Lady Glenconner’s coronation memories crown Holkham Hall’s royal exhibition
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An exhibition at Holkham Hall celebrates the Coke family’s 400-year-old links with royalty, during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year – and recalls vivid memories of the coronation from one of her Maids of Honour.
To accompany the Queen during the crowning moment of her reign was a privilege given only to a fortunate few.
But back in 1953, one young lady from Norfolk got that chance to play her part in history – thanks to her family’s centuries-old association with royalty.
And the story of how Lady Anne Coke came to be a Maid of Honour at the coronation is at the heart of a new exhibition, launched in the Queen’s diamond jubilee year to celebrate 400 years of the Holkham Estate’s links with the monarchy.
The display, named The Ostrich and The Crown, is a grand showcase of rarely-seen archive records, photographs and costumes which charts the north Norfolk estate’s regal connections, dating back to the time of Elizabeth I.
A centrepiece among the exhibits is the sumptuous beaded silk satin dress and the tiara worn at the coronation by Lady Anne Coke, the eldest daughter of the 5th Earl of Leicester.
Lady Anne became known as Lady Glenconner after her marriage to the late Colin Tennant, the third Baron Glenconner.
Now approaching her 80th birthday, she recalled the overwhelming excitement which she felt as a 20-year-old during the biggest occasion of her life.
“We suddenly heard this amazing roar and we knew the Queen was coming,” she said. “Eventually she arrived in a golden coach and when she got out she looked absolutely ravishing. The Duke of Edinburgh helped her out and we smoothed the train. It had satin handles underneath. The Queen turned around and said: ‘Ready, girls?’ We said yes, and off we went.
“It was like a medieval tapestry. Having been brought up in the war when there was no food and it was so bleak, suddenly it was all brightly lit, with all the peers in their robes and the choir started to sing. The light and the colour and the joy of the whole thing was wonderful.”
The exhibition outlines the embarrassing moment when a Daily Sketch photographer captured the young maid wearing her coronation outfit during a rehearsal at Westminster Abbey – not realising it was supposed to be kept a secret.
“We were treated like the Spice Girls,” said Lady Glenconner. “We were followed around and photographed. It was all terribly exciting. We had endless rehearsals, and all of it was organised by the Duke of Norfolk. His wife, the duchess, filled in for most of them, but we had one rehearsal with the Queen, wearing a curtain trailed along her back in place of the dress.”
Lady Glenconner said she was joined on the day by her mother Elizabeth, Countess of Leicester, whose role was Lady of the Bedchamber – making them the only family to have mother and daughter in the coronation procession.
“I felt tremendously privileged to be chosen,” she said. “We all had to be the daughters of earls, marquesses or dukes, and our parents generally knew the Queen. We were chosen for our figures and the way we looked.
“Four of us went back to Buckingham Palace with the Queen afterwards and we were all so relieved that nothing had gone wrong. We went out on the balcony and in front of us you could not put a pin between all the people. I have never had such an amazing thing happen to me.”
Lady Glenconner said the most poignant part of the ceremony was the part the worldwide TV audience was not allowed to watch – the formal anointment of the new monarch.
“They took all the regalia off the Queen and she was dressed in this white linen shift to be anointed,” she said. “It was so moving. I felt very faint, perhaps because we had not had any breakfast. We had each been given a phial of smelling salts and told to wiggle our toes. I was standing at the back, and Black Rod (a senior officer in the House of Lords) was standing there and realised I was faint, so he pinioned me with his arm and got me through it.
“The Queen came down with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who afterwards had a tiny bottle of brandy and asked: ‘Would you like a sip?’ Obviously the Queen didn’t, but I said: ‘I would like one, thank you!’”
Lady Glenconner, who lives close to Holkham at Burnham Thorpe, also served for many years as Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret.
She said the coronation ranked above her own wedding day as the “most marvellous day of her life”.
“It was such an amazing occasion, and having such a young and beautiful Queen made it all the more exciting,” she said.
Throughout the centuries, the charms of north Norfolk have attracted all ranks of royalty to Holkham, where they have been entertained by generations of the Coke family at the ancestral home of the Earls of Leicester.
The exhibition explains how the estate entertained regal guests with shooting parties and cricket matches, and gives details of a visit by a 16-year-old Princess Victoria in 1835, and the great friendship between the 2nd Earl of Leicester and King Edward VII.
It also outlines the career of Sir Edward Coke, who founded of the family’s fortunes and adopted its ostrich emblem.
Sir Edward was regarded as one of the most brilliant lawyers of the 16th century, and served as Attorney General to Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, establishing the royal connections which are still maintained today.
Among the costume exhibits is a scarlet page boy’s uniform which the current Viscount Coke wore for two state openings of parliament, and the Ceremony of the Garter at Windsor Castle in 1980 at the age of 14. He was also equerry to the Duke of Kent.
Lord Coke said: “It is amazing we have the Queen celebrating her 60th year on the throne and she is without doubt on of the most phenomenal people in the world at the moment. There is going to be a lot of celebration throughout the land, but especially for our family, which has had a long association with the Royal Family.”
Lord Coke said his family has regularly been invited to join the Royal Family at Sandringham, and they have also entertained the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for private dinners at Holkham, most recently about six years ago.
The Ostrich and The Crown exhibition at Holkham Hall runs from April 1 to October 31 on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays from 12pm to 4pm.