Wembley 100: Empire and royalty Calendar

27 Apr 2023

With the 100th anniversary of the original Wembley Stadium and King Charles III’s coronation falling within weeks of one another, we explore the links between Wembley, empire and royalty.

Though it came to be renowned as one of the world’s great sporting venues, Wembley Stadium was built as part of a much wider programme with one core aim in mind: the celebration of the British Empire.

In the years following the First World War, Britain looked to reassert its standing as one of the world’s major powers, in the face of increasing industrial and military competition from the United States and Japan.

British Empire Exhibition

Drawing inspiration from the successful Great Exhibition of 1851, the British Empire Exhibition looked to bring together exhibits from most of its territories via dedicated pavilions. It was described in promotional material as “an Imperial stocktaking and a vast window display”, showcasing the Empire’s scope and potential to London audiences.

The birth of Wembley Stadium

As part of the exhibition, the Prince of Wales called for “a great national sports ground” to be constructed. Though it was dubbed “the greatest arena in the world”, with an area purportedly equal to the city of Jericho, it was described as “only a small part of the British Empire Exhibition”. Its ultimate purpose could be seen in its design, combining Imperial Roman architecture with elements derived from the Indian subcontinent, such as the domes of the now-famous twin towers.

The stadium’s construction was completed far quicker than the other buildings and pavilions, opening almost a full year before the rest of the exhibition. Wembley could hold more than 125,000 people – but not quite as many as those who turned up for its grand opening: the 1923 FA Cup Final. Exceeding the FA’s modest expectations, thousands of supporters descended on the ground, flooding onto the pitch and delaying kick-off by 45 minutes.

One key figure in attendance who didn’t clamber over walls or turnstiles was King George V. The reigning monarch was the first to attend an FA Cup Final back in 1914, three months before the outbreak of war.


Understandably, no royalty was on hand to present the trophy in 1915, but a royal presence continued once the conflict had ended. Prince Henry was there to congratulate Aston Villa on their 1920 success, while the king himself presented Spurs players with their winners’ medals in 1921. The following year, those duties were bestowed upon Prince Albert, the Duke of York who would later become King George VI.

This fledgling royal tradition would be cemented by George V’s presence at the 1923 showpiece. The king’s attendance would cement the stadium’s status as the “greatest arena”, and would also serve as a global advertisement for the upcoming exhibition. As it transpired, his gracing of the game helped it go ahead: The Times reported that the mood of the restless crowd was transformed on hearing of the king’s arrival, and, after a hearty rendition of the national anthem, the pitch was cleared with less resistance.

Wembley’s first final was chaotic on and (just) off the pitch – and the exhibition was no different. The opening ceremony was timed to coincide with Saint George’s Day, and for the first time in history, people across the country could hear the king’s address from the comfort of their homes via BBC radio.

Despite drawing in significant crowds – 27 million people visited the Wembley site – the exhibition was a commercial flop, registering a loss of approximately £1.5m by the time it closed its doors in 1925. Despite its vast size and cost, the stadium was initially considered to be temporary: only after the intervention of exhibition committee chair Sir James Stevenson and businessman Sir Arthur Elvan was it spared.

Changing Times

Referred to initially as The Empire Stadium on the cover of the 1923 programme, the prominence of Empire in the marketing would dwindle post-war, possibly due to the decolonisation process and the strengthening of Wembley’s own unique brand. During this period, the England national side started playing all of their games at the stadium, having only played Scotland there intermittently prior to 1951, crystalising Wembley’s status as the home of English football.

Over the years, the imperial purpose of the stadium was increasingly overshadowed. Empire disappeared briefly from the front of FA Cup literature in 1964, with the previous year’s lion-themed Wembley rebrand now shorn of its colonial links, and it disappeared again in 1973 (ironically Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee year). The last time Empire Stadium featured on the cover was in 1975: by the time of the Queen’s last FA Cup Final, the transition from Empire to Wembley Stadium was complete.

Football Royalty

Though the imperial links diminished and ultimately disappeared, the royal connections held firm. King George V witnessed a further four finals until his death in 1936, and in other instances, another senior member of the family – often the Duke of York, and future King George VI – attended in his stead. Once crowned, the new king upheld the tradition, looking on as Queen Elizabeth passed the trophy to Raich Carter, captain of Sunderland’s 1937 cup-winning team.

What of her daughter? Princess Elizabeth watched games at Wembley as early as 1944, and was first on hand to dish out medals to winning Wolves players in 1949. When her father passed away in February 1952, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stepped into the presentation role. Ahead of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, she presided over her first FA Cup Final as monarch: Blackpool’s stunning 4-3 comeback triumph against Bolton Wanderers. Not a bad first game to attend as queen!

London News 1966

Her Royal Highness’ status within the game was forever enshrined by her presence in the Royal Box at the 1966 World Cup Final. The image of Bobby Moore nonchalantly wiping the mud away before taking the hand of the Queen is etched into this country’s football folklore.

Her Royal Highness intermittently attended FA Cup Finals thereafter, with many of the duties passed over to her husband, Prince Philip, and later taken up by her cousin, the Duke of Kent. Queen Elizabeth II’s last showpiece final was back in 1976, watching Southampton stun Manchester United along with 99,000 other spectators.

The Royal Family has maintained a consistent presence at Wembley through princes and dukes, particularly at FA Cup Finals. Prince William, President of the Football Association, officially opened the new Wembley Stadium prior to the 2007 final: he has been in regular attendance since then, most recently presenting Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team with their winners’ medals in 2022.

In 1923, King George V looked on from Wembley’s royal enclosure as a team from Greater Manchester lifted the coveted trophy. A full century on, his great-grandson will do the same.

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