When the next monarch accedes to the throne, there will likely be a coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Yet the UK is unique in western Europe in having a coronation. What purpose does such an event serve? Bob Morris looks back at past coronations to provide an answer to that question.
Last summer the Constitution Unit published two reports: one on updating the Accession and Coronation oaths, and a second on Planning the next Coronation. In the course of our work we learned that the UK is alone amongst European monarchies in retaining a coronation. Belgium and the Netherlands have never held them; nor from the end of the medieval period has Spain. There have not been coronations in Denmark, Sweden and Norway since 1849, 1873 and 1906 respectively.
That prompted the question, what is the coronation for? It is a question also put to us by journalists when we launched our reports. This blog post attempts to address the question. At the outset, however, one point needs to be emphasised. In law the coronation does not ‘make’ the sovereign. The monarch succeeds to the throne automatically immediately on the decease of their predecessor. The courts affirmed this position as long ago as 1608 concerning King James I’s succession to Elizabeth I:
‘..the title is by descent; by Queen Elizabeth’s death the Crown and kingdom of England descended to His Majesty, and he was fully and absolutely King, without any essential ceremony or act to be done ex post facto, and that coronation was but a Royal ornament, and outward solemnization of the descent.’
The nature of the rite
The Westminster Abbey coronation is an Anglican religious service centred on the communion. At the same time, it is a great national pageant of costly display and celebration controlled by the government of the day. It is a political as well as a religious event. Not surprisingly, it has been imbued with different meanings by different participants and observers.
The Church of England
Unsurprisingly, Archbishops of Canterbury, the main celebrants in the Abbey proceedings, have stressed the sacral nature of the rite. In 1937, for example, Archbishop Lang emphasised in the Official Souvenir Programme for the Coronation of George VI –
‘But the significance of the ceremony is that the King does not crown himself. His Crown is brought from God’s Altar and put upon his head by the Archbishop, in token that his kingship is a solemn trust committed to him by Almighty God…. the ultimate source and sanction of all true civil rule and obedience is the Will and Purpose of God, that behind the things that are seen and temporal are the things that are unseen and eternal’.
And regardless of the absence of any strictly constitutional significance, the historian Roy Strong has pointed out that ‘Although the inauguration ceremonies seemed, at times, almost to challenge the necessity of the rite of Coronation, no king went without unction and crowning.’ He has also expressed support for the liturgist E. C. Ratcliff’s view that ‘In a word, the English Coronation Service symbolises national continuity considered sub specie Christianitatis’.
Shakespeare dramatised the significance of such proceedings when he put words into the mouth of a king:
‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord’. (Richard II, Act III, Sc. ii.)
Richard’s assertion did not, of course, prevent his deposition.
In 1953 Michael Young (social entrepreneur and main author of the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto) and the distinguished American sociologist, Edward Shils, reflected on the coronation in a new academic journal. As they saw it,
‘…the Coronation was the ceremonial occasion for the affirmation of the moral values by which the society lives. It was an act of national communion….’The Coronation Service itself is a series of ritual affirmations of the moral values necessary to a well-governed and good society. The key to the Coronation Service is the Queen’s promise to abide by the moral standards of society… Over the past century, British society, despite distinctions of nationality and social status has achieved a degree of moral unity equalled by no other large national state.’
This did not please other sociologists. In a 1955 riposte, Norman Birnbaum claimed that their views reflected distortions produced by the authors’ value preferences; that they had failed to demonstrate the existence of a moral consensus or unity; that it was social struggle that had brought the propertied classes into national moral life rather than the other way round; and that ‘the tawdry baubles of the Coronation celebration constitute no adequate substitute for the loss of faith of millions.’
Academics have continued on occasion to consider the issues. The sociologist Norman Bonney applied the concept of ‘civil religion’ developed in America to explain how even in a formally secular state there is nonetheless resort to national rituals which reinforce a common moral understanding:
‘Civil religion is thus…particularly in the case of the UK, an inherently political phenomenon which, in the service of the state, attempts to comprehend, celebrate, sanctify and guide the state and its society within a religious framework that is compatible with popular opinion and the controlling interests of the state..’
A different kind of social scientist, the political scientist Ben Pimlott, reflected on the coronation in his biography of Queen Elizabeth II:
‘The essence of it was a legitimation. Not of spiritual, but of temporal power – and, in the modern era, of the institutions of liberal democracy.’
In the 1953 Coronation programme, Arthur Bryant – a sort of semi-official public historian and courtier – affected a suitably celebratory but solemn mood:
‘A Coronation is a nation’s birthday. It is the day on which its people celebrate the union that makes them one. Of that union the Crown is the symbol ….Our young Queen does not only symbolize our political union. She enshrines our ideals. She represents in her person the abiding virtues – of hearth, home and of service – which are the foundations of society.’
