Robert Hazell and Bob Morris have been examining the accession and coronation oaths the Queen’s successor will have to take once her reign comes to an end. Their research on the subject has led to two reports, both of which were published today. In this blogpost, they discuss their conclusions and call for both oaths to be rewritten to reflect a country that has changed significantly since they were last used.
The Constitution Unit has published two reports that look forward to the accession and coronation of the next monarch. This might be thought premature. But because so much has to be decided quickly, within 24 hours of the Queen’s death, it is important to spend time now considering the issues that will arise, before they have to be dealt with in the rush of a new reign. There will be no shortage of critics ready to snipe at the new monarch and their government if anything goes wrong; the more things can be thought through in advance, the better.
Our first report – Swearing in the new King: the Accession Declaration and Coronation Oaths – is the product of a study conducted jointly by both of us. The report’s main findings and conclusions are:
- On accession the new sovereign has to make three statutory oaths: the Scottish oath, to uphold the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; the Accession Declaration oath, to be a true and faithful Protestant; and the coronation oath, which includes promising to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England.
- These oaths date originally from 1688-1707, when Catholic Europe was seen as an existential threat. In our more secular and pluralist society, the oaths need to be revised and updated; or dropped altogether.
- Because the oaths are statutory, any significant revision would require fresh legislation; as would their repeal. To be in time for the next accession, legislation would need to be passed during the present reign.
- Legislation could adapt each oath to its context. In a radical reformulation, the Scottish oath could become an oath about the Union; the Accession Declaration, traditionally made before parliament, could become an oath to uphold the constitution and our laws; and the coronation oath, in a ceremony watched by millions, could be an oath made to the people.
- Our report offers three different reformulations of each oath, depending on how radical the government wishes to be. It may not be easy to reach consensus with the established churches, other faith groups, and civil society; ultimately the government has to decide.
- If there is not the political will to legislate, the government should consider preparing a statement to give to parliament on accession explaining the historical reasons for the oaths, and how they are to be understood in modern times; with an accompanying briefing for the media.
As part of our background research, Bob Morris read the government papers in the National Archives about previous accessions, in particular the accession of the Queen in 1952 and her coronation in 1953, as well as the memoirs of some of the participants. They contained a treasure trove of fascinating material, which it seemed a shame not to publish. So alongside our report on the oaths, we decided to publish a second report about the organisational arrangements.
This second report, by Bob Morris, is entitled Inaugurating a new Reign: Planning for Accession and Coronation. It starts by recording the changes of context that have occurred in the UK since 1952. It then examines what is involved in the accession ceremonies which follow soon after a monarch’s demise, and how they have been adapted over the years. The next chapter considers the coronation, with a lot of practical detail, partly out of historical interest, partly to assist those planning the next coronation. It demonstrates that for all sorts of reasons, the next coronation cannot be like that of 1953.
The report’s main findings and conclusions are:
- The UK is a much more diverse, pluralist and secular society compared with 1952. Half the population have no religious affiliation, with only 1-2% being attending Anglicans.
- In 1952 the UK was the head of a global empire. Although no longer a major international power, the UK still has an international monarchy, with the Queen being head of state of 15 other countries. Accession ceremonies must include the 52 other countries in the Commonwealth, as well as the 15 realms.
- The UK is now more clearly a union state, with devolution for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The devolved governments must also be involved in the accession ceremonies. The Scottish independence referendum and now Brexit add to pressures on the monarchy to be a symbol of national unity.
- Within 24 hours of the Queen’s demise, parliament is recalled for its members to take new oaths of allegiance. An Accession Council is summoned to St James’ Palace to proclaim the new sovereign, who then makes an inaugural declaration, and swears the Scottish oath.
- In the past this happened in private. In future it could be televised: it is the new sovereign’s first official appearance, and the personal declaration will be amongst their first public utterances as sovereign.
- The coronation service goes back over 1,000 years. The UK is the only monarchy in Europe to retain a religious coronation. It signifies the conferment of God’s grace on the monarch, who is anointed with holy oil, invested with symbols of authority, receives homage, and takes communion. The coronation will continue to be an Anglican service; but will find a place for other Christian denominations and other religions.
- In 1953 the grand procession from the Abbey was nearly three miles long, and processed for over five miles. More than 40,000 troops took part, with 24 military bands. The UK no longer has the capacity to mount anything like this spectacle.
- The next coronation will inevitably be smaller and shorter. It may not include the former ceremony of peers’ homage. Other representatives could instead be chosen to pay a modernised form of homage, in Westminster Hall or somewhere similar.
- A secular ceremony could celebrate the nation’s diversity in ways that an Anglican service cannot. But there would be questions of timing (before or after the coronation), attendance and procedure to resolve.
In writing these two reports we have incurred many debts of thanks. In particular, we would like to thank the 20 experts who attended two private seminars to discuss the oaths. They have been very generous in commenting on successive drafts and reformulations. We tried wherever possible to build consensus, but the Oaths report is not an agreed document and we alone are responsible for its content.
There will be a seminar at 6.15 p.m. on Wednesday 30 May at the Constitution Unit, where the authors will present their findings for questions and discussion. In particular, we would welcome discussion of the three reformulations of the oaths, and what action (if any) should be taken to revise and update them.
About the authors
Robert Hazell is a former Director of the Constitution Unit and led its project on Accession and Coronation Oaths. The associated reports (Swearing in the New King and Inaugurating a New Reign) were published on 23 May.
Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit.