On Saturday 10th May 1997, eight members of the Somerset Abbey Group set off for the Whitelands Crowning. When we received the tickets, we had been somewhat disappointed to learn that it was a May King we were to see crowned, and not a May Queen, and moreover from the sound of his name (Kojo) that he seemed to be Japanese. In fact he was a (Black) African and looked stupendous in what was presumably some form of National Dress in red and gold.
Even so, we did still feel a little let down that it was not an English Queen, since that would have seemed more right from the point of view of the books. Before going in to the chapel, we had seen several Queens floating around and much admired some of their dresses, while being disappointed by others. While being traditional, the Whitlands May Monarch ceremony has moved with the times (as can be seen by its new name).
Elsie based her Queens on what she had seen at Whitelands in the early part of the century, and undoubtedly then there were, judging from the photographs, some really lovely dresses and trains. The Abbey Queens kept this loveliness, wearing dresses and trains which did not date (and indeed many of those crowned Queen in Australia have followed this tradition). The Whitelands Queens moved with the times, and it was a little disappointing to see so many dresses (albeit long) based on the fashions of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Each monarch now has four attendants, two male and two female and the two sets of attendants whom we saw (belonging to this year's and last year's Kings) wore similar coloured waistcoats and dresses. The earliest Queens at the Crowning were from the late 1930s, at around the time when Two Queens was set, which perhaps makes it more difficult to compare the Whitelands Queens to the Abbey Queens. And in fact, I don't think one really can or should. It is the idea that Elsie used, and, as with so much, she took it and made it her own. That does not, however, lesson the validity of going to a Whitelands Crowning from the point of view of the books.
The Whitelands ceremony is divided into two parts: the service in the chapel, and the presentations and speeches afterwards. I found the service very moving, and it was magnificent to see the procession of Queens (and Kings) no matter how fashionably disastrous some of their dresses might seem now. The procession was led by the 1996 May King and his attendants, and the last Queen laid the cross of the late Queen Myfanwy I (who had died during the past year) on the altar. The choir then sang God Be In My Head and then the clergy processed in, followed by the 1997 May King as we sang Crown Him With Many Crowns. The service was taken by the Bishop of St Albans, and the Diosasan Bishop of Kingston was also present as well as the Rector (Principal) of the College and at least one other officiating clergy. (There were quite a number of clergy in the congregation as well, some clearly Old Boys and some husbands of Old Girls.) Kojo's crowing, or investiture as it was called, came towards the end of the service after two more hymns, several prayers and the Bishop of St Albans' sermon.
After the final hymn (which we weren't sure that we knew until we heard the tune) the clergy and monarchs processed out of the church and round the Chapel Green. Unfortunately, the weather was not exactly wonderful, and so they didn't stop for photographs but continued round the chapel and into the main building. While outside, Hilary (who was wearing one of Ros' badges) was recognised by Dawn, an Abbey Girl from Melbourne, and by Christine Harris. Talking, they managed to miss the next part of the ceremony. This was the presentations and speeches in the Ruskin Lecture Theatre. The rest of us filed in and managed to get seats (a number of people had to stand). The outgoing and incoming kings were on thrones on the stage, together with their attendants. Speeches were made by the President of the Students Union on behalf of the 1996 king, and both kings. I had not appreciated that the Monarch spends his or her time raising money for a particular charity, and the 1996 King has raised around £8,000 for the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability. The new king was presented with some works of Ruskin and he then presented several former Queens, who had anniversaries (eg 60th year since they were crowned) with bouquets. The Rector finished by reading a few extracts from the archives (one concerning the lavish 25th wedding anniversary present given to a past Rector by the students, appropriate because on the 15th July this year it was his own 25th wedding anniversary .) and then the ceremony was over.
The May Fair was due to start in the afternoon, and in the meantime tummies were rumbling, so we trundled off for some food. Because of the weather we had not bought a picnic, and, apart from a café not yet open, all the restaurants on site were tickets only, but we managed to find somewhere in Elsenham Street (very appropriate we thought) nearby where we indulged ourselves before returning back, somewhat late due to slow service, for the Fair, having first checked the local secondhand bookshops and charity shops. This was a complete disappointment, consisting of some indifferent roundabouts and a bouncy castle for children, and some very unimpressive stalls (no books!). There was a stall selling Whitelands souvenirs, although sadly they have run out of post-cards and will not be printing any more. We bought the three books, Whitelands College The History, Whitelands College The Chapel and Whitelands College May Queen Festival, although sadly none of these has been updated since the mid 1980s.
Having been somewhat reluctant to go, I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and we hope to go again another year.