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Remembering and forgetting

Coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2, 1953 (Credit: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)

Dr Francis Young

7 min read

Coronations are infrequent events, and that is why the ceremony is prone to dramatic evolution, writes Dr Francis Young

For those old enough to remember 1953, the coronation of King Charles III on 6 May 2023 will no doubt bring back memories of the historic coronation of Elizabeth II. For the post-war generation, the events of that day were the coronation – a pageant so popular and successful, and an explosion of colour so much needed in the bleakness of post-war Britain, that it came to define the very concept of a coronation.  

Similarly, the photographer Cecil Beaton’s images of the young Elizabeth II in her coronation regalia were so iconic that it soon became difficult to imagine anyone else wearing the Imperial State Crown. Yet at long last, after the late Queen’s Platinum reign, it has become necessary to return to the sources for that strange and ancient ceremony which inaugurates the reigns of Britain’s monarchs – and which, in spite of many changes, innovations and evolutions, has remained essentially the same ceremony since the ninth century.  

Because coronations can be infrequent events, there is a long tradition of forgetting exactly how a coronation should be performed. In 1603, after Elizabeth I’s reign of 45 years, there was much uncertainty about what should be done for the crowning of James VI of Scotland as King of England – not least because James’s coronation was the first to be performed under an unambiguously Protestant religious settlement.  

When Charles II was crowned in 1661, only 35 years had passed since his father’s coronation – but in the interval the very foundations of the monarchy had been challenged, and most of the regalia sold and melted down. Much was forgotten – such as the use of St Edward’s Staff, which at all subsequent coronations has remained on the altar of Westminster Abbey because no one knows what to do with it. Similarly, by the time of George IV’s coronation in 1821 the last coronation (in 1761) seemed impossibly long ago. Vast cultural and political changes sundered the post-Napoleonic era from the complacent ancien régime of the 1760s – the Romantic movement, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the American and French revolutions, and the anti-revolutionary sentiment that prevailed among Britain’s elites.  

While George III had been crowned as a guardian of British freedom against the background of a struggle with absolutist Bourbon France (his coronation invitations even bore the classical image of a cap of liberty), George IV’s coronation was a fantastical, self-consciously nostalgic neo-medieval pageant – so much so that the coronations of William IV and Victoria were Spartan by comparison. But by 1902, Edward VII was once again crowned in a different world from his long-lived mother; an Edwardian world of decadent, overblown aesthetics that was quite comfortable with the idea of elaborate ritual and ostentatious ceremonial. 

The process of forgetting that attends coronations – especially those performed after long reigns that saw great processes of change – is one of the main reasons the ceremony undergoes evolution. We have the detailed evidence of television and film for the last coronation, and so any differences we see in the coronation of Charles III will be the result of deliberate choice rather than failures of memory. But while 2023’s coronation will undoubtedly be simpler and briefer than the gargantuan ceremony of 1953 – when some older peers reputedly concealed bottles under their robes to relieve themselves – any coronation is a complex amalgam of ceremonies inherited, in some cases, from the very remote past. The coronation ceremony is older than England, let alone the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that King Charles now reigns over.  

The English coronation ordo – the oldest in the world – was probably used to crown the kings of Wessex from whom the later kings of England traced their descent. Indeed, rather than being something England has done for its monarchs, the coronation rite arguably underpinned the creation of England itself. 

One of the paradoxes of the coronation rite is that it is so old that it dates from a time before the concept of automatic royal succession by primogeniture existed, and the rite thus retains relics of earlier understandings of kingship. The recognition, when the Sovereign is presented to the congregation in Westminster Abbey as their undoubted King, is a survival of the Anglo-Saxon practice of choosing the most able of a king’s sons or close relatives to succeed him. Without the enthusiastic acclamation of the thegns, no one could hold the throne successfully in a warrior society – and thus a public recognition was necessary, both to confirm that the man being crowned king really was who he said he was, and to confirm he enjoyed elite support.  

The spear held by Anglo-Saxon kings became the sceptre, and the thegns lifting the new king upon his shield became a pair of bishops

Similarly, the rite of anointing was intended to make of the king a sacred person at a time when the fear of sacrilege might deter at least some people from violence against a consecrated person – although in practice, in cases such as Richard II or Henry VI, the unwanted king was simply left to die rather than finished off by violence. From the point of view of medieval popes, elaborate inauguration ceremonies for kings involving representatives of the Church were to be encouraged – they created the impression that the king ruled on the Church’s say so, and that a sacramental rite of the Church (anointing) made someone king.  

The downside of all of this, however, was that anointing kings imbued them with an aura of priestly authority that presented a potential challenge to the Pope. The kings of England and France came to be invested with priest-like vestments – making it easier, perhaps, for Henry VIII to decide that he was head of both Church and state. Thereafter the coronation, once an act of partial royal submission to the Church, became a ceremony in which the monarch symbolically assumed their duties as its supreme governor. 

While the earliest coronations took place with a helmet, recalling the warrior origins of Wessex’s kings, crowns appeared by the 10th century; then arches over the open crowns in the late Middle Ages, signifying imperial domination. The spear held by Anglo-Saxon kings became the sceptre, and the thegns lifting the new king upon his shield became a pair of bishops flanking a king seated on his throne.  

Symbols from other nations appeared – most notably the Stone of Scone, captured by Edward I in 1296 but lent renewed meaning when the monarchs of the House of Stuart united the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The late Middle Ages spawned an especially rich brood of new legends – such as the notion that the oil used for the anointing had been miraculously delivered from heaven by St Thomas the Apostle to a monk of Poitiers. The Hundred Years’ War, and English kings’ claim on the throne of France, undoubtedly intensified the ritual of coronation, with the regalia treated as holy relics as English kings vied with their French counterparts to vindicate the sacrality of monarchy. When the Reformation simplified other acts of worship, the splendour of the coronation remained virtually untouched. 

The coronation rite is a rich historical palimpsest, an almost unique event of living history that seemingly actualises the entirety of British royal history in one liturgical act. Few other countries have anything like it; and it will not soon be forgotten.  

Dr Francis Young is a UK-based historian and folklorist specialising in the history of religion and belief. He is the author, co-editor or co-author of 18 books and teaches for Oxford University’s department for continuing education 

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