The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 2 June 1953 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ritual, not pageantry

Understanding the Coronation

Artillery Row

Britain is renowned throughout the world for the quality and scale of its state pageantry, to the point where tourists will often come from abroad just to witness something like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the Horse Guards Parade or the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. 

The purpose of some Coronation regalia has been forgotten over the centuries

A Coronation takes all this to a different level. Thousands of troops in their dress uniforms will be on display on 6 May, no doubt flawlessly choreographed — even if the spectacle is considerably reduced from the epochal Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. There is something more than choreography and pageantry to the Coronation. At its heart, the Coronation is a ritual — something that matters in and of itself, apart from the quality or details of its performance, or the splendour of the pageantry around its edges. When something is a ritual, for reasons we may struggle to articulate, it simply matters that it is done. 

Many people in modern Britain have been surprised by the smoothness of the transition from the reign of Elizabeth II to that of Charles III — but that is how the system is supposed to work. Whatever debate there may have been over the decades about the King’s merits relative to his mother’s, on 8 September 2022 the mechanics of succession simply kicked in — the Accession Council, the national and regional Proclamations, later the gradual replacement of royal ciphers, currency, postage stamps. Then, of course, the Coronation: “Whereas, We have resolved by the Favour and Blessing of Almighty God to celebrate the Solemnity of Our Royal Coronation at Westminster upon Saturday the sixth day of May in the year 2023 … ” runs the Coronation Proclamation of 9 November 2022, echoing the words of every proclamation before it. The strange, much modified and yet still living ancien régime constitution of the United Kingdom ticks on, whatever disquiet a large portion of the population may harbour about its continuance.

Still, the existence of vocal opponents to the Coronation, and to monarchy, should not be cause for outrage. There have always been such opponents — whether supporters of rival dynasties in mediaeval and early modern Britain, or the Chartists and republicans who protested against the Coronation of Queen Victoria, or those who thought the Coronation of the dashing Edward VIII’s stammering younger brother heralded disaster for Britain in 1937. The freedom to ignore, disparage or protest against the Coronation is itself an emanation of a rite that has, over the centuries, come to embody the contract between monarch and people that safeguards liberty. In contrast to a mere performance, a ritual is able to withstand and even accommodate disagreement. A ritual proceeds, regardless of whether everyone considers its meaning the same, or even understands its meaning at all. Famously, the purpose of some items of Coronation regalia, such as St Edward’s Staff, has been forgotten over the centuries. A Coronation is both a collective national forgetting as well as a great act of collective national recovery of memory — but the ritual goes on.

If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly

Britain’s coronations have sometimes been hasty, unrehearsed and even shambolic: the Scottish King James I speedily crowned to ensure legitimacy; Queen Anne almost too infirm to walk up the aisle of Westminster Abbey; George I struggling to read a Coronation Oath in English; the Archbishop of Canterbury squeezing the Coronation ring onto the wrong finger of Queen Victoria’s hand and putting the crown on her head the wrong way round … As the saying goes, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. This, in a way, sums up the distinctiveness of ritual. Ritual is something humans do, because do it they must — for its own sake, because it must be done, because it is what is done.

Ritual is very different from performance. The Coronation will no doubt be done well, but Britain is not North Korea. We do not put on elaborately choreographed displays of pageantry just to show that we can, as a sort of threat to the rest of the world, or to glorify the raw power of totalitarianism, but because we value deeper rituals at the heart of our national polity, which matter in themselves. The Coronation rite, as many commentators have observed, is older than England itself. It is not a rite invented by England’s (or Britain’s) monarchy to glorify itself, but a ritual lost in the mists of time from which the idea of England itself once emanated. It is no accident that in the first English Coronation in the historical record, Edgar the Peaceable assumed the role of a unifying king over the English kingdoms in 973. He was crowned at Bath in the wreckage of Roman Britain as a restorer of Roman-style order and unity.

Because the Coronation is ritual, we should be fairly relaxed about the thought of tinkering around the edges. Every Coronation is slightly different, as is every reign. The 18th century’s “concert coronations” were horrifying to liturgical purists. What matters is that the central rituals — the anointing, the investiture with richly symbolic regalia, the crowning — are duly performed. The Coronation will, of course, express the distinctive preferences of King Charles III and the peculiarities of 21st century Britain — Coronations exist in time, after all; they are historical events. There is nonetheless a brief moment, in any immemorial ritual greater and older than the society that performs it, when we are no longer watching a single event, but are participants outside of time, when the historical seems to slip into the eternal.

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