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Art review: Coronations from the Middle Ages to the Present Day at Lambeth Palace Library

19 May 2023

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Lambeth display

The cope worn by Archbishop Fisher for the 1953 Coronation

The cope worn by Archbishop Fisher for the 1953 Coronation

LAMBETH PALACE LIBRARY’s little Coronation exhibition opened a month before the press view, held in Coronation Week. The exhibition has been poorly advertised and seemed a little forlorn, and I sensed that I was the only journalist to turn out to represent the Fourth Estate.

One criterion that I often use is to ask whether it is worth cycling six miles into a headwind for something. I would have said “No” in this case, but for a note in the visitors’ book: an American, cycling across south-east England before the Coronation, had enjoyed himself.

Part of the problem is the inadequate exhibition space in the new Library. There are four display cabinets on the atrium gallery and a side room that admits only two visitors at a time. The Hall, which long served to house much of the Archbishop’s library, would have been more fitting.

From the coronation charter of Henry I, who was elected king by the barons in August 1100 after the unexpected death of his eldest brother, William Rufus, the display fast-forwards to the last of the Stuarts. Nothing about the Plantagenets, Lancastrians, Yorkists, or Tudors, who did so much to exploit coronations to establish the monarch as fount of all honours, receiving the fealty of the people.

An engraving of “The Inthronization” of King James II and Queen Mary was printed two years after their 1685 coronation. It shows the king seated on a chair of estate, two steps above that of his wife. He had insisted on a full liturgy, shorn of the service of holy communion; Mary of Modena was an Italian Catholic princess, and he scrupled over the legitimacy of the Protestant Religion.

In July 1821, the manuscript for the Oath went missing, and King George IV ended up signing the Archbishop’s printed order of service. In 2023, it seems that orders of service had not first been set out on the prie-dieux for the King and his consort.

Items used at the Coronation in 1953

“Come, Holy Ghost, our Souls inspire, And warm them with thy Heav’nly fire.” So sang the choir before George was anointed, amid mutterings that the coronation had cost some £230,000.

From the preparations for the coronation of Edward VIII comes a reproving letter from Archbishop Lang to Bishop Barnes of Birmingham (11 November 1936), who had preached that the communion service should be omitted because of the king’s private life and continuing relationship with a divorcee.

Lang, as Bishop Wilbourne showed (The Coronation, 28 April), was in an unhappy predicament. He still looks drained in the official 1937 studio portrait by Philip de Laszlo, with his mitre beside him on a pile of books, with which, no doubt, he had thought to persuade the new king’s errant brother.

Lang’s diary (formerly Bishopthorpe Palace), which Bishop Wilbourne cited for 1936 and 1937, is not on display; where is it? The Bible on which the late Queen swore to uphold the Oath is here, and was due to be joined later on the day of my visit with that used by King Charles III.


“‘A Declaration of our Hopes for the Future’: Coronations from the Middle Ages to the Present Day” is at Lambeth Palace Library, 15 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1, until 13 July. It can be visited 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday (3 June and 8 July from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Admission is free.

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