University library collections reveal coronation celebrations across time in Leicester

Image: University of Leicester Library

With the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III nearly upon us, staff in the Special Collections at the University of Leicester have been combing through the University’s archives of historical material to learn a little more about how coronations have been celebrated in our city in years past.

The last coronation in the United Kingdom was that of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place in 1953. In the University’s David Wilson Library is a copy of the 1953 City of Leicester Coronation Souvenir which, according to the introduction by Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Leicester at the time, Mr and Mrs CR Keene, will ‘serve to inform Leicester citizens of the events of the Coronation celebrations, but be a permanent reminder to them of a memorable occasion’.

This 40-page booklet, containing a selection of black and white photographs from the time, gives an insight into not only how Leicester celebrated the 1953 coronation, but also those throughout its history.

Jack Simmons, Professor of History at Leicester University College (now the University of Leicester), remarks that the 2 June 1953 Coronation Service descends directly from that used for the coronation of King Edgar in 973. ‘The English coronation, then, is the most ancient ceremony of its kind that survives in the world today,’ he explains in a piece on ‘Some Historical and Religious Aspects of the Ceremony’. 

Professor Simmons was appointed the University’s first Chair in History in 1947 and wrote its first history, New University.

R.H. Evans, Lecturer in History from Leicester University College, also writes on the evolution of coronation festivities in Leicester, remarking that ‘In this city the custom of celebrating the coronation of our rulers appears to have developed late in its long history’. He pinpoints the crowning of Charles II in 1661 as the first recorded occasion of special importance. Celebrations would become more lavish as time went on until the coronation of George IV in 1821, with Evans observing that ‘Later coronations, before the present century, could not better this public display’. 

Celebrations for following coronations would more prominently display Leicester’s community spirit, with a focus on those that Evans describes as ‘the less fortunate’. With citizens hosting feasts for their neighbours, hospitals and prisoners of the Borough Gaol, Evans remarks that ‘we shall have done well if, in our celebrations, we can equal the dignity, zest and charity of our ancestors’. 

In that same tradition, the University of Leicester has pledged to support The Big Help Out, which has been launched by the King and Queen Consort to encourage people across the UK to try out volunteering, as well as highlighting the positive impact that volunteering has on communities. Volunteers can sign up for The Big Help Out on the Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire’s Coronation web page, where details of volunteering opportunities in Leicester and Leicestershire can also be found.


Image: University of Leicester Library

The remainder of the 1953 Coronation Souvenir is taken up with brief biographies of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, followed by a programme of events in the lead-up and during the day of the coronation: with music performances, art exhibitions, sports events and church services at familiar Leicester landmarks such as Newarke Houses, De Montfort Hall, The Guildhall and Abbey Park. A Grand Coronation Procession would start at University Road and end at Abbey Lane Corner, taking in London Road, Granby Street, Gallowtree Gate, Belgrave Road and Abbey Park Road.

Also contained within the University’s Special Collections is a copy of the Leicester Souvenir for the Coronation of 1937, of King George VI and Queen Mary. For a mere sixpence, according to its title page, the Souvenir provides an overview of the King’s life and career to date with step-by-step details of how the Coronation ceremony would play out. 

The 1937 Souvenir has a more commemorative style, its 56 black and white pages featuring portraits of the members of the contemporary Royal Family, together with a selection of photographs of the future King and Queen on visits. There are a number of photographs of their children, including of a young Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II. 

Both of these items will be on display in the Basement of the David Wilson Library alongside other coronation-themed items from Thursday 4 May, including a copy of the 1953 Order of Service designed by Professor H. P. R. Finberg, former head of the Centre for English Local History.

With the Order of Service is an article penned by Professor Finberg for The Tablet on 9 May 1953 detailing the history of the Coronation Service and its changes over nearly a thousand years, including some for that year’s service. As he remarks, this is ‘part of the process by which a time-honored monarchy adapts itself to the exigencies of a changing world’. 

Visitors to the University’s Special Collections will have a great opportunity to appreciate some of those changes first-hand.