Coronation of George V, 1911

Ahead of Charles III’s coronation this weekend, we look back at the first time cameras were allowed inside the Westminster Abbey

George V’s coronation in 1911 had several ‘firsts’: the first to use the newly developed processional route through the Mall and Whitehall; the first to be followed by a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral; the first with the iconic balcony appearance by the king — and most importantly, the first to be photographed from inside the abbey.

The honor fell to Sir John Benjamin Stone, a former MP and amateur photographer, who was earlier also entrusted by George V to photograph intimate portraits, such as his late father Edward VII’s coffin in the royal vault.

Despite the king’s wishes, Stone wasn’t welcomed by everybody. The illustrated news magazines of London dismissed his blurry photos of ceremony as inferior to sketches produced by their eyewitness artists, and the formidable Randall Davison, then in the seventh year of a tenure that would make him the longest serving Archbishop of Canterbury since the Reformation, insisted that the photographer and his camera be “in a position absolutely concealed”. As such, Stone’s photo of the king on the coronation chair (above) was almost blocked.

The royal couple both complained about the coronation. “The service in the Abbey was most beautiful, but it was a terrible ordeal,” wrote George V in his journal, while Queen Mary wrote to her aunt, “it was an awful ordeal for us both.”

In the front row of the Royal Box behind the king, from left to right, were four of his six children (1. Princess Mary; 2. Prince Albert, the future George VI; 3. Prince Henry, the future Duke of Gloucester; 4. Prince George, the future Duke of Kent), his sister (5. the then Princess Royal, Duchess of Fife), and three of his aunts, all daughters of Queen Victoria (6. Princess Christian of Scheswig-Holstein; 7. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll; 8. Princess Henry of Battenberg). The young princes would fight on the way back to the palace: the 11-year-old Henry wrestling the 8-year-old George, nearly knocking Princess Mary’s coronet out of their carriage.

Sitting behind the king’s children were the Connaughts and the Albanys — the wives and daughters of the king’s uncles. From left to right, 1. The Duchess of Connaught; 2. The Duchess of Albany; 3. Princess Patricia (a daughter of Duke of Connaught); and 4. Princess Alexander of Teck (a daughter of Duke of Albany and married to the Queen’s brother).

On the king’s right, four men carrying swords of state were visible. They were, left to right, 1. Field Marshal Lord Kitchner of Khartoum, carrying the sword of temporal justice; 2. Duke of Beaufort, bearing curtana (also known as the Sword of Mercy); 3. Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar, former Commander-in-Chief of the Army, carrying the sword of spiritual justice; and bearing the unwieldy Sword of State, William Lygon, Lord Beauchamp (often thought to be the model for the character Lord Marchmain in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited).

Visible behind Beauchamp in his military dress was Captain Charles Cust, equerry to the king, who would be a confidante of three kings.

Between the king and the queen were the other officials who held ceremonial roles. From left to right, 1. the Viscount Churchill, one of the bearers of the king’s train; 2. the Bishop of Bath and Wells; 3. the Earl of Carrington; and 4. the Bishop of Durham. On the other side of the queen was the Bishop of Petersborough. Behind the queen were the bearers of her six-yard long train, led by Evelyn Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire and Mistress of the Robes — the senior lady in the Royal Household.

Lord Carrington, the future Marquess of Lincolnshire, bore St Edward’s Staff and held the role of Lord Great Chamberlain. The role rotates with every change of reign between three families: the others being the Cholmondeleys and the Willoughby de Eresbys (the Earls of Ancaster). For Charles III’s coronation, it will be turn of another Carrington.

Bishops of Durham and Bath and Wells acted as Bishops Assistant to the King — a role that existed since the coronation of Edgar in 973, and had been carried out by the holders of those two bishoprics since the coronation of Richard I in 1189.

(You can compare Stone’s photos to the almost identical coronation painting by John Henry Frederick Bacon. Bacon was placed hidden from view behind the tombs of Aymer de Valence and Aveline of Lancaster, directly facing the Royal Box, and he used artistic licence to produce a clear view of the king in profile and the queen facing the viewer).

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