Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A terrible ordeal

One hundred years ago today, the British people were celebrating the coronation of King George V and his wife Queen Mary. Both George and Mary kept diaries, and although these have not been published, a few extracts are in the public domain, including some about their Coronation Day. In one, George calls the day ‘a terrible ordeal’ - though without further explanation.

George V, born in 1865, was the second son of Edward VII. He served in the Royal Navy from the age of 12 until 1892 when he became heir to the throne on the early death of his elder brother Albert (from pneumonia). The following year, he married Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, known as May, who had previously been engaged to Albert. They became Duke and Duchess of York and lived on the Sandringham Estate, in Norfolk. They had six children - Edward, George, Mary, Henry, George and John. The eldest two went on to become King, although Edward held the crown for less than a year before abdicating in favour of George (VI).

George V succeeded to the throne when King Edward VII died in May 1910, though his coronation did not follow until the following summer, on 22 June 1911. A film of the event can be seen at the British Pathé website. According to The Royal Collection website, the crowning of the Sovereign at the start of a new reign is ‘an ancient ceremony, rich in religious significance, pageantry and historic associations’, and has changed little in form since medieval times. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Coronation of Her Majesty The Queen, in 2003, a special exhibition was held at Windsor Castle. Among the items on display were the personal records of several monarchs: Queen Victoria’s sketchbook filled with her drawings of the day’s events, a press release at the time said, and ‘a poignant extract from the diary of King George V’ describing how his coronation ‘brought back many sad memories of 9 years ago when the Beloved Parents were crowned’.

There do not appear to be any published versions of George V’s diary. Robert Lacey, in his biography, Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, which contains a generous section of historical background, might provide an explanation: ‘Every day of his adult life, King George V dutifully wrote up his diary - unlike his father, who never kept one. Edward VII had better things to do at bedtime. Bound in successive volumes of green leather, the diary of King George V is the journal of a very ordinary man, containing a great deal more about his hobby of stamp collecting than it does about his personal feelings, with a heavy emphasis on the weather. The simple, round schoolboy hand scarcely changes from the age of fifteen, when he started it, until the last entry, completed three days before his death . . .’

Nevertheless, some excerpts dating from the early days of the Great War were broadcast in 2004 for the first time by BBC Radio Four in its Book of the Week slot. This was by special permission from the Queen to mark the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Nor is there a published version of Queen Mary’s diary - see an earlier Diary Review article about one extract (Princess Mary’s marathon). However, in his widely-respected biography, Queen Mary, James Pope-Hennessy draws extensively on diary material, particular Mary’s own diaries, but also occasionally her husband’s. Here is Pope-Hennessy, in the biography, looking back at that Coronation Day.

‘Although it improved later in the summer, the weather of June 1911 was windy and cool. Frequent rainstorms had been causing the London public, and the vendors of seats on the stands set up along the coronation processional route, some disquiet. In the whole month of June there were only five good days. Coronation Day, the twenty-second, was not amongst them. “Dull but fine - Our Coronation Day”, Queen Mary recorded in her Diary. King George’s comment in his Diary was longer, but it was equally characteristic: “It was overcast and cloudy with slight showers, & a strongish cool breeze, but better for the people than great heat.” The weather of Coronation Day, 1911, thus formed a sharp, symbolic contrast to that of the July morning, eighteen years before, when Princess May had, for the first time in her life, driven in state from Buckingham Palace as the central figure of a carriage procession. She was then driving to be married at the Chapel Royal; we may recall the sparkling sunshine of that July morning, and the cheers of the surging crowds. Her prospects then had seemed gay and exciting; her prospects now were a lifetime of dedication and responsibility. The overcast sky suited her serious mood.’

Pope-Hennessy goes on to describe other differences between the two occasions, before then returning to the diaries, and the entries for 22 June 1911.

Queen Mary: ‘Magnificent reception both going & coming back.’

King George V: ‘There were hundreds of thousands of people who gave us a magnificent reception. . . The service in the Abbey was most beautiful & impressive but it was a terrible ordeal. . . Darling May looked so lovely & it was indeed a comfort to me to have her by my side as she has been ever to me during these last 18 years.’

1 comment:

Jules said...

I do like George Vs diary entry on seeing Beethoven opera:
"Saw Fidelio. Damn dull."
George however was more well read than people think - he read avidly and decent stuff too. The image of him as a stamp collecting dullard (and a bully of his children) may not entirely discounted by his diary entries - but they do make a start! Someone should edit and publish his diaries - they are, oddly, the writings of an ordinary person, in a position of influence. His pithy one liners are at very least endearing.