British Coronation Traditions

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Podcast Transcript

On May 6, 2023, something will happen in London that hasn’t occurred in 70 years. A British monarch will be crowned. An event for which King Charles has spent his entire life in preparation.

The ceremony, which will take place in Westminster Abbey, and will incorporate centuries of traditions, both civil and religious. Many of those traditions had specific origins and reasons for their incorporation into the ceremony. 

Learn more about the British coronation ceremony and the traditions behind it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

King Charles III has spent 74 years preparing for the day of his coronation. He was the first-born son of the heir presumptive, and when his grandfather King George VI died, he became the heir apparent. 

His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, became monarch at a very young age and then lived to a very old age, making Charles the longest-waiting heir apparent to any royal throne in world history. 

So, he has had plenty of time to think and plan for his big day when he would be crowned king. 

The ceremony that he will go through is one which has evolved over 1,000 years. Every ceremony is a bit different, but they all incorporate traditions that were developed over the previous centuries. 

While Charles is the king and became so at the moment of the Queen’s death, the coronation ceremony is an official stamp on the process. It can be thought of as a wedding ceremony between the monarch and the state, or as an initiation rite.

There have been only two English monarchs who weren’t crowned. The first was Edward V, who was only a child when he took the throne and was believed to have been murdered by his uncle Richard who became king.

The second was Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in December 1936. 

Charles will not just be crowned the king of the United Kingdom. He will also be crowned as king of a host of other countries as well, including Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

The day for Charles will start by leaving Buckingham Palace with Queen Camilla in a carriage known as the Gold State Coach. The Gold State Coach was built in 1762 as a royal carriage, and it has been used in every coronation ceremony since 1831 and the coronation of Wiliam IV.

The carriage is extremely heavy and requires eight horses to pull it at walking speed. 

Once inside Westminster Abbey, there will be about 2,000 people in attendance, including 100 heads of state and members of other royal houses. Royal houses from almost every monarchy on Earth will be attending, including countries outside of Europe such as Thailand, Oman, Bhutan, Tonga, Lesotho, and Japan.

Westminster Abbey is a religious building, and the coronation is a religious ceremony, as King Charles is also the head of the Church of England. A fact that dates all the way back to Henry VIII, which I’ve touched on many times. 

The person who will be conducting the ceremony is the Bishop of Canterbury, who is the chief prelate of the Church of England. 

There are several pivotal parts of the ceremony. One of the first is the taking of the coronation oath. In addition to taking the oath, the monarch is presented to the people, formerly just the nobility, for acclimation.  A monarch isn’t chosen by acclimation, but they used to be during the Anglo-Saxon times. 

This asking for acclimation of those in attendance is a tradition going back to before the Norman Conquest. 

The oath he takes has been a part of British law since the Glorious Revolution in the late 17th century. The exact wording of the oath might deviate slightly, but there are three core components. When Queen Elizabeth took her oath in 1953, she promised first: “to govern the Peoples … according to their respective laws and customs?” Secondly, would she cause: “Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all … [her] judgements?” Lastly, would she: “maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel” as well as “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law.”

There has been talk of breaking the link between the monarch and the Church of England. Currently, the British Prime Minister is Hindu, and the First Minister of Scotland is Muslim. Modern Britain isn’t the same country that fretted about Protestant and Catholic control of the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

As of today, however, this link still exists. 

The other big part of the ceremony is the anointing. It is based on the anointing of Solomon as King in the Old Testament. 

The king will remove his garments and wear a special anointing robe. The Archbishop of Canterbury will place oil on the palms of his hands, his chest, and his head.

This part of the ceremony is not seen by the public. A cloth barrier is placed around the King and Archbishop, and it is done out of sight. 

The oil used for the anointing was created in Jerusalem from olive trees on the Mount of Olives. It is a special mix of orange, rose, cinnamon, musk, and ambergris oils. Here I’ll refer you to my episode on Ambergris and exactly where it comes from. 

The oldest of the crown jewels used in the ceremony is the anointing spoon. Used with the anointing oil, the spoon dates back to at least 1349 and was probably made for Henry II or Richard I.

Here, I should note that most of the Crown Jewels, the anointing spoon being an exception, only date back to the reign of Charles II. When Oliver Cromwell disbanded the monarchy, he destroyed most of the crown jewels and used them to fund the English treasury.

