Breaking Down Pomp and Circumstance II: The Coronation

The coronation of King Charles III approacheth. The event is being hailed as a once-in-a-lifetime event given that it’s been seventy years since the last one, but we should remember that as the longest-reigning British monarch Elizabeth II’s reign is the exception rather than the rule. Her coronation in 1953 was in fact the fifth coronation in fifty years. Given Charles’ advanced age, it’s practically a guarantee that another coronation isn’t too far around the corner.

As ever, the event will be a parade of royal pomp and circumstance as Britain is put on display. The military has been practising in the night to show off their best processions, the state carriages have been polished and buffed to a shine, and the Public Order Act 2023 has been rushed through parliament, restricting disruption from protestors, to “demonstrate Britain’s democracy”. More than two thousand guests will be admitted into Westminster Abbey to witness the ceremony up close, 1.2 million people are expected to line the processional route, and a further 350 million are expected to watch the event on television globally.

The armed forces rehearsing at midnight for the upcoming procession

Many experts have likened the coronation ceremony to a wedding. The sovereign gets to wear fancy robes and is bestowed with a symbolic ring known as the Wedding Ring of England. In religious terms both are sacraments, and the event is rounded off by the monarch making vows to the state rather than a spouse. There are a host of traditions when it comes to weddings, and the coronation is no different. Here’s a brief history of some of the things going on when a monarch is crowned.

Something Old: The Coronation

The coronation is an ancient ceremony and the British monarchy is the only one in Europe that still practices it. Not only do they still practice it as a rule, but the ceremony itself still follows the coronation form of a thousand years ago. Where other royal families have set aside the coronation in favour of smaller, simpler ceremonies, the British ceremony has been expanded and is now larger than ever. The coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla might be less in terms of invited guests (almost five and a half thousand people less than attended that of his mother), it has a far greater reach and has been extended to encompass an entire bank holiday weekend rather than a single day.

With few exceptions, the coronation has been held at Westminster Abbey since 1066 and various parts of it have been added across the centuries. William the Conqueror added the anointing with oil at the second coronation seen in 1066, modelled on French customs. Joint coronations for married sovereigns were introduced in 1154 for Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Processions through the London streets were added for the benefit of child king Richard II in 1377. The ceremony faced the most change during the Restoration of 1660. Most of the coronation regalia had been lost after the execution of Charles I and many of the Crown Jewels were refashioned into the forms used today.

Much of what is used during the ceremony is either refurbished, recycled, or reused from earlier times. The chairs that the new king and queen will sit upon in the early and closing stages of the coronation were made for previous monarchs dating back to the king’s grandparents for their coronation in 1937. The new queen will wear Queen Mary’s crown minus the koh-i-noo diamond so as not to draw attention to the diplomatic dispute over who owns it. The sacred chrism oil used to anoint the couple is made from a centuries-old recipe, but has been altered so as to omit any animal products in a nod to modern sensibilities. The olives the oil has been pressed from have been gathered from the grave of Princess Alice, the new king’s grandmother, further emphasising tradition and family.

The oldest piece of coronation history that has survived and will be used with no modern alterations is [drum roll] a small spoon.

12th century gold, 17th century pearls, still used in the 21st century

The coronation spoon, as it is now known, didn’t begin life with as much significance as the rest of the coronation regalia. It is in fact, a spoon. It was probably used to mix water and wine and that’s about as much as we can imagine for such a mundane item. But the fact that it has survived so long, not to mention that it is the only surviving example of royal goldsmithing in England from the twelfth century, has given it incredible meaning. Since the coronation of James I in 1603, the spoon has been used during the anointing of the monarch and will be used so again.

Something New: The Cross of Wales

As is traditional in Christian celebrations, the coronation procession will be led by a processional cross. In this instance, a new cross has been created for the event and dubbed The Cross of Wales. Designed in London, the cross has been created by a Welsh silversmith from Welsh materials, engraved with Welsh words spoken by the Patron Saint of Wales, and blessed by the Archbishop of Wales. After the coronation, it will be gifted to the Church in Wales by the new King which seems like a rather backward arrangement but here we are.

The Cross of Wales and removable staff with the Archbishop of Wales.

The cross includes two wooden shards taken from the true cross, that is the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, which were presented to the King by the Pope as a coronation gift. The inclusion emphasises the spiritual and religious element of the coronation as well as demonstrates how this is a more diverse monarchy than has come previously. Although the King is head of the Anglican Church of England, the symbols of the true cross are a gesture to the Catholic church and representatives of the other major world religions will be invited to present the king with various regalia during the ceremony. Incidentally, the presentation of the cross to the Church in Wales is further curious given that the Anglican church rejects the authenticity and sanctity of relics.

Something Borrowed Stolen Borrowed: The Stone of Scone

Also known as the Stone of Destiny, the 340 lb block of red sandstone has been used as a seat in the coronation of Scotland’s monarchs since ancient times. Its origins are the subject of myth and legend ranging from its transportation from Ireland where it had been used to crown the High Kings of Ireland, to its placement in Biblical times. Allegedly, when a true king sat upon it, it roared in recognition. Such a thing hasn’t happened since it came into English possession so make of that what you will.

Regardless of its origins, it had been present at the coronation of Scotland’s kings until the end of the thirteenth century when Edward I of England invaded Scotland and took the stone as part of his victory. In 1297, the year after Edward’s Scottish campaigns, he commissioned a chair to be made with a space beneath it to accommodate the stone. The chair was completed in 1300 and was first used in a coronation of an English king almost a hundred years later for the coronation of Edward’s great great grandson Henry IV. From that point on, it was used often enough to be known as the Coronation Chair and will be used again for King Charles.

