TOPSHOT - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (L) shows Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (C) and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (R), the Ampulla and Coronation Spoon used at her coronation in 1953, as other Christian leaders (R) watch as they attend a Diamond Jubilee multi-faith reception at Lambeth Palace in London on February 15, 2012. The event offered Christian leaders and leading members of the other eight traditional world religions in Britain an opportunity to show their affection and support for the queen in her Jubilee year. AFP PHOTO / POOL / MATT DUNHAM (Photo by MATT DUNHAM / AFP) (Photo by MATT DUNHAM/AFP via Getty Images)

The sacred Coronation

The ancient ritual at the heart of a very modern ceremony

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.

On Saturday 6 May, King Charles III will be crowned in Westminster Abbey, 70 years after the last time the ceremony was conducted for his mother. Witnessed by millions even in 1953, thanks to television and cinema, this central ritual of the British monarchy nevertheless contains much that is not readily understood. 

The coronation matters. How it is conducted will set the symbolic tone for the British state in the twenty-first century. As in 1953, it will also help shape an indelible image and memory for the many millions watching worldwide. 

The 1953 coronation came at the endpoint of a millennium of tradition while managing to be a finely-honed modern ceremony. It was the second to be broadcast, and the first to be televised. It was a magnificent set piece that laid the foundation for a monarchy on the cusp of the modern media age. 

But this central act of constitutional ceremony is also a very particular service of the Church of England, conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Regardless of how anachronistic it may seem in a secular society, this is a celebration for an Established Church. 

Where issues of governance and the accountability of the Head of State before God cannot be distinguished, the Church needs to know what it has to say. Not only does the Church of England have a place at the table, it is the Church that provides that table, or altar, and the regalia which is set upon it. 

The history of the coronation

The Coronation is the dedication of the sovereign before God. It signals the sacrificial role they will play in the service of the nation. The word “sacrifice” immediately underlines that this rite takes us into realms not purely of this world. The sovereign becomes one with his people through its solemn ceremonies. The historian, Arthur Bryant, described the late Queen’s Coronation in 1953 as “the birthday of the nation”. For others it is like a marriage. Aspects of both significant rites of passage resonate.

Properly described, the Coronation is a series of ancient rituals, some of which trace a direct line to the anointing of King Solomon. Most others date from before the Norman Conquest.

In the tenth century, St Dunstan drew together and established with Papal authority a rite which derived directly from the Byzantine Empire, self-consciously modelled on Old Testament precedent. Only the Holy Roman Emperors, the Kings of France and the Kings of England were recipients of the great honour of anointing and crowning. And the English coronation rite is the only one of its kind which remains in the Christian world.

Edward the Confessor founded Westminster Abbey as a Royal Church, and to be the place in which the rite would take place thereafter, which it has. His subsequent canonisation in 1161 added to the mystery and holiness of the English rite. And a residual fascination and cult of sainted kings remains a feature of the mystery associated with it.

The anointing of the monarch is not merely symbolic, but hovers ambiguously in the realm between blessing and sacrament, with gestures and vestments used that are reminiscent of both baptism and the ordination of a bishop, with the shape of the rite that of a Baptism within a Eucharist. 

The Coronation’s ecclesial status remains hard to give precise terminology to, not least since the Papacy endeavoured to restrict Chrismation in the early thirteenth century and disassociated the rite with the consecration of Bishops. It has survived the Reformation almost unchanged, and returned with full pomp after the interregnum, even if the character of the nation’s monarchy had changed in the meanwhile.

It is a Eucharistic rite. Only twice has this not been so: the Coronations of King John in 1199 and King James II in 1685 — neither auspicious precedents. It is a rite governed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, successor to St Dunstan. The rite reflects the polity of the Church of England as the Established Church. The Coronation is a Christian celebration of a unique kind, but one to which all faiths should be welcome, and in which other Christians might take part, as happened in 1953. Then, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland presented the Queen with the Bible. This was the first time the Church of England gave a role to anyone from outside it. 

