Sunday 26 March 2023

Papal Envoys to Modern British Coronations

            The Coronation of Their Majesties The King and Queen is fast approaching. We nevertheless have very little information about it, including the guest list. Recently, I unearthed correspondence in Vatican archives on the Holy See and the Catholic Church’s roles at British coronations of the twentieth century. As a result of this research, the question arises whether a papal envoy will be dispatched, according to precedent.


Monarch versus Pope


            From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the Papacy and the English/British Monarchy were at odds in matters of religion, politics, and diplomacy. Catholics of the realm were persecuted and discriminated against for over 300 years. The situation began to change toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, when the decriminalization of  Catholic worship was sought by lawmakers. In 1829, Catholic emancipation became law, despite the opposition of George III and IV, who considered it a violation of their Coronation Oath to uphold the Protestant Reformed Religion. For the King's subjects, however, oaths containing passages forswearing Catholic beliefs, designed to ensure Protestant domination of the state and society, were relaxed. Thenceforth, discrimination and prejudice gradually waned, as Catholics demonstrated their loyalty to the Crown and took their place as equals in British society. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thousands embraced the Catholic religion, and millions of Catholic immigrants altered the religious landscape of Britain. By the beginning of the third millennium, Catholics in England would outnumber Anglicans.

In 1850, Pope Pius IX restored the Catholic Hierarchy in England and Wales (Scotland came in 1878). Anti-Catholic feeling was fuelled by a polemic between Archbishop Wiseman and the Prime Minster, Lord Russell. The Queen was not amused. In 1851, an Act of Parliament was passed banning Catholic bishops from using the titles of their residential sees. The Act was never enforced and was repealed in 1871. Nevertheless, its effects continue in the moratorium for Catholic bishops to use their titles when addressing the Sovereign or Court functionaries. Yet, there were no such repercussions in the British Empire, especially in Canada and India, where British officials showed special deference to the bishops and to the Pope's representatives, Apostolic Delegates.

Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII


The relationship with the Royal Court improved significantly with the accession to the papacy of Gioacchino Pecci, in 1878, who took the name Leo XIII. An aristocratic prelate, Pecci had served in the papal diplomatic corps as Apostolic Nuncio in Belgium. His tact and moderation were appreciated by King Leopold I (a Protestant). Leopold presented Pecci to his niece and nephew, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, during their state visit to Belgium, in September 1845. Giacomo Pecci also had anglophile proclivities and followed the developments of the Oxford Movement closely. He visited England in 1844 with the future Cardinal Wiseman, and returned in 1846, when he was received by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. In those years, a connection between Leo and Victoria had been established.

At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Leo held out an olive branch to those who had disagreed somewhat with some of his predecessor’s policies. Among these was the prestigious Oxford Movement leader and convert, Father John Henry Newman, whom Leo elevated to the cardinalate in 1879.

In 1887, the Pope and the Queen each celebrated Golden Jubilees, marking the 50th anniversaries of her reign of and his priestly ordination. The Pope took the opportunity to dispatch a special envoy to bring felicitations, Archbishop Ruffo di Calabria of the Princes of Scilla, accompanied by a young secretary, the future Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val. Confidentially, Ruffo Scilla was also entrusted with a secret task: to discuss important issues with the leading politicians and notables and make the Holy See’s gratitude known for the freedom Catholics enjoyed and its recognition of the benefits of British rule. 

The Church of England had organized national prayer services for Sunday, 21 June. Although Catholics were not allowed to participate in them, the Catholic Hierarchy was anxious to show their loyalty as good subjects of the Crown. Accordingly, Cardinal Manning asked the Pope for a special dispensation to celebrate a pontifical Mass. The Pope conceded the use of the votive Mass de Trinitate, for the occasion. The Mass was celebrated by Manning in Our Lady of Victories Pro-Cathedral, which concluded with the Papal envoy solemnly intoning a Te Deum. Additionally, the Cardinal wrote to his priests, asking that a solemn thanksgiving Mass and Te Deum be celebrated in every church, with “fervent prayers for the happiness and wellbeing of Her Majesty.”

Following this successful mission, Manning wrote to the Pope that the Queen and her Ministers had shown every respect and courtesy toward his representative. And the conservative Saturday Review remarked that, in sending an envoy and paying tribute to her personal merits, Leo XIII could not have done more for a Catholic monarch than he did for the Protestant Queen-Empress. Another article suggested that Leo’s attitude had improved relations to the point where Britain might even consider sending an ambassador to the Holy See.

At the end of the year, a grateful Queen Victoria dispatched a delegation led by the senior Peer of the Realm, the Duke of Norfolk (a Catholic) to deliver an autograph letter of congratulations to Pope Leo, a letter from the Prime Minister, and a gift.

