The members of the House of Lords have traditionally been far more involved with coronations than their Commons counterparts, and for the coronation of Edward VII it was Viscount Esher who worked closely with the king to plan the ceremony and adapt its traditions to suit the times. However, as this blog from Dr Kathryn Rix shows, MPs also played their part in coronation festivities in 1902, although some deliberately chose to stay away.
On 21 March 1902 between thirty and forty MPs met in a committee room at Westminster, not to discuss parliamentary business, but to make plans for the coronation of Edward VII later that year to be celebrated by bonfires across the United Kingdom. They set up a Central Coronation Bonfires Committee, presided over by Viscount Cranborne, MP for Rochester and the son of the Conservative prime minister, Lord Salisbury. It took its duties seriously, issuing detailed recommendations on the best methods of bonfire construction. By late May between 500 and 600 bonfires had been planned, to be lit on the evening of 26 June, after the king had been crowned in Westminster Abbey. However, the proposed coronation festivities were suspended after Arthur Balfour announced in the Commons ‘with considerable emotion’ on 24 June that the king had undergone a surgical operation to treat perityphilitis (an abdominal abscess), and was ‘going on as well as possible’.
The coronation was postponed until 9 August 1902, but the carefully constructed bonfires presented an immediate problem. The bonfire at Camberley in Surrey was lit ‘surreptitiously’ by ‘some unauthorised person’ a few days after the original coronation date, while others were targeted by ‘unruly crowds’. Some local authorities headed off such actions by quietly lighting the bonfires in the early morning hours, but Cranborne and his fellow MPs on the committee found a more appropriate solution, sending out telegrams instructing that the bonfires should be lit ‘as a sign of rejoicing for the great improvement in the king’s condition’. At 9:55 p.m. on Monday 30 June, a signal rocket was sent up from the summit of the Great Wheel at Earl’s Court to initiate proceedings, and many bonfires were lit on that evening or in subsequent days.
For Queen Victoria’s coronation in June 1838, MPs had assembled in the Commons in the morning before proceeding to Westminster Abbey to take their seats, a custom reportedly followed since the reign of James II. Parliament was not sitting when Edward VII’s postponed coronation was held in August 1902, but even if it had taken place in June, before the end of the parliamentary session, it had already been decided to abandon this tradition. As Balfour explained, there was ‘a very widespread desire on the part of Members of the House that they should be accompanied by their wives’, which ‘makes it absolutely impossible to follow the old practice in this matter’. MPs who wished to attend the coronation were asked to enter their names in a book kept in the Speaker’s office, and invitations were then issued.
Those MPs and their wives who attended the coronation in Westminster Abbey on 9 August were seated in large galleries constructed in the north and south transepts, behind the seating areas allocated for peers (in the south transept) and peeresses (in the north transept). The transepts lay on either side of the central space underneath the abbey’s lantern where a large platform was built as the location for the coronation ceremony, giving MPs – who mostly wore court dress – a far better position than many of the 5,873 guests who attended. However, the parliamentary sketch-writer Henry Lucy recorded that the abbey’s ‘structural peculiarities are such as to interfere with the view of all except those in the front row of seats’.
Some MPs used the occasion to entertain local dignitaries from their constituency. The Newcastle Journal recorded that the ceremony in the abbey was attended by the MPs for Newcastle-on-Tyne, Walter Plummer and George Renwick, and the MP for Tyneside, Hugh Crawford Smith, together with Mrs. Renwick, Mrs. Smith, Alderman Newton (the mayor of Newcastle) and Councillor Sanderson (the sheriff of Newcastle). Afterwards, Plummer and the Renwicks entertained Sanderson and his wife, plus another local councillor, to lunch in the House of Commons, and this group was then photographed on the Commons terrace by Sir Benjamin Stone MP.
While MPs and their wives could attend the service in the abbey, other guests and family members of MPs were able to watch the coronation procession from stands erected in New Palace Yard and Parliament Square. There was, however, one significant contingent of MPs who avoided any involvement in the event. As ‘a protest against the mis-government of their country’, sixty-one Irish Nationalist MPs instead attended a meeting that day in Dublin’s City Hall, at which the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, moved a resolution declaring that ‘Ireland separates herself from the rejoicings of her merciless oppressors and stands apart in rightful discontent and disaffection’.
Before the Irish party took its decision to stay away from the coronation, a handful of its members had already accepted invitations, and despite pressure to withdraw their names from the list of invitees, they refused to do so. The Times reported that five Irish Nationalist MPs had been present in the Abbey for the coronation – Colonel John Nolan (North Galway); Samuel Young (East Cavan); Edward Thompson (North Monaghan); John Eustace Jameson (West Clare); and William O’Doherty (North Donegal) – and that these members were ‘anxious to make it plain that they rejoice in being loyal to the King and his Empire’.
Young had already been criticised by the United Irish League in 1900 for attending a garden party at Buckingham Palace, but a motion by the League’s local executive asking him to resign in the wake of his attendance at the coronation and his vote against an eight hour day for coal miners was defeated by 80 votes to 22. He continued as East Cavan’s MP until his death in April 1918 at the age of 96, when he had the distinction of being the oldest ever serving MP.
Young was, however, the only one of these five who returned to Parliament at the 1906 general election, the first of Edward VII’s reign. Nolan had already been expelled by the United Irish League before the coronation because of his harsh treatment of his tenants, and stood as an Independent Nationalist in 1906, but was defeated. Jameson joined the Unionist party in 1904 and stood for Chatham two years later, but lost to a Labour candidate. O’Doherty was called on to resign by the League’s North Donegal branch for having ‘forfeited their confidence’ by attending the coronation, but he refused, arguing that he and ‘many other’ Nationalist MPs felt that a moderate policy would succeed. Thompson leapt to O’Doherty’s defence in a defiant public letter in which he claimed that at least nine Irish MPs had attended the coronation and described the party’s mandate against attendance as ‘foolish and unnecessary’. Thompson decided against seeking re-election in 1906, while O’Doherty had died the previous year.
While the coronation may have exacerbated tensions within the Irish Parliamentary Party, for most Liberal and Conservative MPs, the main concern appeared to be that the postponement from June until August had delayed their summer departure from London. The Pall Mall Gazette reported that after the ceremony, the railway companies put on several special trains in anticipation of ‘a rush for the Scottish moors’, where the shooting season for grouse was about to start. Euston and King’s Cross stations saw ‘large quantities of luggage’, with MPs who had been in court dress for the coronation a few hours earlier now ‘attired in sporting costume’.
D. Torrance, ‘The coronation: history and ceremonial’ (House of Commons research briefing)
R. Strong, Coronation: from the 8th to the 21st century (2005)