The Times leader written by Dermot Morrah (who had doubled as an extra Herald on the day) struck a less insular chord:
‘Metaphorically as well as literally the British family of nations had built a grandstand – to look at its history and to take pride and find hope in what it saw. But all holidays must come to an end…The time has come for Britain to find anew her place in the world, earning it not merely by her past example but by her present exertion.’
More up to date is a 2015 study by Theos, entitled, Who wants a Christian coronation? Despite the growth of secularisation and religious pluralisation, the study argued that the coronation should remain a Christian event; but it would need to be more inclusive of other Christian denominations and non-Christian religions, and be considerably scaled down. Drawing on the ceremony’s history of adjustment to social and political change, the study concluded that ‘Each coronation has been an attempt to formulate an adequate response to the weight of history, the concerns of the present and the promise of the future.’
The coronation oath
The coronation oath is a statutory formula laid down in the Coronation Oath Act 1688. It reflects the constitutional changes of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which established parliamentary sovereignty and entrenched the Protestant succession. It is in three parts: the new sovereign swears to uphold the law; to deliver justice with mercy; and to support the Church of England and its privileges. The oath originates from a time when the sovereign still possessed important executive functions, and when Catholic Europe was perceived as an existential threat. There is a particular problem with the language of the third part of the oath.
Our report on the accession and coronation oaths recommended ways in which they might be modernised. At present it is unlikely that legislation will be introduced to amend them. The government of the day will need to take steps to explain how they may nowadays be best interpreted.
The oath’s survival
It has to be asked why a coronation rite survived in the UK but died out elsewhere. Dealing with the negative reasons first, one important part of the answer is that the UK has enjoyed a relatively high level of political continuity. No-one has invaded successfully since 1066, and an increasingly republican reality has evolved within a continuing model of legitimate monarchy. Many of the monarchies that did have coronations have themselves disappeared, and the cessations in Scandinavia – like the UK monarchy with obligatorily Protestant monarchies – may have been responses to those states’ conversions to more democratic forms rather than any popular aversion to religion.
Considering the positive reasons on the other hand, the UK monarchy – after a period of raised republican sentiment in the early 1870s – later surfed a prolonged phase of imperialist celebration lasting up to and including 1953. Imperial memories are vestigial and the next coronation will no doubt be a more modest affair. Yet, devolution since 1997 in what is more evidently a union – as opposed to a unitary state – has left the monarchy as one of the few institutions that stretches across the whole country. A high degree of secularisation has not threatened the monarchy. Moreover, in the case of the Church of England, secularisation has so impacted its Protestant competitors, that it looks relatively stronger despite its own decline. It seems likely, therefore, that a Church limited to England alone can nevertheless continue for the present to be acceptable as the leader of civil religion throughout the UK and comprehend non-Christian religions in its ceremonies. While that position may not be in question at the next coronation, there can be no certainty that it will not arise at the one after that.
It is in the nature of the appeal of once in a generation or more great state events that it is both possible and essential for everyone to take their own meaning from them. The devout, for example, will dwell on the religious significance; the aged will look back on the changes in their lives; the young will enjoy the parties and fret a little for their futures. Many will find they occupy a number of different categories simultaneously.
Overall, coronations in Britain are an opportunity for society to take stock of itself against a background which recalls both the community’s historic continuity and its capacity for coping with change: the nation reflecting itself in its ceremonies. Coronations also renew the legitimacy of the current political system: they are at bottom political events even if their dominant political purpose and character is masked by the ceremony that surrounds them. That is why, despite any appearance to the contrary, they are controlled by the government of the day.
The role of the monarchy, particularly now that it has shed almost all political power, is to personify continuity and adherence to the values of social democracy and the rule of law. There is, of course, an irony that these functions should be expressed in an advanced democracy like the UK by a hereditary monarchy. Perhaps it has been an irony too far for those monarchies who, having once had coronations, have abandoned them.
The longer the interval between one coronation and the next, the more testing is the task of designing a ceremony that reflects the breadth and depth of the changes. Turning again to Ben Pimlott:
‘Great ceremonies are seldom explicit about their purposes, even if those who organize them know what they are, or seek to impose them. Rituals are taken from the record of what happened before, amended to fit what is currently felt suitable and acceptable.’
From a committed Anglican perspective, Roy Strong says much the same thing: ‘The Coronation ceremony’s longevity rests precisely on its ability to legitimate anyone and thus ensure a facade of continuity and stability to the country.‘
About the authors
Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit who worked on 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 2018.