Letter From London

The Eternal Business of Coronations

The recent coronation of the King of the Zulus was a moment of great joy and celebration for South Africa’s most numerous and most renowned tribe. The fifty-three-year reign of King Goodwill Zwelithini came to an end in 2021 when the widely respected monarch succumbed to Covid. At the time of his coronation in 1971, the once-great Zulu people were—like the many other native peoples in South Africa—subject to the legal status of a permanent underclass created by the complex and almost baroque hierarchy of apartheid. By the year of his death, apartheid had been dismantled, the monarchy had gained a place of honour in a united KwaZulu-Natal province, and the country had even had a Zulu head of state in the person of Jacob Zuma from 2009 until 2018. At the 1971 coronation, Zwelithini was more or less forced to give a lion skin to Michiel Coenraad Botha, the minister for “Bantu administration and development”, a sign of honour and respect. In 2022, his son Misuzulu gave one instead to the venerable Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the “Traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Nation” who at ninety-four years old is very much of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s generation.

This report appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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With the Queen’s funeral and its consequent commemorations completed, eyes now turn to the coronation to take place in May. Great is the speculation about how this ancient ritual will be interpreted to mark the advent of the new king.

Charles III has become sovereign of fifteen realms—more than double the number of realms at the time of Elizabeth’s coronation—totalling 150 million people in 7.2 million square miles spanning three continents. He was deprived of the honour of reigning over a sixteenth, Barbados, just last year when its political class turned the island into a republic—without a referendum, in the face of popular support for retaining the monarchy.

No one can quite agree which English coronation was the first. The ninth-century hero Alfred the Great is traditionally considered the first King of England but there is no record of any coronation ceremony for him. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates the five-year-old princeling’s visit to Rome where young Alfred was apparently anointed by Pope Leo IV. This was interpreted by Victorians as an anticipation of his eventual kingship, unlikely though that intent was, given Alfred’s distance from the West Saxon throne at that point. But Alfred would certainly have submitted to election as king by the Witenagemot, the Saxon gathering of wise men who acclaimed the new king and often likely chose him as well. Aspects of this acclamation survived well into the modern era of coronation services.

Edgar I was certainly crowned king in 973, ten years into his reign, in a ceremony that had lasting influence. The West Country origins of England’s—Australia’s—monarchy are made obvious by Edgar’s coronation taking place in the Benedictine abbey of Bath in Somerset, and it was the former abbot of nearby Glastonbury Abbey, Saint Dunstan, who Edgar had persuaded back from his cross-Channel exile to take up the role of Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England. Being crowned and—importantly—anointed in an abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury set a precedent that every English and British monarch ever after sought to emulate.

William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day in 1066—possibly in emulation of Charlemagne—but in Westminster Abbey, which was the locus of veneration for the saintly King Edward the Confessor. Every English coronation since has taken place there, excepting that of Henry III, whose initial 1216 coronation was in the Benedictine abbey at Gloucester, as Prince Louis of France was occupying London. Pope Honorius III decided the Gloucester ceremony was of dubious validity so Henry got a re-do at Westminster in 1220 after the French were kicked out.

With the coming of the Stuarts, coronations took a distinct form that lasted for generations. Kings or queens were crowned on St George’s Day in the midst of an Anglican eucharist and received the homage of the peerage before crossing Palace Yard to Westminster Hall where the great and the good of the land were invited to a coronation banquet. This meal included a dramatic point at which the King’s Champion would ride down the middle of the great hall and would challenge anyone who contested the monarch’s legitimacy to trial by combat. Aside from the invited guests, tiers of rafters were erected in Westminster Hall and their spots sold to paying visitors to offset the costs of the event—the more expensive seats at ground level closer to the action and the cheaper seats up top. As the official banquet would last several hours, these paying guests often brought their own food and drink.

George IV’s coronation banquet proved to be the last, allegedly thanks to rougher guests in the topmost rafters relieving themselves onto the invited guests below. More likely is the explanation that his successor William IV hated fuss and didn’t want a coronation at all, and dispensing with the coronation banquet proved a reasonable compromise to persuade the King to be crowned. The ceremonies surrounding his crowning cost just one-sixth those of his predecessor, and the pared-down service was deployed again for the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838.

“Pared-down” is a relative term: Victoria’s coronation lasted more than five and a half hours. Members of the royal family were allowed to dip in and out of the service by retreating into the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor, where Lord Melbourne reported the altar of the shrine “was covered with plates of sandwiches, bottles of wine, etc”.

