“The culminating day of my official life”: Archbishop Lang and the Coronation of George VI

Eighty years ago this month, George VI and Queen Elizabeth were crowned in Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang. A few months after the event, Lang produced an aide-mémoire (Lang 223, ff.234-256) of preparations and proceedings to aid future archbishops, having found the records from the previous coronation (for George V in 1911) frustratingly disordered. This complements other volumes of correspondence and minutes relating to George VI’s coronation in the Lang papers at Lambeth Palace Library, and unless otherwise stated is the source for this blogpost.

Preparations began in the summer of 1936, though for another king: Edward VIII, who had acceded to the throne on 20 January 1936. Edward already had a reputation as a moderniser, and Lang was concerned about Edward’s commitment to the tradition-laden coronation service, observing that Edward seemed “strangely detached from the whole matter”. Lang’s apprehension grew as Edward’s relations with divorcee Wallis Simpson became “more notorious”, and the thought of having to consecrate him as king weighed on Lang “as a heavy burden. Indeed I considered whether I could bring myself to do so”.

Fortunately for Lang’s conscience, the abdication on 10 December 1936 removed Edward from proceedings. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth dropped into the existing arrangements, with even the date of Coronation Day, 12 May 1937, remaining unchanged. Lang compared meeting with them for the first time to discuss “their Coronation” like “waking after a nightmare to find the sun shining. No words can describe the relief”.

Lang had a flair for the dramatic, and described the coronation as “the culminating day of my official life, the day on which the Archbishop of Canterbury fulfils his highest office in national life, on which through him the Church of God consecrates that life in the person of its King”. Heavily involved in all stages of planning, he sat on the three main organising committees and attended the 8 fixed rehearsals and the two special rehearsals for the King and Queen.

On 11 May, the evening before the coronation, Lang became concerned that the responses during the service “should be more hearty and vigorous” and so asked the Dean of Westminster to place notices on the bishops’ seats in the Sanctuary, reminding them of the need to give “an audible lead to the Acclamations” and a “loud and hearty Amen” to the Benediction after presentation of the Bible (Lang 22 f.83).

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Copy of the notice Lang placed on the bishops’ seats in the Sanctuary the night before the Coronation (Lang 22 f.84)

An immense, beautiful Bible had been produced by Oxford University Press (OUP) for the King to swear his Coronation Oath on, but unfortunately it was far too heavy for the aged Bishop of Norwich to carry in the long Procession through the Abbey. At the last moment, OUP produced a smaller version for the bishop to carry, with the great Bible remaining on the altar. Lang was “very sorry” that all the care OUP had taken had “brought about these complicated problems”, but testily added “I cannot but wish that you had given some more consideration to the physical infirmities of those who would have to carry it” (Lang 22 ff.75-76).

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Binding of George VI’s Coronation Bible (E185 1937[**]). By tradition the Coronation Bible used in the service has always been deposited at Lambeth. This is the smaller of two Bibles produced for the service; the larger one is on permanent loan to Westminster Abbey

When the day itself finally came, Lang found he “never had a moment of nervousness or hesitation. I seemed be sustained by some Higher Power Who was in control”. Lang was awed by the “sense of the religious reality and solemnity of the ceremony which filled the Abbey”, crediting a great deal of this to the demeanour of the King, like “a medieval knight awaiting his consecration with a rapt expression in his eyes”, and the Queen, the only woman present with an uncovered head, advancing through the Abbey “with a real poetry of motion”.

This was the first coronation to both be broadcast on the radio and filmed (except for the most sacred moments of the Anointing and the Communion), and the presence of microphones meant that for the first time the entire Rite could be heard throughout the Abbey. The film caught one of the few mishaps to take place. A small thin line of red cotton had been inserted under the principal jewel in St Edward’s Crown to ensure it was placed on the King’s head the right way round, but when the Dean of Westminster brought the Crown to Lang on its cushion from the altar:

I looked for my little red line, it was not there. So I had to turn the Crown round to see if it was on the other side; but it was not. Some officious person must have removed it. This turning round of the Crown only took a second, and did not in the least perturb me […]. Yet when the film was produced there were comments like “the Archbishop fumbles with the Crown”. However, some old lady wrote to me that “the most beautiful thing of all was to see the dear Archbishop blessing the four corners of the Crown before he put it on the King’s head”!

Following the service, as Lang made his way back to Lambeth Palace, he was heard to observe: “I do not mind confessing I am deeply disappointed that the whole thing is over” (MS 3208 f.226). Praise for the Archbishop’s skilful handling of the service poured into Lambeth. The newly crowned George VI wrote to Lang the next day:

I can never thank you for those words of encouragement you gave me in the course of that very trying ordeal. An ordeal it was, but I felt I was being helped all the time by Someone Else as you said I would […] I have never felt that feeling of real calm before, as I was very nervous before I came in to the Abbey (Lang 318 f.147)

The King’s mother, Queen Mary, wrote: “everything was perfect & you have that marvellous voice which impressed everyone – lucky for us you are the archbishop at this solemn time” (Lang 318 f.55). The Queen’s mother, Cecilia Bowes-Lyon, Countess of Strathmore, thanked Lang “from the bottom of my heart for the wonderful help you gave to my little Queen” and observed that “nearly everyone felt the great Spirituality of this Coronation, & this I know is entirely due to you” (Lang 22 f.125).

For further information on LPL’s extensive holdings relating to coronations, please see our research guide: http://www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/files/Coronations.pdf

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