Opinion Articles

The deep past provides a context for King Charles’s coronation

  • RSS Feed Icon

In under a month’s time, the coronation of King Charles III will deploy to the full the symbolic resources of the British state. Yet with seventy years having passed since 1953, and with church-going now a minority activity, British society feels poorly prepared for the singular nature of a coronation. There is no lack of appetite among the public for coronation-related material. Yet the early media narratives have tended to evade broader questions about the meaning of the ritual and its contemporary significance. Here, professional history has a potentially important role. For in its form and much of its language, the coronation service (the rite) represents the survival of medieval liturgy which shapes its meaning.

The practice of royal anointing is firmly attested in England from the late eighth century. Always associated with bishops, the act of anointing became a duty normally conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury. From the early tenth century, West Saxon kings were anointed at Kingston, in Surrey, giving way to Westminster Abbey from 1066. Surviving orders of service reveal a sequence of blessings, the anointing itself, the king’s investiture with regalia, his enthronement and acclamation, always associated with a Mass or Eucharist. The First Ordo, from the ninth century or a little earlier, specified a helmet as royal headgear. The Second Ordo, probably compiled during the reign of King Alfred, introduced the crown and made provision for the anointing of queens. The Third Recension, characteristic of the twelfth century, replaced many of the inherited forms with Continental equivalents. The Fourth Recension, compiled before 1308, reincorporated many older forms and gave the rite stability even through the Reformation and beyond the Interregnum. Since Henry VIII the monarch was supreme head of the Church of England, so royal anointing continued uninterrupted. The main change was a shift, in 1603, to conducting the service in English. The modern service used today owes its form to two further interventions in the 1680s: firstly, an abridgement of the rite for James II (because he was Catholic); and secondly, further editing for William and Mary, partly with the aim of excluding the possibility of another Catholic monarch. The editing nonetheless respected the structure and conventions of the rite, preserving many echoes of older language and some elements intact, including the anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’.

It was the medieval period which established the religious force of anointing. The rite did not itself establish royal power. Anointing was not status-changing but, through the invoking of divine support, amounted to the symbolic confirmation or ‘strengthening’ of the king in his royal office. It drew on a range of models: rites associated with coming-of-age and episcopal ordination were fused with the Old Testament precedents of David and Solomon to form procedures specific to kingship. Their force was shaped from the mid-tenth century by the use of a formal promise, undertaken by the king prior to his anointing, to uphold certain principles of good rule. Initially concerned with the preservation of Christian peace, the forbidding of thefts and the upholding of fairness and mercy, over time the coronation oath came to reinforce the sense in which the royal office lay subject to certain expectations on the part of the wider political community. The oath, in representing anointing as formally conditional on the king’s promise, ultimately came through Magna Carta (1215) to be implicated in more substantial efforts to delineate royal authority. Framed as a series of customs and liberties conceded by King John to the political community at large, Magna Carta took its form from an existing model for royal promises, exemplified by the charter issued by Henry I at the time of his coronation (1100). Hence in 1689, when the need arose to represent the dual monarchs’ commitment to uphold Protestantism, the coronation oath provided a ready mechanism.

It is important to recognize that the forthcoming coronation will have been devised within a number of constraints. Whereas ritual associated with the rite, for example, processions, physical garments and regalia, musical settings and, in the twentieth century, pageantry, could evolve or be adjusted quite easily, the rite itself has received only relatively minor adjustments since 1689. It would be counter-productive, even meaningless, to attempt an entirely new form of ritual. The symbolic force of the rite derives from its longevity and adherence to the received form. For any new ceremony to have the status of a royal anointing, it would need to follow similar procedures. The service of 6 May is understood to have been compiled by a small advisory group working with the Archbishop, building on the work of an earlier committee attached to Lambeth Palace. It is necessary to highlight several dilemmas which a contemporary coronation now poses.