1897 Diamond Jubilee


            A similar scenario was repeated for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, in 1897. This time, Archbishop Cesare Sambucetti was chosen as the envoy, accompanied by Monsignor Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte, as secretary. For this occasion, Pope Leo had wanted to elevate Sambucetti’s rank to nuncio but, according to the Treaty of Vienna of 1815, a nuncio was entitled precedence over other ambassadors, which HM Government would not guarantee. Sambucetti was nevertheless accorded every courtesy and was taken to the Court, to Government Offices, and to religious functions (at the Brompton Oratory and the Italian Church in Clerkenwell) in court carriages.

            On the morning of 20 June 1897, accompanied by the Queen’s representative, the Duke of Norfolk, Sambucetti was received at the door of the Church of the Immaculate Heart (chosen, as it was larger than the pro-cathedral) by the Fathers of the Brompton Oratory. Father Antrobus, the Superior, held the aspersorium for the Archbishop to sprinkle the congregation with holy water, as he processed through the nave. Sambucetti ascended a throne erected on the Epistle Side of the sanctuary. Cardinal Vaughan entered in cappa magna and processed to the throne on Gospel Side. Ecce sacerdos magnus was sung for each procession, alternating with the organ. Sambucetti vested and celebrated Pontifical High Mass, while the choir sang Cherubini’s Mass composed for Louis XVIII.

Numerous foreign royals attended the Mass, including the future King Victor Emanuel III of Italy, as well as Catholic ambassadors. At the end of Mass, Cardinal Vaughan’s pastoral letter was read from the pulpit by Canon Dr Johnson, which was described by Sambucetti as: “a marvellous compendium of the freedom of the Religion during the long reign of Queen Victoria.” Afterward, Vaughan vested in pontificals and intoned the Te Deum at the foot of the altar, followed by solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The following day, Sambucetti sent a description of the celebrations to Cardinal Rampolla, which was found among his private papers at the time of his death, in 1911.

Catholic bishops from around the Empire sent telegrams to the Queen-Empress for her jubilee, to which she responded. In January 1901, Pope Leo XIII dispatched Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte, who had since been made Archbishop and Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium, to bring condolences to King Edward VII on the death of his mother.


Coronation Oath


            Although the Crown had granted freedom to Catholics, the Established Church continued to be joined to the State, with the Monarch formally at the head of both. The Protestant oaths had not been abolished for the Sovereign, who remained Supreme Governor of the Church of England. In 1898, future Catholic Bishop of London, Ontario, Father Michael Fallon, lobbied to have passages removed from the Coronation Oath which condemned prayers to the Blessed Virgin, Eucharistic transubstantiation, and the Papacy. The issue was debated by Parliament in Ottawa and Westminster.  At his accession, in 1901, King Edward VII objected to those passages as offensive to his Catholic subjects, but he was unsuccessful in having them removed. The anti-Catholic references were finally expunged by an Act of Parliament, at the beginning his successor’s reign, in August 1910.  


King Edward VII 


King Edward followed his mother’s policy of friendly outreach to the Roman Pontiff. In March 1902, he dispatched the Earl of Denbigh to Rome, to deliver a letter of congratulations to Leo XIII on the Silver Jubilee of his pontificate. The Pope attempted to reciprocate by sending Monsignor Merry del Val to Edward’s coronation, in June 1902, but the ceremony had to be postponed due to the King’s poor health. Instead of the Te Deum, which Merry del Val was to have intoned at the Brompton Oratory, Cardinal Vaughan ordered solemn prayers to be said for the King’s health. Edward VII and Alexandra’s coronation was rescheduled for August, after many envoys had returned home, including the Pope’s. Nevertheless, a precedent had been established by which a papal representative was sent to each British coronation, and royal congratulations were sent to each Pope, upon his election.

Beginning with Edward VII, British Royals began paying courtesy calls on the Pope, when visiting Rome. In April 1903, Edward VII paid a courtesy call on Leo XIII. His grandson (the future Edward VIII) visited Benedict XV in 1918, and his son, George V with Queen Mary, saw Pius XI in 1923. British Monarchs also began to attend Roman Catholic Requiem Masses for deceased continental sovereigns. King Edward and Queen Alexandra were the first to do so to mourn the assassinated King of Portugal, in 1908. Their visit to Saint James’s Spanish Place marked the first time that a British monarch attended a Catholic Mass since the reign of James II, over two centuries previously. King George and Queen Mary attended the solemn requiem Mass for the assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Westminster Cathedral, in 1914. 


1911 Coronation


In 1911, Pope Pius X dispatched Archbishop Genaro Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte, who been part of the papal delegations to the Russian Emperor’s coronation (1896), Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897), and the same Queen’s funeral (1901). He was accompanied by Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII), as secretary, as well as papal privy chamberlain, Count Medolago Albani, and Count Bezzi-Scala of the Noble Guard.

Upon his return to Rome, Archbishop Granito filed a detailed report of the mission: The papal party left Rome on 15 June for Brussels. On 19 June, they were met at Dover by the military authorities and presented Captain the Hon. Donald Forbes as the King’s equerry assigned to their mission. At Victoria Station, each foreign mission was greeted by HRH the Duke Connaught and assigned a court carriage. The papal party was given hospitality at Norfolk House, the Duke of Norfolk’s London residence (until 1938). 

