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Coronation in high definition

Confronting the mysteries of a sacred institution

Up until this weekend, our mental images of what a Coronation is like were confined to ethereal yet grainy and distant colour images of 1953; and there is only black and white newsreel footage of the last time a king and Queen were crowned, lost in the distance of a past separated from us by the chasm of the Second World War. To see a Coronation not only in full colour but in the glare of 2023 high-definition cameras was a strange, even jarring experience. In 1953, enormously bulky colour cameras were carefully mounted into position and concealed high up in Westminster Abbey, so that in film the Coronation theatre is viewed always slightly from above — the Queen a figure just beyond reach: beautiful, glamorous and distant. 1953 may have been the first television Coronation, but 2023 was the first online Coronation, the first social media Coronation — indeed, the first memed Coronation. And in place of a beautiful young Queen we were faced with an elderly King: venerable, avuncular, perhaps a little world-weary but with a quiet determination to do things his own way.

Unlike any other state occasions a Coronation is personally focussed on the King and his Queen, and what is done to them. Even at the funeral of Elizabeth II the camera did not dwell on the King’s face alone, for we were all sharers in grief. But what the technology of 2023 has revealed is that the Coronation is an intensely personal event for one man (and his consort), albeit conducted in the full glare of international publicity. What was hitherto hidden from all but the closest bishops and courtiers is now the experience of the casual viewer: the King’s every facial expression, his body language, the outward signs of the inner life of majesty. In this sense, the concealment of the rite of anointing was almost otiose; we were already intimate participants in the Coronation; the mystery, for good or ill, was laid bare, and it was up to each of us to decide what we made of it.

There are some, predictably, who have responded to the Coronation with mockery — which has a certain irony, given that the King himself is well known for his Goonish sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous. The King, more than anyone, may well have been struggling to repress the occasional chuckle as the ceremonial proceeded. Others, more inclined to the maudlin than the mocking, have portrayed the Coronation as an end rather than a beginning — as a sort of late consolation prize to Prince Charles for being the longest non-reigning heir apparent in British history, as the coming of an ineffectual Winter King whose reign will be over almost before it has begun, or as a mere interlude before the supposedly “modernised” monarchy of William and Catherine. To assume that no-one can begin anything new in his seventies, however, is surely the very definition of ageism, and the King has been judicious in choosing imagery of the organic, the growing and the living to define his reign. In the natural world, old age is merely one part of the lifecycle, a necessary harbinger and prelude to renewal. 

There is a long history of new reigns being lauded as new beginnings

There is a long history of new reigns being lauded as new beginnings — not least the romantic “New Elizabethanism” rife in the early 1950s that Elizabeth II herself discouraged. Perhaps we should be glad we are spared the hyperbole that accompanies a young monarch, in favour of a much gentler imagery of natural growth and conservation of what we already have. Fittingly for the conservationist-king, this Coronation ceremony was one that conserved as much as it innovated, with Charles III dressed for much of the ceremony in robes almost identical to those of his grandfather George VI. Paradoxically for a ceremony watched by hundreds of millions of people, the events taking place in the Coronation theatre had a private (rather than “state”) feel. One reason for this was the absence of peers’ robes, to be replaced in some cases by the robes of orders of knighthood bestowed personally by the King, such as the Orders of the Garter and Thistle and the Royal Victorian Order. As the first true “post-imperial” Coronation, Charles III’s ceremony harked back, in some inexplicable way, to the Coronations of the medieval world — especially at the moment when the King was invested with the Sword of Offering to the accompaniment of otherworldly Byzantine chant.

After seventy years, we now have new collective images of what a Coronation should look like. Charles III’s Coronation is now the Coronation, the standard for how it’s done. Much of the mystery has been laid bare, but — so I would contend — it is not diminished. Charles III is neither precious nor stuffy about royal protocol, but he does understand the importance of ritual to the “punctuation marks” of our national life. The high-definition Coronation was strange, different, challenging — yet glorious.

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