Robert Beaken considers modern British monarchs and the archbishops who have crowned them
Queen Victoria (1819-190)
The Archbishop of Canterbury in 1837 was William Howley (1766-1848), a pre-Tractarian high churchman. He was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford in 1809, Bishop of London in 1813, and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1828.
In 1837 when William IV lay dying at Windsor, Howley celebrated Holy Communion and gave the King his last Sacrament. ‘God bless thee, dear excellent man – a thousand, thousand thanks’ said the dying King. No British monarchs since William IV appear to have received Holy Communion on their deathbeds.
On 20 June 1837, Princess Victoria was awoken at 6.00am and told that Howley and Lord Conyngham, the Lord Chamberlain, wished to see her. They broke the news that William IV had died earlier that morning and that she was now Queen.
Queen Victoria’s coronation took place a year later on 28 June 1838. It was somewhat shambolic. The day before, the Queen visited Westminster Abbey where it was discovered that her throne was too low and alterations were hurriedly made. The Dean of Westminster, John Ireland, was too infirm even to attend the coronation and his place was taken by the Sub-Dean, Lord John Thynne, who went through the coronation service with Howley. The rest of the senior clergy took part with no instruction or rehearsal. When the Queen asked Bishop Maltby of Durham at one point what she should do, he was – in her words – ‘remarkably maladroit and never could tell me what was to take place’. He handed her the orb at the wrong moment, and when he was needed, had ‘disappeared’. ‘Pray tell me what I am to do,’ a desperate Queen asked the Sub-Dean at one point, ‘for they [the officiating clergy] don’t know’. The Archbishop jammed the coronation ring on the wrong finger – the Queen’s hand had to be soaked in iced water afterwards to get it off – and the Bishop of Bath and Wells brought the coronation to an abrupt end by turning over two pages of the order of service at once by mistake. ‘There really ought to have been a rehearsal,’ was Queen Victoria’s verdict.
Edward VII (1848-1910)
The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Edward VII’s accession to the throne on 22 January 1901 was Frederick Temple (1821-1902). A former headmaster of Rugby School, Temple was appointed as Bishop of Exeter in 1869, Bishop of London in 1885, and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1896. Temple is perhaps best known for the letter Saepius Officio which he wrote with Archbishop William Maclagan of York in 1897 defending the validity of Anglican Orders in response to Leo XIII’s bull Apostolicae Curae, and for the fact that his son William Temple also became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942.
Edward VII’s coronation had to be postponed six weeks to 9 August 1902 to allow the King to recuperate after an emergency operation to remove an abdominal abscess. Archbishop Temple also was in poor health, nearly blind and barely able to officiate at the coronation. His words had to be written in large letters on ‘prompt scrolls’, which Bishop Randall Davidson of Winchester held up before him to read. Temple put the crown on the King’s head the wrong way round – the King had to help him put it right – and when he came to offer his homage, the archbishop’s knees gave way and he sank to the floor in front of the throne, before being helped up by the King and three other bishops. When Davidson asked him in a whisper how he was, Temple, said ‘Go away’ in a voice clearly audible to the congregation. Queen Alexandra was crowned by Archbishop Maclagan.
This is a good point at which to introduce Randall Davidson (1848-1930). Born in Edinburgh to a Scottish Presbyterian family, Davidson was educated in England, where he became an Anglican. He was ordained in 1874 and later became chaplain to Archbishop Archibald Campbell Tait of Canterbury, subsequently marrying his daughter Edith. Davidson was spotted by Queen Victoria, who appointed him Dean of Windsor in 1883. Davidson became Bishop of Rochester in 1891 and Bishop of Winchester in 1895. Osborne House, where Queen Victoria died, lay in Davidson’s diocese, and he helped with the arrangements to convey her body to Windsor for her funeral.
Prior to the coronation of Edward VII, when the King was recovering from his operation, Davidson visited him and spoke to him about his ‘personal conduct’ and ‘spoke very straight indeed’. He followed this up with two letters on the subject. This reprimand must have taken considerable courage on Davidson’s part, but Edward VII appeared surprisingly touched and sent Davidson a note of thanks on coronation day. The insightful Davidson had perceived the tug-of-war that went on inside Edward VII’s head. On the one hand, the King was an old roué: the gallery at Westminster Abbey containing his old and current lady friends at the coronation was nicknamed ‘the King’s loose box’. On the other hand, the King was an unfussy but serious Christian all his life. He attended church every Sunday and supported many good causes, especially medical charities. On one occasion, the King furiously walked out of an Austrian cabaret when the chanteuse sang a risqué song about a Catholic priest tempted by a countess.
