Letter From London

Old Codgers in All Their Glory

It turns out the haters, doubters and worriers need not have bothered: the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla went through without a hitch. In advance, the ceremony was pondered over with a hint of contempt from opposite ends of the spectrum. From the Left came boilerplate caterwauls that fusty old Britain needs to get with the times. They can just about put up with the continued existence of the monarchy—partly because republicanism has such a nanoscopic following amongst the British—but surely the head of state should be inaugurated in a secular ceremony? “It’s 2023!” seemed to be their only argument. But the coronation isn’t about today: it’s about forever.

The defenders of forever were worried as well. One of the delights of the King is that he is admirably unconventional and impossible to pigeonhole in his views, and he has an honest forthrightness in conveying his thoughts. This works to conservatives’ advantage, for example when the King—especially while he was Prince of Wales—gave his views on architecture. At other times, when speaking about climate concerns, the King gives encouragement (intentionally or otherwise) to radical environmentalists. Would the coronation turn out to be, as one Conservative MP inquired in the House of Commons, a “dumbed-down woke-fest”?

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In the end, this coronation was a balance of preserving traditions, a few understandable if unfortunate elisions for the sake of time (the omission of the Creed, for example), and admirable attempts to gently update the service in a spirit of evolution rather than rejection.

A great cast of old codgers and peak establishment figures were deployed in all their glory. The Duke of Buccleuch carried the Sceptre with Cross next to Baroness Manningham-Butler (former Director General of MI5) bearing the St Edward’s Staff. The Duke of Wellington bore the Queen’s Crown, while the St Edward’s Crown was borne by General Sir Gordon Messenger of the Royal Marines—the first member of the naval service to be twice awarded the DSO in more than half a century, for leading 40 Commando in Iraq and then 3 Commando Brigade in Afghanistan’s tricky Helmand province.

Foreign monarchs were invited for the first time ever—a perfectly understandable adaptation. The monarchic world is now smaller than at almost any time on earth, and their presence encouraged a solidarity among this tiny caste of the world’s nearly eight billion people.

The Earl Marshal, the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Lord High Constable, Garter King of Arms—they were all there. But canny additions meant that several quite visible ethnic or religious minorities were included front and centre as well. Lord Darzi, a Baghdad-born Armenian surgeon, carried the Armills in procession. The Orb was carried by Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, a pioneering nurse, and the Sceptre with Dove by the Baroness Benjamin, a Trinidad-born former children’s television presenter. Lady Benjamin sits as a Liberal Democrat peer, while Dr Joseph Morrow, Lord Lyon King of Arms and in charge of heraldry across Scotland, is a former Labour councillor.

Later in the ceremony Lord Kamall, a Muslim of Indo-Guyanese descent and former Conservative MEP for London, brought the Armills from the High Altar to be touched by the King as the Archbishop reminded His Majesty of these “tokens of the Lord’s protection embracing you on every side”. Baroness Merron, the former Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, brought the King the Robe Royal.

It was the turn of the venerable Lord Patel, an eminent Scots physician born to a Gujarati family in Tanganyika, to bring the King his Ring, while the Punjabi Lord Singh of Wimbledon brought the Glove for the King’s right hand.

The Chief Rabbi was hampered by the ceremony taking place on the Jewish sabbath. He couldn’t drive to Westminster Abbey so the King hosted him and his wife personally at Clarence House, allowing him to walk to the Coronation. The ceremony “was very special” Rabbi Mirvis told a newspaper. “And there was an aura there. It’s not something I expected, but it was definitely present.”

These additions by no means crowded out those who were there by eternal privilege. Francis Dymoke, thirty-fifth lord of the manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, was there to participate in the Coronation as the King’s Champion, in line with his ancestors for over nine hundred years.

This is how the House of Windsor wins. This is how an ancient monarchy survives as a living, breathing being, and not some dead and purely ceremonial figurehead rolled out for the odd occasion. It is another great skill that the House of Windsor is able to revel in its weirdness in a totally unconscious and unfussy manner.

For centuries the Coronation Chair sat in Westminster Abbey, the scholars of the great school next door coming in to carve their initials or their names in it. Journalist and commentator Peter Hitchens—England’s national treasure of curmudgeonliness—pointed out that the precise high-definition of broadcasting today, by which every scratch and carved schoolboy’s name was clearly visible, also took away some of the magic of the Coronation ceremony.

What magic is lost might be outweighed by the gains in expanding or cementing the popular legitimacy of the monarchy in a more democratic age. For some centuries, this ceremony took place behind closed doors, only accessible to the great and good of the land. Watching the Coronation on a big-screen high-definition television, there was a strange intimacy to the occasion, even though we were—quite rightly—shielded from viewing the Anointing.

Rather than destroying the magic, it felt as if we were being let in on an amazingly private affair. Yet the central figure was one instantly familiar to us all throughout the English-speaking world—or perhaps even the planet.

While explicitly Christian, it also felt semi-pagan. Its components were essentially Catholic, but put to a clearly Protestant use. This odd hodgepodge of ceremonies felt older than England itself. One of the highlights was when the 1400-year-old Gospels of Saint Augustine were brought forth by Professor Christopher Kelly, the Master of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, where they have been kept since the late sixteenth century. This is one of the oldest books in Europe—sent by the Pope along with the saint who converted the Angles, established the church hierarchy in this realm, and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr Francis Young called the Coronation “the sole surviving ancient wonder of the world” and pointed out that the presence of an English crowning rite in an old Frankish pontifical may mean that continental coronations were influenced by ancient Angles rather than the other way round. The Cosmati pavement the King was crowned atop was installed to echo the stone in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople on which the Roman emperors were crowned. Ancient Israel was summoned by the incredible beauty of Handel’s coronation anthem, “Zadok the Priest”. We’d heard it a thousand times before but to see and hear it now, being used as it was composed and intended, was transcendental. Even the Guardian was forced to concede that “if you felt nothing” when you heard the choir sing Zadok “you are either an algorithm or half dead”.

Thanks to the monarchy, Great Britain and the Commonwealth are a family, and families are based on love. (When families go wrong it is uniquely tragic.) In ancient times monarchy was simply obvious. In more recent centuries, it moved more towards—or was reduced to—the ornamental. What monarchy—not in the sense of the rule by one, but in the sense of the rule by the head of a family—offers today is a vision of a civilisation built on love. However imperfect the reality, the concept feels more natural and right than competing visions based upon power, class conflict, the accumulation of filthy lucre, the implementation of an unrestrained demagogue’s diktats, or the ever-shifting whims of “the people”.

The Coronation also emphasised the two-fold nature of monarchy. Power and recognition may have come from the thanes—the king’s battle companions—in ancient days or from the democratic process today. But the king is not legitimate unless endowed and imbued with divine authority: not just hailed by the people, but anointed with chrism. Power from below, authority from above. Whatever your criticisms, if England and its successor states, including Australia, are anything to go by then it makes for a successful polity.

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