At 73 years of age, Charles III is about to be crowned in Westminster Abbey as the latest in a long line of Kings stretching back through the ages. In terms of names, there have been six George’s, four Williams and eleven Edwards although earlier ones are not counted as they were Anglo Saxon so officially it is only eight. There have also been eight Henry’s, the occasional Mary, John, Cnut, Harold, Alfred, Richard, James, Ann, Victoria and of course two Elizabeth’s.
There were two 17th century kings by the name of Charles. Three hundred and sixty two years ago, Charles II was crowned king on St George’s Day April 23rd 1661. It was a difficult, fractious time and there had been no certainty that he would be restored to the throne and crowned as King given that his father, Charles I, had been executed by Parliament.
The Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell had deliberately destroyed much of the cultural traditions of the monarchy along with some of the royal regalia including the venerated golden crown of Edward the Confessor. Saint George’s Day was carefully chosen as the coronation date in order to reinforce the symbolism of Charles II as Saint George, the slayer of the Commonwealth dragon (the name referring to Crowell’s time in power).
Charles II’s coronation was the most extravagant since that of Elizabeth I. At its heart was a magnificent procession which set off through London following in the steps of previous coronations. Various entertainments were planned along the way with the central feature being a set of four triumphal arches representing themes relating to Charles and the Restoration. Paintings and music strengthened the symbolism of Charles II as part of a magnificent heritage of heroes and emperors from history such as the Roman emperor Augustus with trumpeters and drummers placed on the arches and balconies.
At the Abbey the solemnity, the readings from the Epistles, the prayers and choirs were all designed to create a sacred atmosphere of majesty and gravitas. After the mass, the King went into Saint Edward’s Chapel to lay the regalia on the altar before, wearing new purple and ermine robes and the imperial crown, he processed back to Westminster Hall for the feast surrounded by bishops and nobility. Samuel Pepys diaries suggest everyone then ate and drank too much but all much enjoyed it and it was a stark contrast to the puritanical years.
Every new King or Queen interprets the moment of transition differently. It is about responding to the times, drawing together the population and being relevant. At heart however it is a sacred service drawing on deeply held ancient Christian cultural traditions and both Charles II and Charles III chose to wear Edward the confessor’s crown recalling the consecration of this ancient king on 3 April 1043.
There is, however, probably no smooth rite of passage for any coronation. Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837. Her procession was the longest since that of Charles II in April 1667 but it was so expensive that there was no coronation banquet and contemporaries thought it all rather chaotic. A young MP at the time, Benjamin Disraeli, noted that those involved “were always in doubt as to what came next, and you saw the want of rehearsal”. The choir and orchestra were not coordinated and some pieces were described as “a strange medley of odd combinations”. However, the key element of the plan was the presentation of the event to a wider public and large crowds did indeed gather to watch.
Edward VII’s coronation had been carefully planned as a spectacle which bought together the diversity of the British Empire but had to be postponed due to the King’s appendicitis with the result that not all the important guests were able to reschedule for the following year. Furthermore, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the crown on back to front and then got stuck on his knees until the King helped him up.
George VI entered the abbey filled with 8,000 guests as an elegant young king flanked by the colourful robes of bishops and with fanfares of trumpets. It was a spectacular entrance and the event, as it was in due course for his daughter Elizabeth II, was carefully choregraphed to capture both the sacred anointing and formal crowning as well as the pageantry and colour of the public spectacle.
Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was only a little older than the 19-year-old Queen Victoria had been but her composure and presence was extraordinary. For all the pomp and glamour of the occasion, it was, in her own words, “wonderful and there is a great sense of offering oneself”.