The performance of the music was much criticised, including a lack of coordination between the choristers and instrument players, possibly thanks to the director of music Sir George Smart attempting to play the organ and direct the music simultaneously. Others complained about the lack of new music, since the composer commissioned to create a new coronation anthem died three months before the event. Meanwhile the lack of a coronation rehearsal resulted in many of the important participants not quite understanding when or what role they were invited to play.

A moment of light relief was provided when the eighty-two-year-old Lord Rolle ascended the steps to pay homage to Victoria, lost his footing, and—as befits his name—rolled down the steps to land at the bottom, unharmed. The new Queen left her throne to meet Rolle and prevent the aged peer from having to ascend the whole flight of steps again—interpreted by many present as a sign of the new sovereign’s sense of compassion.

As with Elizabeth II, Victoria’s long reign provided a lengthy period between coronations, but the widespread series of celebrations that surrounded her golden jubilee in 1887 and her diamond jubilee ten years later greatly raised the British—and imperial—public’s expectations of public ceremonies. Her son Edward VII’s coronation was most marked by the King’s strenuous objection to the wording of the Coronation Oath, with included a denunciation of transubstantiation so vehement that he considered it insulting to his Catholic subjects whose loyalty was beyond reproach.

As Prince of Wales, Edward had been ecumenical in those he chose to admit to his circle of friends, including many Jews and Catholics. He attended a Catholic Mass for the murdered Portuguese monarch, and witnessed a Marian procession at Lourdes while travelling through France on one of his amorous sojourns. When a Catholic guest of his at Sandringham fell deeply unwell, Edward had a priest summoned who brought the Blessed Sacrament—the King escorting both priest and eucharist from the front door to the bedside with a lighted taper in his hand. Pious tradition amongst English Catholics holds that Edward secretly died a Catholic after a deathbed visit from the Archbishop of Westminster.

All the same, Edward was not able to prevail upon his government to soften the language of the oath in time for his own coronation, but at his son’s insistence it was legislated upon in time for George V’s crowning.

Twentieth-century coronations managed a superb balance of maintaining dignity and grandeur while reducing the excessive length of the service by clever modification. The greatest economy came by cutting down the homages: instead of each individual in the entire peerage paying homage, only the premier peer of each rank of peerage (duke, marquess, earl and so on) went to greet the new monarch.

The 1953 coronation was the most remarkable of events for its sheer accessibility: the decision to allow the service to be televised—excepting the sacred moment of the anointing—was surely the right one. Sales of televisions and payment of television licences boomed when the announcement was made. The coronation had a knock-on effect as those who had visited neighbours or relations to watch the event then decided to purchase televisions themselves. The television age greatly increased the visibility and accessibility of the monarch to her subjects across the world, but doubtless also deprived us to some degree of the sense of mystery which attended to the sovereign.

What of the next event? How will the United Kingdom, Australia, the Commonwealth of Nations and the world witness and celebrate the crowning of Charles III? The new king is in many ways his father’s son: the Duke of Edinburgh took an intimate role in the planning of the 1953 coronation. In this as in many other things, Prince Philip was a moderniser who believed in evolution rather than revolt and repudiation. It is certain that he would have been one of the prime influencers behind the decision for the coronation to be televised.

What innovations await us for 2023’s coronation? Already some tweaks and changes have been made since Charles became king. The Accession Council in St James’s Palace was televised for the first time—a development which seems to have added to public knowledge and awareness of the Privy Council rather than depriving us of mystery. Since at least the fourteenth century, each accession has been followed by the Court of Claims, a special tribunal in which those who have personal claims to perform specific ceremonial functions, whether by right of office or by heredity, can be heard and verified. This time there will be no Court of Claims, though it can be argued that improved record keeping today has eliminated any need for it.

Members of the press have been briefed that the coronation service will be stripped back to the bare minimum with the aim of keeping it to about an hour in length. Given that it will have to include an Anglican eucharist, the anointing and the crowning, it is difficult to see how this will be possible. “To plan a coronation without a eucharist would require a massive break with history,” the former Dean of Westminster Sir Wesley Carr has written. “That alone would imply a long study of the intention behind a coronation at all, its venue and basic structure.” More likely the Anglican eucharist will be maintained, with the service lasting perhaps ninety minutes instead of the three hours of Elizabeth II’s.

Disconcertingly, another rumour holds that the generous allowance of more than 8000 guests seated in specially constructed raked stands, some rising ten rows high, will be drastically reduced to the mere 2000 who can be held at a normal service in Westminster Abbey. The sheer stinginess of such an idea betrays the mentality of a spoilsport moderniser who wants fewer people to have fun. If the abbey can accommodate more than 8000 then why not invite them? The coronation planners in 1953 took great care to ensure the additional seating had no detrimental impact on the delicate architectural heritage of the building. Every man, woman and child who attends the coronation will remember it forever, and the immense soft-power influence that Britain and the Commonwealth will obtain from this event is un-purchasable and unquantifiable.

