A celebrated former nurse who had a key role in the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla over the weekend has described the experience as “surreal” – and said she was honoured to represent the profession to the world.
Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, who was the UK’s first sickle cell specialist nurse, was tasked with carrying the golden sovereignty orb in the royal procession on Saturday, 6 May.
“I used my nursing knowledge to relax, breathing exercises”
Dame Elizabeth accompanied former children’s entertainer Baroness Floella Benjamin, who carried the King’s sceptre, and the Lord Mayor of the City of London, carrying the St Edward’s Crown, along the main aisle of Westminster Abbey.
The trio offered the artifacts to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who bestowed them to the King as part of the formal coronation ceremony.
“It was absolutely incredible, and a bit surreal,” Dame Elizabeth said, describing the moment the enormity of what she was doing hit her.
“I knew there would be a lot of people there, but I underestimated it. The fact this was being shown all around the world.
“The nerves hit me when the precession started, and when the three of us in our robes went into the main aisle. I just thought, ‘wow’, and took a deep breath – I used my nursing knowledge to relax, breathing exercises.”
Dame Elizabeth, before her retirement in 2007, was a senior nurse who specialised in sickle-cell and thalassemia.
Her decorated nursing career saw her appointed as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, and given the Order of Merit, something no nurse had received since Florence Nightingale.
Many nurses with royal honours were invited to participate in the coronation.
When Dame Elizabeth first received her invitation, she had no idea just how large of a part she was set to play.
She recalled: “I got a call from someone in Buckingham Palace who asked if I’d go, and also asked me to take part.
“I thought, ‘wow’. Then they told me what I would do and it was such a surprise.
“It was so exciting. I kept quiet about it of course.
“But then the adrenaline kicked in and I thought about how this was a national event. Then I realised this was a global event and everyone was watching.”
Dame Elizabeth was also joined by a health visitor from Leicester at a coronation event before the main ceremony.
Dame Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London and former England chief nursing officer, was also part of proceedings. She was the first female bishop to ever take part in a British monarch’s coronation.
“One of the best things was meeting so many people who had done all sorts of things to help people”
Other nurses in attendance included Daniel Branch, a learning disability nurse from the North West.
Mr Branch said his day at the coronation was “amazing”, and added: “At times, it was almost an unbelievable thing to be a part of.
“One of the best things was meeting so many people who had done all sorts of things to help people. It was nice to see that there are so many people wanting to do that.”
Also present was learning disability student nurse Claire Thompson, from Northern Ireland, who rose to fame for her TikTok videos on the accessible communication tool Makaton.
Dame Elizabeth described her delight at the warm comments made to her after the event, and said she was happy with the reaction from overseas, especially from Nigeria and the US.
She said she felt honoured to represent nurses everywhere and added: “It was just unbelievable.
“A significant number of nurses were there. The profession was well represented during the coronation.”