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What The Coronation Means

10 min read

Andrew Gimson takes us on a tour of coronations past and reveals how, far from being an affront to democracy, the ceremony will act as an affirmation of it

One or two of us may feel, during the coronation, that we are taking all this a bit more seriously than it deserves to be taken. We may find ourselves becoming unduly interested in arcane questions to do with the hereditary peerage or the Crown jewels. We may discover, to our surprise, that we are deeply moved by the service in Westminster Abbey, and want it to go well. And we may wonder how to respond to intellectuals who tell us the whole thing is irrational and undemocratic.

For amid the splendour, or flummery as those intellectuals would call it, the practical purpose of the monarchy can easily be overlooked. The King is not an affront to democracy, but its guarantor. The armed forces, judges, Members of Parliament, candidates for British citizenship and many others swear allegiance to King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. The monarch occupies the space a dictator would need to occupy.

At the Accession Council on Saturday 10 September 2022, two days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the King declared that he will “strive to follow the inspiring example I have been set in upholding constitutional government”, will be “upheld by the affection and loyalty of the peoples whose Sovereign I have been called upon to be”, and “will be guided by the counsel of their elected parliaments”.

The King has no say in who is going to be prime minister. That power rests with the Commons, which is itself highly sensitive, even when no general election is imminent, to public opinion. Great care has been taken in recent years to restrict whatever residual right, or obligation, the Sovereign once possessed to choose between rival candidates for the prime ministership. The political parties may get this wrong, but if they do, it is their mistake. The monarch is above politics, and when, as often happens, the government becomes unpopular, we blame the prime minister, and get rid of him or her.

In 1875, Frederic Harrison, a gifted historian of radical sympathies, could already write: “England is now an aristocratic Republic, with a democratic machinery and a hereditary grandmaster of the ceremonies.” Walter Bagehot had 10 years earlier called England a “disguised republic”. Parliament has long been in the ascendant. In 1689, it entrenched the principle that the Crown could not tax without Parliament’s consent or interfere in parliamentary elections, as part of its price for supporting the Protestant William III and his wife, Mary II, who drove out her father, the Catholic James II. Twelve years later, when neither Mary nor her sister, Queen Anne, had produced a surviving Protestant heir, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, which excluded all Catholic claimants to the throne, the presumption being that only a Protestant king could be trusted to defend his subjects’ ancient liberties. So when Anne died in 1714, the throne passed to George I, of the House of Hanover, who did not speak English very well.

Commentators who claim we are “in thrall” to kings and queens are wrong. Only 87 years ago our politicians, marshalled by the then prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, forced the abdication of Edward VIII, whose insistence on marrying Mrs Simpson, an American with two former husbands still living, was regarded as unacceptable. It is true that we did not then take the chance to get rid of the monarchy altogether. When James Maxton, a fiery Clydesider, proposed in the Commons, as an amendment to the Abdication Bill, that Britain become a republic, the motion was defeated by 403 votes to 5. What the country wanted was a conscientious monarch, which George VI duly became. At his Accession Council on 12 December 1936 he declared his “adherence to the strict principles of constitutional government”.

Coronation coach

 But how dull a purely conscientious monarchy would be. As Bagehot remarked in the Economist in the mid-19th century, “The more democratic we get, the more we shall get to like state and show, which have ever pleased the vulgar.” Part of the point of the monarchy is to put on a splendid show. Eric Hobsbawm, a communist rather than a monarchist, well understood this. In his essay on the mass production of traditions in Europe from 1870 to 1914 he wrote: “Glory and greatness, wealth and power, could be symbolically shared by the poor through royalty and its rituals.” By magnifying the monarch, we magnify ourselves.

George IV, King from 1820-30 and before that Prince Regent, received, even in his lifetime, a very bad press, but revelled in the opportunity to put on a good show. In July 1821 he was crowned in an immensely extravagant ceremony organised by himself with the help of the novelist Sir Walter Scott, the intention being to show that the British monarchy was more magnificent than Napoleon had ever been. The King’s estranged wife, Queen Caroline, whom the public loved, attempted to gain entrance to Westminster Abbey, but was turned away on the typically English pretext that she had no ticket.

William IV, who succeeded his older brother in 1830, was a bluff, kind-hearted, well-meaning but somewhat uncouth naval officer, who detested any kind of formality and described his own coronation as “a useless and ill-timed expense”. It took place in September 1831, when the nation was convulsed by the struggle over the Reform Bill: the following month, when the Lords rejected the Bill, riots broke out, the most serious of which were in Bristol, where 400 people died. William with great reluctance agreed to create new peers, or at least to threaten to create new peers, unless the Lords passed the Reform Bill, which in June 1832 duly became law.

