Medieval,” “anachronistic,” “outdated,” “a magic hat ceremony.” These are just a few of the uncomplimentary terms that some have chosen to describe tomorrow’s coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Whatever people in the United Kingdom and beyond may think of a coronation in the twenty-first century, there is no escaping the deep strangeness of this ancient rite, which only two nations on earth still perform—the other being the Pacific island nation of Tonga. The coronation is an intriguing composite rite that reaches back into England’s deep past, expressing the aspirations of its later rulers. Originating as a Christian compromise with earlier pagan rites of royal investiture, it would become in time a Protestant compromise with Britain’s Catholic past, while also referencing Britain’s growing role as an imperial power.
The earliest recorded English coronation was the crowning of Edgar the Peaceable at Bath in 973. But this was not the first English coronation; scholars consider that an English rite of coronation in some Frankish pontificals is perhaps a century older than Edgar’s. This suggests that English coronations inspired those of Continental monarchs. Indeed, it is likely that the English rite of coronation (older than England itself) is the ancestor of virtually all medieval coronation rites—making it historically fitting, perhaps, that England alone continues to crown its monarchs. It is even possible that the origins of the English coronation rite reach back to the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. A clue to this possibility is the jarring appearance of a helmet instead of a crown in the first English Ordo, the earliest surviving coronation liturgy—a relic of the time when a cyning (king) was inaugurated in his war-gear by being lifted on a shield by his thegns (thanes), sometimes even on the battlefield.
For St. Augustine of Canterbury’s successors, it was essential to convince England’s kings that they held their authority from God, not from the assent of their thegns or their claimed descent from Woden. The coronation order thus yoked together the pre-Christian, the sacred, and the secular in a single ceremony. It contained an acclamation of the new king (today’s Rite of Recognition), bringing the old Germanic battlefield traditions inside the walls of a church; where once thegns had recognized a new king on the field of battle, now the Archbishop of Canterbury presented the sovereign to the assembled nation, and the king was required to promise to uphold the Church in exchange for the privilege of anointing. In the early days of the English Church, when Christianity’s hold on kingdoms was fragile, such promises were more than formalities.
But it was the Rite of Anointing, the Church’s gift to the king (as it were), that was and is central to the coronation. Anointing assimilates the monarch to Christ as well as to the ancient kings of Israel. From the perspective of a medieval king, it offered some degree of personal protection; the taboo against touching the Lord’s anointed deterred at least some (if not all) rebels and usurpers. It also offered early medieval kings the chance to become a Christian king, a participant in Christendom and, like the Byzantine emperors, an “equal of the apostles”; even English kings styled themselves by the imperial title Basileus.
But by the High Middle Ages, a rite designed to draw kings into Christian loyalty was beginning to seem too much like the anointing and consecration of priests and bishops. Debate raged about whether anointed kings were in some sense ordained; to this day, Britain’s monarchs are clothed in priestly vestments. Yet the rite persisted, justified by the biblical precedent of Zadok and Nathan’s anointing of David, commemorated in Handel’s famous anthem sung at every British coronation since that of George II. The oil for King Charles III’s anointing was consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The “magicalization” of the coronation rite intensified in the reign of Edward I, who captured the Stone of Destiny (also called the Stone of Scone), used in the coronation of Scottish monarchs, and had it built into St. Edward’s Chair, the throne used only for coronations. According to legend, the Stone of Destiny was the very stone on which Jacob laid his head when he dreamt of the angelic ladder. The Stone is in reality a pre-Christian object that probably played a part in the investitures of pagan kings. As kingship became ever more closely associated with King Solomon, celebrated for his wisdom and alleged magical skill, Edward III had leopards added to St. Edward’s Chair in imitation of Solomon’s throne, and commissioned a Cosmatesque pavement on the floor beneath it that was designed to function as an astrological talisman, drawing down positive heavenly influences on the king.
England’s first Protestant coronation did not occur until 1603, for James I (Elizabeth’s had still been Catholic), yet the Protestant rite largely retained its Catholic form. The Reformation abolished anointing with (and blessing of) oil, yet the coronation was an exception. The coronation thus acquired a uniquely numinous quality in post-Reformation England, not only because kings and queens were now deemed supreme governors of the Church, but because the coronation showcased forms of Catholic ceremonial outlawed elsewhere. Then, as Britain’s empire expanded, the spoils of empire joined the crown jewels: The world’s largest diamond, the Great Star of Africa, was set in the sovereign’s scepter, and the Kohinoor diamond from India in the queen consort’s crown.
By the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, after a period of Victorian restraint that followed the gargantuan expenditure and lavish ceremonial of George IV, ritual was back in fashion, even with the Church of England. But the sheer color, grandeur, and pageantry of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was such a contrast with the drabness of post-war Britain that it indelibly marked the memories of those who watched it on television—Britain’s equivalent of the moon landings. Whether Charles III’s coronation will acquire the same iconic cultural status remains to be seen, but this ancient ceremony continues to be an enduring source of fascination.
Francis Young is a British historian and folklorist.
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