Firstly, the oath committing the new monarch to maintain ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law’ remains a legal requirement, as established by the Convention Parliament for 1689 and restated by the Act of Settlement of 1701. Historically, such a commitment was seen to be necessary for the monarch’s service as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That commitment might seem to pose tensions with the religiously plural character of the modern United Kingdom. In legal terms, the 1689 settlement was complicated by the formation of the Church of Scotland and the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland, a state of affairs resolved by the monarch’s oath, on his or her accession, ‘to preserve the settlement of the true Protestant religion as established by the laws made in Scotland’. Yet the 1689 settlement stands in particular tension with the modern growth of the Catholic church in mainland Britain, and with nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments in Ireland, particularly the balance of confessional populations in Northern Ireland. Given the legal constraints, there could be no easy way of softening the oath itself. Nevertheless, the deeper history of the rite stretches across confessional divides. The medieval structures of the Fourth Recension were willingly retained post-Reformation. For all James II’s misgivings, the rite could be made acceptable even for a Catholic king. When viewed in the long term, the coronation could be seen as relatively fertile ground for ecumenism.

Secondly, in view of the multi-faith nature of British society, it may be thought desirable for the coronation to acknowledge other faiths. The King has retracted the notion that he might be styled as ‘Defender of Faith’, but has clarified that as ‘Defender of the Faith’ (the title granted to Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521 – before the break with Rome) the monarch’s role extends to protecting the free practice of all faiths. How such acknowledgement might be achieved poses particular problems, given the status of the coronation as a Christian service with a confessional commitment. Nevertheless, there is significance in the notion of the ‘Abrahamic religions’ – namely, the shared connections of Christianity, Judaism and Islam in recognizing the revelation of God to the Patriarch Abraham – given the Old Testament models of kingship underlying the rite. The role of wisdom literature, expressed through the Psalms, might be seen to widen the range of resonances. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was willing to consider the rationality of a pagan commonwealth - rule by non-Christians over the faithful - in the same period when the Fourth Recension was formulated. On balance, therefore, room might be found for other faiths, though they would perhaps be accommodated most easily through associated ritual, rather than in the oath or the rite.

Thirdly, the coronation service faces pressures of length. The officially announced timing of 90 minutes would be just sufficient to cover the principal elements of the 1953 rite, though only on the assumption that the inward and outward processions counted additionally. It is conceivable that the Eucharist might be abandoned, but such a move would break a fundamental association going right back to the First Ordo, 1200 years ago, which is also supported by analogy with services of ordination. The performance of homage to the newly enthroned monarch, undertaken at length in 1953 by all princes and peers, offers the clearest candidate for curtailment. Firmly attested as part of the coronation from the fourteenth century onwards, the homage came at the end of the rite, and might be regarded as associated ritual. A further dilemma is presented by the sermon, attested from the Fourth Recension onwards, but omitted from three of the four twentieth-century coronations. Whereas considerations of timing would favour omission, an opportunity for ministry and explication might be regarded as valuable.

All these dilemmas will need to be resolved one way or another. It is not unlikely that King Charles’s coronation will mark a new phase for the rite, equivalent to the novel incorporation of pageantry and spectacle in 1902. The Archbishop and his advisers will be informed by the history of the rite while also treading a series of delicate tightropes. The coronation service has a unique capacity to pose difficult questions about religion in the modern United Kingdom: the meaning of establishment, the nature of the monarch’s commitments as Supreme Governor, and the role of the Anglican church in a multi-faith society increasingly less accustomed to church attendance. Nevertheless, some potential sources of resolution may be found in the deeper history of royal anointing: the medieval invocation of divine support for the king’s fulfilment of his office, held conditionally; the continuity of the Fourth Recension across the Reformation divide; and the wider inter-faith resonances of embedded Old Testament models and wisdom literature. All form part of the symbolic resources of the British state, sleeping since 1953 but about to be roused again. However these dilemmas are resolved, one may be sure that the service on 6 May will enact, as its forbears, a necessary dialogue between past and present.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More