The Duke of Devonshire: Memories of a Coronation Page Boy (Aged 9 1/4)

The Duke of Devonshire: Memories of a Coronation Page Boy (Aged 9 1/4)

On the 2nd June, 1953, at the grand old age of 9 1/4, the 12th Duke Of Devonshire found himself in full pageboy raiment, nervously trailing his grandmother up the wide aisle of Westminster Abbey, preparing to hold her train as she attended to her duties as Mistress Of The Robes to the newly-crowned Monarch. Here, the Duke shares with Sotheby's, his own memories of that momentous day.
On the 2nd June, 1953, at the grand old age of 9 1/4, the 12th Duke Of Devonshire found himself in full pageboy raiment, nervously trailing his grandmother up the wide aisle of Westminster Abbey, preparing to hold her train as she attended to her duties as Mistress Of The Robes to the newly-crowned Monarch. Here, the Duke shares with Sotheby's, his own memories of that momentous day.

T he soon to be crowned Queen had appointed my paternal grandmother, Mary Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire to be her Mistress of the Robes, the historic title that is given to the senior lady in the Royal Household. My Grandmother, or Jam as we called her, had an important role in the Coronation and required a page to look after her train.

The planning for the Coronation started months before the June 1953 ceremony and this included the choosing of pages for the main participants at the great ceremony. The lower age limit was 12 years old but thanks to my grandmother’s natural optimism and loyalty she persuaded her employer to allow me to take on this role. At the Coronation I was just over 9 years old.

The 12th Duke of Devonshire in his frock coat, breeches and stockings

Diane Naylor

I had already been sent to boarding school, which I hated, so it was a double bonus to find that there were many rehearsals at Westminster Abbey and that I had to be present for most of them, this getting me out of school for a whole day.

'I was terrified my school friends would find out about my black pumps with red heels and silver buckles and a sword on its belt'

My uniform, it’s still at Chatsworth, consisted of a pale yellow frock coat with blue cuffs, lace jabot at my throat, cream breeches, white silk stockings [held up by a suspender belt (garter) which I was terrified my school friends would find out about] black pumps with red heels and silver buckles and a sword on its belt.

The 12th Duke of Devonshire’s silk Coronation outfit

Eventually the great day arrived. My parents had agreed with my grandmother that I should travel with my parents from their house in Mayfair to Westminster Abbey and join her there. They had also decided to travel the mile and a half in the historic family coach, pulled by two enormous grey horses and driven by the coachman from the brewery local to Chatsworth.

At about 6 am, my parents and I crammed into this swaying conveyance and set off through the streets of London. As soon as we reached a part of what would be the Coronation route there were huge crowds who had been camping out for days to secure the best vantage points. They greeted us with considerable banter and some cheers… we were, after all, a sign of better things to follow.

The Chatsworth State Coach in which the family travelled to the Coronation

Unfortunately the brewery coachman did not have a very good idea of the direction we needed to follow and soon we were lost behind Victoria station. There is only one way for a passenger to talk to his coachman and that is for the passenger, in scarlet robes trimmed with ermine, to lean out of the window and shout to the coachman up above. Which my father did, several times, very loudly, and to the huge amusement of the gathering crowds.

Eventually we arrived at the Abbey, not late but definitely not calm. My father was nearest the kerb so he was first out…to the noise of ripping silk. My sword had become entangled in the lining of his robes and a four foot tear was the disappointing result. Luckily I don’t remember what he said but the drama was swiftly ended as this sort of accident had been anticipated by the organisers and someone with a needle and thread appeared immediately and the running repairs were swiftly made.

'The aisle seemed so narrow and the red-faced old gentlemen each side seemed almost menacingly close to me'

My next memory is of walking along the seemingly everlasting aisle gripping my grandmother’s train as I had been trained… not too tight, nor too loose, keeping pace with her back as she kept pace with Princess Elizabeth's six maids of honour, who carried the royal train. The aisle seemed so narrow and the red faced old gentlemen each side seemed almost menacingly close to me. I suppose they were mostly in their fifties.

The Coronation with the Dowager Duchess in the background ceremonially raising her coronet aloft in homage to the new monarch

My other vivid memory is of the one difficult thing that I had to do. At a certain stage of the ceremony my grandmother had to walk about 10 paces forwards to the about-to-be-crowned monarch and perform some important service for her. I followed, with the train carefully lifted just off the carpet.

The 12th Duke of Devonshire, walking directly behind his grandmother

Her service completed, my grandmother returned to her place; of course she could not turn her back so I had to reverse too. I had to make absolutely certain that my grandmother did not step on her train. It was essential for me to keep an even, gentle pressure on the train with my right hand, while my left hand was under the billowing fabric to keep that lining firmly in place. And I had to get us all back to the exact spot whence we had started. I am proud to say that it all went off well and there was no toppling of the Mistress of the Robes. And that’s all I can properly remember.

The Coronation with the 12th Duke peeking out behind the Queen’s throne and the Dowager Duchess to the left of him at the back

The Jubilee Season

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