26 October 2017

Jewel History: Again the Pomp and Circumstance (1937)


"Again the Pomp and Circumstance as His Majesty Opens Parliament"
(originally published in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 26 Oct 1937)

London, Oct. 26 -- "My Lords, pray be seated." King George [1], wearing the magnificent Imperial Crown and royal robes of scarlet over his military uniform, stands on a red-carpeted dais in front of two light-bathed, golden-crowned thrones in the House of Lords and opens his first session of parliament. He holds the hand of Queen Elizabeth [2], also crowned, in scarlet robes and covered with jewels that scintillate like stars over her beautiful gown of silver with flowing train.

They had just driven to the sound of welcoming guns in St. James's Park from Buckingham Palace through London's sun-flecked streets -- overnight drenched by autumnal gales -- cheered by thousands who saw in the elaborate procession of gilded coach, Life Guardsmen in tall bearskins, Hussars with gleaming plumed helmets, and many ancient Elizabethan-dressed Yeoman of the Guard, a revival of the wonderful pageantry of the coronation [3].

Outside the Gothic towers of the Houses of Parliament troops presented arms as the King and Queen arrived. Then, conducted by the glittering officers of the court, they went to the royal robing rooms and put on their crowns and regalia. The little princesses [4], who were permitted to attend but not to enter the throne room, watched the formation of the stately procession from the Lord Great Chamberlain's box in the royal gallery. They were hatless and wore little pink coats with collars.

Crowned and robed, the King and Queen, preceded by the Lord Great Chamberlain [5], Lord Halifax [6], carrying the pearl-handled Sword of State, a symbol of royal power, and by the red velvet Cap of Maintenance, carried by Lord Zetland [7], as a symbol of royal dignity, walked in the glowing medieval procession to their thrones.

Heralds and pursuivants in costumes that recalled the Field of the Cloth of Gold [8], officers of the King's Bodyguard in golden helmets and tall plumes, the Kings of Arms, heralds in tabards that recalled a jousting tournament, and court officials, including such quaint personages as the Master of the Horse, the Gold-Stick-in-Waiting, equerries, and grooms, surrounded them as they entered through an archway at the side of the throne.

For an hour before their arrival, peers in red and ermine robes and peeresses in serried ranks of fashionable beauty talked quietly while they looked at the red-carpeted dais which in the dim light that gives the Gothic decoration of the House of Lords an indescribable ecclesiastical atmosphere two thrones shimmered in gold under the Gothic wooden canopy above which carven figures of knights and kings and historical paintings added richness to the scene.

To the King's right sat ambassadors in brilliant uniforms representing scores of countries. One envoy, from Saudi Arabia, wore the picturesque costume of the desert, and anothe from Nepal had a lion's mane issuing from his headdress. Noticeably, Dr. H.C. Martin, minister from Ethiopia, was present with a broad gold sash across his chest. A few minutes before the King appeared, the Duke and Duchess of Kent [9] and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester [10], with the Princess Royal and the Earl of Harewood [11], entered and took seats to the left of the throne. In the body of the chamber, the law lords, peers, and peeresses, whose coronets sparkled and shone in every direction, filled the red benches and made vivid splashes of color beneath the subdued light that filtered in through stained-glass windows.

Trumpets sound and lights blaze up suddenly as everybody rises and bows in reply to the King's and Queen's greeting. "My Lords, pray be seated," says the King in a clear voice, and at his command, the whole colorful assembly sinks back to its seats like the wind blowing over a garden of many-colored flowers. There follows a moment's pause while Black Rod [12] is sent to summon the Commons. Headed by the speaker and officers, some arise and stand at the bar of the chamber, others meanwhile having filled one of the galleries. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain [13] was prevented from attending by an attack of gout.

Then the Lord Chancellor [14], in a huge wig and dark gown relieved by gold bands, advances to the dais, bends his knee, and hands the King a copy of his speech to read. The King takes it seated and reads slowly and carefully the words put into his mouth by his minsters, outlining the forthcoming legislation. He enunciated every word carefully, but the speech took nearly twice the accustomed time for its delivery [15]. When finished, the King rose, took the Queen's hand, and proceeded in the same processional order out of the chamber. In the street, a huge crowd cheered his return to the palace.


1. King George VI of the United Kingdom (1895-1952) ascended to the throne in December 1936 following the abdication of his elder brother, King Edward VIII. This was his very first State Opening of Parliament as monarch.

2. Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom (1900-2002), nee Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was the wife of King George VI of the United Kingdom and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. For this, her first State Opening of Parliament as queen, Elizabeth wore her crown without its arches and other diamond jewels, including Queen Victoria's diamond waterfall brooch.

3. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were crowned at Westminster Abbey on May 12, 1937. You can read more about Elizabeth's coronation jewels over here.

4. Princess Elizabeth (born 1926) and Princess Margaret (1930-2002) were eleven and seven during their parents' first grand opening of parliament.

5. In 1937, the Lord Great Chamberlain, one of the Great Officers of State, was Gilbert Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 2nd Earl of Ancaster (1867-1951).

6. Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax (1881-1959) was the Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Privy Council in October 1937.

7. Lawrence Dundas, 2nd Marquess of Zetland (1876-1961) was Secretary of State for India and Burma in November 1937; he carried the Sword of State at the 1937 coronation.

8. The Field of the Cloth of Gold was the site of an elaborate, famous summit between King Henry VIII of England and King Francois I of France in 1520. Each monarch tried to outdo the other by making their encampment more and more fabulous -- hence the nickname of the event's location.

9. Prince George (1902-1942) and Princess Marina (1906-1968), Duke and Duchess of Kent, were the brother and sister-in-law of King George VI. They had married three years earlier, and Marina had given birth to their second child, Princess Alexandra, in December 1936.

10. Prince Henry (1900-1974) and Princess Alice (1901-2004), Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, were also the brother and sister-in-law of King George VI. They married in 1935. In October 1937, Henry was third in line to the British throne, after Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

11. Princess Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood (1897-1965) and Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood (1882-1947) were the sister and brother-in-law of King George VI. She remained particularly close to the Duke of Windsor following the abdication crisis of 1936.

12. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod is responsible for maintaining the buildings and security of the Palace of Westminster, the London home of the Houses of Parliament. He also has an important role in the pageantry state opening, summoning the House of Commons to attend the monarch's speech. In October 1937, the position was held by Major-General Sir Charles Edward Corkran (1872-1939), who died in a shooting accident less than two years later.

13. In October 1937, Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) had been Prime Minister for only a few months. He is probably best remembered today for his failed policy of German appeasement ahead of the outbreak of World War II. He stepped down in May 1940 (a few months before his death) and was succeeded by Winston Churchill. Princess Elizabeth reportedly cried when she heard Chamberlain's resignation address on the radio.

14. The Lord Chancellor, another of the Great Officers of State, was the presiding officer of the House of Lords at this point in history. Douglas Hogg, 1st Viscount Hailsham (1872-1950) held the position in October 1937.

15. King George VI famously struggled with a stammer; he had been receiving speech therapy for years by this point. His speech before parliament on this occasion pledged assistance for Spain (which was in the midst of a civil war) and China (which was at war with Japan). He also announced two upcoming state visits: King Leopold III of Belgium in November 1937 and King Carol II of Romania in the spring of 1938. (Both of those visits did take place.) He deferred those who hoped he would have a traditional coronation durbar in India, stating simply that he hoped to be able to visit "my Indian Empire" soon. (The durbar never happened.)