This day – Wednesday May 12th 1937 – saw the coronation at Westminster Abbey of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth as King and Queen of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth and as Emperor and Empress of India. King George was ascending to the throne following the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII.
It had all begun in January 1936. King George V died and his eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, succeeded him as king-emperor of the British Empire under the regnal names of Edward VIII. Edward was unmarried at that time but an American socialite, Wallis Simpson, had accompanied him on numerous social occasions recent years. She was married to shipping executive Ernest Aldrich Simpson – her second husband. Her relationship with Edward had not been reported in the British press, but was receiving considerable media attention in the United States. The link between Edward and Mrs Simpson was controversial due to her divorced situation – a position considered untenable with the King’s position as the nominal head of the Church of England, which did not recognise divorce.
Mrs. Simpson had filed for divorce a second time in October 1936 and King Edward informed the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, that he intended to propose to her. Baldwin and several leading imperial administrators advised the King that popular opinion in the dominions was hostile to the potential marriage. In Britain the King faced opposition from the Church of England and various factions in Parliament. Their widespread unwillingness to accept Simpson as the King’s consort, and Edward’s refusal to give her up, led to his abdication on 10th December 1936, three days before his 41st birthday. Edward’s coronation had been planned for Wednesday 12th May 1937 and it was decided to continue with his younger brother and sister-in-law’s coronation on the same date.
That younger brother was Albert, Duke of York who, in 1923, had married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the daughter of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. He chose the regnal name of George VI, in honour of his father.
The reign of the British monarch begins on their succession to the throne with the coronation service marking their formal crowning. The ceremony for King George VI was organised by a Coronation Committee, established by the Privy Council and chaired by the Lord President of the Council, a political appointment. The Coronation Committee for Edward VIII had been delayed when it met in June 1936 because Edward was away, cruising with Wallis Simpson. Edward VIII had initially been reluctant to have a coronation at all and asked the Archbishop of Canterbury whether it could be dispensed with. It couldn’t, but it was conceded that a shorter service would be acceptable. Edward’s wish for a lower-key event did, however, lead to the abandonment of a planned royal procession through London; a thanks-giving service at St Paul’s Cathedral and the dinner with London dignitaries.
However, the authorities simply assumed it had been planned so far for George VI and continued where they left off and, at the next meeting after the abdication, “no reference was made at all to the change of sovereign, everything immediately being assumed to have been done for the new king.” After the abdication, though, many of the traditional elements that Edward VIII cared less for were restored, with Queen Mary taking an interest in the design of furniture and insisting on a more traditional appearance. As a result, much of the service and the furnishings were to closely resemble that of the 1911 coronation of George V!
The Archbishop of Canterbury met with the King and Queen on the evening before the coronation, running through the ceremony and explaining the most important parts. He was concerned about the King’s stutter and discussed replacing Lionel Logue the King’s speech therapist. However it was decided to monitor the King’s improvement and Logue remained his therapist. As it happened, the King delivered his speech without stuttering!
On the day a guard of honour formed at the entrance and the King and Queen arrived at 11:00 and formed the procession, which was led by the Kings Chaplain and the Chapter at Westminster. The King and Queen walked, surrounded by their regalia, and took their seats in the Chairs of State in front of the royal box. As the King and Queen and the procession proceeded, the choir sang “I was glad” with the traditional acclimations of “Vivat Rex Georgius” by the King’s Scholars of Westminster School.
As in the 1902 and 1911 events, the coronation was followed by a procession through London’s streets from Westminster Abbey to the Royal residence, allowing the public to view the new king and queen. In 1937, this return route was extended significantly. From Westminster Abbey, it passed around Parliament Square and up the Victoria Embankment where some 40,000 schoolchildren were waiting. The procession also included a large number of military personnel from across the Empire. In total there were 32,500 officers and men either marching or lining the route. Overall, the procession was 3,500 yards (3,200 metres) in length and took 40 minutes to pass any given point!