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Queen Elizabeth’s little black book

31 May 2013

Shortly before the Coronation, the Queen was given a small book, intended to help her to make spiritual preparation for the big day. Alec Gilmore tells the story


Crowning moment: one of the few existing copies of the book presented to the young Queen

Crowning moment: one of the few existing copies of the book presented to the young Queen

MOST people are familiar with the memorable images of the Coronation on 2 June 1953. The procession; the crowds; the Queen of Tonga, braving the rain in an open carriage; neighbours gathered round their newly bought television sets; the solemn ceremony in Westminster Abbey - all these are now part of collective memory. But one small, and little-known incident, is worth recalling.

A few years ago, rummaging through the archives at the publishers SPCK, I came across a reference to a small booklet: For the Queen. A Little Book of Private Devotions in Preparation for Her Majesty's Coronation, to be Used from First of May to Second of June, 1953.

There was no mention of author, or publisher, and (long before ISBNs) none of the usual signs of publication - not even, as I recall, the familiar copyright notice.

Intrigued, I wanted to see a copy. SPCK did not have one, but the British Library did. It was 76 pages long, and bound in leather. For a few hours, I was able to examine it, and take one or two photocopies. 

Further research revealed that it was personally prepared, and presented to the Queen, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher. SPCK printed it, but only "For Private Circulation". There was no indication of the print run, but Lambeth Palace, the Bodleian, and Cambridge University Press hold copies.

It consists of daily meditations on each step of the Coronation Day, beginning on 1 May with "The Way to the Abbey", and concluding on Coronation Day with "Morning and Evening Prayer". In four weeks, it combs through every detail of the Coronation service, distilling the essence of what it would mean for Elizabeth II, and the nation.

WE HAVE no evidence whether the Queen used the book. None the less, written as if spoken by the monarch herself, it provides a fascinating link to her preparation for the big day.

The first weekend (May 1-3) invites her to reflect on "The Way to the Abbey" and "The Procession through the Abbey":

Here in the Abbey, as nowhere else, is expressed the unity of the history of our people through the ages. Here will surround me representatives of the whole nation and Commonwealth, bearers in this age of our faith and our traditions. This building through which I proceed, so magnificent and made so magnifical for this occasion, is above all the House of God where his people can find in Christian Faith the national unity of which the Psalmist spoke (Psalm 122) and can express that unity in prayer and worship and sacramental act. It is that I may serve the unity and peace of my peoples, that I come now into God's house and into his presence.

Week One (May 4-9) rehearses the "Foundations of the Monarchy". First comes "The Recognition by the People", a pertinent reminder of the relationship between Crown and people, beginning with Matthew 5. 14-16: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glnoryify your Father which is in heaven." This was followed by:

This people is set to be a bulwark of freedom, a company of free men and women, able to use their liberty, not "for a cloke of maliciousness but as the servants of God". It is of their free choice that I am accepted as their Queen; they receive me as "their undoubted Queen" not that I may curb their freedom but that I may be a leader and an example of how freedom is to be used in accordance with the laws of God and to his glory. By my own knowledge of those laws and obedience to them, I must fulfil my trust to my peoples. 

THERE are then four oaths: to the Commonwealth; to execute justice and mercy; to preserve the laws of God, and the true profession of the gospel: and to maintain the Church of England. . .

. . . which holds my allegiance, has a great heritage and a great trust. . . As Defender of the Faith, I am called by God to forward, so much as in me lies, the Church of England in its work of preaching the Gospel and building the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

This section concludes with "The Giving of the Bible", sealing "This Covenant between myself and my people".

Week Two (May 10-16) takes the Queen through the consecration. Because the consecration is, at heart, a service of holy communion, each element of the service is afforded its own day: the collect for purity; the collect, epistle, and Gospel; the creed; Veni, Creator Spiritus; the anointing (Ascension Day); the blessing; and the clothing.

Week Three (May 17-23) focuses on the Ensigns of Royalty. These include the Spurs and the Sword, the Armills, the Stole Royal and the Robe Royal, Orb and Sceptre, Ring and Rod, the Crowning, the Benediction of Queen and People, and the Inthroning.

