Tag Archives: British History

A Coronation Primer

Time to put some of my day job perspectives out there: it’s not every day/year/decade/half-century that we get to see a British coronation! I’m kind of excited; I even dusted off some of my old grad school books about medieval monarchy and royal iconography last weekend. Over my career, I’ve taught about the interrelationships between spiritual and secular authorities pretty constantly in medieval and early modern courses, but I seldom have time to delve into all the expressions of these alliances and conflicts, and coronations are case studies in both symbolism and projection: in the distant past, the more recent past, and judging from all of the official imagery leading us to the coronation of King Charles III, even today.

Official Coronation “paper”: invitation by heraldic artist Andrew Jamieson, emblem by Sir Jony Ive KBE and his creative coalition LoveFrom, one of four thematic stamps produced from wood engravings produced by Andrew Davidson for Atelier Works.

I’ve always thought of King Charles III as a traditional man, primarily because of his preference for classical architecture, I think. The images above definitely reinforce this characterization for me, but they also reveal his interests in the natural world and diverse, hopefully harmonious communities. I love the tradition-embracing change aesthetic of these images, and I think the Coronation will have a similar tone. Coronations are absolutely traditional, but they are also flexible ceremonies which can embrace variant themes according to individual preferences: they evolved over time and reflect their historical contexts. Early medieval coronations seem to represent order, legitimacy, and the evolving sacred nature of kingship; later medieval coronations still embrace those themes but also a more independent divine authority of kings who were claiming unmediated mandates from God rather than through the Pope. This continues into the seventeenth century, but there were also increasing references to “the people” in both feudal fashion and a (slightly) more egalitarian manner. There were lots of changes in the 18th and 19th centuries: to accomodate and highlight the constitutional role of the monarchy and British and Imperial sovereignty. After the long reign of Queen Victoria, it was time for a “refresh,” but tradition sill reigned: this seems very similar to what we are experiencing now. Of course we enter the era of the intensifying power of both public opinion and public relations in the twentieth century, and the coronations of both Kings Edward VII in 1902 and George V in 1911 really reflect these developments. We get these great souvenir books (as well as a flood of material souvenirs) in the twentieth century too: one of my favorites, published by the Illustrated London News for the coronation of Edward III, features wonderful (though quite imaginary) images of previous coronations with Edwards past presented in color and gilt.

Images from The Coronation of King Edward VII, 1902, published by the Illustrated London News (cover against some great Queen Victoria wallpaper from the Victoria & Albert Museum.)

King Edward I, the Confessor’s role in coronation history derives principally from his commissioning of the Coronation Chair on which King Charles will be crowned, as well as the Crown itself, but I’m not sure that all of the other Edwardian coronations are singular, with the exception of that of King Edward II, in which he swore “to observe the future laws made by the community of the realm.” Those last three words constitute a very powerful phrase, and precedent. Most British historians assert that the first ceremonial coronation, or perhaps that which was recorded in detail, was that of Edgar “the Peaceful” at Bath Abbey in 973. This was orchestrated by the great Saint Dunstan and featured both an early version of the contractual oath and a coronation banquet (feasting is always associated with coronations). William the Conqueror was the first monarch to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, Tudor coronations featured a notable expansion of pomp and symbolism (particularly Arthurian symbolism) reflecting concerns of legitimacy after the Wars of the Roses and the new sovereignty over the English Church established by King Henry VIII, and Stuart coronations were more elaborate (and longer) still, particularly those after the Civil War. King Charles II’s coronation featured a mile-and-a-half-long procession and reconstituted regalia, as Oliver Cromwell had destroyed what he saw as profane objects. In the 18th century, King George I’s coronation oath replaced “Kingdom of England” with “Kingdom of Great Britain” after the Union with Scotland, and King George IV’s oath replaced “Great Britain” with “United Kingdom” in 1821. At the end of that decade King William IV seems to have desired to dispense with all the pomp and circumstance, bud did ride to Westminster Abbey in the 1762 Gold State Coach, establishing a “tradition” which continued thereafter. Queen Victoria “restored” everything in her coronation in 1838, which lasted for five hours and featured lots of mistakes, mandating rehearsals for the future.

Edgar the Peaceful among the Saints, c. 1050; Thomas More’s poem upon the occasion of the Coronation of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, 1509; Depictions of Queen Victoria’s Coronation looking back, 1897, Illustrated London News, all British Library.

There is room for variation and innovation in the order and elements of the Coronation ceremony as well as its overall presentation: to me, it seems to have evolved from a Christian and feudal ceremony to a secular and constitutional one, but there’s still quite a bit of religious overtone to it obviously, and more majesty than anything else. King Charles will maintain the four essential elements of every twentieth-century coronation: 1) the Recognition, derived from the recognition of the monarch observed by the Witenagemot, the Anglo-Saxon predecessor of Parliament; 2) the Oath, representing the contract between the monarch and the people; 3) the Annoiting (or Unction), representing the monarch’s consecration by the Church of England; and 4) the Homage: a feudal survival in which the “Lords Spiritual and Temporal” pledge fealty to the monarch. The King is crowned between the Annoiting (with the Restoration-reconstituted St. Edward’s Crown) and the Homage, and this is supposed to happen around noon, British time of course. But in addition to all this “tradition,” there will be some key changes, some very detailed, others rather momentous. King Charles and Queen Camilla will ride to the Abbey in Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Coach, rather than the golden Georgian coach. A new “Greeting of the King,” which will precede the Recognition, in which two chorus boys will welcome the King (and the Queen) to the Abbey. The Annoiting of a monarch is a sacred ritual, not be broadcast in any way, so iconographer Aidan Hart and the Royal School of Needlework have produced a privacy screen featuring a tree design representing the 56 Commonwealth countries, but there is a new annointing oil recipe! The Homage will be much shorter than in coronations past, as the 1999 House of Lords Act curtailed the peerage (but not short enough for most Britons, I think). But most important of all, the Coronation service will feature prominent roles for Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jewish leaders, as well as prayers and readings in other British languages (Welsh and Scottish and Irish Gaelic), and a woman will present the Swords of State and Offering for the very first time.

From Old England:  A Pictorial Museum of Regal, Ecclesiastical, Municipal, Baronial, and Popular Antiquities, ed. by C. Knight (1860).


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