“May the King live forever!” The glorious biblical hyperbole of the acclamations at a coronation encapsulate the uniqueness and extravagance of the occasion. Mitred bishops, golden robes, crowns glittering with priceless jewels, Old Testament-style anointing, a proliferation of sceptres and swords, golden robes, ermined and coroneted peers – the whole pageantry of a history that goes back a millennium and a half, rehearsed in all its glory just once in every reign, is a wonderful moment of renewal.
Nonetheless, there are concerns over whether that living tradition will survive the ministrations of a modernising king and established church. Now, the Coronation ritual has been published, providing concrete evidence of the changes that have been introduced. Dr Francis Young, historian and folklorist, has provided a helpful comparison of the new Coronation rite with that of 1953, available here.
Seeing the juxtaposition of the former and current Ordines for the King’s crowning provides solid evidence of the amount of change that has been wrought. There are 32 alterations in all, some of them highly significant. Although there are only four actual omissions from the 1953 Ordo, these include the Nicene Creed, which fundamentally unites many Christian denominations. Its omission is rumoured to be because, since the Runcie primacy, the Church of England has taken an ambiguous stance on the filioque clause – as on so much else. The removal of this foundational statement of Christian belief from the Coronation ritual changes its religious character.
Also omitted is the blessing, “God crown you with a crown of glory and righteousness…” immediately following the acclamations and the artillery salutes to the newly-crowned monarch. Why? Besides these omissions, there are 17 changes to the traditional Ordo. Instead of simply inviting the King to take the Oath, there is a wordy preamble, about how he will “foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely”, immediately before the King swears a robustly Protestant oath. It is reminiscent of the childish, patronising explanations that now accompany exhibits in woke museums.
There is another odd change which is that the Epistle, a different text from 1953, instead of being read by a bishop is read by the Prime Minister. Why intrude a political element into the heart of the Coronation, traditionally free of politicians, except as spectators? In 1953, Sir Winston Churchill, our greatest prime minister, was in office; he attended the Coronation in his Garter robes, but did not utter a word. Why, then, has this change been introduced?
There are eleven downright innovations and, with one exception, they do little to improve upon the ancient ritual. The corny words of welcome to the King on his arrival by a Westminster chorister who would be better employed in singing the now omitted Litany; the carrying of sacred objects by laymen and women instead of clergy; and, worst of all, the degradation of the Coronation into a reality television show with audience participation at home – the derision-inviting charade that replaces the impressive Homage of the hereditary peers – testify to how badly the two Palaces – Buckingham and Lambeth – have lost the plot.
There is one improvement in the new rite: the Gloria, sung in Latin to a setting by William Byrd. Dr Young speculates it may be the first time Latin has been sung at a coronation since the Catholic coronation of Elizabeth I. Contrasted with all the true-blue Protestantism of the Parliamentary oaths the King will take, it will contribute to a more eclectic liturgy. Along with Parry’s magnificent setting of “I was glad” (Psalm 122) and Handel’s Zadok the Priest, it guarantees a splendid musical occasion, though the singing of the Kyrie in Welsh instead of Greek typifies the undisciplined spirit of innovation that has so irresponsibly revised a ritual dating back recognisably to the crowning of Edward II and to Coronation Masses for centuries before that.
The British coronation is the last such ceremony surviving in Europe, though the emperors of Japan have a sedate, unspectacular ritual of ancient origins. The last coronations of secular sovereigns in Europe were the splendid crowning of the Habsburg Charles IV of Hungary, in Budapest in 1916, and the non-historical, new-minted crowning of Ferdinand I of Romania at Alba Iulia in 1922. The Hungarian constitution, for the past millennium, has been founded upon the Holy Crown of St Stephen: it is displayed in the Hungarian parliament today. No ruler was legitimate unless he had been crowned with the circlet of St Stephen.
Historically, the most splendid coronations were those of the Holy Roman Emperors – at Rome, Aachen or Frankfurt – and the sacré of the Kings of France, traditionally held at Rheims Cathedral, the last one being of Charles X in 1825. The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, but the Habsburgs still underwent crowning ceremonies in their various realms. Today, none of the surviving European monarchies has a coronation service in the manner of the British. The King of the Netherlands is inaugurated with considerable pomp at a ceremony in church, but is not crowned. The King of Spain is inaugurated in parliament, with the crown placed beside him, but he does not wear it.
Most splendid of all were the Papal coronation ceremonies, in which the Sovereign Pontiff was carried on his portable throne, the sedia gestatoria, flanked by massive ostrich-plume fans, or flabella, and escorted by a vast retinue of courtiers dressed in the liveries of past centuries. At the culmination of a five-hour ceremony, the senior cardinal deacon placed the triregnum, or triple tiara, on the Pope’s head and enjoined him, in Latin: “Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns, and know that you are the father of princes and kings…” Records of Papal coronations go back to 858, though they probably occurred earlier; the last were of John XXIII in 1958 and Paul VI in 1963, an abbreviated ritual.
The reason why coronations fell into desuetude among surviving monarchies is that anticlericalism, the driving force of European liberalism, repudiated the Christian character of society. Britain, despite being religiously divided and officially Protestant, a denomination not instinctively attracted to elaborate ritual, preserved its ancient Coronation, by consensus. The drabness of a republic does not much appeal to British sentiment. There is an informed recognition, even among those who seldom or never attend church, that a solemn inauguration is necessary for a head of state who is unelected, to ratify the contract between sovereign and people.
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The King’s expressed wish for a “slimmed-down” monarchy was dismissed by the Princess Royal in a recent interview. She pointed out that that proposal was voiced when the monarchy was considerably more populous: “I think that ‘slimmed down’ was said in a day when there were a few more people to make that seem like a justifiable comment.” In other words, the retirement of the Duke of York and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has left the Firm understaffed. That is a legitimate point made by the Princess Royal, the hardest working member of the royal family, who performed 214 engagements last year.
The Princess Royal also made clear her opposition to slavery apologies and other grandstanding stunts, describing her views as “slightly different, maybe more realistic”. Precisely right. Britain, at one phase in its history, participated in the slave trade, but it then repented and shut it down. If colonialism was all about repression and “cultural appropriation”, will former colonies tear up infrastructure and bulldoze hospitals and schools as relics of imperialism? The King needs to preserve a discreet silence on topics that are used to bait the monarchy by enemies of the Crown who are unappeasable.
If Britain’s dignified monarchy defies Bagehot’s injunction not to “let in daylight upon magic” and turns into a Scandinavian-style bicycle-clip operation, its days are numbered. Much of the British public loves splendour and knows it reflects glory upon the nation. The ceremony that epitomises that above all is the Coronation, in its traditional form.
It works and that is why it should only be tinkered with very carefully.
“Modernisation” projects risk heralding the decline of any institution. The King should be aware of that. He begins his reign in a difficult position following the success of his mother’s reign, aware that his tireless campaigning on the environment risks associating him with politics.
If he can focus on traditional service, in the manner of his much-loved mother, and make himself truly the embodiment of the nation, then his reign will prove a blessing and a boon to this country. We wish the new King and Queen well.
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