No two Accessions are the same. That of King Edward VII in 1901 was characterised by widespread confusion regarding custom and practice, for Queen Victoria’s succession to the Throne had long ago faded from the public consciousness. This time, the ‘official mind’ was better prepared and the major difference between the Accession of King Charles III in 2022 and that of his mother Queen Elizabeth II in February 1952 was its visibility. By comparing the ceremonial surrounding these Accessions (and some others), this article reveals developments in what Walter Bagehot called the “dignified” constitution over the past seven decades.
Demise of the Crown
Before traditional black-bordered notices were affixed to the gates of Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the announcement of Queen Elizabeth’s death was posted on Twitter. By law, the Accession of King Charles III was immediate, yet the precise moment of both Accessions is unknown: in 1952 because King George VI died in his sleep, and in 2022 because the Palace has only referred to the “afternoon” of Thursday 8 September. All we have is a window, between the medical statement issued at 12:32 and the fact the Prime Minister was informed at 16:30. A few hours later Liz Truss gave the first public intimation of the new monarch’s regnal name, Charles III. In February 1952, Queen Elizabeth’s was first revealed in her Accession Proclamation (it is, after all, a personal prerogative of the Crown).
In 1952, the new Queen did not address her subjects until her Christmas broadcast more than 10 months after her Accession; Charles III did so less than 24 hours following the announcement of his mother’s death. The King’s speech was broadcast in both Houses of Parliament and at St Paul’s Cathedral during a memorial service. Charles announced the creation of his son and heir, the Duke of Cambridge, as Prince of Wales, “Tywysog Cymru, the country whose title I have been so greatly privileged to bear”. The necessary Letters Patent have yet to be issued, but this was the fastest creation in the title’s history, and one that immediately sparked a debate in Wales.
In January 1936, Privy Counsellors were issued instructions for King Edward VIII’s Accession Council via the wireless; in September 2022 some, but not all, were advised to monitor their inboxes. In a well-timed move, more than 700 Right Honourable men and women had been told in April there was only space at St James’s Palace for 200 of them (the same number as were present in 1952). Half attended ex-officio (including all six living former PMs); others had to compete for a place in a ballot.
The Accession Councils of 1952 and 2022 were unusual in other respects. In February 1952 Part I (at which the Sovereign is absent) took place two days before Part II (a new monarch’s first Privy Council meeting) on account of the Queen being in Kenya. In September 2022 both parts occurred together but during the formation of a Government. The cancellation of a (virtual) Privy Council meeting the evening before the Queen’s death meant Penny Mordaunt had been designated Lord President of the Council but not ‘declared’ by the Sovereign. In an elegant fudge, she presided over the Accession Council as ‘Acting’ Lord President, for which she needed only be a Privy Counsellor.
Also arising from the incomplete nature of the new Government was the unconventional presence at St James’s Palace of several new Cabinet ministers, not yet Privy Counsellors, and a Lord (High) Chancellor without a Great Seal of the Realm. This was also due to have been presented on 7 September. Nevertheless, Brandon Lewis was instructed by the King – in one of his first prerogative acts – to affix it to two Proclamations making the day of his mother’s State Funeral a bank holiday. This appears to have been carried out before the Great Seal was finally presented to its new Keeper at a subsequent Privy Council meeting on Tuesday 13 September. Only then were several ministers able to join the Council, take their statutory Oath of Office and receive their seals.
The text of the King’s Accession Proclamation also highlighted political developments since 1952. Then, the Cabinet agonised over wording contrived to reflect an emerging Commonwealth rather than a receding Empire; in 2022 “representatives of the Realms and Territories” was substituted for “representatives of other Members of the Commonwealth”, while “Members of the House of Commons” was inserted after “Lords Spiritual and Temporal”. The outdated phrase “Principal Gentlemen of Quality” was also omitted in 2022, as was the adjectival phrase “High and Mighty” which once preceded the monarch’s name.
For the first time, the funding of the Crown was dealt with at an Accession Council, via an Order in Council negating a statutory end to the Sovereign Grant settlement six months after the late Queen’s Demise. But the most striking difference was that all of this – dry but necessary administration – was televised, a first for a Privy Council meeting (beyond brief clips included in documentaries from 1969 and 1992). In 1952, all newsreel viewers witnessed was the new Queen’s Proclamation at St James’s and three other locations in London.
‘Operation Spring Tide’
On Sunday 11 September the Accession Proclamation was “cascaded” throughout the Realm, with simultaneous readings in Northern Ireland (Hillsborough rather than Stormont, as in 1952), Scotland (two readings, as in London, rather than the four in 1952) and Wales (at Cardiff Castle, the first time this part of the UK had had its own “national” proclamation).
As Vernon Bogdanor has argued, this acknowledged the radically different constitutional terrain of 2022 vis-à-vis 1952. Although devolution was a reality then too (the Privy Council of Northern Ireland held its own Accession Council at Stormont), Queen Elizabeth II did not embark on what were curiously described as “state visits” to the four parts of the United Kingdom until after her Coronation. In September 2022, by contrast, Charles’ visits to the “home nations” dominated the first week of his reign.
But first there was “Operation Unicorn”, the initial wave of Scottish ritual (trailed in a 2017 Guardian long read) which followed the Queen’s passing at Balmoral. This dominated the first half of the National Mourning period. Indeed, the people of Scotland – or at least those on its east coast – had extensive opportunities to view the Queen’s Coffin as it was conveyed from Deeside to Edinburgh, “Lying-at-Rest” at St Giles’ Cathedral (only once did the Court Circular slip up and say “in-State”) and finally departing the Scottish capital on Tuesday 13 September.
