Opinion | What Are Coronations For?
On Saturday morning, Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor will leave Buckingham Palace in a carriage drawn by six horses, take a slightly circuitous route through central London and arrive at Westminster Abbey, a little before 11 a.m., for a ceremony mostly unchanged over the course of a millennium.
Once inside he will sit on the Coronation Chair, which is more than 700 years old and will temporarily house a block of Scottish sandstone known as the Stone of Destiny. He will put on, at some point, a 200-year-old cloak that is woven from gold cloth, embroidered with roses, thistles and shamrocks and lined with red silk. He will be presented to the congregation, which will shout “God save King Charles!”
He will be anointed with holy oil from a 12th-century spoon and handed an orb, which symbolizes authority derived from God, and a scepter, which represents power. The archbishop of Canterbury will place St. Edward’s Crown, which is more than 350 years old, made of solid gold and set with ruby, amethyst, sapphire, garnet, topaz and tourmaline, on his head.
If this blend of ancient religious and political symbolism is impenetrable to the average viewer, that is kind of the point: When it comes to British coronations, anachronism is a feature, not a bug. Britain’s monarchy and the country’s past are inextricably linked, and a coronation is an opportunity for the institution to nod at history and hope that history nods back. A successful coronation telegraphs to the world — and reflects back to as many Britons as possible — a version of who we’d like to think we are. The problem is that this coronation is arriving at a time when it’s not exactly clear what that is.
Britain in 2023 is a country on the edge of Europe that is grappling with its imperial past and confronting an uncertain future. Since the Brexit campaign in 2016, invoking the “greatness” of Britain’s history — by name-dropping the Battle of Agincourt or Winston Churchill, for example — has become rote for politicians on the right who want to articulate a vision of Britain’s future outside of Europe. And, perhaps precisely because Britain’s future outside of Europe seems to rest so much on its past, there is an increasingly hard and humorless edge to conversations about British history: a patriotism that will admit no criticism. Attempts to re-examine Britain’s imperial history have been dismissed as “trying to do Britain down,” promoting “a woke agenda” or “cringing embarrassment about our history.”
At the same time, Britain’s economy is one of the slowest growing in the Group of 7 nations. There is a “cost-of-living crisis” — high interest rates, inflation and energy prices. Record numbers of families are using food banks and one in five Britons lives in poverty.
This is the complex, polarized moment that Saturday’s ceremony must try to meet. Camilla, the queen consort, will not wear in her crown the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was taken from India during British rule and is a symbol to many of colonial theft; the holy oil will be vegan (no civet, musk or ambergris); and the ceremony itself will be shorter and smaller, with a reduced guest list — which is supposed to signal thrift and environmental awareness.
But this slimmed-down coronation is still set to cost the British taxpayer millions — though the exact figure will not be made public until after the event, it is reported to be around $125 million. For many, that the coronation is happening at all is a sign of a country in denial and clinging to past grandeur. For others, any concession to the present is too much to bear.
“It is particularly disturbing that the Earl of Derby has not been asked to provide falcons, as his family have done since the 16th century,” Petronella Wyatt, a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, wrote with apparent seriousness. “These little things deprive people of their purpose in life.”
It’s a delicate balancing act: Jettison the right amount, and rise to the occasion; cut too deeply, and lose whatever power the ceremony has. But coronations, like monarchies, have had to evolve for a very long time indeed.
By the 18th century, Britain was a constitutional monarchy in which the balance of power had shifted from the Crown to Parliament. In the turmoil of the first Industrial Revolution, and as European monarchies — including the opulent French court at Versailles — were overthrown in waves of political revolution, ceremonies like coronations became an integral part of the national self-image of a country that could incorporate change without rupture, one which had opted for evolution over revolution.
George IV’s coronation in 1821, after Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic wars, was one of the most lavish in British history — an attempt, in part, to outshine Napoleon and celebrate British supremacy, but also symptomatic of the scandalous overspending that made him deeply unpopular. In 1831 his successor, William IV, perhaps sensing the mood, wanted to skip a coronation entirely. He eventually caved to pressure from advisers and agreed to a simpler ceremony with no banquet and a smaller procession. It was still too much for some.
The coronation of William’s niece Victoria in 1838, in the wake of a trans-Atlantic financial crisis, was restrained to the point of being disparagingly nicknamed the “penny crowning.” But it went big in one notable way: Around 400,000 Britons are estimated to have turned out to watch Victoria’s procession; there was also a huge fair in Hyde Park and a fireworks display.
A ceremony that had always been the preserve of nobility started to become more public. By the 20th century, the guest list would make room for members of the middle and, later, working classes. For Edward VII’s coronation, in 1902, workers were given a public holiday to celebrate the event — they still are, this year on May 8.
Elizabeth II’s coronation, in 1953, after years of postwar rationing and austerity and with Britain’s empire already in decline, tried to project a country that was still a global power by inviting representatives of British colonies and dominions. But by the Platinum Jubilee last summer, she was feted not as the head of a global power, but as a symbol of a nostalgic, postwar Britishness that was invoked with a fleet of vintage Mini Coopers and an afternoon tea spread made entirely of felt. It was a lighthearted gloss that, for some, only highlighted the gap between the imperial fiction and the lived reality of modern Britain.
If Saturday’s coronation succeeds, for the 9 percent of Britons who, according to a YouGov poll, care about it “a great deal,” it will be another neat stitch of the thread that ties our present to our past. For the 64 percent who, according to the same survey, don’t care very much or at all, May 8 is at best a very expensive day off.
For Charles III, Saturday is the first big test of whether he can helm a modern, pared-down monarchy that is relevant — or at least not objectionable — to the majority of Britons. St. Edward’s Crown weighs almost five pounds. That’s a lot of weight on one man’s shoulders.
Hannah Rose Woods is a cultural historian and the author of “Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain.”
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