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Does anyone understand the vagaries of a coronation? We certainly don’t. POLITICO commissioned our resident constitutional expert to explain. Once again, they asked not to be named for this piece.
LONDON — A British coronation is much like a U.S. presidential inauguration — unnecessary in law, but rich in pageantry and theater.
Misconceptions persist that Saturday’s ceremony marks the beginning of the new monarch’s reign. But it is not the Prince of Wales being crowned at Westminster Abbey. Charles is not king-designate, king-in-waiting, or plain old Prince Charles — he is already king, and has been since his mother drew her last breath on September 8, 2022. He will not acquire new powers or status when the St Edward’s Crown touches his graying hair. In that sense, a coronation ceremony need not happen at all.
Britain’s only ever ex-king, the Duke of Windsor, was not crowned before he abdicated in December 1936. It made no difference to his 11-month reign. Much like last year’s Accession Council, a coronation symbolically confirms something that has already happened. It is no more than a historic hangover from an era in which crowns were frequently contested, and in which the church could help legitimize one claimant over another.
Similarities with U.S. presidential inaugurations abound. The single legal requirement of both ceremonies is that the head of state swear an oath. An American president swears to “protect and defend” the constitution; the king on Saturday will swear to govern according to laws and customs, to render justice with mercy, and to maintain the “Protestant Reformed Religion.”
Indeed, God looms large at a coronation. At its heart it is a religious service — specifically an Anglican one. The central element is the anointing, the moment God’s grace is conferred upon a monarch as the Church of England’s supreme governor. The liturgy dates back to the late 10th century and includes Holy Communion, prayers, and traditional language from the King James Bible that will be familiar to millions of Christians watching around the world.
But the order of service will also reflect the British nation as it is in 2023.
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was an imperial ceremony, complete with colonial regiments and crowned heads under British “protection.” (The Queen of Tonga was a hit with the watching crowds.) Today the United Kingdom has lost its empire but retained the pageantry. Now, 14 governors-general — the King’s representatives in Commonwealth realms from Canada to the Solomon Islands — will march into the abbey, and later greet Charles before he leaves.
In 1953 a papal delegation waited outside the abbey, forbidden by Vatican law from going inside. This weekend not only will it join more than 2,000 other guests inside the historic building, but the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, will help bless the king. The first procession will bear the Cross of Wales, which includes shards of the “True Cross” gifted by Pope Francis. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh members of the House of Lords will present symbolic items of the regalia.
Other aspects too will reflect the constitutional hotchpotch that is the U.K.
Charles will have to formally declare his Protestantism, for a British monarch is still prohibited by law from being a Catholic. For the first time ever the ceremony will include the Scottish, Irish Gaelic and Welsh languages. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland — the country’s other state-recognized church — will present the bible upon which the king will swear his oaths.
The coronation processions will incorporate elements from pre-1707 Scottish ceremonial, a reminder that Scotland was once an independent kingdom. Symbolically, Charles will be crowned while sitting upon the ancient “Stone of Destiny,” once the preserve of kings and queens of Scots. The new Prince of Wales, William, will pay “homage” to his father — kneeling, touching the crown and kissing his cheek.
Also in attendance will be the new First Minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, and the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford — both ardent republicans. They will be joined by the First Minister-designate of Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, despite her party’s fervent anti-royalism. These days, the British monarchy likes to play nice with those who seek its abolition.
Hottest ticket in town
Competition for seats in the abbey has been fierce. In 1953 almost every MP and peer attended; on Saturday just a few dozen will be present. Those who missed out were placated with a pre-coronation tea party with the king and queen earlier this week, plus tickets to view the external processions from what looks set to be a rain-drenched pavement in Parliament Square.
For foreign dignitaries, too, numbers will be tight. Seventy years ago, 500 attended from Canada alone; this time, the same number represents almost the entire international presence. In 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower sent a four-strong delegation — Joe Biden is sending only the First Lady.
In Britain, aristocratic families have spent months fighting over long-standing rights to brandish a wand, present a spur or hold a banner at the archaic ceremony. A court of law once decided how such roles were awarded — this time round, responsibility was delegated to pen-pushing civil servants. Those with “claims” are scattered far and wide: one is a farmer in Australia, others are “Barons of the Cinque Ports”, a group of representatives of 14 coastal towns in south-east England.
Overseeing the whole event, as always, has been the Earl Marshal — currently the Duke of Norfolk, Edward Fitzalan-Howard — a sort of hereditary party planner for the ages.
Tensions will be high, for as with all large theatrical events, things can go wrong. In 1838 the Archbishop of Canterbury forced the Coronation Ring onto the wrong finger of Queen Victoria. At the delayed ceremony for Edward VII in 1902, an elderly and virtually blind archbishop placed the crown upon his head … the wrong way round. George VI, the late queen’s father, had to bark at one unfortunate subject to stop standing on his coronation robe.
In truth, coronations are a rarity these days. European royalty long ago dispensed with such rituals, as did the Pope in 1963. In Thailand and Japan, at least, tradition is maintained — and the ceremonies are if anything more elaborate. The king, who watched his mother being crowned as a child, has waited almost seven decades for his own coronation. It is far from certain that we will live to see another.