descent from the House of Teck via her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth had not changed much in temperament since a journalist described her as a child who was “happy natured but serious.”1
She was helped into her ballgown by her dresser Margaret MacDonald, the forty-nine-year-old daughter of a Scottish railway worker. MacDonald—nicknamed Bobo by Elizabeth—had joined royal service as nursery maid when Elizabeth was born in 1926 and never left.2
A dresser’s title was “a bit misleading,” thought one of MacDonald’s successors. With corsets and hoops consigned to the past, a dresser’s job was, by 1953, comparable to a stylist’s: “[our] role is to lay everything out for her and sometimes help zip her up or fasten a tricky piece of jewellery.”3
Outside, from just beyond the palace perimeters, the Queen and MacDonald could hear the sounds of revellers celebrating Elizabeth’s forthcoming coronation, due to take place three days later.
The twenty-six-year-old Elizabeth II, who had acceded to the throne following her father’s death from cancer fifteen months earlier, had spent the first part of her day with a bedsheet tied to her shoulders as a stand-in for the robes she would wear on June 2. Her movements—the coronation was as much choreography as it was theology—were perfected with the help of tape on the Buckingham Palace floors, marking out the space she would process through in Westminster Abbey. As she rehearsed, Elizabeth listened, over and over again, to audio recordings of her father’s coronation sixteen years before. Afterward, the Queen held two audiences. First, she welcomed Haiti’s new ambassador to Britain, who was accompanied to the palace by his secretary, Gerard Baptiste, and his attaché, Adaline Maximilien; afterward, the Queen met with Sir William Strang, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.4
Then it was upstairs for a change of dress, which ended with MacDonald fastening the clasp of “a heavy diamond and ruby” necklace and fixing a diamond tiara into Elizabeth’s hair.5
The ball was being thrown in the Queen’s honor by officers of the Household Brigade, the army cavalry units responsible for guarding state occasions in London, to celebrate her imminent coronation. It would also be the first time in 193 years that Hampton Court Palace had hosted its sovereign for a major event.6
Both of the palaces that hosted Elizabeth II that evening owed their current status to the actions of her four-times great-grandfather, King George III. Buckingham Palace had become indelibly associated with the public image of the British monarchy after George III bought it for £21,000 from the Duke of Buckingham’s son in 1761 as a wedding gift for his German wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.7
At the same time as he was turning Buckingham House into a palace, George III consigned Hampton Court to oblivion as a royal residence. He opened its gardens to the public and subdivided its abandoned apartments into living quarters for revolution-fleeing royal cousins, down-on-their-luck bishops’ widows, and retired servants.
Dressed for the ball, the Queen joined her husband, Philip, and her sister, Margaret, in a Rolls-Royce that drove out the gates of Buckingham Palace. Following in a second car was Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting for the evening, Lady Margaret Hay, accompanied by her equerryI
, twenty-nine-year-old Captain Johnny Spencer, Viscount Althorp, who three decades later would become father-in-law to Elizabeth’s eldest son, Charles, through the marriage of his daughter Lady Diana Spencer. In her car, Elizabeth sat next to her twenty-two-year-old sister, described by their mother as having “large blue eyes and a will of iron.”8
Their grandmother judged Margaret “more complicated and difficult” than Elizabeth, summarizing her as espiègle
, meaning intelligent and wild without necessarily intending to be bad; one of her mother’s friends called Margaret “naughty but amusing.” Writer Gore Vidal thought she was “too intelligent for her role in life” as a member of the royal family, as did the Conservative Party politician Norman St. John-Stevas, who considered the princess “one of the cleverest women I’ve ever met.” Far less impressed was a courtier’s wife, who thought that Margaret’s “nature was to make everything go wrong. Nice one day—nasty the next…. She had everything, and then she destroyed herself.”9
In the decades ahead, Princess Margaret would become one of the most unpopular members of the royal family, nicknamed “Her Royal Lowness,” criticized by politicians and journalists for her extravagance, then pilloried and impersonated by comedians who lampooned her as haughty, arrogant, and useless.10
But as of 1953, she was still admired as young, beautiful, and stylish, and there was a great deal of sympathy for her at the grief she felt after her father’s sudden death.
