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‘The most valuable thing that this world affords’ — the Bible at the Coronation

28 April 2023

Michael Brydon plots the chequered history of Coronation Bibles

Neil Turner

The Bible produced for King Charles’ Coronation by Oxford University Press, bound by Shepherds, Sangorski & Sutcliffe

The Bible produced for King Charles’ Coronation by Oxford University Press, bound by Shepherds, Sangorski & Sutcliffe

IT IS an important truth that without the Bible there could be no Coronation. The central rite of the Coronation is the moment of anointing, which has its roots in the scriptures of the Old Testament; the lessons are drawn from scripture; and the rite of holy communion is mandated by the Bible.

But there are two other ways in which the Bible publicly plays an important part in the coronation: it has been used since time immemorial for the taking of the oath; and, from 1689, there has been a formal presentation of the Bible.


The oath

WHEN taking the Coronation Oath, it has been customary for the monarch to lay a hand on the Gospels. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records how William the Conqueror made his oath on “Christ’s book”. The use of the Gospels made the point that this was not an empty ritual, but a sacred contract, administered by the Archbishop with the assistance of the clergy, in the presence of the lay magnates of the kingdom.

In the late medieval period, the Gospels were joined by the Blessed Sacrament and relics for the oath. Edward VI may have been a Protestant, but the political situation meant that, in effect, he had a medieval coronation, which included making “a solemn oath upon the Sacrament laid upon the altar”.

Nevertheless, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it was obvious that a new prominence was being given to the Bible, since Edward VI then laid his hand on the Gospels, promising by “those holy Evangelists by me bodily touched upon this holy altar”.

The oath, on the Bible, thus acquired a definite Protestant symbolism; something which Queen Anne and the first three of her Hanoverian successors emphasised by accompanying it with an additional declaration against transubstantiation, the invocation of saints, and “the sacrifice of the Mass” as understood by “the Church of Rome”.


The presentation of the Bible

THE taking of the oath on sacred objects, which included the Bible, was fairly normal in Christendom. What is particular to the Coronation Rite of monarchs at Westminster was the actual presentation of the Bible. It is a comparatively recent innovation in the history of the rite, since it was introduced only in 1689, for the coronation of William and Mary. It was undoubtedly inserted at the behest of the Bishop of London, William Compton.

Compton had been an opponent of James II, and actively welcomed and supported the invitation to William of Orange to take the throne; so he wanted to make it clear that William and Mary were on the side of the Reformed religion. The presentation of the Bible was a way of distancing the monarch from Roman Catholicism.

In Compton’s choice of words for the presentation of the Bible, mention was made of Jehoash, from the second book of Kings. The kingdom had been illegally seized by the Queen Mother, Athaliah, after the death of her son, Ahaziah. Athaliah believed that she had murdered all royal rivals, and confidently allowed the worship of Baal to continue.

The young Jehoash had been hidden, however, along with his nurse, and, seven years later, the priest Jehoiada engineered a military revolution which not only removed Athaliah, but also restored the country to the way of the Lord when the house of Baal was destroyed. It is not difficult to see that Compton was associating the wicked idolatrous Athaliah with bad King James’s false religion, and William and Mary, as restorers of true religion, with Jehoash.

The second part of the 1689 presentation was a strong exhortation to the monarchs to base their lives on the Bible:


We present You with this Book, the most valuable thing that this World affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the Royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God. Blessed is He that readeth and they, that hear the Words of this Book, that keep, and do the things conteined in it. For these are the Words of Eternal life; able to make You wise and happy in this World, nay wise unto Salvation and so happy for evermore, through Faith which is in Christ Jesus, to whom be Glory for ever. Amen.

Compton’s wording survived until George IV. The first ultra-Protestant 14 lines could be safely dropped, because the last direct Stuart rival for the throne had died after the decease of Cardinal York, known to Jacobites as Henry IX, in 1807. The presentation was shortened again in 1902 for Edward VII, when the second part was reduced to the opening sentence. This had more to do with the practical need to shorten the service, rather than theology, since Edward VII had been unwell.


