The accession and coronation of King Charles III

Before the accession of King Charles III, the Unit published two reports related to the accession of the new King: one on the accession and coronation oaths, and another on the coronation ceremony. Today the Unit has published revised versions of these reports. In this post, co-authors Robert Hazell and Bob Morris outline the reports’ conclusions and discuss how the coming coronation will be on a much smaller scale than the previous one, in a UK that is radically different from the Britain of 1953.

Five years ago we conducted a study of the accession and coronation oaths. These are three religious oaths which the new monarch is required by law to take at or soon after his accession. King Charles has already taken one, the Scottish oath, at the inaugural meeting of his Privy Council. He swore to uphold the Presbyterian church in Scotland in the following words:

I, Charles the Third by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland, and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the True Protestant Religion as established by the laws of Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly an Act intituled an ‘Act for Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government’ and by the Acts passed in both Kingdoms for the Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland: so help me God.

At his first state opening of parliament King Charles will take a second oath, under the Accession Declaration Act, to be a faithful Protestant; and at his coronation he will swear to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England. All three oaths are a hangover from an earlier age. Legally speaking none of the oaths are necessary. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 gave full parliamentary recognition to the Church’s status as a national church. The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 contain strong guarantees of religious freedom. Nor can it be said that the oaths have any effect. Now that the sovereign has long ceased to be head of the executive, it seems odd that the King should be asked to swear to something which he has no power to enforce.

Origins of the religious oaths

These oaths originally date from the late Stuart period, between 1689 and 1707, when Catholic Europe was seen as an existential threat. The UK faces many serious threats to its security, but Catholicism is no longer one of them. In revising and reissuing our report Swearing in the new King: the Accession and Coronation Oaths, we argue that in our more secular and pluralist society, the oaths need to be revised and updated; or dropped altogether.

All three oaths are statutory. The Scottish oath is prescribed in the Acts of Union 1707; the coronation oath in the Coronation Oath Act 1689; and the oath to be a faithful Protestant was revised in the Accession Declaration Act 1910. Because the oaths are statutory, any significant revision would require fresh legislation; as would their repeal. That seems unlikely before Charles’s coronation or his first state opening of parliament. The government has other priorities and Charles has raised no objection to taking the oaths. Before taking the Scottish oath, he said that he understood he was required by law to do so.  And at his meeting with faith leaders on 16 September, he said:

I am a committed Anglican Christian, and at my Coronation I will take an oath relating to the settlement of the Church of England.  At my Accession, I have already solemnly given – as has every Sovereign over the last 300 years – an Oath which pledges to maintain and preserve the Protestant faith in Scotland.

Options for revising the oaths

We wait to see whether questions are raised about the suitability in our more secular and multi-faith society of the new monarch taking a series of oaths which privilege Protestantism, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. That is why we have decided to publish a second edition of our 2018 report, to set out the options for revising them, if during the new reign there is political will to do so. We raise the issues now for two reasons. First, in case there is criticism of the religious oaths taken by Charles, to explain that criticism should be directed primarily at the government for failing to revise them. Second, to put down a marker for the future: if the oaths are to be updated in time for the accession of Prince William, that needs to be done during the reign of King Charles.

We suggest that fresh 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 become an oath made to the people.

Planning the Coronation

Our work on the oaths led us to do a related study thinking about the next coronation. The service needs to reflect the country we have become rather than the empire we have left behind. As head of the nation, King Charles has to represent not merely where we have come from, in the historic nature of the coronation service, but who we are now as a people, and what we aspire to be in the future.

The UK is the only monarchy in Europe to retain a religious coronation. Kings and Queens have been anointed with holy oil and crowned in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony which goes back 1000 years. But although ancient, the tradition is constantly evolving. In describing every coronation since that of George IV in 1821, our report The Coronation of Charles III shows how much the ceremony has changed – and how much it needs to change, compared with the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

The 1953 Coronation

In 1953 the UK still had a global empire. The armed forces numbered over 850,000; now they are less than 150,000. In the grand procession from the Abbey, nearly three miles long, more than 40,000 troops took part in 1953, with 24 military bands. The subsequent naval review at Spithead involved 190 ships. 8250 guests attended the coronation, in stands erected inside the Abbey several storeys high; the largest single group were hereditary peers and their wives. The coronation service lasted three hours: to signify the conferment of God’s grace, the Queen was anointed with holy oil, invested with symbols of authority, received homage from the different orders of the peerage declaring their allegiance to the new sovereign, and took communion.

The UK no longer has the capacity to mount anything like this spectacle. King Charles’s coronation will inevitably be smaller, and shorter: on the scale of the Queen’s funeral or less. The church will want to retain the eucharistic rite, but our report suggests that the homage could be dropped, with a separate event in Westminster Hall or on Horse Guards Parade for different groups in civil society to show their allegiance. Planning the coronation will not be easy, with the new King, the government and the church all having an interest. The planning will be done through committees. In 1952-53 there were three committees: a Coronation Commission chaired by Prince Philip, which included the Commonwealth realms; a Coronation Committee of government ministers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Earl Marshal and the royal household; and an Executive Committee of senior civil servants to make it all happen.

It may not be easy to reach agreement on the nature or scale of the event. The government has a controlling interest over the cost. As a thought experiment, consider what kind of coronation Boris Johnson might want to see, compared with what Jeremy Corbyn would have wanted if he were Prime Minister. And it is genuinely difficult to devise a ceremony which will please everybody. The monarchy is a symbol of national unity, and the coronation will define not just royalty but British identity. The challenge is how best to represent that identity in all its 21st century diversity.

The Unit will host an event to discuss the issues raised in this post and the Unit’s new reports on the accession and coronation process on Wednesday 26 October. The event, which is entitled Planning for the next Coronation, and the new Reign, is free and open to all, and a limited number of tickets are still available.

Both of the reports discussed in this post, Swearing in the New King: The Accession and Coronation Oaths and The Coronation of King Charles III, are now available to download.

About the authors

Professor Robert Hazell is co-author of Swearing in the New King: The Accession and Coronation Oaths and a former Director of the Constitution Unit.

Dr Bob Morris is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, and has for some time led its work on Monarchy, Church and StateHe is the author of The Coronation of King Charles III and co-author of Swearing in the New King: The Accession and Coronation Oaths.

Featured image: Presentation of Address to His Majesty King Charles III (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by ukhouseoflords.