The Mystery of the Coronation Bible of George VI, unfolded by Michael Brydon


Just before Christmas 1937, Bertram Pollock, the elderly Bishop of Norwich, had the impending season of peace and goodwill disturbed when he received a letter from Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang, diplomatically enquiring if he had gone off with the Great Bible produced for George VI’s Coronation. Since 1689 the presentation of the Bible – ‘the most valuable thing that this World affords’ – had been part of the ceremony and it had been Pollock’s privilege to carry it at the Coronation. Lang had initially wanted the Bishop of Oxford, a senior member of the Royal Ecclesiastical Household, to do so, but his doctor advised him that he was not well enough to carry the Bible and might fall. Lang then turned to the most senior bishop after London, Durham and Winchester, who was Pollock. Privately he had some concerns that ‘his health might also make some difficulty’ and he was also keen to make it clear to Pollock that he would need to be prepared to wear a cope. The cope was acceptable to Pollock providing it was all right to sit down in it, since although he had ‘no difficulty in walking’ he couldn’t stand for any length of time. Garter King of Arms happily confirmed that once the Bishop of Norwich had processed and placed the Bible on the altar he could sit down for the rest of the Coronation.

Wearing a cope turned out to be the least of Pollock’s problems, since shortly before the Coronation he discovered that he couldn’t physically carry the magnificent Great Bible produced by Oxford University Press. Sir Humphrey Milford, publisher to the University of Oxford and head of the London operations of Oxford University Press, clearly thought that Pollock was being unduly defeatist, since he had a special sling made for him to carry it in. It was very much a bespoke yoke, since it was made to suit Pollock’s height of five feet, ten and three quarter inches. It was all to no avail; Lang subsequently wrote to Milford that even with the aid of the sling, it had not proved possible for Pollock to manage it ‘during a long and slow procession’ and he regretted that more ‘consideration had not been given to the physical infirmities of those needing to carry’ the Great Bible. In the end a second smaller Bible had to be rushed through, and it was this smaller one bound in crimson morocco, which was carried by Pollock 

It was also lighter, because the Apocrypha was wrongly left out. Prior to this all Coronation Bibles had included the Apocrypha, which made the symbolic point that it was meant to be read ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’ even if no doctrine was to be based on it. The Bible initially offered for the Coronation of Edward VII, by the British and Foreign Bible Society, actually had to be regretfully rejected, when it was discovered that their governing statutes would not allow them to include the Apocrypha. Edward VII, having been consulted on the matter, had been adamant that it should be the ‘full volume, including the Apocrypha.’ Alan Don, then a chaplain to Lang, noted the absence of the Apocrypha in 1937 and commented that this mistake needed to be rectified by the next coronation, which it duly was.

Sir Humphrey was clearly very disappointed that the Great Bible was not to be carried and he not unreasonably pointed out that it was the same size as the Great Bibles produced for Edward VII and George V and that the Press could hardly have produced something ‘less magnificent’ for George VI. Lang was suitably effusive about the ‘expedition’ (sic) with which the smaller Bible was produced, but must have caused further disappointment when on the day he also abandoned using the Great Bible for the King’s oath, or the formal presentation, in favour of the smaller one. Quite possibly Lang was not feeling physically strong enough to lift it safely either; after rehearsals he had commented on the difficulty of conveying the magnificent but ‘very heavy’ book to the King. He may also have felt, in line with the rubrics that the one carried in procession ought to be used for everything, although there was a precedent of two Bibles being used at the coronation of Queen Victoria. In the end, the Great Bible was present on the High Altar for the 1937 Coronation, but was not formally used in any way.

As a way of smoothing ruffled feathers, Lang decided that whilst the small Bible would come to Lambeth Palace the Great Bible would be presented on long-term loan to the Abbey. At coronations prior to that of Edward VII, there had often been something of an unseemly tussle over ownership of the Coronation Bible, but the precedent was then established that any Bible used belonged to the Archbishop. This precedent had been forgotten in the twenty plus years since the coronation of George V. Sir Humphrey, who clearly hoped that it might stay at the Abbey, insisted on consulting the Dean in the run up to the ceremony. The Dean accepted the Bible belonged to the Archbishop, but in a quip retorted that ‘though His Grace was right this time it must not be considered a precedent!’.