The extraordinary missions were received by The King and Queen at Buckingham Palace, the following day. The papal mission the first to be received. The Archbishop envoy presented His Majesty with an autograph letter of the Pope. The King thanked him and politely asked for news of the pontiff. Archbishop Granito had also given a letter of credence addressed to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, papal Secretary of State. 

In the evening, the party were among 560 princes, diplomats, envoys, and court dignitaries who attended a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace. The papal party was seated at the Duke of Connaught’s table and Archbishop Granito led HRH Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein into dinner. Prior to dinner, in the Throne Room, The King and Queen each approached the Archbishop to speak with him. He thanked The King for having amended the Coronation Oath, which had been appreciated by the Pope and HM Catholic subjects. The King was pleased with these remarks and thanked the Archbishop, noting that he counted 32 million Catholics among his subjects worldwide. The Monarch’s children also asked for news of the Pope. The French envoy, Vice-Admiral Eugène de Fauque de Jonquières, pointed out the Commendatory Decoration of Pius IX which he wore on his collar, and wished better times for France. Archbishop Granito was the recipient of much courtesy from the other guests but noted that he was ignored by the Orthodox princes present. 

On the evening of 21 June, the party was invited to a dinner for 100 princes and special envoys by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, who were very gracious and introduced the papal envoy to all their children. 

On the day of the Coronation, 22 June, despite an understanding that they could not attend the Anglican service, they nevertheless received formal invitations to the Abbey. After making their apologies through Captain Forbes, they were immediately issued with cards to watch the procession from a stand erected outside the Abbey. When the sovereigns’ carriage passed, the King saluted the papal envoy two or three times and said something to The Queen. The Archbishop thought he might have imagined their attention but, the following day, at luncheon, the Queen said to him: “HM the King saw you yesterday when leaving the ceremony, and he told me.” On Friday, 23 June, the papal party watched the procession of troops and on Saturday, the 24th, the great Naval Review at Portsmouth. Pius X had even dispensed Catholics throughout the British Empire from Friday abstinence, during the Coronation festivities.

The official celebration of the Coronation for British Catholics took place on Sunday, 25 June. The court carriages took Archbishop Granito and his suite to Westminster Cathedral, where he was received by the Cathedral Chapter and clergy. He donned the cappa magna at the great door, visited the Blessed Sacrament, then vested and celebrated a Pontifical Mass. At the end, the Archbishop of Westminster, Francis Bourne, intoned the Te Deum, and Domine salvum fac regem, and imparted Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. A luncheon followed at Archbishop’s House, followed by a tour of the cathedral given personally by Bourne, and an opportunity for the public to greet the papal representative. On the way back to Norfolk House, the party stopped at the Brompton Oratory to review a group of young Catholics from the Boys Brigade. In the evening, Counts Medolago Albani and Bezzi-Scala attended a gala opera for special guests and a ball given by the Duke of Westminster.

On Tuesday, 27 June, the envoy and his suite were invited to luncheon by the Marquis of Bute, followed by a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. Once again, George V showed preference to the papal envoy. When the Sovereigns arrived, the King immediately left the royal party and came to speak with Archbishop Granito. Their Majesties had very kind words and Queen asked if they were happy with the reception they had been accorded.

            When leaving Norfolk House on 28 June, the Duke and Duchess, their children, and the servants, knelt in the atrium to receive the Pope’s blessing from Granito. The Duke accompanied the party to Victoria station and, a few minutes before departure, HRH the Duke of Connaught came to bid farewell to the foreign representatives. Captain Forbes accompanied them all the way to Dover. 

A few months after this highly successful mission, in November 1911, Pius X raised Granito di Belmonte to the cardinalate. Three years later, at the outbreak of the First World War, His Majesty’s Government set up a legation to the Holy See, which became a permanent legation in 1923.


1935 Silver Jubilee


            In its first years, the Permanent Legation was the source of much tension between Britain and the Holy See. In 1925, Sir Odo Russel tried to pressure the Curia into discussing episcopal candidacies and the appointment of apostolic delegates. He even implied that too many appointments throughout the Empire were not British Subjects. Although a compromise was agreed on for apostolic delegates, Cardinal Gasparri noted that all bishops in Britain, the Dominions, Malta, and Gibraltar were British Subjects. Foreign missionaries were another matter which, he argued pointedly, were necessary due to “a scarcity of British Subjects who give themselves to missionary vocations.”

