In Brief: The Coronation
In an occasional series, staff from Parliament’s libraries give the House choice nuggets from the archives. This week, Professor Grant Hill-Cawthorne, Librarian of the House of Commons and Managing Director of Research and Information, looks back at coronations past.
With aspects of our modern ceremony dating back more than 1,000 years, coronations have happened so rarely in the UK over the past century that the customs and traditions are little known. Many intriguing facts about the provenance of the ritual are outlined in an excellent research briefing written by one of our House of Commons Library senior researchers, David Torrance.
It was in this briefing, for example, that I read about the ‘unction’, in which the Monarch is anointed with holy oil. A process dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries, the anointing signals the conferment of God’s grace upon a sovereign. The recipe used to create the oil that anointed Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 remains a secret, but it was specially created for the late Queen after most of the existing supply of holy oil was destroyed in a bomb blast in 1941. In May this year, King Charles III and Queen Camilla will be anointed with oil made to a new recipe, created in part using olives grown in the grounds of the monastery where the King’s grandmother is buried.
Alongside the religious and constitutional elements, the coronation ceremony also draws on traditions deeply rooted in the history of the United Kingdom. Take, for example, the large piece of sandstone which has become a highly symbolic part of the coronation ritual. Since the 13th century, all English and subsequently British monarchs have been crowned while sitting above the Stone of Scone, the heritage of which differs according to Scottish or English mythology. This much contested stone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, was initially part of the Scottish coronation ceremony. In 1249 King Alexander III of Scotland sat on it during his coronation. It was brought to Westminster by Edward I of England in 1296 and has been part of every English/British coronation since then.
Several unsuccessful attempts were made to secure the return of the stone to Scotland, but it remained in Westminster for centuries. On Christmas Day in 1950 four Scottish students stole the stone, although it was restored to Westminster Abbey two years later, shortly after the death of George VI and in time for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.
It was not until 1996 that Prime Minister John Major announced the Stone’s return to Scotland, 700 years after its removal. It is now housed at Edinburgh Castle. Under the terms of a Royal Warrant, it will be transported back to the Abbey for the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, and placed in a specially constructed Coronation Chair. This ancient chair is currently undergoing restoration work ahead of 6 May 2023.
Many more interesting facts, such as Samuel Pepys’ account of having to leave the extremely long coronation of Charles II due to needing the bathroom, can be explored in more detail in ‘The Coronation: history and ceremonial’. The research briefing can be easily accessed on the House of Commons Library website and contains a comprehensive overview of how the coronation ceremony has evolved over time.
For further reading on the topic of the monarchy, we also have research briefings on The Accession of King Charles III as well as on other elements of the Crown and Constitution, and many, many other subjects. Visit the House of Commons Library’s website to discover more impartial research and statistics on the coronation, the monarchy, or on any other topic that you want to learn more about.
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