Ahead of the sisters in the car sat Elizabeth’s husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who thirty years earlier had been born on a kitchen table in Corfu as his parents fled a coup that pushed his uncle off the Greek throne. Boarding at a school in Germany run by a reliable royalist who had served as secretary to the last chancellor under the old German monarchy, Prince Philip had come to Britain when his Jewish headmaster had to flee a Nazi arrest warrant in 1933.11
He completed his education at the school his headmaster founded in Scotland, joined the Royal Navy, served in the Second World War, became a British citizen, and fell in love with the King’s eldest daughter not long after victory.12
Their wedding took place in November 1947, just after Philip was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich by his future father-in-law, King George VI. The Duke of Edinburgh was tall, blond, energetic, handsome, and eye-wateringly tactless. In conversation with a friend, Elizabeth’s private secretary, Sir Alan (“Tommy”) Lascelles, summarized Philip as “rough, ill-mannered, uneducated, and would probably not be faithful.”13
The swipe about his education was made because Philip had attended the newly established Gordonstoun boarding school in Scotland rather than the sacred bastions of old money at Eton, Harrow, Winchester, or Marlborough (Lascelles’s alma mater).14
Philip, who regarded Lascelles as chief in the cabal of insufferable palace snobs—the grim-faced “men with moustaches,” as Margaret dubbed them—proved how prepared he was to ruffle feathers in his quest to modernize the monarchy, particularly after he was appointed to the chair of the committee that organized his wife’s coronation. In that capacity, he had waged a successful campaign to allow cameras into Westminster Abbey to make the ceremony the first televised coronation in history. The BBC was so thrilled by the decision that it installed two new television transmitters—one in the north of England in County Durham, the other just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland—to improve coverage across the United Kingdom for the big day. It proved a worthwhile investment: the coronation inspired a revolution in British television ownership, which surged from 1.2 million to 3 million households, enabling an estimated 27 million—in a population of 50 million—to watch the ceremony’s live broadcast.15
In the hour or so that it took Elizabeth, Philip, and Margaret to travel from the newer Buckingham Palace to the older Hampton Court, Elizabeth’s image gazed back at them again and again. They drove beneath celebratory arches, tons of red, white, and blue bunting, and past shop windows, lampposts, private homes, factories, and government buildings decorated with royalist slogans such as “Happy and Glorious,” “God Save Our Gracious Queen,” “God Save the Queen,” “Rule Britannia,” “Vivat Regina,” “Long Live the Queen,” and “God Bless You, Ma’am.” Tabloids were posting front-page countdowns to the ceremony—even the left-leaning Daily Mirror
, which on the day of the coronation itself would break the record for daily sales of a British newspaper with 7 million copies.16
The monarchy’s critics were either bemused or offended by the intensity of the public’s devotion to Elizabeth II. Few skeptics were concerned with criticizing the Queen directly, since, at that stage, she was largely an unknown quantity. Criticism tended instead to focus on attitudes toward the monarchy itself, which they felt had been elevated into something approaching an ersatz religion. The British former-spy-turned-journalist Malcolm Muggeridge argued that, regardless of the monarch’s personality, the monarch, as an idea, upheld the class system: “The impulses out of which snobbishness is born descend from the Queen at the apex of the social pyramid, right down to the base…. If it is considered—as I consider—that such a social setup is obsolete and disadvantageous in the contemporary world, then the Monarchy is to that extent undesirable.”17
For others, like the playwright John Osborne, the spectacle of monarchy was being used as a grotesque opiate for the British people to distract themselves from economic difficulties, diplomatic decline, and political stagnation. Eight years earlier, the United Kingdom had emerged from the Second World War victorious yet bankrupt. Far from the promised land of plenty, living standards had fallen in victory’s aftermath; rationing had still been in place two years later when Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip. The empire was dead by the time Elizabeth II came to the throne—a fact obvious to all but its most blinkered supporters, some of whom gravitated to far-right pressure groups such as the League of Empire Loyalists, founded two years after the coronation.18
