Photo by Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Monarchy re-enchanted

The new Coronation liturgy underlines Charles III’s sacral kingship

Artillery Row

As more and more details of Saturday’s Coronation service have filtered out from the Palace and other sources (the order of service was leaked a few hours before its official release date on 29 April), it has become clear that the sacredness of the rite of Coronation is central to Charles III’s understanding of kingship. The King has described himself as a “a hopeless romantic”, easily moved by solemn occasions. He has consistently demonstrated sensitivity to an expansive awareness of the sacred that exceeds the strictures of a single religious tradition, in spite of his unambiguous commitment to the Church of England. Indeed, no king has been more preoccupied with the sacrality of his own kingship since the Restoration of his namesake Charles II in 1660 — the king who reinvented the Coronation, replaced the destroyed regalia and single handedly renewed some of the magic of monarchy, after it was brutally cut short (quite literally) by his father’s execution in 1649. Charles III seems intent on re-enchanting the monarchy through a Coronation service rooted in both the past and the present, but suffused with mysticism.

This Coronation will, if anything, be more steeped in the sacred than the last one

At the time of his accession Charles III indicated that his would be a simpler monarchy. Many took this to mean that the King would have a simpler Coronation — something akin, perhaps, to the swearing-in ceremonies of “modern” monarchies in countries like Spain and the Netherlands. Others thought the King might turn the Coronation into a multi faith ceremony of some kind. Many believed the Holy Communion service would be dropped, and that the anointing would be public. Such speculations mistook the nature of the King’s deep spiritual convictions about his own position. When the four-year-old Duke of Cornwall attended his mother’s Coronation in 1953, his grandmother Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother urged him to try and remember that day — and he did. The Coronation rite that the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Earl Marshal have agreed for 6 May 2023 is still, in all its essentials, the same rite witnessed in 1953. What has taken the nation by surprise is that this 21st century Coronation will, if anything, be more steeped in the sacred than the last one.

Charles III’s Coronation will be the first in many centuries to take place directly on top of the Cosmati pavement made for Coronations in the reign of Henry III, a talisman designed to draw down celestial influences on the new king. The new “Cross of Wales”, the processional cross, contains a relic of the True Cross given to the King by the Pope; the holy oil for the King’s anointing has been consecrated in Jerusalem. Furthermore, the King has insisted that his anointing, the holiest moment of the ceremony, be entirely hidden by a specially designed screen adorned with words of the mediaeval mystic Julian of Norwich, and he has elected to wear the full sacred vestments of his forebears. The words of the ceremony of anointing itself are entirely unchanged, and they will be set within a celebration of Holy Communion.

That being said, there are some departures from tradition. The King will not make the customary oblations at the altar of Westminster Abbey, but he will say his own prayer — an innovation that, if anything, underlines his status as a sort of priest-king, as do the monarch’s opening words that identify him with Jesus Christ: “I come not to be served but to serve. The Thanksgiving for the Holy Oil is now a blessing rather than merely a prayer of thanksgiving. New words have been added to the service for the presentation of the Spurs and the Glove, and the presentation of the Ring has been reimagined as a covenant between King and people.

The real beneficiaries of Charles III’s innovations are other Christian churches

The spirituality of Charles III’s Coronation, whilst forcefully present, nevertheless has a fuzzier feel than 1953’s. The Sword of Offering, for example, is no longer given to the King “for the terror and punishment of evildoers, and for the protection and encouragement of those that do well”, but “to resist evil and defend the good”. At the presentation of the Orb, instead of remembering that “the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer”, the King is to “remember always the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ”. The prayer after crowning, “God crown you with a crown of glory and righteousness … ” is gone, as is the Creed, whilst the presentation of sceptres is rolled into a single event. However, whilst representatives of other faiths are involved in the presentation of regalia, it is the Archbishop who places them in the King’s hands and says the prayers. It is significant that the King’s greeting of non-Christian faith leaders occurs after the final blessing, therefore outside of the Coronation service itself. 

The real beneficiaries of Charles III’s innovations are not other faiths, but the other Anglican churches of the British Isles and other Christian denominations. This Coronation is certainly not a multifaith event, but it can justifiably be described as approaching an ecumenical Coronation. Some of the richness of the symbolism of individual items of regalia has perhaps gone astray in amended and shortened prayers. The most controversial change to the Coronation has little to do with the religious ceremony at all, however — the so-called “Homage of the People”, where all people of goodwill are invited to swear allegiance. This, too, is arguably an extension rather than a retrenchment of royal sacrality. Whether Charles III’s renewal of sacral monarchy for the 21st century will succeed remains to be seen. In choosing an opposite direction of travel to Europe’s other remaining monarchies, he is making a bold move. Many will like it; many won’t. It is nonetheless undeniable that Charles III’s gentle, non-sectarian spirituality is a breath of fresh air from both secularism and religious fanaticism. He just might pull this off.

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