Week Four (May 24-31) brings us to the holy communion. Between the oblation on Whit Sunday and the Gloria in Excelsis on Trinity Sunday, we have the Prayer for the Church; the invitation, confession, and absolution; the Sanctus; the consecration of the elements; and the communion, with one day set aside for the blessing of the Duke of Edinburgh.

The blessing of Prince Philip opens up a vista much wider than its title might suggest. In reality, it is an acknowledgement of the part played by her family, past, present and to come. Ruth 4.14-15 is used as a reminder of the value of "a near kinsman", followed by a quotation on friendship from the 17th-century Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor:

By friendship I mean the greatest love and the greatest usefulness, and the most open communication and the noblest sacrifice, and the most exemplary faithfulness and the severest truth, and the heartiest counsel and the greatest union of mind, of which brave men and women are capable.

It concludes with the prayer:
Praise be to thee, O God,
for my family,
for the memory of my father,
for my mother and sister,
and for all others dear to me.
Praise be to thee, O God,
for my husband,
and my children,
and my home.

MONDAY 1 June was set aside as a day to reflect on "The Peace of God", and on the morning of 2 June, the day of the Coronation, the Queen was offered four brief sentences of prayer:

Lord, thou hast brought me to this hour. Sustain me in it with thy power and thy peace. Amen.

Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be today - if I forget thee do not thou forget me. Amen.

Go into his courts with thanksgiving and into his gates with praise.

I will go unto the altar of God: even unto the God of my joy and gladness.

If, by the end of the day she was not utterly exhausted, she was offered three verses from the Psalms (31.23; 146.1; and 115.1) and (as she put her head on the pillow) she might say:

Lord, thou hast been gracious unto thy servant. Thou hast filled my cup with thy goodness to overflowing. With a humble spirit and a thankful heart, I commit myself to thy care and will lay me down in peace and take my rest. Amen.

Whether the Queen remembers it all - and whether she actually used it - we do not know. But now, as I look back, Dr Fisher's legacy seems a fair reflection of Britain, and of the way the nation saw itself, 60 years ago. Were the Queen to look back, she, too, might feel a certain satisfaction with the way she has kept the faith, even if, to some extent, she has been instrumental in enabling her own prayers to be answered.

In today's terms, some might even feel that it reflects a measure of what it means to be "British". In 1953, a song, "Let's All Be Good Elizabethans", was popular, prompting today the question whether we have been, or are, or have yet to begin. Few will want to complain about the lead that we have been given. 

Sunday 3 May
That last moment between arriving at the Altar and the beginning of the Service proper.

For a short space, I shall be able to withdraw into the secrecy of my own heart, kneeling quietly before God in simplicity and humility, waiting for what shall be. It will be difficult then to concentrate thoughts and emotions into words and sentences. The simplest words of trust in God and of trusting oneself to God will be best.

Saturday May 9
The Giving of the Bible

THIS covenant between myself and my people is concluded and sealed by the giving of the Bible. The Bible is called "the Word of God" because it is the record, made by inspired men, of the Word which has been spoken by God to man first through his people Israel, then through Jesus Christ the Son of God, "the Word made flesh", and up to this day through the Holy Spirit in the Church. Because it reveals God, it is given as "the most valuable thing that this world affords".

It is given to me to keep me "ever mindful of the Law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes" - and of Christian Nations no less. On the Bible and on the Word of God, the compact between my people and myself rests and is ratified by God. On these foundations, truly laid, rests the high office to which now I am to be consecrated.

Monday 25 May
The Blessing of the Duke of Edinburgh

Lord, thou dost not wish thy children to be alone. Thou wilt provide for us the companionship, the joyfulness and the peace of a home to be our comfort and our strength. And, abiding in our home with us, thou dost cause these things to be.

Lord, be thou my strength, and my husband's, and let us, united in thy faith and fear, help one another to fulfil the ceaseless duties of our calling, faithfully and well.

Lord, help us to find in our home and children a constant refreshment of spirit and renewal of grace.

Into thy hands, O Lord, we commend ourselves. Be with us in our going out and our coming in. Strengthen us for the work which thou hast given us to do. Defend us with thy heavenly grace, that we may continue thine for ever and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until we come to thy everlasting Kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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