The Biblical origins of the coronation

Kingship in the Hebrew Scriptures is both central and marked by ambivalence. The choice of a King for Israel by Samuel (I Samuel chapters 8-12) is presented as the consequence of the recalcitrant wish of the people, to which God accedes with some degree of weary reluctance.

The prophet Samuel pours oil over Saul’s head, and then kisses the anointed. Saul is given a list of instructions and told “The Spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with [the prophets] and be turned into another man.” (I Samuel 10:6). 

The change enacted is absolute. Saul becomes a different and new man. He is inspired, and the presence of the Spirit in Saul will characterise God’s blessing. The later departure of God’s Spirit, after divine favour ceases, ushers in a malevolent spirit, until Saul’s death. The demise of King Saul is a catastrophe not entirely of his own making. It is in part God’s judgement upon the royal project itself. 

Not only is monarchy entangled with prophesy, but it is also key to the worship of the Temple. In II Samuel 7, David declares his intention to build a Temple for the Lord, although it fell to his successor Solomon to do so. By constructing the Temple the connection is made manifest between the monarchy and the cultic worship of God. “It is no coincidence” notes Professor Ian Bradley, “that it is the description of Solomon’s coronation, the fullest account in the Bible, that has formed the basis for the crowning of all English monarchs in Westminster Abbey.” 

Kingship only gains in importance in the New Testament. Central to Jesus’s mission is the proclamation of the Kingdom. He teaches his disciples to pray “Thy Kingdom come”. For the faithful, a Christian king takes Jesus as the example to be actuated by a sense of duty and a spirit of self-sacrifice, to be the suffering servant and always to remember the words of Mark 10:43 “whoever will be great among you shall be your minister.” Christian monarchs stand, like all Christians, as subjects of the Kingdom of God, and as witnesses to the kingship of the risen and ascended Jesus, “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead and the ruler of the kings on earth.” (Revelation 1:5)”.

The Biblical basis of ancient Israelite kingship was to accomplish Atonement — the reconciliation of creation. The Holy of Holies represented this at the heart of the Temple. Atonement came annually through the representative suffering of the Priest-King, resulting in ultimate coherence of creation, through God’s forgiveness. Christ’s Nativity, Baptism, Passion, Cross, Death, Resurrection and Ascension are all interconnected hallmarks of the Kingship and Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the ushering in of God’s reign on earth, as it is in heaven. This Kingdom is the testimony to God’s creative and salvific purpose. The true diadem of Kingship is the Crown of Thorns.

The Coronation Today

The greatest power of this rite, for the faithful subject, is in the allusion to ultimate Christian destiny, yet its antiquity and history freight it with significances that are uncomfortable but compelling for Christian and secular observers alike.

Where Church ritual ends and State ceremonial begins is hard to define. The homage given by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, in their turn, underlines that the heavenly order and the order of precedence are yet to be fully disentangled. This may be unpopular to contemplate, but it is part of a ritual which will not dissolve. 

Through anointing, the King becomes one with his people whom he will serve

Through anointing, the King becomes one with his people whom he will serve. The allusions to priestly service and the use of the chrism have persisted for a thousand years, despite deep-seated Protestant sensibilities. The King becomes persona mixta. His high calling speaks of self-loss, sacrifice and death. The sequence of robes worn, red, linen, gold upon gold, imperial purple, tell of human destiny in Christ. 

It is not surprising that in mediaeval England it was thought that anointed kings could heal skin diseases. Richard II thought Holy Oil would protect him from harm in battle. Even today the popularity of the British monarchy can be linked to the abiding memory of the 1953 rite of Coronation, and the mystical aura it created around the late Queen. 

This Sacring is the heralding of a new dawn, with all the hope and joy that a Royal accession spells. It speaks through symbols and actions which have resonances stretching back to ancient Israel and beyond, into the mists of prehistory. It is an inescapably and unalterably Christian rite, but one with a universal and not exclusively Christian significance. It embodies the role of the sacred at the heart of the British state and national life, and long may it continue to do so. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover