June 2, 2022

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

June 2, 1953. Following the unexpected death of her father, twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor is crowned Queen Elizabeth II.


Cold Open

It’s July 16th, 1936.

On a hot summer’s day in London, hundreds of people are gathered in Hyde Park to watch a military parade. Columns of Royal Guards dressed in bright red jackets file along Constitution Hill toward Buckingham Palace.

Somewhere in the crowd of spectators, a short man in a shabby brown suit ducks and weaves through the mass of bodies. Eventually, he reaches the front, elbowing his way between two policemen to get a clear view of the parade.

There, riding his horse at the front of the procession, is the British monarch, King Edward VIII.

The short man in the crowd runs a trembling hand through his thinning blonde hair. Then he reaches into his jacket pocket and takes out a revolver. He raises the gun… takes aim at the King, but just as he’s about to pull the trigger… somebody grabs the man’s arm.

A cry goes up, and before the man can break free, police officers descend and wrestle him to the ground. In the melee, the gun goes flying from the man’s hand and soaring through the air… before landing at the feet of the King’s horse.

The would-be assassin will later be identified as George McMahon, a low-level Irish crook. In the press, McMahon will be depicted as a crazed lone gunman with no clear motive for assassinating the King. But during his trial, McMahon will paint a very different picture. He will claim that he was hired to assassinate King Edward by Italian fascists and that MI5, the British intelligence agency, knew all about his plot and did nothing to prevent it. MI5 will deny McMahon’s claims, and the bungling assassin will be sentenced to twelve months in prison.

Many years later, McMahon’s name will resurface in a declassified MI5 dossier. Those documents will reveal that McMahon was indeed working for the Italian Embassy as a paid informant for MI5, adding credence to the notion that MI5 permitted the attempt on King Edward’s life. But there is no concrete evidence to support this claim. What is beyond doubt though is that many in the British government disapproved of King Edward VIII, and would have been happy to see him removed from power.

The assassination attempt ultimately failed, but in the end, Edward’s reign will be cut short. The King’s tumultuous private life will soon alienate him from both his family and the British public, leaving him with little choice but to abdicate the throne. Edward’s decision will change the course of British history, redirecting the line of succession to the crown through his younger brother, Albert, and ultimately culminating in the coronation of Albert’s daughter Elizabeth on June 2nd, 1953.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is June 2nd: The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Act One: A Very British Scandal

It’s November 16th, 1936, on a stormy winter’s day in London, four months after the failed assassination attempt on King Edward VIII.  

King Edward sits in a drawing room inside Buckingham Palace. Seated opposite him is Britain’s Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Rain lashes against the window panes and the bare treetops of St. James’ Park thrash about in the wintery squall. Edward looks strung out and pale. The King has just informed Baldwin of his intention to marry a divorced American socialite, named Wallis Simpson. The Prime Minister uncrosses his legs, leans forward in his seat, and fixes Edward with a reproachful stare.

Throughout his life, Edward has courted controversy. Dashing and charismatic, the forty-two-year-old’s proclivity for womanizing and partying has frequently prompted disapproval from the British establishment. Edward’s own father, King George V, was reluctant to see Edward inherit the crown. Wary of his oldest son’s playboy lifestyle, the King once said: “after I am dead, the boy will ruin himself after twelve months.”

And it’s not just Edward’s social life that causes a stir – his political views are controversial too. At a time when Europe is being threatened by the looming shadow of fascism, Edward is outspoken in his support for Nazi Germany and its authoritarian leader, Adolf Hitler. In 1933, after the British government expressed concerns over Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Edward wrote to a friend stating that: “it is no business of ours to interfere in Germany’s internal affairs, either regarding Jews or anything else.”

And after Edward ascended to the throne in January 1936, many politicians feared that the King’s pro-German leanings could pose a threat to national security. But while many in the British establishment seem prepared to swallow down Edward’s controversial politics, what they cannot abide is Edward’s scandalous love life. Specifically, his passionate affair with the American socialite and divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

Edward and Wallis have been lovers since the early 1930s – despite Wallis being married to a British stockbroker named Ernest Simpson. Wallis is brash, loud-mouthed, and sexually promiscuous. Unsurprisingly, she divides opinions within English high society. Wallis is especially unpopular with Edward’s family, many of whom suspect she is seducing Edward for his money and power. The Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, Neville Chamberlain, wrote in his diary of Mrs. Simpson that she was “an entirely unscrupulous woman who is not in love with the king, but is exploiting him for her own purposes.”

And despite Edward’s attempts to keep his relationship with Wallis secret, word of the affair spread. Edward dismissed the rumors as gossip. But the mere suggestion of scandal was enough to bring great shame and embarrassment upon the royal family, who urged Edward to end his association with Wallis.

But Edward ignored his family’s pleas.

By November of 1936, Wallis has filed for divorce from her second husband, leaving no one in doubt about Edward’s intentions to marry the American. For the British establishment, this outcome was inconceivable. Divorce was frowned upon by the Church of England, and many believe an American is unsuitable to marry into the royal family.

Now, on this wintery afternoon inside Buckingham Palace, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin surveys Edward beneath stern eyebrows. He reminds the monarch that by marrying Mrs. Simpson, she will become Queen. Baldwin adds that the British public will never accept Mrs. Simpson, both because of her history of divorce and her brazen demeanor, and that “in the choice of a Queen, the voice of the people must be heard.”

Until now, the King’s inner circle has managed to keep the scandal away from the tabloids. But as Mrs. Simpson finalizes her second divorce, Prime Minister Baldwin fears that the press will catch wind of the story, and its publication will spark widespread uproar. Baldwin knows that if the British public refuse to accept Mrs. Simpson as their Queen, then the monarchy could be faced with a full-scale crisis.

So the Prime Minister presents Edward with an ultimatum: break off his engagement with Mrs. Simpson, or abdicate the throne. It’s not an easy decision for Edward, who must choose between his love for Wallis and his duty as king. In the end, his choice will have radical and far-reaching consequences, and dramatically change the future prospects of his ten-year-old niece, Elizabeth, who will go on to become the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

Act Two: The King is Dead!

It’s December 10th, 1936, three weeks after Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin met with King Edward VIII in Buckingham Palace.

King Edward sits behind a desk in his home in the grounds of Windsor Castle. Standing across the room, their backs to the fire crackling in the hearth, are the King’s three younger brothers: Albert, Henry, and George. Edward reaches across the desk and dips a fountain pen into a pot of ink. Then he pauses, clears his throat, and signs his abdication papers.

Albert turns and looks out of the window. It’s another cold winter’s morning, and the castle grounds are muted and lifeless beneath a layer of frost. Albert, the second oldest son of the former King, George V, is next in the line to the throne. And once Edward has officially abdicated, he will become king.

The prospect terrifies Albert, who could not be more different from his older brother. Where Edward is charming and charismatic, Albert is quiet and awkward. Edward is a consummate performer, with a talent for public speaking, Albert is painfully shy and afflicted with a nervous stammer. But unlike his whimsical brother, Albert is diligent and dutiful. Edward relished the spotlight, whereas Albert shied away from it, choosing to pursue a career in the navy while raising his two beloved daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret.

And today, as Albert looks out across the frozen grounds, his mind is fixed on his eldest daughter and soon-to-be heir, Elizabeth. The ten-year-old girl is blissfully unaware of the burden she has just inherited – the dreadful weight of responsibility that's been thrust onto her innocent young shoulders.

Albert hears the scrape of the chair as Edward stands up, having finalized his abdication. Edward approaches Albert and kneels before the new king, kissing his hand and saying: “thank you, sir, for all your kindness to me.” Albert encourages his brother to stand up, but Edward insists on the formality. He looks up at Albert and says: “it is right, old man. I must step off with the right foot from the first.”

The following day, Edward leaves England and is reunited with Wallis Simpson in France, where the couple gets married. Edward and Wallis will remain in France for most of their lives, stripped of all power and influence, retaining only honorary titles and a generous royal allowance.

Albert is officially crowned in May 1937, assuming the title King George VI after his father. Two years after his coronation, World War II breaks out across Europe, and the man who never wanted to be King is forced to shepherd a nation through the most devastating conflict in modern history at the time. George VI remains in London during the Nazis’ bombing of the city – refusing his advisor’s attempts to relocate him to safety. In so doing, he fulfills an important role as a symbolic figurehead of British courage and defiance.

Thankfully, George VI survives the bombing of London. But the stress of the war takes a heavy toll on the King’s health. Soon, he is diagnosed with lung cancer, and in 1951, he undergoes life-threatening surgery to remove the diseased lung. The surgery is a success, and on January 31st, 1952, the King feels strong enough to travel to London Airport, to see off his daughter Elizabeth as she embarks on a tour of the British colonies of Kenya and Australia.