Tensions increased in the 1930s under Sir Charles Winfield, who had little regard for the Catholic Church. In 1934, he failed to bring to his Government’s attention two allusions to King George V’s upcoming Silver Jubilee which Pope Pius XI had made in the beatification of John Fisher and Thomas More. Consequently, the Holy See did not receive official notice of the celebrations. On 1 April 1935, the elderly Canon of Saint Peter’s, Arthur Hinsley, was unexpectedly appointed Archbishop of Westminster. He took steps to resolve the jubilee issue by contacting Viscount Fitzalan of Derwent, a Catholic peer and close friend of the King. Fitzalan discovered that George V was expecting a telegram from the Pope, in line with the practice of other sovereigns. The congratulatory telegram was sent, and, on 5 May, Archbishop Hinsley celebrated a Pontifical High Mass with Te Deum in Westminster Cathedral. 

On George V’s death, the British Legation thanked papal foreign secretary, Archbishop Pizzardo, on behalf of the new King Edward VIII, for attending a propitiatory service at San Silvestro in Capite, on 28 January 1936. In Ottawa, Canada, the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Andrea Cassulo, went beyond the customary service and celebrated a pontifical votive mass pro quacumque necessitate for the occasion.


1937 Coronation


Complaints from Cardinal Pacelli about Winfield and his immediate predecessors led to the appointment of “a delightful man,” Francis D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne, as Legate to the Holy See. On 18 September 1936, he forwarded an invitation to send a papal representative to the Coronation of King Edward VIII, scheduled for 6 May 1937. Following Edward’s abdication (of which the Vatican was forewarned by the Nuncio in Ireland) the Coronation was reconfigured for George VI and Elizabeth for the same day. 

On 7 November, Archbishop Hinsley asked for a dispensation to celebration a votive Mass de Trinitate with Te Deum for occasions of national rejoicing, such as coronations. Hinsley reasoned, as did apostolic delegates in countries of mixed religion, that Catholics appeared to others as disloyal because, not only did they not participate in national services but they even refrained from celebrating their own.

It took the Holy Office seven months to rule that a Te Deum could be sung but not a Mass. However, arrangements for Masses had already been made, so Cardinal Pacelli went to Pius XI and, on 18 April, obtained a dispensation for a pontifical Mass with Te Deum. In this way, the Apostolic See sanctioned the innovation with one of its not uncommon toleretur dispensations.

The 1937 coronation took on particular importance for international diplomacy, as war encroached over a Europe ruled by an increasing number of authoritarian dictatorships. Over 12 centuries, the British Crown had evolved into a Constitutional parliamentary Monarchy, representing one of the world’s leading proponents of democracy. British officials noted the juxtaposition between Catholicism and Naziism and sought a direct liaison between HM Government and the Holy See, which they hoped to court against the Fascist regimes. 

On 13 April 1937, Pius XI named a veteran diplomat and foreign minister (Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs), Archbishop Giuseppe Pizzardo, as his special envoy to the Coronation. Pizzardo’s suite included an English prelate, Monsignor William Godfrey, rector of Rome’s English seminary (Venerable English College), and Marchese Francesco Pacelli, a Vatican jurist and brother of the papal Secretary of State. Official circles in Britain were very pleased that such a high-ranking prelate had been named. In turn, the King named the Earl of Granard to head Pizzardo’s British suite, with Captain Walter Legge and W.I. Mallet. Granard was chosen as he was a Catholic convert and had been a friend of Pizzardo for 40 years.

As his predecessor and successor, on 12 May 1937, Pizzardo and his suite were taken to Westminster Abbey in court carriages, where they witnessed the Coronation Procession from a stand at the Abbey’s entrance. The following day, the papal envoy led the Catholic celebrations at Westminster Cathedral. Pontifical Mass de Trinitate was celebrated by Archbishop Hinsley with Pizzardo and his suite seated at a prie-dieu at the head of the congregation but outside of the choir and sanctuary (as per instructions from the Vatican). At the end of Mass, he vested in pontificals, intoned the Te Deum, and imparted the Eucharistic Benediction. On the following Sunday, 16 May, the legate returned to the Cathedral, where he gave an address to Catholics of the British Empire, instructed them that, as good Catholics, it was their duty to be good subjects of the King and good and loyal citizens. This discourse was much appreciated by the King and his ministers.

As his predecessor had done, Pizzardo and his suite attended the formal luncheons and dinners arranged by the Court, the Foreign Office, and by the Duke of Norfolk. At the Foreign Office dinner, on 14 May, he was among those, including the Soviet Ambassador, seated at the Queen’s table. Unlike his predecessor, he did not stay at Norfolk House, as the Duke felt he could not accommodate his entire suite. Instead, Pizzardo accepted Archbishop Hinsley’s invitation to Archbishop’s House. On this occasion, the Foreign Office had not arranged for an audience with Their Majesties prior to the Coronation. Thus, Pizzardo had to leave both letters, from the Pope to the King and from Cardinal Pacelli to Anthony Eden, at the Foreign Office.

While in London, an interesting event occurred: Arthur Koestler’s first wife, Dorothy, appealed to the papal envoy to intercede for her husband, who was being held captive by Nationalist forces in Spain. (Hinsley had also assisted her). Pizzardo promised her that he would speak to Cardinal Pacelli about it, upon his return to Rome. We do not know if the Holy See intervened, but Koestler recognized that his wife’s lobbying of influential figures had been a factor leading to his release.

