Britain, for better and for worse

A motley crew greeted Charles III at his coronation


God save the King, then, I guess. For those of us in whom the monarchy inspires no violent passions, it was a moment of mild curiosity. It is not, after all, every day that you see someone being crowned.

There was an magnificent confluence of human achievement on display, from the 800-year-old abbey to the marching troops to the choir to the ultra-high definition cameras that allowed us to read the schoolboy etchings in the Coronation Chair over the king’s shoulder as he was handed his ceremonial spurs and his magical ring and his oven mitt of destiny.

On TV, the mood was breathless and uncritical. There were an awful lot of commentators, but no one was allowed to murmur even the slightest question about any part of an occasion that was, objectively, quite odd. We kept being told what a wonderful fellow the king is, but the whole point of the system is that he’d get the job even if he were a wastrel and a cad.

Sky’s Kay Burley had intercepted Joanna Lumley on the way into the Abbey, invited presumably on the grounds that Ab Fab’s Patsy is Queen Camilla’s spirit animal. Lumley had been a guest of the royal couple, and revealed that they’re such wonderful normal people and when you stay with them, at the end of your visit, your car is returned to you cleaned and refuelled. Burley was particularly astonished by this detail, repeating it several times in the hours that followed, even though it’s not clear that the king wields the chamois leather himself.

“I just want to tell you I’m wearing my grandmother’s gloves,” Lumley said, for no clear reason, at the end of the interview. Even Burley, who is rarely lost for words, was floored by that one. “Ah, lovely!” she replied, eventually.

On the cameras swept through the congregation. Here was Emma Thompson, and Stephen Fry, and Lionel Ritchie, suggesting that the cultural centre of gravity of Charles III’s reign is going to be about 1989. Here were the former prime ministers. Boris Johnson, 58 years old and still dressed like a four-year-old squeezed into a suit for his aunt’s wedding. There was Liz Of The 49 Days.

Here, in what Huw Edwards described drily as “a rare public appearance”, was Prince Andrew, wearing heavy robes under which we must assume he was blessedly free of perspiration. Fans of royal snubs will have been excited to see that he was in the same row as Prince Harry, who will probably be able to get a chapter into the paperback of his autobiography out of the seating plan.

Somewhere off camera, a small group of anti-monarchists had arrived at the place where the police had told them they would be allowed to demonstrate, and been arrested. It’s good to know that the Met has enough competence to organise a basic trap, if not enough sense to realise that this was a very stupid idea. For anyone to whom the flags and the extra bank holiday were signs that we now live in a fascist dictatorship, this was a welcome sign that they were right.

For the rest of us, the event had a delightful randomness. Floella Benjamin turns out to have a leading role in our constitution. If you’d told me that when I was five, it would have made perfect sense.

Finally the star of the show arrived

Finally the star of the show arrived. The role of Leader of the House of Commons is generally held by awkward political characters whom a prime minister wishes to keep away from power but can’t simply sack. That was why Liz Truss appointed Penny Mordaunt to the role last year and indeed why Rishi Sunak kept her there. But it turns out that the job also involves a key role during the coronation. And Mordaunt, who as a former magician’s assistant knows a thing or two about how to hold an audience, was not going to let her moment pass.

Guests at the coronation had largely come dressed as movie extras, the films in question being either Four Weddings And a Funeral or The Princess Bride. Mordaunt had commissioned her own outfit, a sleek dress and hat decorated with gold laurels that made her look like she’d just stepped off the set of the new Dune – Queen Penelope of House Portsmouth North. Throughout the ceremony she was at the edge of the shot, carrying a huge sword. HBO are in urgent talks to make a spin-off series of the coronation in which Mordaunt is cheated out of the Conservative leadership and roams the galaxy seeking vengeance.

As for the service itself, Zadok The Priest was magnificent, but we could have stood to lose half an hour. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sneaked in a brief sermon so explicitly evangelistic that it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he’d finished by telling everyone they could find a leaflet about the Alpha course in the pews in front of them. “Jesus doesn’t grasp power or hold onto status,” he said, addressing, as he did at the late Queen’s funeral, a room full of people whose lives have been dominated by the pursuit of those things. “His throne was a cross. His crown was made of thorns.”

As for King Charles III, he looked somewhere between serious and glum throughout. Does he want the job? Does his son? Does his grandson, who could be seen at points chewing his lip thoughtfully? It doesn’t matter what they want. Monarchy at times feels like a form of human sacrifice. God save the king indeed.

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