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Ceremony Fit For A Queen

Britain's Queen Elizabeth arrives at Westminster Abbey, in London, Monday, June 2, 2003, where a service took place to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation in 1953.
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Fifty years ago, on June 2, a young princess named Elizabeth was crowned the queen of England.

Today, a pomp-laden commemorative ceremony at Westminster Abbey marked the queen's half century on the throne. Sixteen senior members of the royal family, including the queen's son Prince Charles and grandson Prince William, took part.

Elizabeth II acceded to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, on the death of her father, King George VI, but the coronation did not take place until 16 months later.

The 50th anniversary coronation celebrations are on a much smaller scale than last year's Golden Jubilee, which marked Elizabeth's 50-year reign and included parties across the country and parades and two big concerts in London. The jubilee year was dampened by the deaths of the queen's mother and younger sister, Princess Margaret.

Nevertheless, a crowd of hundreds gathered outside the abbey for today's ceremony. They cheered as the queen, wearing a primrose yellow suit and hat, arrived with her husband, Prince Philip.

Instead of foreign dignitaries, 1,000 members of the public who drew lottery tickets were featured guests at the service of prayer and reflection. Some 240 people who participated in the 1953 coronation ceremony were invited, along with 34 "coronation babies," born June 2, 1953.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay was the first to climb Mount Everest, also attended. His feat has long been linked in Britons' minds to the coronation, since news of the ascent reached Londoners on the day of the crowning.

Also in the audience was Prince Charles' companion Camilla Parker Bowles, although she did not arrive with Charles or sit with the royal family. Her presence seemed a further sign of the queen's gradual acceptance of the couple's relationship.

Royal grandson Prince Harry - third in line to the throne - was unable to take part because of school exams. And Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is away at the Group of Eight annual economic summit in France, was represented by Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine.

Royal watcher Victoria Mather says the celebration was more informal than she had expected. "Not everybody wearing a hat." Mather says. "But I think this is what the queen wanted."

The day's other big commemorative event was a children's tea party in the garden of Buckingham Palace. The guest list for that included underprivileged children, pop stars, radio disc jockeys and clowns.

A fun fair has been set up in the palace garden with a 110-year-old
carousel, bouncy castles and a circus tent.

Mather notes, the queen wanted the celebration to conclude with a party for children.

The coronation of 1953 was a moment of high pageantry, a burst of color and national pride after the dark days of World War II. The young queen dedicated herself to her people and an empire that reached around the world. It was a high point of public enthusiasm for the monarchy.

Today, Britain no longer rules the world that way and the royal family no longer enjoys unquestioned respect.

Mather points out, "At the time of the coronation 50 years ago, Everest was conquered by Edmond Hillary. It was a dawn of a new age. Most of the map was covered in pink. It was part of the British Commonwealth. Now we're a third-rate power. Prime Minister Blair just sort of following along behind your President Bush. We are a very third-rate player in the world's game."

She says the public view of the monarchy has also changed. "You have to remember that at the time of the coronation, the monarchy was held in awe, it was unquestioned reverence. Now the monarchy is held in doubt. We do not know if there will be a monarchy in another 50 years," Mather says.

Nevertheless, she says the queen has remained the same. "We still have a queen who believes in what she swore on that day at the coronation, which is a sacrament - when she was anointed with the holy oil, when the crown was placed upon her head. She swelled the whole of Westminster Abbey. It was an extraordinary moment. It was the dawn of television in Britain," Mather says.

Mather says the queen was in favor of televising the event, even thought there was doubt at Buckingham Palace. Mather says, "People drinking cups of tea must be seeing the coronation on television - people in pubs drinking beer, or people with hats on. It might not be due reverence, but it was the breakthrough for television."