The Coronation Chair pictured with the Stone of Scone present

In 1950, a group of four students from Glasgow infiltrated Westminster Abbey and recovered the stone from the chair in the middle of the night. The stone was broken in half during their escape and the two pieces were hidden until they could be taken to Scotland with minimal attention. Two weeks later, on Hogmanay, the stone was taken to Glasgow and a stonemason hired to repair it. The mason did so by fitting a brass rod containing a piece of paper inside it but what is written on the paper remains a mystery.

A year later, the police were tipped off as to the stone’s location; Arbroath Abbey where Scotland’s independence had been asserted in 1320. The students and the Scottish Covenant Association who had been involved in the stone’s “theft” had taken it to Arbroath after deciding that they had received the needed publicity for a Scottish parliament and home rule.

The stone was taken to Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and forty years later in 1996, it was agreed that the stone could remain in Scotland. It was taken to Edinburgh Castle to be displayed with the rest of the Scottish crown jewels providing it was returned to Westminster for the coronation of future monarchs.

“The home secretary made a statement to the House of Commons: ‘It was known who had done it but it would not be in the public interest to prosecute the vulgar vandals’.

That’s been a phrase that I have always enjoyed all my life.

To do something for your country that spills not a drop of blood is, I think, something to be proud of.”

Ian Hamilton – One of the students involved in the heist.

Something Blue: Commemoration

If there’s one thing the British do better than pageantry; it’s souvenirs. The coronation has prompted an absolute deluge of commemorative objects and items.

The King and Queen Consort pictured in Buckingham Palace’s Blue Room. One of three photographs released ahead of the coronation.

Every shop in the country has a host of coronation memorabilia but there are also a number of larger commemorations that have been created for the event. Legoland has unveiled a miniature of the entire coronation complete with Buckingham Palace’s balcony and the follow-up concert at Windsor Castle. A life-size bust made of chocolate and created from almost three thousand Celebrations chocolates has been put on display at Mars-Wrigley’s headquarters, and of course, there are the usual commemorative stamps, coins, and china.

Seventy years ago, babies born on the day of the queen’s coronation received a small silver cup as a gift, and the tradition continues, with babies born on coronation day able to receive a coronation mug. The previous coronation also brought us coronation chicken; a dish created by Cordon Bleu’s culinary school in London that has become a firm favourite sandwich filler. More recently there was the Platinum Pudding, a lemon and amaretti trifle created for the queen’s platinum jubilee. For the coronation, the palace announced the creation of the…[checks notes] Coronation Quiche…?

This unusual addition to the royal celebratory menu was devised by Buckingham Palace’s chef Mark Flanagan as a dish that can be served hot or cold and is perfect to bring to a picnic, lunch, or street party. It was signed off by the new king and queen even though the king famously doesn’t eat lunch. Critics have taken issue with the idea of a French dish given such a prominent place at a British event, while the average person seems to be more concerned with its primary ingredients of broad beans and spinach. Apparently, it’s best served with boiled potatoes which is possibly one of the only nods to the cost of living crisis afflicting a nation about to front an event costing £150 million in security alone.

Something Else: The Oath of Allegiance

Traditionally, after the anointing, the investing, and the everything else -ing, the newly crowned monarch receives the ‘Homage of the Peers’. The sovereign sits on a throne for the first time and starting with the archbishop who crowned them, the clergy swear their fealty. They are followed by the peers of the realm led by the royal family. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, her husband was the first to swear homage promising to; “become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth will I bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.”

In a move to modernise the ceremony, the homage of the peers has been scrapped, so King Charles won’t receive the same promises that have been sworn to a monarch for almost a thousand years. Instead, the public will be invited to swear an oath of allegiance to the king. “I swear that I will pay true allegiance to your majesty, and to your heirs* and successors according to law. So help me God.” The archbishop will then proclaim “God Save the King” to which the public responds, “God save King Charles. Long live King Charles. May the King live forever.”

*Yes, that includes Prince Andrew

George V receiving the Homage of the Peers at his coronation in 1911

Lambeth Palace has stressed that the addition of the oath is not mandatory and that people can say as much or as little of it as they like. Or they could use it as a moment of private reflection. It has been changed to allow the king’s subjects to all proclaim their loyalty and is another attempt to demonstrate the progressiveness of Charles’ reign. Although, it should also be noted that the invitation has the archbishop ask for; “all persons of goodwill in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the other realms and the territories to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted King, defender of all.” Which is a little divisive for something meant to promote unity while casting anyone who doesn’t participate as acrimonious. A bold move at an event that has had to have ramped security to deal with the protestors lined along the Mall.

Fun fact: When William the Conqueror was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066, he posted several armed knights at the doors to Westminster Abbey in case any who protested his reign got a little too close. As William was proclaimed king, the gathered nobles let out a cheer of support, which the knights mistook as a shout of warning. Fearing that the king was under attack, the knights set fire to the abbey and the nearby buildings. (It was apparently the standard response in these instances). William was consecrated and anointed in a hurry, as the guests ran for their lives, or attempted to loot the burning buildings. With smoke filling the Abbey and chaos in the streets, those who gathered to glimpse the king decided against making merry. Instead, they rioted.

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