The approach of King Charles III’s coronation seems a good time to recall a former minor canon of Windsor who played a ceremonial role at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. Cyril Theodore Henry Dams was born on 17 June 1906 into a strongly Anglican family. His father, the Revd Henry Dams, was vicar of Knowsley in Lancashire and also a minor canon and precentor of Carlisle Cathedral. His uncle, the Revd William Bell Dams, was a minor canon of Westminster Abbey from 1908 to 1932 and was headmaster of the choir school there.
Cyril was educated at Westminster School and at University College, Oxford, where he was an organ scholar, taking a second class degree in Classical Moderations. After a short spell as “academical clerk” at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1928, he was ordained deacon in 1929 and then priest in 1930. On 20 October 1931 he married Elizabeth Leach (known as Betty) and the couple were to have two children, Christopher and Mary. At the age of twenty-five on 27 February 1932 he was elected a minor canon of Windsor and served St George’s Chapel for more than a decade until his resignation on 30 September 1942.
From 1942 to 1944 he was rector of Theale, Berkshire, a rural parish a few miles south of Reading. Then in 1945 he moved north to be priest vicar and succentor of Lincoln Cathedral. The office of succentor (which literally means “under-singer”) is one which may be unfamiliar today. Essentially it involves being an assistant to the precentor, helping with the preparation and conduct of the liturgy. In addition to his cathedral duties, Cyril was also rector of St Mary Magdalene, Bailgate, a fine church of medieval origin in the city of Lincoln.
For his next career move, Cyril Dams returned southwards in 1951 to be minor canon and precentor of Westminster Abbey, where he remained until 1963. At the Queen’s coronation in 1953 he was responsible for carrying the ampulla and coronation spoon in the Regalia or Litany Procession which takes place before the main ceremony. The gold ampulla, which is cast in the form of an eagle with outspread wings, is used to hold the oil with which the sovereign is anointed at the most sacred moment in the coronation ceremony. At the appropriate time the Dean of Westminster pours oil from the ampulla into the spoon for the Archbishop of Canterbury to perform the ceremony of anointing the sovereign. The silver gilt spoon dates from the late 12th century and is the oldest surviving piece in the Crown Jewels.
In 1963, after around twelve years at Westminster, Cyril became a parish priest once again, serving as vicar of St Peter’s, Cranley Gardens in Kensington for several years. Interestingly this fine Victorian church is now an Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, having been declared redundant by the Anglican Church in the 1970s.
Cyril Dams returned to Westminster Abbey in 1968 as a deputy minor canon, but this was to be his final appointment as he died, at Leicester, on 30 May 1973, aged sixty-six. Fittingly, his ashes were interred in the vault of the Islip Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Sadly, his grave is unmarked, which may partly explain why he is something of a forgotten figure. So, on 6 May 2023, we may spare a thought for a priest who gave four decades of faithful service to Windsor, Lincoln and Westminster and to three parishes.
Simon Harrison, Archives volunteer