Make a spectacle of oneself

Don’t skimp on the coronation; the monarchy is a drama that speaks to all our hearts

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Aware that Queen Elizabeth I said to Robert Cecil, a much greater man than I, “Little man, little man: must is not a word to be used to princes,” I am hesitant to address my new Sovereign Lord with the word “must”. 

But the Coronation must not be a seriously watered-down affair. The King shows admirable concern for the public purse in these times of serious economic distress but might, if he heeds overly cautious advisers, miss one of the great strengths of monarchy: it is a spectacle. It is a drama that speaks, in language of sign and symbol, to the heart of the nations that own King Charles as their king.

On the Saturday after the Queen’s death, I went, with hundreds of others, to the Proclamation of the new King in the City of London. There were musketeers and pikemen, heralds and trumpeters, guardsmen, mounted police, the Lord Mayor and the Sheriffs. 

After the Proclamation was read by Clarenceux King of Arms and everyone had shouted “God Save The King”, and then proceeded to sing “God Save The King”, the cavalcade moved off elsewhere and a French correspondent asked me if all this was relevant in an era of social media and smartphones.

All the more relevant, I said (never knowingly off-brand). What was everybody doing during the proclamation? They had their phones up. They were taking photographs, videoing the occasion, preparing to post them to Instagram, TikTok, or, if over 50, to Facebook. Content needs colour.

Monarchy thrives on modernity

Monarchy thrives on modernity. I know this runs counter to everything we hear about what a fully-functioning modern society needs: a president, a written constitution, proportional representation, and a horse-shoe parliament but, let’s be honest, this all sounds so painfully mid-twentieth-century bland. It works when the most that anyone will notice of the trappings of your state is as a 45-second clip in a ten-minute news bulletin.

But now? Our dark times need drama. Our social media feeds need filling. And in the midst of desperately curated fake tans and snazzy meals, there is no better content than the ancient drama of liturgy and the authentic emotion of those engaging with it.

And authenticity is key. That’s the secret to monarchy. You couldn’t script the outpouring of grief and love that followed the death of the Queen. The sacrifice of standing for 14, 15 or 20 hours in order to pay our respects to our dead sovereign is social media gold because it is genuinely authentic. It is 24-carat gold in an ersatz era. 

The single most watched event in human history was an Anglican liturgy using the traditional language of the   Book of Common Prayer augmented by music firmly in the classical tradition (albeit two pieces were composed specially for the occasion). 

I think this bears repeating: the single most watched event in human history was an Anglican liturgy using traditional language.

He must not diminish the Coronation

That’s why, with all due respect to my Prince, he must not diminish the Coronation. The service has what the world is crying out for: authenticity. It goes back to the Saxon era, crafted by my favourite saint of all: St Dunstan. 

It uses visually rich symbols to tell of earthly power and remind us where that power is derived. It drags us out of our achingly embarrassing quibbles over modern policy to something that feels eternal — that is eternal. Its language tells us of our forebears and reassures us that we will be followed in our turn. 

You do not have to be a Christian to appreciate the depths of meaning which flows from this most ancient service; its reality, depth, and authenticity speak for itself. This is a coinage that should not casually be debased.

Now obviously there are aspects which can be trimmed. I’m not sure anybody needs to sit through half an hour of homages, and the court composers can be told to keep their pieces of music down to a humble few minutes each. But the core of the service, and the drama, and the colour, and the glamour must not be compromised. 

That way lies some anaemic investiture in front of a lounge suit-wearing panel of granite-faced bureaucrats armed with codes of conduct promising to model best practice. Nobody would bother turning up in the rain to film that on their mobile phones. It would justly merit 45 seconds in a ten-minute news bulletin that nobody watches any more.

So as a little man, I beg the King’s indulgence, and ask him to consider all the other little men and women who are looking forward to celebrating his coronation with him and to ask that he makes sure that it is a spectacle we can be proud to know stands in the tradition of our forebears and will make us proud to tell our descendants of in decades to come.

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

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

Critic magazine cover