Countdown to The Coronation

Ahead of the Coronation, diplomats learned about the majesty – and the mishaps – of the ancient ceremony from a Westminster Abbey insider

Kings and queens have been crowned at Westminster Abbey for almost a thousand years, and as Westminster Abbey’s Head of Engagement, Graznya Richmond, told embassy protocol officers at a pre-Coronation celebration, the solemn ceremony hasn’t always gone to plan…

Grazyna Richmond entertains embassy protocol officers with a colourful history of the Coronation at Westminster Abbey

Grazyna Richmond entertains embassy protocol officers with a colourful history of the Coronation at Westminster Abbey


Recognition and riots
The first recorded coronation at Westminster Abbey was William the Conqueror on Christmas Day in 1066. Not everybody was in favour of a warlike Norman duke ascending the English throne and tensions were simmering. Things went awry from the start with the ‘The Recognition’ (the part of the ceremony where the congregation acclaims the new king). When the cry of “God save the King” went up, the Norman soldiers outside thought the tumult was an assassination attempt on the King and began setting fire to houses around the Abbey. Smoke filled the church, the congregation fled and riots broke out.

Despite this inauspicious start, Westminster Abbey has gone on to host 38 coronations. King Charles III will be the 40th monarch to be crowned (William and Mary had a joint coronation in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution). Two monarchs were never crowned – Edward V, one of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ who mysteriously disappeared, and Edward VIII, who abdicated before his coronation.

The basic running order of the ceremony – the Recognition, Oath, Anointing, Investiture and Homage – is laid out in the Liber Regalis (Royal Book), a 14th century illuminated ‘instruction manual’ for the Coronation. Diplomats learned that this has remained unchanged (for the most part), but adapted by monarchs over the centuries.

Oafish oath
The central function of a coronation is the Oath that sovereigns swear before God and their subjects to rule with justice and mercy. But not all monarchs have treated the ceremony with due solemnity. King John, in 1199, oafishly laughed all through the service, got bored and left before the end, not bothering to take the sacrament.

At the coronation of James II in 1685 the Catholic king did not take the sacrament either, even though by then Britain was a Protestant nation and the sovereign was therefore ‘defender’ of the Protestant Faith and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. So when the crown nearly slipped off his head and wind tore the Royal Standard on the Tower of London, it was seen as a bad omen. His reign lasted four short years.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the Hanoverian kings staged lavish public spectacles which overshadowed the solemnity of the occasion. King George III swore his oath to the sound of clinking cutlery as the vast congregation tucked into their picnic hampers. By contrast, William IV’s coronation was so parsimonious it became known as the ‘penny coronation’. It was Queen Victoria who restored the gravity of the occasion during her coronation, although it was not without its mishaps (more of that later).

For Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, more than 8000 people packed into the Abbey, and millions more around the world were able to watch the ceremony on television for the first time.

 The Anointing
The only aspect of the coronation shielded from the watching public back in 1953 was the Anointing, the most sacred part of the ceremony in a tradition dating back to biblical times.

This is when the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the monarch with consecrated oil marking them out as different or special.

For this part of the ceremony, King Charles III will sit on the Coronation Chair, which has been in use since 1308 – and is covered in graffiti inscribed by Westminster schoolboys. Commissioned by King Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, the Coronation Chair was built to enclose the Stone of Destiny, the symbol of Scottish kingship, which the King stole from Scotland in 1296.

In a shambolic heist, the Stone of Scone (as it is also known) was stolen in 1950 by audacious Scottish students and taken back to Scotland. It was returned in time for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996 and has been brought down from Edinburgh, ready for the coronation of King Charles III.

Rescued regalia
Once anointed, the Investiture takes place where the monarch is cloaked in a coronation robe or Supertunica, a full-length, sleeved coat made of gold silk cloth. The monarch then receives the Coronation Regalia, which is symbolic of their power and authority. The Regalia date back to the Restoration period, the originals having been melted down on the orders of the anti-monarchist Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell following the execution of Charles I during the English Civil war in 1649. The Anointing Spoon is the only original piece of coronation regalia to survive the iconoclasm. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, two new sceptres and an orb costing £12,185 were made for the coronation of Charles II in 1661.

Homage on a roll
Having received the Regalia, the monarch is crowned by the Archbishop with St Edward’s Crown, which is solid gold, weighing 2.23kg and set with 444 precious and semi-precious stones.

The monarch then receives The Homage from the people. In previous coronations hereditary peers of the realm, dressed in coronation robes, represented the people.

Some of them were quite elderly. As Queen Victoria recounted in her diary, Lord Rolles quite literally went on a roll while attempting to pay homage: Poor old Lord Rolles, who is 82 and dreadfully infirm, fell, in attempting to ascend the steps. He Rolled right down, but was not the least hurt. When he attempted again to ascend the steps, I advanced to the edge, in order to prevent another fall.

This was but another coronation mishap rescued by the young Queen in an act of kindness that endeared her to the nation.

Over the ages, monarchs have adapted the ceremony, often to make it more inclusive. Elizabeth I was the first to translate some of the Latin elements into English for the masses. Her namesake, almost 400 years later, allowed the Coronation to be televised enabling everyone in Britain, the Commonwealth and indeed the world to see a ceremony that had previously been reserved for a privileged few.

King Charles III will take that one step further, inviting everyone – not just those inside the Abbey – to pay Homage, while watching on television or their laptops, tablets or smartphones from their homes, town halls, pubs, parks or camped out on the Mall.

As the Coronation takes place in a ‘Royal Peculiar’ (that is, a church under the direct jurisdiction of the Monarch) the King is free to have a ceremony that celebrates Britain’s multi-faith diversity. Guests in the Abbey will not merely be peers of the realm, the clergy, politicians and foreign dignitaries. Charity workers, civil society and representatives of all faith communities that make up Britain’s social fabric will be present. Twelve new pieces of music have been commissioned, and will reflect the multicultural nature of contemporary Britain.

History in the making?
Diplomats watching the ceremony will be eager to know if the King – who sees it as his duty as ‘Defender of Faith’ to protect the free practice of all faiths in Britain – will break with tradition and reflect this in his solemn oath. Even for Abbey insider Graznya Richmond, this is a closely-guarded secret. What is certain is that this Coronation, like all those before it, will be reflective of the times and will set the tone for a new era in British history.

Main Photo: The Imperial State Crown will be worn by King Charles III on exiting Westminster Abbey for the Coronation Procession