The mission was not all pomp and circumstance. Pizzardo had received identical instructions to those given to previous legates: to sound out government opinion on matters that touched on the Church and the world. Of particular urgency, at that moment, was the Civil War and the persecution of the clergy in Spain. After listening to British civil and religious notables, Pizzardo cautioned his superiors against recognition of Franco, explaining that the British people “were very proud of their democratic system and opposed to dictatorships, which they considered to be backward and opposed to [human] liberties.”

Two months after the Coronation, King George VI sent the following letter to Pope Pius XI:

Your Holiness, It was with profound pleasure that I received the Letter which Your Holiness addressed to Me on the Twenty-ninth day of April last, and in which You informed Me that, being desirous of manifesting in a Special manner Your interest in the solemnity of My Coronation, You had chosen His Excellency the Most Reverend Monsignor Giuseppe Pizzardo, Archbishop of Nicaea, to be Your Special Envoy on this occasion.

            I desire to express to Your Holiness My sincere gratification at Your selection of so distinguished a person as Your representative and to thank You most cordially for the sentiments of congratulation and good-will to which You have thus given expression, assuring Your Holiness that in the discharge of the Mission thus entrusted to him, the conduct of Monsignor Pizzardo has been much as to merit My entire approbation and esteem and has contributed in no small measure to the maintenance and still further improvement of the relations of good understanding which so happily subsist between My Realm and the Holy See.

            In thanking Your Holiness also most warmly for the good wishes which You have expressed towards Me and My beloved Consort and My Family and people, I avail Myself of the present opportunity to renew to Your Holiness the assurance of My sincere friendship and of the unfeigned respect and esteem which I entertain for Your Person and Character.

            Given at My Court at Buckingham Palace, the Second day of July, One Thousand Nine Hundred and Thirty-Seven.                    George R.I.

The King’s letter arrived at the Vatican toward the end of July. On 1 August 1937, the Cardinal Secretary of State brought it to his daily audience with the Pope. Pius XI read the letter with great satisfaction and remarked to Pacelli that its’ tone was cordial and less formal than the letters sent by George V. 

In November 1937, six months after the Coronation, both Archbishops Hinsley and Pizzardo were elevated to the cardinalate.

Apostolic Delegation


Pizzardo’s charm offensive had won him and the Holy See much admiration in British society and government circles. While in Britain, he sounded out the possibility of a permanent papal representative and, upon their return to Rome, Godfrey was tasked with preparing a memorandum on the subject for the Secretariat of State. In the spring of 1938, the Foreign Office asked to discuss the project at a meeting with the Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Pascal Robinson. Pius XI approved and asked for the Foreign Office's proposals.

The Government agreed that formal diplomatic relations were unadvisable, for the moment, but that an Apostolic Delegate, as in the Dominions, would be welcome. Ostensibly, this legation was to be a purely religious representative to the local Catholic hierarchy. In reality, the Government agreed to grant the envoy de facto access to the Foreign Office and other ministries. Nevertheless, such access was contingent upon the appointment of a British prelate or one from the British Empire. The Pope easily granted this concession for the appointment of the first delegate. The choice fell upon Monsignor Godfrey, who was duly consecrated archbishop in 1938 and sent to London at the beginning of 1939.

Archbishop William Godfrey fulfilled his mandate to court the leading men of the realm and dispel prejudices, to establish affable relations between London and the Vatican. This he fulfilled with aplomb and soon Court officials, politicians, the insular Catholic hierarchy, and even Anglican churchmen began to regard him as a friend and man of confidence, especially during the gruesome ordeals of the Second World War. Godfrey’s success ensured that he was to remain at his post for an unprecedented 15 years, until after the Coronation of Elizabeth II. 

In their reports to Rome, Godfrey and his Irish American successor Gerald Patrick O’Hara, noted that Catholics held high positions in the government, the judiciary, and the armed forces. Yet, despite this fact, the vestiges of discrimination persisted among royal courtiers, who were fearful of showing any sign of favour toward the Catholic Church, so as not to offend the Established Church. When addressing the Sovereign, Catholic Bishops were still prohibited for using the titles of their residential sees. Nevertheless, on royal visits to the dominions and colonies where Catholics were in the majority, Catholic bishops and Apostolic Delegates were called upon to say grace at banquets held for the King and Queen.