The Abbey duly handed over the small Bible, but Lang’s plan to make a Christmas present of the Great Bible to the Abbey swiftly unravelled because it had disappeared. The Sub-Dean, Canon Storr, wrote to say that the Abbey Office thought that the Bishop of Norwich had gone home with it. Given that Pollock couldn’t carry it in procession it should have seemed unlikely that he had lugged it back to Norfolk, but Lang still wrote on the 20th December to ask if he had removed it under the misapprehension that it was his. The postal service was good in those days, since Pollock wrote back two days later to say that although he had initially believed it would be his perquisite, the Archbishop had subsequently made it clear that it would belong to him. This had disappointed his plan to present it to Norwich Cathedral to be kept alongside one of the Bibles used at the coronation of Queen Victoria. After this preamble Pollock then unambiguously spelt out that ‘I have no idea what happened to this…huge book’. Neither could he shed any light on the ‘sub-dean’s information’, but stressed that it was ‘certainly not founded upon fact’. He then magnanimously wished the Archbishop ‘a happy and holy Christmas’.

Lang waited until the 27th December before writing once more to the Sub-Dean to check again that it was not ‘somewhere about the Abbey’. The Sub-Dean blamed the Head Verger for misinformation about the Bishop of Norwich and suggested that it might be with the Office of Works and would make enquiries. By now, Lang was clearly concerned that the Great Bible was becoming so difficult to track down, since it was hard to believe that so ‘beautiful and so bulky’ a thing should have been lost. 

The Office of Works didn’t have the Great Bible, but said that it was at Buckingham Palace, but was unable to say how they thought it had found its way there. Lang, clearly acutely aware that if the Palace possessed it that it might scotch the presentation to the Abbey, wrote a tactful letter to Sir Alexander Hardinge, the King’s Private Secretary. Lang asked if Hardinge would ‘kindly make enquiries about this and tell me whether there is any reason why it shall not be given to the Abbey as I proposed to the late Dean?’ Hardinge responded that he knew nothing about the whereabouts of the Bible, but would ask The King when he saw him at Sandringham. George VI was duly asked and it was reported back that ‘His Majesty says that he has never seen it, and cannot imagine why it should have been sent to Buckingham Palace’. Neither could the King imagine why the Office of Works was claiming that the Palace had possession of it. One has some sympathy for Lang when his frustration finally boiled over. ‘If it is neither at the Abbey, not at Buckingham Palace, where on earth is it?’

Just when the Great Bible seemed to have been lost, however, it turned up at Buckingham Palace. Sir Alexander Hardinge apologetically explained how it had come ‘in by a back door from the Office of Works’ and the Inspector of the Palace had put in under lock and key without anyone knowing ‘anything about it’. Furthermore the King approved of the suggestion that it be placed at the Abbey on loan. A duly delighted Lang was subsequently able to present the Great Bible to the Abbey to be used in their services, which is where it remains on permanent loan from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

That should have been the end of the saga of the Coronation Bible, but in May 1938 a letter from Bishop Paul de Labillière, the new Dean of Westminster Abbey, arrived announcing that he had just discovered another Coronation Bible in one of the Deanery cupboards. ‘It is obviously new’ he wrote and is ‘most sumptuously bound’. He knew it was a Coronation Bible, because it contained ‘a slip of paper on which is written “The Bishop of Norwich”.’ One can imagine Lang’s chaplains rubbing their eyes with disbelief that a third Bible, which nobody knew anything about had now appeared. They must have also been horrified by the Dean’s suggestion that it be passed to the Bishop of Norwich. Thankfully, Lang was able to resolve this mystery rather more swiftly than the initial disappearance of the Great Bible. The Archbishop reassured his staff that this was not a third Coronation Bible; he had seen the book before, since it was ‘the one used by the Bishop of Norwich at rehearsals, before the proper book arrived’.

It is to Lang’s credit, of course, that he took the celebration of both word and sacrament so very seriously at the Coronation. The service reminded the world that the scriptures contained ‘Wisdom’, ‘the royal law’ and were the ‘lively Oracles of God’. Therefore it is not surprising that he went to such trouble to ensure that the Holy Bibles present in 1937 were treated with reverence and preserved in places of honour.

Arrangements for Bibles to be used at the Coronation next year – the first for 70 years – are as yet unknown.