- author, Lauren Potts
- stock, BBC News
The coronation of King Charles III on May 6 may be the occasion for the lavish royal pageantry that the English are famous for. But it’s a deeply religious event, steeped in centuries-old traditions that some may feel has no place in 2023. Does such an event have the same significance as before and does the king really care?
In a few weeks, millions of people across the UK will witness a rare event.
Although we are used to the pomp, gatherings and street parties that accompany royal celebrations and ceremonies, it has been 70 years since we saw a coronation. It’s a completely different event, full of curiosities: a medieval oath, holy oil poured into a 12th-century spoon and a stone on a 700-year-old chair that is said to have roared when it recognized the legitimate monarch.
Some experts liken the coronation to a wedding — but instead of a consort, the monarch marries the state. The 2,000 people attending King Charles’ coronation at Westminster Abbey will have to say whether they recognize him as king. He is then given a coronation ring and asked to take an oath.
If this all sounds like a long time ago, that’s because coronations in England have changed little in the last 1,000 years. In law, they are not necessary because the king automatically succeeds to his predecessor. But it’s a symbolic gesture that legitimizes the role of the monarch, says Dr George Cross, who leads the Coronation Research Program at King’s College London.
He believes a monarch’s pledge to “uphold law and justice with mercy” in a public statement is a unique and special moment.
In an uncertain world where rulers continue to flout the rules of international law, our King has to say “important fundamentals” and that doesn’t scare me.
A harmony between old and new?
What happens next sums up what a coronation is: an essentially religious event. An outline of the cross has been traced on the king’s head, hands and chest using consecrated oil dispensed from a medieval ladle.
The process of anointing “elevates the king almost to a priestly position,” says Gross, and signifies the king’s role as head of the Church.
“It is an Anglican ceremony and anointing is necessary to give the King the grace of God,” says Dr David Torrance, author of the Parliamentary Review of the Coronation.
“But the Church of England reminds everyone that it is one of the established churches of the United Kingdom and that the King is its supreme governor.
Elena Woodacre, director of the Royal Studies Network, said the moment was held in private because it was considered an intimate moment and for practical reasons the monarch would wear less clothing during this time. Cameras are likely to pan away as Queen Elizabeth removes her cape and jewels during her televised coronation in 1953.
Instead of using the previous coronation oil, as some monarchs had done, a new batch was made this year. It contained animal products like civet oil found in sperm whales and ambergris, but this vegan and cruelty-free version is partially made from olives. As a nod to other religions, olives were grown at the Mary Magdalene Monastery in Jerusalem, where the King’s grandmother, Princess Alice, was buried.
But the choice of oil is in line with ‘modern sensibilities’, says Mr Woodacre, which ‘blends tradition and continuity with adaptation and change’ at a time when some feel the monarchy has yet to find its place.
“The coronation is an opportunity for the king to tap into the power of the past and shape his future. These ancient traditions, like the abe and the use of the spoon, help strengthen his position.
Are we stuck with tradition?
Graham Smith of the Republicans, a lobby group campaigning for the president-elect, questioned whether tradition was a valid argument as coronations “have changed in size, scope and content each time”.
“Most people don’t remember the last time, so it’s not a tradition that means anything to anyone,” he says. “It has no constitutional value, it’s not mandatory, and if we don’t do it, Charles will still be king.
In fact, a monarch does not need a coronation to reign, and some did, unlike the abdicated Edward VIII before him. European monarchies have long since done away with coronations, and public opinion suggests that interest in England may be waning.
A recent YouGov poll found that 22% of those polled did not plan to watch the coronation, and 58% said it was somewhat or very unlikely. Another poll, taken to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee, found that while six in ten support the monarchy, a majority of Britons believe the royal family is less important to the country than it was in 1952.
After the final coronation in 1953, for example, Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, says that the religious landscape in England has “changed beyond recognition” and that “many people would feel alienated by an Anglican ceremony”.
Mr. Torrance acknowledges that some central aspects of the festival may have been familiar to people then, but may not be so now. But he says the figures show congregations in London are growing and many Anglican churches are very busy.
“When the Queen died, we mixed a lot of religion into the ceremony. I think the palace was surprised by the public’s reaction…many people were very attentive,” he says. “If there are attempts to make the coronation exclusively Anglican, it must be taken into account that there is an increasing diversity of faiths in England today.
A coronation in the 21st century?
However, much of the ceremony is tied to a belief, says Professor Anna Whitelock, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Monarchy.
“The problem is that at the heart of the ceremony is the anointing and the oath, which honors the Church of England. The fact is, you can’t change the basic elements of the Crown’s majesty, which are exclusive, different, intertwined. Multi-section, multi-ethnic, non-Britain privileges and all.”
Professor Whitelock acknowledges efforts to modernize the coronation, including cutting back on the last, playing new music and bringing in a diverse range of guests, “but this is an attempt to change the style. [alors que] You can’t change the background.”
He thinks any meaningful change will require a major change, such as abolishing the Church of England or a referendum on the monarchy, which he doesn’t expect anytime soon.
“The legitimacy of the monarchy is based on tradition and continuity, so I think if Prince William were to do away with the coronation it would be seen as an attack on the institution and I don’t think we’re there yet.
Other efforts to modernize are underway, Mr. Cross believes, especially with regard to cost.
According to him, it is not unusual for coronations to take place during economically difficult times – citing George VI during the Great Depression – and the decision to cut the guest list for King Charles’s coronation by a quarter to the number of people attending his mother’s may be an attempt by the palace to keep costs “reasonable”.
But critics say the coronation, costing millions, is a waste of public money at a time when people are struggling economically. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport could not provide ratings, but it is clear that the coronation was not free. He could not reveal the cost of the Queen’s funeral last year, although the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 cost £5.4 million in comparison.
However, the public reaction to these two deaths suggests that the monarchy continues to attract some interest.
250,000 people marched for the Queen’s funeral in September. Compared to the UK’s 67 million people, that doesn’t seem like much, but 40% of them watched a funeral on TV.
Whether the coronation will have the same effect remains to be seen, but Professor Whitelock is skeptical.
“No doubt some people will look at it and say, pompously and pompously, that this is what Britain does best. But the idea that one man is placed above others, anointed by birth and not chosen. Hates those who do not represent Britain, whether religiously or ethnically”.
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