Edward VII was surprisingly ecumenical. In 1903 he visited Leo XIII, the first British monarch to visit the Vatican since the Reformation. In 1908 he attended a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, and in 1910 visited Lourdes. During his annual ‘cure’ at Marienbad, Edward VII got to know Abbot Gilbert Helmer and the Norbertine community at Tepl Abbey. Norbertine tradition has it that the King may once have helped serve at Benediction in their church. When Edward VII died in 1910, a book of Anglo-Catholic devotions given to him by Viscount Halifax was found on his bedside table.
George V (1865-1936)
Randall Davidson succeeded Temple as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1903. He was a friend of Lord Stamfordham, George V’s private secretary. However, the Archbishop of York, Cosmo Gordon Lang (1864-1945), was a close friend of George V and Queen Mary, and although Davidson himself crowned both the King and the Queen on 22 June 1911, Lang was invited to preach, the last time there was a sermon at a coronation. With Davidson’s cautious agreement, the coronation was photographed for the first time.
George VI (1895-1952)
Lang succeeded Davidson as archbishop in 1928. In 1936 he played a key – though carefully concealed – role in the Abdication of Edward VIII. On 12 May 1937 Lang officiated at the coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Lang sat on the coronation preparation committees, personally sorted out many problems, tidied up the coronation rite, approved the use of microphones and speakers in Westminster Abbey, and agreed that the coronation might be broadcast by BBC radio and filmed for cinema newsreel. Lang was rather amused to be nicknamed the archbishop who ‘Produced’ the coronation.
On 9, May Lang spent an hour and a quarter privately preparing George VI and Queen Elizabeth for their coronation. He told them that in the anointing they would receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and in Holy Communion they would receive Christ himself.
Lang’s chaplain Alan Don noted that despite all of the archbishop’s hard work, there were a few glitches during the coronation. The most noticeable of these involved St Edward’s Crown. Lang had arranged for a piece of red thread to be placed on the crown to mark the front, so he might put it on the King’s head the right way round. When the crown was handed to him, Lang discovered that some busybody had removed the thread. The film cameras captured the poor archbishop turning the crown around, trying to work out which side was the front.
Princess Alice, who had attended the coronations of Edward VII and George V, commented that George VI’s was by far the most spiritual. Many people ascribed this to Lang’s input. The King wrote afterwards to Lang: ‘I felt I was being helped all the time by Someone Else as you said I would when you came to see me on Sunday. I have never before felt that feeling of real calm before … You, my dear Archbishop, were quite marvellous in carrying out your part in the long ceremony.’ Queen Elizabeth, too, was profoundly moved by the coronation and particularly by being anointed. In 2001 Her Majesty recalled to the author: ‘I felt quite, quite different afterwards.’
Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022)
Geoffrey Fisher (1887-1972) was headmaster of Repton School (where a later archbishop, Michael Ramsey, was one of his pupils), before being appointed Bishop of Chester in 1932 and Bishop of London in 1939. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1945 following the unexpected death of William Temple the year before.
Fisher, like Lang, devoted a great deal of time to the coronation and slightly amended the rite. Alan Don, by now Dean of Westminster, was on hand to ensure that some of the glitches experienced in 1937 were not repeated when Elizabeth II was crowned on 2 June 1953. The coronation was rehearsed and rehearsed, sometimes twice a day. (Michael Ramsey, by now Bishop of Durham, failed to turn up to one rehearsal. The Police were despatched to track him down, and eventually found him shopping in Cambridge.)
Fisher drew up a small book of meditations and prayers to be used daily in the month before the coronation, and presented copies to Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
Fisher approved the televising of the coronation, which was watched by millions of Britons. Film of the coronation was hastily flown to cinemas around the world. Elizabeth II’s coronation was in every sense a triumph. ‘The Times’ reported:
Millions saw the culmination of the tremendous drama when St Edward’s Crown was uplifted in a majestic gesture by the Archbishop of Canterbury and descended gently, in all the flashing splendour of sovereignty, on the youthful row bent to receive it.
The contrast between the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 and that of Elizabeth II in 1953 is stark. Queen Victoria’s disorderly coronation was undoubtedly a disappointment to the Queen, but it did not greatly matter as her coronation was only witnessed by those inside Westminster Abbey, many of whom would have seen and heard little. Over the next 115 years, more and more people came to see and hear the coronations, at first through photographs, then film, radio broadcasts, and finally television.
If Elizabeth II’s coronation was viewed by millions, the 2023 coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla will be watched by billions around the globe. At the heart of the ancient coronation rite, we shall witness our King and Queen realise their vocation from God to be our monarchs and receive consecration from the Church to lead lives of service.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is a priest in the Diocese of Chichester and historian. His previous books include Faithful Witness: The Confidential Diaries of Alan Don, Chaplain to the King, the Archbishop and the Speaker, 1931-1946 (2020), Following Christ (2020), The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918 (2015), Cosmo Lang, Archbishop in War and Crisis (2012), and Beginning to Preach (2004). He holds a PhD from King’s College London and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.