So to the proposal to dress down and have the peerage in business suits rather than the coronation robes and headgear suited to each rank. A coronation is a once-in-a-lifetime event and surely justifies a once-in-a-lifetime expense on the part of the peers and others whose station merits ceremonial and civil uniform. Amusingly, at the previous coronation the cabinet minister (and future prime minister) Harold Macmillan did not own the uniform of a Privy Counsellor and had to hire his from a theatrical costume-maker. Rather than reducing the majesty of the event to the quotidian business suit, the attire should be expanded so that a full spectrum of spectacle from professional dress to ermine and coronet is on display.

At least there is no demand to de-Christianise the coronation: it does take place in a church, after all. A 2015 public opinion survey found that only 19 per cent thought the coronation should be multi-faith and 23 per cent that it should be entirely secular, against a majority of 57 per cent responding that it should be a Christian ceremony. Humanist objections that only 2 per cent of the British are Sunday churchgoing Anglicans fall flat. The British may have fallen away from religious practice and, to a more limited extent, religious belief, but they are far from opposed to religion.

Aside from the profound spiritual significance of the oath, the anointing, and the placing of the crown on the sovereign’s head, it is worthwhile thinking of the secular significance of the event and what value it can bring to societies across the nations of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. In a throw-away age of digital erasure, the coronation of the monarch is the most un-point-and-click event possible. The coronation ought to act as a marker by which we can appreciate change rather than be consumed by it. In the temporal dictatorship of the present that is the twenty-first century, a society obsessed with holding a mirror to itself might instead be granted the rare privilege of having a glimpse beyond into another world: a world of eternity, continuity and ancientness.

Andrew Cusack, born in New York and educated in Argentina, Scotland and South Africa, now lives in London. He has a website at www.andrewcusack.com

9 thoughts on “The Eternal Business of Coronations

  • STD says:

    By the sounds of things comfort and solace are awaiting our arrival on the May horizon. A great read.

  • Daffy says:

    The idea of a monarch is wonderful. The idea of a monarch who lives in London, even more so. 🙂

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Most informative. I speak here as a partial conservative-and-monarchist. (NB: Only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.)

  • lbloveday says:

    Way off topic..
    I’ve noticed some Quadrant commenters also comment on Spectator Australia.
    Are you able to access articles?
    For about 2 weeks I appear to log-in -(Log out appears at top right and My Account shows it as me), but I can’t read any articles, instead getting “Keep reading with a free trial”.
    I have reset the password at least 6 times, same result.
    Contacting Spectator has been no use.

    • STD says:

      Reboot computer- make sure updates are current- and check that an update or software down load has not been the problem- check anti viral software is not causing the problem, such as Norton can use sonar to block content it deemed as having a similar code to viral or malware. Do you have access from another computer or iPad or alike?
      As for spectator I wish I had and could invent longer days, but alas speed and age are a foe.
      Lastly try to access Spectator via another portal on google and see how that goes.

      • lbloveday says:

        Thanks; I’ve tried from 5 computers, even from a new hotrod laptop that I just started setting up and the only software installed is W10 and Firefox. On that I got to read Magazine articles, but not comments.
        10 days ago they sent the following:
        Our website has gone through a much needed upgrade and as a result we are experiencing some technical difficulties that are impacting all our online subscribers. Our team in the UK are urgently to get these resolved as soon as possible.
        No further news, no reply to my follow-up query.
        Does anyone test “upgrades” before going live any more?

        • STD says:

          There you go the fix is in the pipeline. Patience..
          Have you tried to threaten them with an Ian McDougall Fatwah involving 72 virgins, maybe not, in this day n age that’d be too unbelievable. Or how about this, a complimentary case of champers accompanied by a legion of bush turkeys delivered direct to the editors door ,the bush turkeys, so they can get to work on the garden and the champers to celebrate the ambiance of having native wildlife setting up shop there. In chess this’d be considered a prime move as failure to oblige could end in check mate.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    The business suit option is a disgrace. Every peer can afford fancy dress. Top ranked peers offering to be liege man (or woman) in life and limb while wearing street clothing means we are only watching a rehearsal.
    And certainly enlarge the crowd to 8000 spectators, but only if they are going to see a costumed show.

    Cost cutting on so important a pageant as a Coronation has no place in any land calling itself a Kingdom.
    Charge it to the peerage. They can afford it.

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