The economy was only just beginning to stabilize and was a long way from prospering, and Britain had been eclipsed in terms of global power by her former allies the United States and the Soviet Union. To Osborne, the millions celebrating the coronation and cheering the royal family were performers in the last circus of a civilisation that has lost faith in itself and sold itself for a splendid triviality, for the beauty of the ceremonial…. When the Roman crowds gather outside St. Peter’s [at the Vatican], they are taking part in a moral system, however detestable it may be. My objection to the Royal symbol is that it is dead; it is a gold filling in a mouth full of decay…. It distresses me that there should be so many empty minds, so many empty lives in Britain to sustain this fatuous industry; that no one should have the wit to laugh [the monarchy] out of existence or the honesty to resist it.19
Equally philosophical were some of the monarchy’s supporters, such as psychoanalyst Ernest Jones and author C. S. Lewis, the Oxford professor and theologian best known for his seven-part biblical allegories for children, The Chronicles of Narnia
Defenders of monarchy in Britain typically identified the institution as a constitutional bulwark against dictatorship, a custodian of stability and nationhood, and a preventative against party politics infecting the role of head of state as much as they did day-to-day government. For Jones and Lewis, as much as for Muggeridge and Osborne on the opposite side of the issue, the question of monarchy ran deeper. Where those like Osborne saw the Crown as a distracting and harmful panacea that got the crowds punch-drunk on patriotism and tacky sentiment to distract them from issues that mattered, Lewis presented the monarchy as not just constitutionally but also culturally essential—almost an evolutionary necessity—by giving people something to focus natural human emotions on that was more edifying and less harmful than the emerging craze for celebrities or the cults of personalities surrounding elected demagogues. In his 1943 article “Equality,” Lewis argued, “We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial Monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving…. Monarchy can easily be ‘debunked,’ but watch the faces, mark well the accents of the debunkers.” Lewis characterized anti-monarchists as “men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch…. Where men are forbidden to honour a king, they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead—even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served—deny it food, and it will gobble poison.”21
Yet the monarchy could no longer be as separate from the media as Lewis might have liked. For better and for worse, Elizabeth II’s reign was illuminated by a camera flash; the Queen understood that, or, as she put it, “I have to be seen to be believed.”22
A crowd—some of them waiting for more than two hours to see her—had gathered to cheer as Elizabeth’s car reached the bridge that linked Hampton Court to the local train station. The Queen ordered the car’s interior light switched on so that they could see her—a technique pioneered by her mother, whose detractors nicknamed her “Grinning Liz,” thanks to her seemingly insatiable appetite for public applause. Elizabeth II waved, the crowd cheered, and a photographer for the Daily Mirror
caught the moment for tomorrow’s front page with its headline “The Queen Goes to an All-Night Ball.” The Mirror
’s usual banner, in socialist red, had temporarily been replaced with monarchial gold to announce, “Three Golden Days to June 2!” The accompanying photo of the Queen and Princess Margaret covered more than half the front page, sharing space with adverts for a special Mirror
commemorative book on the coronation and another for Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates.23
After crossing the bridge, the Queen’s car turned right, passing through the gates of Hampton Court and driving toward the palace that loomed ahead of them—a colossus in red brick at the heart of a large estate, with the River Thames to the right. In its heyday, Hampton Court had been as inextricably linked to the monarchy as Buckingham Palace would be after it. For a brief moment in 1953, it looked as if those days had returned. Every room, even those seldom used and emptied to their fragile floorboards, was illuminated for the ball as Hampton Court’s reflection shone over the river. One reveller wrote, “A world that had vanished… lived again for the night.”24
The royals were driven across the palace’s stone bridge, dating from the reign of Henry VIII and traversing a now-drained moat. From their car windows, the Queen, the Duke,II
and the Princess could see the bridge’s stone yalesIII
, panthers, unicorns, lions, and dragons, in the respective hoofs, paws, and claws of which were clasped the heraldic shields of the Beaufort, Plantagenet, Seymour, Stuart, and Tudor families. These carved beasts had the appearance of antiquity; in fact, they were a tasteful restoration carried out under the auspices of Elizabeth II’s grandmother Queen Mary, Britain’s queen consort from 1910 until the death of her husband, King George V, in 1936.25
Queen Mary had passed away two months before the Hampton Court ball, with specific instructions that her death was not to disrupt the scheduled coronation.
