Princess Elizabeth wasn’t meant to be Queen. Her father George VI had inherited the throne suddenly after his own brother, Edward VIII, relinquished it so that he could wed his divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson.
Then, in 1952, at just 25 years old, the young princess was thrust into the role after the death of her father. So, when she was crowned in a spectacular ceremony at Westminster Abbey just over a year later in June 1953, it was even more surprising to see how she took it in regal stride with the eyes of the world upon her.
“I couldn’t understand how she could be so calm, so serene, completely unfazed by the whole thing at the surface,” Lady Jane Rayne Lacey, one of the Queen’s coronation maids of honor, recalls in this week’s PEOPLE. “We arrived, and took our places. And in a few minutes later she turned ’round and said, with beaming smile, ‘Ready girls?’ And we said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ “
“I couldn’t understand how she could be so calm, so serene, completely unfazed by the whole thing at the surface,” Lady Jane says.
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Royal commentator Alastair Bruce, who spoke with the Queen about her Crown Jewels earlier this year and is a historical advisor on Downton Abbey, calls her father George VI the “torch shiner in the dark space for her,” helping her prepare for the inevitable.
The coronation brought a brightness to a country that was still reeling post-WWII. “Britain was really grim after the war. There was a lot of food rationing still,” adds Lady Jane.
For more about the show and how women are shaping the House of Windsor, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands on Friday.
Lady Jane and Alastair Bruce are among the friends, experts and palace insiders featured in The Story of the Royals. Talking candidly about the landmark moments from the Queen’s coronation to the newest royal baby, the special explores the remarkable evolution of the world’s most famous family.
The Story of The Royals, a two-night television event presented by PEOPLE, airs Aug. 22 and Aug. 23 from 9-11 p.m. ET on ABC.