Crown and Triregno


As with the Roman toleretur in 1937, government policy prevailed over courtly parsimony and the Monarch and his Ministers began to engage in formal, cordial, and direct communication with the Roman Pontiff.  In January 1939, a dying Pius XI received HM Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in audience. Neville Chamberlain mentioned “a great similarity between the views of the Holy See and the British Government on many important questions.” Lauding the British Premier’s efforts for peace, The Pontiff expressed “the hope that the British people, whose ideals of truth, equity, justice, and humanity were known to Him, might make their influence felt for the ending of religious persecution” of German Catholics. Chamberlain said that “The British Government knows of the persecution of Catholics, and of Jews, in Germany, and will do all that they can in order to make it cease.” The audience concluded in front of a triptych of the English Martyrs, Saints Thomas More, and John Fisher. His final words were a request to: “Tell the King and Queen and the English people that We have England always with Us, always present before Our eyes.”

In the dark days of 1942, King George VI nevertheless sent congratulations to Pope, Pius XII on the silver jubilee of his episcopal consecration. Five years later, the Pope sent a set of porcelain dishes to Princess Elizabeth, on the occasion of her wedding. To the Loyal Address given by Cardinal Griffin, Hinsley’s successor, The King sent the following reply:

            The Queen and I thank Your Eminence for the warmth and loyalty of the Address of Congratulation upon the engagement of Princess Elizabeth which you have presented to me on behalf of my Roman Catholic subjects in England and Wales. I myself am ever mindful of the services of my Roman Catholic subjects to our cause during the war, and I am sure that I am my family may rely on your unfailing support in the years to come. George R.

            Royal visits to the Vatican followed, with Princess Margaret in 1949, and in 1951, Princess Elizabeth accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh. A few months later, when visiting Canada, the Princess soon-to-be-Queen remarked to the Apostolic Delegate in Ottawa on the solemnity of the papal audience at which she had been received.


Funeral of George VI


            The day King George VI met his untimely death, 6 February 1952, Cardinal Griffin asked to his clergy to pray Psalm 50 (Miserere) “that God, in His mercy, may console the Royal Family in their intimate personal sorrow and that He may watch over the whole nation in this moment of universal grief.” To this request he appended an instruction to celebrate Votive Mass no. 13, Pro quacumque tribulatione, followed by the prayer for the new monarch, Domine salvam fac Reginam nostram Elizabeth.

            The next day, Apostolic Delegate Godfrey conveyed the following telegram to the Foreign Office, which was immediately dispatched to Sandringham: 

            His Holiness deeply grieved has conveyed to Her Majesty the Queen expression his profound sympathy and prayerful remembrance deceased Sovereign and of Royal Family in bereavement (stop) Monsignors Tardini [,] Montini presented personally to His Majesty’s Minister at Legation condolences Holy See (stop) in Vatican City flags at half[-]mast in sign of mourning four-day period. 

            For the King’s Funeral, the Vatican dispatched its Internuncio to Holland, Archbishop Paolo Giobbe, to represent the Pope, accompanied by an entourage composed of an English Monsignor and a papal knight.


1953 Coronation


            The relations between the British and Papal Courts grew even more cordial after the Second World War. In addition to an apostolic delegate in London (Wimbledon), the Holy See also maintained representatives in number of Commonwealth realms, colonies, and protectorates, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Malta, British East Africa, South Africa, the West Indies. The Apostolic Delegate in Canada was also invited to the Coronation but declined, stating that the Holy See would be represented by his British counterpart.

            On 5 January 1953, the Vatican Secretariat of State informed the British Apostolic Delegate that His Holiness has named the Nuncio to Belgium, Archbishop Fernando Cento, to head the Papal Mission to the Elizabeth II’s Coronation. His suite included Vatican official, Monsignor Pierre Veuillot (future short-lived Archbishop of Paris) and Marquis Francesco Theodoli of the Noble Guard. Archbishop Godfrey transmitted this news to HM Government.

In February, the Royal Court notified the Holy See that “in accordance with precedent, the Pontifical Mission will be seated in a special stand immediately outside the west end of Westminster Abbey.” The placing was one of favour and prominence given that, at the time, the delegates were prohibited from attending non-Catholic worship inside the Abbey. Four seats were offered for high Vatican dignitaries, but the Holy See declined to accept the additional places. 

On 13 April, the Lord Chamberlain notified the Apostolic Delegate that, as Her Majesty’s guest, the papal envoy would be granted a British suite consisting of Lieutenant Colonel F.G.R. Elwes OBE and Wing Commander Robert Grant-Ferris, from 30 May until 6 June. To add solemnity and importance to the legation, on 6 May, Pius XII conferred the status and title of “Extraordinary Ambassador” on Archbishop Cento, thereby raising the mission a superior diplomatic rank. Archbishop Godfrey informed The Duke of Norfolk of this development on 9 May. 

The papal representation at the Coronation was only made public on 18 May 1953, with a notification published in L’Osservatore Romano. Two weeks before the ceremony, on 25 May, immediately prior to his special ambassador’s arrival in England, the Pope sent a formal letter to The Queen. The following English translation was sent to the Apostolic Delegation together with a copy of the original Latin version:

August Queen, health and prosperity.