The royals passed under a large redbrick gatehouse erected on the orders of the sixteenth-century churchman Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and into a large courtyard that they crossed before passing through the Anne Boleyn Gate, a clocktower named in honor of Henry VIII’s second wife. It sported a famous clock showing a pre-Galilean solar system with Earth at its center; around it spun the hours of the day, days of the week, months of the year, signs of the zodiac, cycles of the Moon, and tides of the Thames. The two cars came to a halt in the smaller courtyard on the other side of the gate. The Queen—after gathering the white fox-fur wrap selected by Margaret MacDonald—stepped out onto the cobblestones, turned left with her husband, and walked up a flight of stone steps. Her sister followed. Their mother was not with them. The fifty-two-year-old Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother had stayed in London to be guest of honor at the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Officers’ Coronation Dinner and Ball at the Savoy Hotel.26
The Queen Mother’s absence also meant that another figure was missing from Hampton Court, as she had requested that one of the two people to accompany her to the Savoy was the comptroller of her household, Group Captain Peter Townsend.27
Choosing him as one of her attendants made sense, since Townsend was a handsome and well-liked Royal Air Force veteran who had been decorated for his bravery, “leadership, determination, and skill of the highest order” against the German Luftwaffe at the Battle of Britain in 1940. After leaving the forces, he had become an equerry to King George VI. The family liked Townsend so much that, following the King’s death, the new Queen Mother asked him if he would become her comptroller as she established her household as a widow. However, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Margaret might have been forgiven if they suspected that the Queen Mother had requested Townsend’s presence at the Savoy to make sure he was not dancing at Hampton Court with the Princess.
A few months earlier, Margaret and Townsend had told her mother that they were in love and that Townsend had sued to divorce his wife, Rosemary, so that he and the Princess could marry.28
Up until that point, the Queen Mother, like most of Townsend’s colleagues in the royal household, assumed that the breakdown in the Townsends’ marriage had been a consequence of Rosemary’s affair with businessman John de László, son of the famous portraitist Philip de László. The Queen Mother worried that Margaret would be required to renounce her place in the succession, which would mean sacrificing her income from the government-approved Civil List, followed by a possible stint of living abroad—all for a match that seemed forged in the midst of grief. After the initial shock wore off, the Queen Mother fell back on her default position of acting as if nothing unpleasant had happened—and hoping that things would soon resolve themselves. If nobody caused a fuss it would speed along the point where the romance would fizzle out—or “peter out,” as one wag put it.
At the top of the stone stairs, the royal party stepped into the Great Hall. King James I’s three-century-long ban on smoking had been rescinded to suit Margaret, who was seldom seen at parties without her fashionable cigarette holder. An official struck his staff on the floor to announce, “Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh.”
It had been 600 years since the first monarch—Elizabeth’s nineteen-times great-grandfather King Edward III—arrived at Hampton, and 450 years since her fourteen-times great-grandmother, Elizabeth of York, had been entertained on the spot where Elizabeth II entered ahead of her husband and sister.29
- I. A military officer who assists members of the British royal family at certain official functions.
- II. Philip was not referred to as a prince between 1947 and 1957. He ceased using his title as a Greek prince after becoming a naturalized British subject. He was created a Prince of the United Kingdom by his wife in February 1957, after which he was officially His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
- III. A mythical beast with the body of an antelope or goat, and tusks. In some legends, fire-breathing.