It will be the last time Elizabeth sees her father alive.


About a week later, in early February 1952, Elizabeth strolls beside a trout stream in the foothills of Mount Kenya. Elizabeth’s husband – the aristocrat and naval officer Philip Mountbatten – walks beside her, his eyes lowered, his brow furrowed, deep in thought.

Elizabeth’s spirits are high, and she skips cheerfully ahead of her contemplative husband. The trip to Africa has been every bit as exciting as the young princess could have hoped. After arriving in Kenya – following the obligatory press junkets and photographs with local dignitaries – the royal couple traveled north to the mountains, where they spent the night in a treetop hotel. There they watched elephants drinking from a waterhole and listened to monkeys howl throughout the night.

Then, earlier this morning, Philip received a telephone call from Elizabeth’s private secretary. The news from London was that King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, had died suddenly in his sleep. Philip was badly shaken, but he composed himself sufficiently to take his wife for a walk around the hotel grounds to tell her the news.

Soon, Philip calls Elizabeth over. The princess turns, her expression going from joyful to concerned when she sees the pain in her husband’s eyes. Struggling to overcome the lump in his throat, Philip delivers the tragic news. Elizabeth is stunned into silence. She loved her father dearly, and word of his death comes as a terrible shock. But Elizabeth has also inherited her father’s stoical sense of duty, and she knows that with the King’s death, her responsibility is no longer merely to herself and her family – but to the British people, her new subjects.

Elizabeth will cancel the foreign tour, and she and Philip will fly home to England. Having remained dry-eyed since learning of her father’s death, Elizabeth will excuse herself during the flight. She will lock herself in the airplane bathroom and weep for her father. After several minutes, she will wipe her face and return to her seat, composed and steely; ready to begin her new life as Queen. 

Act Three: Jubilee

It’s June 2nd, 1953 in London.

Inside Westminster Abbey, a young woman kneels before a hushed congregation. Elizabeth’s gaze is downcast, but she can feel the glare of the TV cameras broadcasting to millions of viewers at home. Elizabeth inhales deeply, steadying her nerves. The abbey air smells of mildew and dust – a legacy of centuries of tradition and ceremony. The young woman resists the urge to sneeze. 

An elderly reverend wearing elaborate religious vestments approaches the altar. Elizabeth glances up, as Britain’s seniormost priest – the Archbishop of Canterbury – begins to recite a solemn prayer. Once the Archbishop has concluded, he steps down from the altar, and the choir strikes up a rousing rendition of “God Save the Queen”.

Now, it’s Elizabeth’s cue to stand. She takes a calming breath, then rises and walks across the abbey towards an ornately-carved wooden throne. It's hard and uncomfortable. Elizabeth fidgets awkwardly in her heavy robes. Suddenly, the Archbishop looms over her, his fingers glistening with holy oil. Then, the venerable priest traces a cross on Elizabeth’s forehead, as her nostrils are filled with the musky scent of roses and orange blossom.

Once Elizabeth has been anointed with the oil, the Archbishop presents her with ceremonial artifacts, known as the Crown Jewels. First, she receives a golden orb. Then a diamond-encrusted scepter. Lastly, the Archbishop steps forward with the final piece of regalia: the crown.

He raises the crown high in the air, before lowering it slowly onto Elizabeth’s head. Elizabeth exhales softly, adjusting to its weight – and to the responsibility that has just been thrust upon her. The congregation rises to their feet and loudly exclaims in unison “God save the Queen!”

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey, a solemn hush fell over Britain, as more than 27 million people around the country huddled around their TV sets to witness the historic occasion. Elizabeth’s reign, the longest in British history, will be characterized by diligence, grace, and strength of character.

In 2022, Britain celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne – an occasion known as her Platinum Jubilee. Next month, the 96-year-old monarch will attend spectacular galas and pageants celebrating her record-breaking sovereignty, and Britain’s streets will be filled with parties and festooned with bunting, as people flock outdoors to celebrate Elizabeth II’s remarkable reign, one that officially began when she was crowned Queen, on June 2nd, 1953.


Next on History Daily. June 3rd, 1989. The Chinese government calls in the military, killing hundreds of people, putting down a student-led pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.