The untold story of the Queen's most meaningful accessories

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Maple leaf brooch - Royal Collection Trust | Max Mumby/ Indigo/ Getty Images
Maple leaf brooch - Royal Collection Trust | Max Mumby/ Indigo/ Getty Images

When Her Majesty landed in London on Feb 7 1952, she was facing what must have felt like an overwhelming new future. She had left Britain a princess, and returned from Kenya a monarch in mourning – and what she wore for her first steps on British soil as Queen was important. Her dress, of course, was black, but pinned to it was the flame lily brooch – a subtle nod to her relationship with her beloved father.

From Thursday, that brooch will be on display as part of a new exhibition at Windsor Castle that explores the Coronation through portraiture, fashion, photographs, and jewellery, and will include the dress, robe of estate, necklace and earrings that she wore.

Many of us who have lost someone we love will empathise with the desire to wear a piece of jewellery or clothing that reminds us of them – and the Queen had been given this brooch on a tour of southern Africa that she went on with her parents, and which coincided with her 21st birthday.

“The flame lily brooch was the first piece we saw her wear in Britain as Queen,” says Caroline de Guitaut, the deputy surveyor of The Queen’s Works of Art, “and while the diamond, platinum and white gold setting is undoubtedly lovely, I imagine it was the sentiment behind it that drew her to it for such an occasion.”

The flame lily brooch - Royal Collection Trust
The flame lily brooch - Royal Collection Trust

The brooch is designed in the shape of a flame lily, the national flower of Zimbabwe. It was a birthday gift from 42,000 schoolchildren in Rhodesia (as it was then called) who were asked to donate some of their pocket money to contribute to the creation of the diamond and platinum piece – and was designed by Harare jeweller H H Bell and made by Eric Kippin at Sidersky & Son in Johannesburg. Photographs from that 1947 tour of South Africa show a laughing Princess Elizabeth enjoying the trip with her parents.

“It had no doubt been taken with her to Kenya on that 1952 trip,” says De Guitaut, “but it would have been one of many pieces she could have stepped out of the plane wearing. This particular item was the natural choice as it held such happy memories on the continent where she had heard the sad news. We must remember that while this was a momentous day for Britain, this was also a daughter grieving her father.”

The new Queen wore the brooch multiple times during the period of mourning that followed her father’s death, including a visit to the Olympic Horse Trials at Badminton in April 1952.

Queen Elizabeth II disembarks in London in 1952, wearing the flame lily brooch - Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II disembarks in London in 1952, wearing the flame lily brooch - Getty Images

Over the years, she has worn it in spring for visits to the Chelsea Flower Show and for Buckingham Palace garden parties.

As well as the flame lily brooch, the Windsor Castle exhibition holds a number of mementos that illustrate the close relationship between the Queen and her parents. One is the maple leaf brooch that was given to the Queen Mother by George VI to mark their state visit to Canada. Over the years, the Queen borrowed it many times and inherited it in 2002 on her mother’s death.

“King George VI bought a lot of jewellery for his wife,” says De Guitaut, “and this is a beautiful piece that was carefully designed and commissioned for a very important tour on the cusp of the Second World War.”

Caroline de Guitaut is the deputy surveyor of The Queen’s Works of Art - Royal Collection Trust
Caroline de Guitaut is the deputy surveyor of The Queen’s Works of Art - Royal Collection Trust

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the dazzling Norman Hartnell coronation gown. Up close, the delicate white duchesse satin, which is richly embroidered in a lattice-work effect with floral emblems in gold and silver thread and pastel-coloured silks, is extraordinary to behold. Normally stored in an air-tight box at Buckingham Palace, it will be on display at Windsor Castle throughout the summer.

De Guitaut explains that the Queen’s affection for her father can even be understood through the intricate embroideries on the dress: the Canadian maple leaf made with green silk; the silver fern of New Zealand; the Australian wattle flower, made with a coarse mimosa yellow wool, and the South African protea, in shaded pink silk.

“The movement from the Empire to the Commonwealth happened in King George VI’s reign and keeping the Commonwealth strong was something that was very important to him,” De Guitaut says. “Through the stitchings on her dress, the Queen made it clear that this would be a priority for her, too.”

The dress is one of the stunning exhibits at Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s Coronation - Royal Collection Trust
The dress is one of the stunning exhibits at Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s Coronation - Royal Collection Trust

Visitors will also be drawn to a set of four brooches given to the Queen by the Sultan of Oman in 2012 – each representing one of the four nations – and which are on display for the first time. And, of course, there is the dazzling diamond Coronation necklace and earrings. Originally made for Queen Victoria in 1858, they are made up of 28 different sized diamonds and were also worn by Queen Mary and the Queen Mother at their coronations.

A fitting exhibition for the Queen, 70 years on from that momentous day when she first stepped off the plane from Kenya.

Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s Coronation is included in the price of admission to Windsor Castle from July 7 to Sept 26 2022. For more details, click here

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