Who makes the Bible?

GIVEN the importance of the presentation of the Bible in 1689, it is frustrating that we do not know anything about the actual volume of the scriptures used. The first Coronation Bible that we can locate with no ambiguity about its provenance is that used for George III, which is in the Royal Collection. A note loosely inserted states that Richard Osbaldson, the Bishop of Carlisle, laid it before the King for the taking of the oath.

AlamyMiss Maggs of Southwark working on the binding of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Bible in May 1953 for Sangorski and Sutcliffe

All the early Bibles were printed by the University Presses, but it was only in the 20th century that the custom developed of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge formally presenting the Bible. Edward VII’s Bible was originally going to be presented by the British and Foreign Bible Society. Randall Davidson, the Bishop of Winchester, who was assisting Archbishop Temple, privately pointed out that it needed to be a normal lectern Bible, which included the Apocrypha. The Society was not allowed to include the Apocrypha, according to its own rules; so their President, the Marquis of Northampton, wrote that they were “compelled to relinquish very unwillingly the provision of the Coronation Bible”.

Davidson, having established the point that the Apocrypha must be included, wrote to the Archbishop to say that he did not know who had provided the Bible at previous coronations, but he believed that he had heard that “the University Press claimed the right to supply it.”

The universities rose to the challenge, and produced a magnificent Bible with a fine binding in red polished levant morocco leather with the royal arms on the front, and the arms of Edward the Confessor and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge on the back.

The same procedure was adopted for the coronation of George V, but not without an initial tussle. Cambridge felt that, as Oxford had actually produced the Bible in 1902, they ought to be allowed to provide it this time round — which, after a great deal of diplomacy on the part of Archbishop Davidson, was finally agreed.


Who carries the Bible?

WHEN Compton introduced the presentation of the Bible, there was obviously no precedent for who carried it in procession. Unsurprisingly, when it came to the “Great Procession”, Compton gave this right to himself.

The privilege of carrying the Bible never became tied, however, to any particular bishopric. Worcester carried it for Queen Anne, Salisbury for George I, Coventry and Lichfield for George II, Carlisle for George III, Ely for George IV, Exeter for William IV, and Winchester for Victoria. Since the coronation of George V, in 1911, it has normally been carried by whichever bishop is Clerk of the Closet: an episcopal official who heads up the College of Chaplains of the Ecclesiastical Household.

We do not know much about the practicalities of the carrying of the Bible until the 20th century, when most of the problems seem to relate to either the weight of the Bible or the cushion on which it was sometimes carried. Boyd Carpenter, Bishop of Ripon, in 1911, complained that the solid cushion made his muscles “twitch” and “cry out” with the effort. At least he managed to carry it, which was more than Bishop Pollock of Norwich could manage with the Great Bible in 1937.

Sir Humphrey Milford, representing 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 all to no avail, and, in the end, a second smaller Bible had to be rushed through; it was this smaller one, bound in crimson Morocco leather, which was carried by Pollock. It was also lighter, because the Apocrypha was wrongly left out. This was rectified in 1953, and the weight problem was also solved by using India paper which has “the light texture of onion skin”.

When carried in the procession of the regalia, the Bible always accompanies the chalice and the paten, which makes the point that the Lord is known to us in both the scriptures and the sacrament.


Who owns the Bible?

WHILE the Bible was conspicuously on display at the coronation, it was often swiftly lost from sight afterwards. Given that the Bible was presented to the monarch, and, to begin with, probably came from the Chapel Royal, one might reasonably have expected it to be kept in royal custodianship, but that does not seem to be the case. With royal approval from George I onwards, we know that whichever bishop carried the Bible in procession was able to claim it. This did not prevent occasional tussles for ownership.

The Dean of Westminster was distinctly ungracious about the Bible’s going to the Bishop of Ely, after the coronation of George IV. John Ireland, the Dean, “refused to deliver” it, and claimed that he “considered it his property as it had been placed on the Altar”. Bishop Sparks retorted with heavy irony that “it is obvious to remark that upon the same grounds he might have laid claim to all the Regalia, which were also deposited upon the Altar.”