The object which is at the center of the ceremony is the Coronation Chair. The Coronation Chair is older than the anointing spoon. It was built by Edward I and used in the coronation of Edward II in 1308. 

The chair is wooden and built to hold an object known as the Stone of Scone. The Stone of Scone was a stone that Scottish kings were crowned on. Edward took it in 1296 as a symbol of his dominance over the Scots. 

However, when Queen Elizabeth I died, King James VI of Scotland suddenly became King James I of England. With the thrones of England and Scotland now unified, the Stone of Scone and the Coronation Chair became a symbol of the unity of the two countries. 

The coronation chair and the Stone of Scone are only actually used during the physical anointing and placing of the crown upon the monarch’s head. Other than that, the king will be sitting elsewhere. 

For years the Scots demanded the return of the stone to Scotland, which finally happened in 1996. However, its return was predicated that it be used in any future coronation ceremonies. 

The actual coronation will involve several objects, which are collectively the crown jewels. They include jewel-encrusted swords, an orb, spurs, bracelets, and other objects which only ever see use during coronation ceremonies. 

There are two objects in particular that Charles will hold in his hands, an orb and a scepter.  

The Sovereign’s Orb is a golden jewel-encrusted ball with a cross on the top, which is held in the monarch’s left hand during the coronation. The orb weighs 1.07 kg or 2.4 pounds. 

In his other hand will be held the scepter. There are six scepters in the collection, but the main one which is used during the ceremony is called the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross.

There are two crowns used during the ceremony. The first of which is the crown of Saint Edward. 

St. Edward’s Crown is named after St. Edward the Confessor, a King of England. The original crown was destroyed after the execution of Charles I, and the current crown was recreated for Charles II after the restoration in 1661.

The crown is 12 inches tall and weighs five pounds, and is made of solid gold. There are four arches at the top with a purple velvet cloth under the arches, and it is adorned with 444 precious stones. 

Not every monarch has used the crown during their coronation ceremony. The only monarchs who have used the crown are Charles II, James II, William III, George V, George VI, and Elizabeth II.

The St. Edward’s Crown is usually only used during the coronation itself, which means it was last used in 1953.  It is possible that King Charles will never wear the crown again after this ceremony.

The second crown used by the monarch after the coronation is called the Imperial State Crown. It was created in 1937 and is slightly smaller and lighter than the St. Edward’s Crown. 

This is the crown that the monarch traditionally wears during the opening of parliament. The crown has a whopping 2,901 precious stones, including the literal crown jewel: the Cullinan II diamond, which is 317.4 carats or 63.48 grams. It also has such noteworthy gems as the St Edward’s Sapphire, the Stuart Sapphire, and the Black Prince’s Ruby.

Charles is not the only person being crowned. His wife Camila will also be crowned as queen.

As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, there is only one type of king in the United Kingdom, a king monarch. However, there are three types of queens, a queen monarch, a queen consort, and a queen dowager. 

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, you constantly heard Camilla referred to as the Queen Consort. This was because, for the last 70 years, whenever someone referred to the queen, they were referring to a queen monarch, and there was a need to clarify that while the titles were the same, the roles were very different. 

Prince Philip was not crowned during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation because there is no equivalent role for a male consort of a female monarch. 

After the crown is placed on the head of the king, it is traditionally followed by members of the nobility kneeling before the monarch, pledging their loyalty. However, in this ceremony, the only person who will publicly pledge their loyalty will be Charle’s son, William, Prince of Wales. 

Sometime, probably in the next year, there might be a separate investiture ceremony for William as Prince of Wales at Carnarvon Castle in Wales. 

In the background of everything taking place during the coronation will be music. Some of the music will be very traditional. For example, during the actual anointing, Zadok the Priest, by George Frideric Handel, will be played. 

That piece was actually written by Handel for the coronation of King George II in 1727. 

When Charles arrives at Westminster Abbey, a special coronation march will be played written by Patrick Doyle, the composer who did the score for many films, including several Harry Potter movies. 

An anthem for the coronation titled “Make A Joyful Noise” was composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber. 

There will be a wide spectrum of music performed during the ceremony, which includes a mix of traditional music as well as music from contemporary composers. 

Regardless of what your personal opinions of the institution of monarchy might be, the coronation of a British monarch isn’t something that happens very often. It is one of the few ancient traditions which has survived into the modern world and one of the few opportunities for pomp and ceremony.