There was also a Procession from Holyroodhouse up the Royal Mile, with the new King and his siblings following on foot. That much of this went un-noticed in the metropole (London) did not distract from its significance. At St Giles’, the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon (Scotland’s premier peer) affixed the Crown of Scotland to the Coffin, providing a symbolic connection with King James V (of Scotland), the last monarch to die north of the border. “The Queue”, meanwhile, first manifested itself in Edinburgh’s Meadows, with an estimated 33,000 people paying their respects in the intimate surroundings of Scotland’s High Kirk. The UK’s two established churches were to enjoy almost equal billing.
The only full day of Scotland ritual (Monday 12 September) coincided with the King’s first visit to the Scottish Parliament his mother had helped inaugurate in 1999 and subsequently opened five times. Members of the Scottish Parliament “considered” (rather than debated) a Motion of Condolence, to which the Sovereign replied in the Chamber at Holyrood. Unlike at Westminster, the King does not form “part” of the devolved legislatures.
The King’s first visit to Northern Ireland was unusual in being trailed in advance. Although the Northern Ireland Assembly remained in limbo, its MLAs had already met to pay tribute and their condolences were presented to Charles in the Throne Room at Hillsborough Castle, which 70 years ago was the official residence of the vice-regal Governor of Northern Ireland. As in Scotland, politics was to some degree suspended, with Republicans as well as Unionists greeting the new Sovereign. In his response, the King pledged to continue ‘the healing of long-held hurts’.
While Hillsborough is a Royal Palace, the status of Cardiff Castle – where the King received the First Minister of Wales and Llywydd (Presiding Officer) of the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) on Friday 16 September – was less clear. Most striking, however, were the King’s bilingual remarks to Members of the Senedd that afternoon, delivered in English and (fluent) Welsh. The cultural (if not political) significance of this received curiously little commentary and, as with events in Scotland, went largely un-noticed in London. The King had been presented as the head of a multi-national state.
Parliament and Lying-in-State
Before “Operation Spring Tide” got under way, the King had received Addresses from both Houses of (the UK) Parliament on the morning of Monday 12 September. In 1952 the Queen received delegations from each House at Buckingham Palace to which she replied via formal Messages. Charles’ in-person response, by contrast, followed the Westminster Hall gatherings of 1977, 2002 and 2012, when Queen Elizabeth gave speeches in response to Jubilee Addresses.
The Lying-in-State (a reinvented tradition dating from 1910), meanwhile, represented a diminution of Parliament’s role following a Demise of the Crown. In 1952 details of King George VI’s Lying-in-State were formally intimated to both Houses who, on the appointed day, processed to Westminster Hall to receive the Coffin alongside the Royal Family. On the afternoon of 14 September 2022, however, a certain number of MPs and peers nominated by their respective Speakers were merely guests, as were delegations from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures.
Otherwise, the Lying-in-State departed little from that in 1952. The queues were long and the catafalque underneath the impressively lit rafters recognisable from 1910, 1936 and 1952. The Vigil of the Princes, a “revival” even in January 1936, followed that at St Giles’, only this time it included a Princess (Anne). Separately, the late sovereign’s grandchildren also held vigil as did two members of the Cabinet who also happened to be members of the Royal Company of Archers, the Sovereign’s bodyguard north of the border.
State Funeral and Committal
Following the then custom, George VI’s State Funeral took place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Queen Elizabeth II’s was the first at Westminster Abbey since George II’s in 1760. It was also the first state funeral to be televised, while the Scottish and English Officers of Arms, in a further fusion of hitherto distinct pageantry, had their first joint outing.
The service was also more ecumenical than that in 1952, when the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had to lobby for a place and the (English) Free Churches were also added to the mix. Joining them 70 years later was the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and representatives of several other faiths as well as from churches in each part of the UK. The King had earlier told a gathering of faith leaders that while “a committed Anglican Christian” he understood the Sovereign to have an “additional duty” to protect “the space for Faith itself and its practise through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals”.
Queen Elizabeth’s later committal at Windsor was more personal, with ministers from her two private estates, Sandringham and Balmoral, reading prayers. This too was televised, with cameras following the removal of the Imperial State Crown, Orb and Sceptre from the Coffin – closely watched by the King – and the symbolic “breaking” of the Lord Chamberlain’s wand of office. As the Coffin slowly sank into the Royal Vault, Garter King of Arms recited the Royal Style and Titles past and present.
Only the Queen’s burial remained completely private, although an image was later released of a new ledger stone in Windsor’s King George VI Memorial Chapel (completed in 1969). This indicated that she and her late consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, had joined her late mother, who had predeceased her by 20 years, and her father, by an incredible 70. A star representing the Order of the Garter separated the two generations.
The committal aside, this was the most visible of Accessions. In 1952 there were no walkabouts; in 2022 the King embarked on his first the morning after his mother’s death. That evening he addressed the UK and the Commonwealth directly, with several more speeches to follow. The Queen’s Lying-at-Rest in Edinburgh and Lying-in-State were live streamed and Charles’ UK tour was promoted across multiple platforms by the Royal Family’s social media team. This King, like his late mother, clearly believes he needs to be seen to be believed.
Dr David Torrance, monarchy specialist at the House of Commons Library
(Suggested citation: D. Torrance, ‘A Tale of Two Accessions: 1952 and 2022’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (28th September 2022) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))