12th May 1937: The coronation of King George VI at Westminster Abbey, London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Crowning moment

The Coronation is more than a magnificent piece of theatre

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Coronation is more than a glorious spectacle — it is the United Kingdom’s central constitutional ritual, and the cornerstone of its political traditions.

That supreme moment of British statehood has not been enacted for 70 years, and will be seen for the first time by a worldwide audience unimaginably removed culturally and politically from that of the 1950s.

The British monarch is the only Christian sovereign left in Europe who is still crowned and anointed. Every other monarchy that still exists has dispensed with these rituals, and even the Pope in Rome laid his crown aside in 1963 in the spirit of Vatican II. 

Whatever the oft-made arguments levelled against republicanism that the constitutional monarchies in Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands provide a successful alternative model, they do not apply to the UK. British monarchs do not meekly make oaths before parliament to uphold the constitution, they do not leave their crowns resting politely on cushions, they are anointed as God’s regent on earth in a ceremony whose roots stretch back to the kings of the Old Testament. 

Many will consider this an embarrassment; a humiliating anachronism that thumbs its nose at liberal modernity. Be that as it may, it is a fact of British exceptionalism. The survival of the coronation almost unchanged in spite of the Reformation, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the tumults of the twentieth century, is extraordinary. 

Such resilience suggests that it is more than merely a magnificent piece of theatre, a Gormenghastian ceremony devised by a past civilisation whose meaning has long been forgotten. Or even that it’s simply Whiggish Victorian flummery of which the Mad Men of 1950s British television made successful use.

The unique nature of the English Reformation is rooted in the country’s monarchy, which like the French monarchy raised the sovereign to something like a bishop. Both kingdoms had a form of coronation very similar to the consecration of a bishop, with the monarch wearing priestly vestments, and being anointed with the same oil used to consecrate bishops. The chief difference was that whilst the French ceremony was used to legitimise its dissolution of electoral monarchy, the English coronation combines anointing and the oath of the sovereign to their subjects. 

As with France and Gallicanism, this was a recurring source of tension with the Papacy, with the sacred authority of the monarch used to assert control over the appointment of bishops and the governance of the Church of England. 

In 1534 the English parliament, asserting its independence of Papal authority, proclaimed, “Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same.” 

Despite (some argue because of) the horrors of the Civil War and the transition from Stuart to Hanoverian rule — which could have been reversed had the Jacobites succeeded — Britain followed the continent neither in adopting absolute monarchy nor a pared-down constitutional monarchy. Rather, a mediaeval constitution survived into modernity by adapting itself to the age of popular democracy through the gradual raising of the power and primacy of the Commons. 

At the heart of this model is an idea of sovereignty

At the heart of this model is an idea of sovereignty, but one very different from other modern states. Whereas liberal theories of sovereignty as defined by Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham and Max Weber rest upon a singular, formal, and inalienable sovereign, British conceptions of politics and law have remained stubbornly resistant to rationalisation. 

Unlike other states, which all have a constitutional founding moment, British sovereignty has rested on an older, pre-ideological, idea of nationhood, defined sacramentally and covenantally as a relationship between the governor and governed. British monarchs are given the appearance of supreme worldly authority, embodied by orb, sceptre and crown, yet in the same ceremony swear solemn oaths to rule their subjects “according to their respective laws and customs”. 

The Common law, despite the best attempts of legal positivists, is in principle and essence customary, and pre-political. Very far from the Schmittian sovereign who must be the exception to the law he creates, the British monarch is perched upon the solid branches of established law and custom. 

The principle of the Crown in Parliament imparts to our modern democratic government the same model of stewardship of law and custom. In this organic model of law and authority, rights are recognised rather than invented — and long before denunciations of race discrimination and abolitionism were written into French or American constitutions, an English judge insisted that no man could remain a slave in the land of England — declaring “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” (Let justice be done though the heavens fall). 

Nor is this idea of sovereignty alien to the American tradition either (for all that it has been overtaken by other ideas), a tradition that begins with a declaration of independence on the basis of “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. The United States’ own sovereign status is justified, in essence, by an argument, specious or not, that a British king broke his vow to rule his American subjects “according to their respective laws and customs”. 

When Charles III is crowned and anointed in Westminster Abbey, we will not be witnessing an anachronism, but rather the central ritual of the most enduringly successful, just and humane system of government on earth. 

That system is now lethally imperilled by opponents of the British political tradition, both foreign and domestic, from the blinkered constitutional tinkerers of the English-speaking Left, to the rising power of autocrats in the developing world. If it is to be saved, it must have fearless advocates who understand rather than misrepresent and apologise for it. God save the King, and long may kings rule over us. 

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