Whatever happens to bring joy and gladness to Your Majesty and to all the peoples of the British Community, is likewise a source of much pleasure to Ourselves Who are united by the common bond of diplomatic relations. We are aware that in these days Your Majesty is to be crowned with the hereditary diadem, symbolic of royal dignity; wherefore, since We would gladly participate in so happy an event, We select and nominate Our Venerable Brother, Ferdinand Cento, Titular Archbishop of Seleucia Pieria, so that he may officially represent Us to Your Majesty, with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary, and make known in Our name that We present to You most cordial good wishes and with suppliant prayer earnestly beseech Almighty God that He graciously vouchsafe ever to keep You from harm and, in His goodness, to bestow His richest blessings for the happiness and good estate of Your Majesty and Your Majesty’s subjects. We pray also that He may grant unto Your Majesty a long and peaceful and prosperous reign and deign to unite You with Us in perfect charity.

Given at Rome from St. Peter’s under the ring of the Fisherman, the twenty fifth day of the month of May, in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and fifty-three, of Our Pontificate the fifteenth. Pius PP. XII

            The day prior to the Coronation, L’ Osservatore Romano, published an article on its front page entitled: The Coronation of Elizabeth II: International Interest.


Prayers for the Sovereign


            The number of Catholics in Britain had increased substantially since the Second World War, not only due to immigration. As many as 75,000 adults had been received into the Roman Catholic Church as converts. Catholics felt that the tide of prejudice against them was ebbing and sensed a growing admiration for their religion, even in intellectual circles.

            The faithful in Britain and the Commonwealth were as enthusiastic about their young Queen as non-Catholics. In the lead-up to the Coronation, efforts were made in the Catholic press to connect the Monarch to Catholic history and interests: One article in the Catholic Herald described her descent from a number of saints and martyrs such as Margaret Pole, a member of the Royal family beheaded by Henry VIII for her religious convictions. A prophecy was even mentioned that that, during the reign of Elizabeth II, the Catholic Faith would “return to England.” 

            In response to The Queen’s request that her subjects pray for her on her coronation day, members of Catholic organizations, such as the Catholic Women’s League of Canada, presented “Spiritual Bouquets” consisting of Masses, prayers and other spiritual exercises prayed for the Monarch’s by the organizations 80,909 members. Britain’s Catholic Herald led a similar campaign. Ukrainian Catholics in Britain and the Commonwealth also presented tributes and published informative articles in their press.

            Manifestations of patriotic enthusiasm were not limited to the lay faithful. In March 1953, the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales determined that a Mass for the Queen was to be celebrated at 8:00 PM on the evening of Sunday, 1 June. It was the first time that the hierarchy had made use of recent permission to celebrate afternoon and evening Masses. Cardinal Griffin also ordered a three-day prayer vigil in his own Westminster Diocese. This triduum consisted of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament on the evening of Sunday, 30 May, followed by the prayer for the Sovereign, Domine salvam fac Reginam. On Monday, 1 June, Mass of the transferred Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury was to be offered for God’s blessing upon Here Majesty and her realms. And priests were to encourage the faithful to receive Holy Communion at this Mass. In addition, on the Sunday following the Coronation, the Te Deum was to be sung after the principal Mass. As at the previous coronation, the papal legate attended the solemn Mass on 1 June but sat in the nave, as if to indicate his role as diplomatic representative.

            Unlike the previous coronation, the bishops had not asked Rome’s view about liturgical prayers and simply made use of the precedents set in 1937. In April, the Papal Secretariat of State prepared a summary of the issue for the Pope. It mentioned that the Holy Office’s 1937 ruling had not been communicated to the British episcopate. Pius XI’s dispensation appears, however, to have been overlooked. Vatican officials noted that a greater degree of tolerance had been conceded to Great Britain, in the past, and that it might not be prudent or opportune to force the bishops to return to a stricter observance. At the audience 4 April 1953, Pius XII agreed Monsignor Tardini’s recommendation to tolerate the Mass (although the latter had scoffed at the spiritual bouquets as being “a bit too much”). In the end, a solemn Mass was even permitted in Rome at the Basilica of the Holy 12 Apostles, to which the Secretariat of State sent Monsignor Romolo Carboni as a representative. 

            The Apostolic Delegate in Ottawa reported that the bishops and other superiors took part in civil ceremonies and celebrated religious functions. The Canadian Catholic hierarchy ordered that a special ceremony be held in all cathedrals and parish churches, asking for Heaven’s blessing and assistance upon the new Sovereign and her subjects. In addition, sermons were preached reminding the faithful of the Christian teaching on the authority of rulers, and the dependence upon the grace of God of those who governed. 


Coronation Celebrations


            An account of the papal legation’s participation was written by one of the British equerries provided to Archbishop Cento, Robert Grant-Ferris. He noted that the box where the papal party sat was “not ideally situated to see the people going into the Abbey” as “the awning over the entrance prevented us from having a view of them as they descended.” After the service had begun, the part left their box and wandered around the back of the Abbey, where the witnessed the arrival of the heir to the throne (the current King Charles III):

            “A large car drew up and out stepped Prince Charles with his nurse, he returned the salute of the soldiers and walked gravely into the Abbey to join his relatives in the Royal Box. This was very fortunate and pleased the envoy very much.”