William’s coronation, for which he wore his admiral’s uniform, cost one-eighth of the extravaganza of 1821: a tactful economy, given the revolutionary spirit of the times, but the Tory opposition complained it made Britain a “half-crown nation”. A number of ancient traditions were abandoned, including the coronation banquet in Westminster Hall, at which the King’s Champion would arrive on horseback and throw down the gauntlet, challenging to single combat anyone who disputed the King’s right to the throne. There is no record of the King’s Champion ever having to fight someone.

Queen Victoria’s coronation, in 1838, cost four times what William’s had, but was notorious for the large number of mistakes which were made, many by senior members of the clergy who lost their place in the service and told the 19-year-old Queen, who enchanted all beholders, that the ceremony was over when in fact it was not. She retired to St Edward’s Chapel, where she was shocked to find that “what was called an Altar was covered with sandwiches, bottles of wine, etc, etc,” these provided to keep the clergy and others going.

Commentators who claim we are ‘in thrall’ to kings and queens are wrong

The Archbishop of Canterbury jammed Victoria’s coronation ring onto the wrong finger, causing her acute pain. Lord Rolle, nearly 90, caught his foot in his robes as he was ascending the steps to the throne to pay homage, and rolled to the bottom. He struggled to his feet, and gallantly prepared to make a second ascent, but the young Queen took pity on him and came down to meet him. All this provoked wild cheering from the 10,000-strong congregation, with everyone delighted it should have been Lord Rolle who took the tumble, and foreigners assured this was one of the hereditary duties of his family.

From this one sees how mistakes can in a curious way work out for the best, if people want them to work out for the best. Nevertheless, by the time Edward VII ascended the throne in 1901, it was understood that such slipshod behaviour would no longer do. The King and his subjects were determined that British ceremonial should no longer be outshone by his upstart nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The coronation in the summer of 1902 had at short notice to be postponed for a month so he could undergo an operation, carried out in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace, to drain an abdominal cyst, and when the ceremony took place, the aged Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, who had refused to delegate any of his functions, made a number of mistakes, including putting the crown on back to front.

It was nevertheless during the reign of Edward VII that state ceremonial was raised to a high pitch of perfection, much of it devised and overseen by Lord Esher, with the Anglican clergy at last getting their act together and composers such as Elgar and Parry providing wonderful music. A paradox of democracy is that it requires higher standards from the ancien régime. Lord Northcliffe, a pioneer of popular journalism, noted that by 1908, the press was devoting five times as much space to royalty as it had at the start of the reign.

Queen ElizabethThe coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was the first great spectacle of the television age, rehearsed in minute detail for the benefit of the cameras, and through them for an enormous audience who could follow what was going on thanks to Richard Dimbleby’s commentary. The present King attended, but being only four years old, was given no role in the ceremony, which he watched from the royal box with his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. According to his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby (son of Richard), “Aside from a vague memory of glorious music and coronets doffed in unison, his only indelible recollection is that beforehand the palace barber cut his hair too short and plastered it down with ‘the most appalling gunge’.”

Clement Attlee, who as prime minister had conducted the great reforming Labour government of 1945-51, pointed out in an article published in 1959 [in the Observer, 23 August 1959, reprinted in Attlee’s Great Contemporaries edited by Frank Field] that “the greatest progress towards the democratic socialism in which I believe has been made not in republics but in limited monarchies. Norway, Sweden and Denmark are probably the three countries where there is the highest degree of equality of well-being.”

Attlee observed that the Labour Party has never been republican, and suggested this was because the workers were the main influence in the Labour movement and “had not that feeling of inferiority which was often found in the 19th-century bourgeois”, some of whom were in the 1870s attracted by republicanism. A similar feeling of inferiority is today felt by some bourgeois intellectuals. But a much larger proportion of the public, sceptical, to put it mildly, about politicians, rejoices that above politics is found a head of state who is not, say, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, or even a figure as considerable as Sir Tony Blair.

The King did not gain his position by competing against a gang of scrabbling careerists. He was born to it. The coronation dramatises this difference. It is at once a serious occasion, the anointing of a new monarch, and a light-hearted one, a celebration of our particular way of doing things.

Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Kings & Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs since 1066.

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