by Elina Hamilton
After a long day of classes, preparing lectures, and grading assignments, I snuggled into my sofa with a glass of red wine in one hand and turned to the newest Netflix series, The Crown. Indulging in the beautiful costumes and exquisite acting by Claire Foy, whose impeccable Queen’s diction brings a smile to my face with every word, would be a nice change of pace. And who doesn’t like watching the charming Matt Smith as Prince Philip?
Post episode, I wandered onto Facebook to find out what the rest of the world had been up to. One Suggested Post caught my attention: Brie Dyas’ collection of 101 photographs in her “What the British Royal Family Looked Like the Year You were Born” from Town and Country Magazine. The enticing title promised a photographic rendezvous of the fashionable family over the course of a century. Yes please! I sat there scrolling through the photographs, admiring the beautiful dresses, uniforms, and hats, happy to spot some familiar, and some not so familiar, photographs in the mix.
At photograph #34, I paused, puzzled at what I saw. In the black and white image, a youthful Prince Philip leads a procession in regalia, the train of his robe being held above ground by an even younger assistant. Following closely behind him is Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, in full academic regalia. Several other members in the procession resemble the unmistakable scene of academic festivities. They process in front of a sandstone building with distinct arched doorways and a beautiful lamppost. The caption provided in Town and Country read: “Prince Philip, who was appointed Chancellor of the University of Wales, presents an honorary diploma in musicology to his wife, Princess Elizabeth.” – a more or less direct translation from the French description (un diplome de musicologie) provided on Getty Images.
The sandstone building in the photograph is unmistakably the entrance of the Main Arts building of my alma mater, Bangor University, part of the University of Wales until 2010. In six years of living and working within this institution I had never heard of this event nor of the Queen’s honorary diploma in musicology. Doubly puzzled, I quickly posted the image onto Facebook wondering if I had missed something that was common knowledge to the Welsh.
Astonishingly, my colleagues at the School of Music at Bangor University confirmed in succession that they too had never encountered any reference to this event in all the years that worked at the university. They too, could not believe that such an event would have gone unnoticed by the School of Music for all of this time. In disbelief we scrambled to assemble as much information as possible.
On April 28, 1949, Princess Elizabeth was conferred an honorary Doctorate in Music by Prince Philip, the newly celebrated Chancellor of the university. On this, their first day of a Royal Tour to North Wales, a ceremony was held to place Prince Phillip as the first Chancellor of the University of Wales, which also had branches in Cardiff and Aberystwyth. Described as an “interesting” event by a news broadcast segment of the event, the ceremony was accompanied by the college choir, who in the reel are singing an arrangement of Llwyn Onn (The Ash Grove), conducted by Professor D.E. Parry-Williams, head of music at the then University College of North Wales, Bangor.
According to The Conwy and North Wales Weekly News reporting on the event a few days later, there was also a string quartet present who entertained the assembly that day. Prince Philip confessed that it was odd indeed that he, who had never studied for any degree, would be the one initiating the degree to his wife that day, evidently troubled by his own lack of education to carry out such a task. Others perhaps felt the same, given the tone of the reports which circulated after this event.
In 1946, Princess Elizabeth had already received an honorary Bachelor of Music from the University of London and it seems her keenness for music has generally been overlooked. Classic FM’s set of photographs in honor of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday provides a glimpse into her enthusiasm for music. Among the set of images, mostly of the Queen visiting musical events, there is one image where she confers a doctorate of music from the Royal College of Music, to her mother in 1973.
Pryfysgol Bangor University, as the institution is known today, is a fully bilingual university, providing instruction in both Welsh and English. Reasons why the ceremony at Bangor remained forgotten for so long are complicated. According to Professor Chris Collins, the current head of the School of Music, music certificates had been issued from the institution since 1921, but it was only after the Second World War that full degrees in music were granted. The degree for a Doctor of Musicology seems to have never existed. The English language report that she has a Doctor of Music, however, stand. The year 1949 could have been the first year that any official degree in music would have been awarded, making this, the Queen’s honorary doctorate from the University of Wales, one of the earliest issued at Bangor. Answers to the subsequent silence in institutional memory are likely to be found in the complicated history of the university and region: during the 60s and 70s, growth pains within and without the university brought turmoil to the identity of this institution, who sought agreeable means to maintain its Welsh status while finding ways to be relevant as a modern university. Was forgetting this event an act of airbrushing away a moment of institutional embarrassment to Welsh pride?
Institutional histories are not merely collections of facts. They tell the story that those who write them most want to be heard. This is one picture that was not relevant to the story. Perhaps today, given the interest in all things related to the Corgie-loving, hat-wearing, internationally adored Queen, my Welsh colleagues will feel differently. It is for them to decide. As for me, I only made it to photograph #34. There are 67 more photos of research material. Better get another glass of wine!
*With thanks to the faculty at the School of Music, especially Chris Collins and Stephen Rees, who confirmed my findings, and to Twila Bakker who shared the process of investigation with me. And with thanks to Brie Dyas who originally compiled these images and has since provided corrections for the title of the Queen from Doctor in Musicology to a Doctor in Music in her column.
Dr. Elina G. Hamilton is a musicologist at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She received her doctorate in music from Bangor University in 2015 where she was the recipient of the 125th Anniversary Doctoral Fellowship. In 2012, she received The Draper Company Medal for Outstanding Postgraduate Work from the London-based Guild. Her main area of research is on intellectual institutions and their musical contributions in 14th-century England.