            Afterwards, the legation was taken to nearby Ashburham House for a fourchette luncheon: “The Envoy was shown great honour and placed at the leading table on Lord Salisbury’s right hand, and he had with him the young couple he had recently married, Prince John and Princess Charlotte of Luxemburg as well as the Crown Prince of Japan on his right, and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and several others.”

Archbishop Cento was also invited to lunch by the Duke of Norfolk, on 31 May. A luncheon in his honour was hosted by the Apostolic Delegation on 1 June, attended by civil and religious dignitaries. HM Government was represented by future Foreign Secretary (and later Chancellor, and Speaker of the House of Commons) John Selwyn Lloyd, then Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

            The papal legate was invited to the Coronation Banquet at Buckingham Palace, on 4 June, at which he escorted Mary, Duchess of Devonshire in the Royal Procession to the Banqueting Room. They were seated at Table A with The Queen and The Queen Mother. Cento nevertheless declined the invitation to a garden party hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace, the following day. After the celebrations had concluded, Archbishop Centro travelled to Rome to submit an account of his mission, emphasizing the gracious reception accorded the papal representative by the Court, the Government, and the solicitude of the Apostolic Delegation in Wimbledon. 


Defensor/atrix Fidei


            Four days after the Coronation, the British Legation informed the Holy See that, on 28 May 1953, The Queen had issued a proclamation establishing the form of her styles and titles. These included the title “Defender of the Faith,” which had been granted to King Henry VIII by Pope Leo X for the former’s defence of Catholic teachings, including papal supremacy. Subsequently, however, the title had come to signify adherence to Protestant doctrines and the Established Church of England. Pius XII, in an audience granted on 1 June to Monsignor Montini (the future Pope Paul VI), ruled that “It is a title that We cannot use.” At the bottom of the audience record, a functionary of the papal Secretariat of State noted that “We have always used the titles “His/Her Britannic Majesty the King or the Queen without ever adding anything else. And I believe that all the other Foreign Ministers do the same.”  Privately, the Holy See expressed displeasure that the Catholic Prime Minister of Canada had endorsed his Parliament’s vote to retain the title. Louis Saint Laurent reasoned, in rather deist language, that there could be no objection to having the head of the civil authority described as a defender of faith in a supreme ruler over all things. Although it has no established church, unlike Australia which abolished it, Canada continues officially to entitle its Head of State as Defensor Fidei.


From 1953 to 2023


            Much water has passed under the bridges of London and Rome in the seventy years since the last coronation. After a tense period of competition in the 1950s, ecumenical relations between Catholicism and Anglicanism were established, following the Second Vatican Council. Queen Elizabeth II visited the Popes in Rome and St. John Paul II made the first papal visit to Britain in 1982. Shortly thereafter, full diplomatic relations were established with the United Kingdom. (Canada had already done so in 1969). The British Legation to the Holy See was raised to the rank of an Embassy, and the Apostolic Delegation became a Nunciature. Benedict XVI made the first papal State visit to Britain in 2010. In 2019 the current King (then Prince of Wales) led the official British delegation to the Canonization of John Henry Newman. With the transfer of the apostolic nuncio to Rome to lead the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, earlier this year, the nunciature is currently vacant.

            Cardinal Vincent Nichols recently delivered a Loyal Address to The King on behalf the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. Even though the Church now ranks as one of the “Privileged Bodies” of the Realm, His Eminence was still not allowed to address the Sovereign as Archbishop of Westminster. Nevertheless, precedents set by Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII and their successors warrant that a high-ranking prelate be sent as papal envoy to King Charles III’s Coronation, with the rank of Nuncio or Extraordinary Ambassador. 

UPDATE: On 19 April, it was announced that the Pope has sent a fragment of the True Cross of Christ to HM The King, to be placed in a processional cross to be used at the Coronation. Four days prior to the Coronation, on 2 May 2023, it was announced informally that His Holiness's Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, would lead the Delegation of the Holy See to the Coronation. The announcement was formalised two days before the Coronation. This was the highest level of representation to date and the first, since 1553, to attend inside The Abbey. 

The Presidents of the English and Welsh as well as Scottish and Irish Catholic Bishops Conferences were also present and Cardinal Nichols, who was referred to by his residential title in the Order of Service, imparted a blessing.

Following the precedents set in 1953, the faithful were invited to join in a triduum of prayer culminating in a Mass for The King. Also, as in 1911, Westminster and several dioceses dispensed the faithful from Friday abstinence on the day before the Coronation. 

In another extraordinary ecumenical gesture, the copes and stole worn at the Coronation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of Durham and Bath and Wells, as well as those attending The Queen, were lent to The Abbey by the Sacristy of Westminster (Roman Catholic) Cathedral.