Occasionally, life was made more complicated by the existence of more than one Coronation Bible. Compton clearly worked on the assumption that the Bible to be presented was also the one on which the oath had been taken. But later coronations did not always follow this, as in the case of Queen Victoria.

In 1874, the Dean and Chapter of Norwich Cathedral had been pleased to receive a Bible, formerly in the possession of Bishop Edward Stanley, in which he inscribed that “upon which Her Majesty Queen Victoria took the usual Oaths at her Coronation”. Stanley recalled that it had been given to him because he was Clerk of the Closet.

Norwich Cathedral was naturally proud of this treasure, and it was displayed on the newly restored medieval lectern, until they discovered that the son of late Bishop Sumner of Winchester also claimed to have Victoria’s Coronation Bible. The Somerset Herald, Stephen Tucker, was asked to investigate, and discovered that there had been two Bibles: a small one, to take the oath on, and a large one, to sign it on. Rather touchingly, he met an elderly relative of the bookbinder who had worked on them, who informed him that she had received new bonnets made up out of the spare velvet.

The coronation of Queen Victoria was the last one at which those who had carried the Bible received it. Archbishop Temple ensured that, from Edward VII’s coronation onwards, Lambeth Palace Library became the permanent repository.

It was not always so easy, however, to recover the Bible after the coronation. After the coronation of George VI, nobody could find the Great Bible. First of all, Bishop Pollock was accused of taking it back to Norwich: an allegation he vehemently denied. Then, it was thought it had gone to Buckingham Palace, but the King said he had never seen it.

Lang became exasperated, and commented that it was hard to believe that so “beautiful and so bulky” a thing should have been lost. Thankfully, it did eventually turn up at Buckingham Palace, where some well-meaning official had tidied it away.


The changes of 1953

AFTER the death of George VI, the Dean of Westminster privately emphasised the need to do something to include Scotland. It was not that long since Scottish Nationalists had removed the Stone of Scone from the Abbey. Archbishop Fisher liked the suggestion that the Moderator of the Church of Scotland might be involved in the presentation of the Bible.

Fisher did not initially care for the suggestion that the words of presentation be said by the Moderator while he presented the Bible, since it would destroy the uniformity of voice which went with the presentation of all objects; even worse, it might “indicate that the Archbishop did not care much about the Bible, and was quite ready to let somebody else say the words about that”. Fisher later decided that he was being ungenerous in not allowing the Moderator to “open his mouth at all”, and, once royal approval had been given, over the telephone, the words of the presentation were shared.

AlamyThe Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland presents the Bible to Queen Elizabeth II during her Coronation service in 1953

The second change regarding the presentation of the Bible was its new position. Since the 1689 introduction, it had been presented after all the other regalia, but, in 1953, it was moved to just after the taking of the oath. Fisher convened a coronation-service committee of experts to look at possible alterations to the 1937 rite, and they felt that the meaning and symbolism would be clearer in a new position. Fisher enthusiastically wrote to the Moderator of the Church of Scotland that the Bible now “comes not as an emblem of majesty but as the foundation upon which the whole ceremony of the Coronation rests”.

It seems rather a pity that the other idea, that the Queen might have given a response, was not taken up. Professor Jenkins suggested borrowing some appropriate words from Elizabeth I: “Sirs, we know it, and we thank you,” would have worked well.

Even if the late Queen didn’t respond in the words of her illustrious predecessor, she certainly understood the spiritual and theological significance of the rite. Archbishop Fisher provided her with a “little black book” which, over four weeks, combed through every detail of the service. The devotion for the giving of the Bible underlines its importance to the whole rite:

This covenant between myself and my people is concluded and sealed by the giving of the Bible. . . 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.


The Revd Michael Brydon is Chaplain to the Bishop of Sodor & Man, and Vicar of St Matthew’s, Douglas. This is an edited version of a lecture he gave to the Prayer Book Society.

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