As the first coronation in 70 years approaches, many people still have questions about its purpose, its format, and (perhaps most importantly) what could go wrong. The Unit has created an FAQs page, authored by the Constitution Unit’s monarchy experts Robert Hazell and Bob Morris, to answer those questions, 14 of which are discussed below.
1. What does a coronation do?
The Coronation does not ‘make’ the monarch. Under common law, the new monarch succeeds to the throne immediately on the death of their predecessor: so Charles became King the moment the Queen died.
The coronation has several functions. It is a religious rite that symbolises the descent of God’s grace on the new ruler. The King takes a solemn three-part oath to govern according to laws and customs; render justice with mercy; and maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion plus the rights and privileges of the Church of England. He is then anointed and crowned by the Archbishop. In sum, the Church blesses the monarch and his new reign; he in turn promises to protect the Church, and to serve his people.
2. How old is the coronation?
The coronation ceremony is over 1000 years old. It was formalised in AD 973, with the coronation of the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar by St Dunstan of Canterbury in Bath Abbey. The first Norman King to be crowned in Westminster Abbey was William the Conqueror, crowned there on Christmas Day 1066. King Charles is the fortieth monarch to be crowned at the Abbey since the Conquest.
3. What are the main elements in the coronation?
The main elements are the recognition, the oath, anointing, crowning, homage, and communion. The recognition is at the start, when the Archbishop presents the new monarch to the congregation, with trumpet fanfare, and they all shout, ‘God save the King’. The King then takes the coronation oath, and the Archbishop anoints the King with chrism (holy oil from Jerusalem). Similar to an ordination, this is when the grace of God is called down upon the new monarch and his reign.
After the anointing, the monarch is crowned by the Archbishop, seated upon King Edward’s chair, used in coronations for the last 700 years. Then comes the homage, when the Archbishop and others kneel before the King to pay homage in ancient words of fealty. Finally, there is communion: the coronation is also a eucharist, in which the monarch takes communion.
4. Is it compulsory to have a coronation?
There is no law specifically requiring a coronation. William IV had to be persuaded against his will to have one in 1831. But the existence of the Coronation Oath Act 1689 (see below) clearly expects that there should be a coronation.
5. Will Camilla be crowned?
Camilla will be crowned with Queen Mary’s Crown, used at her coronation in 1911. When Queen Elizabeth II died, Buckingham Palace announced that Camilla would be known as the Queen Consort. Invitations to the coronation have been issued in the names of ‘King Charles III and Queen Camilla’, so from now on she will be known as Queen Camilla. This follows the same style as previous Queen Consorts, such as Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth (known after the death of George VI as the Queen Mother).
6. Who will be invited to the coronation?
In 1953 room was found for 8,250 guests, facilitated by the erection of a large amount of scaffolded temporary seating. This time seats will be available for around 2,200; the same as for the Queen’s funeral.
Selection of the guests will require heroic prioritisation. In 1953 there were over 1000 Commonwealth representatives, 850 peers from the House of Lords, and nearly 700 MPs and their wives. This time just 500 seats have been allocated for foreign guests, and 50 MPs and 50 peers will be selected by ballot.
Representatives of civil society will feature for the first time. Over 450 holders of the British Empire medal have been invited, to recognise their contribution to their local communities; and 400 young people representing charities will be able to watch the coronation and procession from St Margaret’s Church, Westminster.
7. What are the Accession and Coronation Oaths?
Following accession the new monarch must take three statutory oaths, which originate from the period 1688 to 1707. At that time Catholic Europe was seen as a threat to national security. In 1689, after King James II was chased from the throne because he was Catholic, William and Mary (the eldest daughter of James II) were invited to assume the throne because they were Protestant. But to make doubly sure, parliament passed a law requiring them to swear that they were faithful Protestants, who would uphold the Protestant succession.
Under the Coronation Oath Act 1689 King Charles will promise to govern his people according to their laws and customs, to honour the legal settlement of the Church of England, its rights and privileges, and to uphold the Protestant religion. At the coronation he will also take the Accession Declaration oath swearing that he is a faithful Protestant, and that he will uphold and maintain the Protestant succession. At the Accession Council on 10 September 2022, the King swore the oath required under the Act of Union 1707 to preserve the Presbyterian form of church government in Scotland.
8. Could the King refuse to take the oath?
Failing to swear incurs no penalty for any of the three oaths: the monarch would still be the monarch. There is a precedent for the monarch refusing. In 1910, George V told the government that he could not contemplate swearing the accession declaration required under the Bill of Rights 1689 because it was so offensive to his Roman Catholic subjects, especially in Ireland.
The declaration consisted of a long diatribe against Roman Catholic doctrine. George V’s father, Edward VII, had felt the same way when he succeeded in 1901. The Asquith government resolved the situation by passing the Accession Declaration Act 1910, which substituted a much simpler form of words for the offensive seventeenth-century language.
9. Are there reasons now for altering the oath?
The Constitution Unit report Swearing in the new King proposed ways in which the Accession and Coronation oaths could be updated for Britain’s more multi-faith and secular society. But any opportunity to legislate has now passed. In the absence of amending legislation, some preambular statement might be employed to explain the historical context. At the Accession Council on 10 September the King prefaced the Scottish oath by saying, ‘I understand that the Law requires that I should, at My Accession to the Crown, take and subscribe the Oath relating to the Security of the Church of Scotland’.
10. What role will there be for other faiths at the coronation?
In 1953 there was no role for other faiths, beyond the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland being allowed to present a Bible to the Queen. It is expected that more prominent roles will be found for other Christian denominations and other faiths, for example in the procession which precedes the entrance of the King. King Charles demonstrated his strong interest and support by holding a reception for faith leaders in the first week of his reign, when he said that although he was a committed Anglican, he promised to ensure that other faiths should thrive.
11. Why have other European monarchies given up their coronations?
The UK is now the only European monarchy that retains a coronation. The post-Napoleonic monarchies of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have never had them. Denmark’s last coronation was in 1840: after the introduction of a democratic constitution from 1849, continuing with a coronation was regarded as incompatible with the new arrangements. Sweden’s last coronation was in 1873 and discontinued on grounds of expense. After 1905, coronations in Norway were banned by law.
12. Could Charles III’s coronation be the last?
In the UK, as in the Scandinavian monarchies, a coronation is not essential to the continuation of monarchy. It follows that a situation could arise where a coronation was simply discontinued without any change in the law. The concept of a coronation oath could survive into a changed ceremony of accession – religious or secular – without crowning. In Denmark, for example, the only time the crown is put to use is on the coffin of deceased monarchs at their funeral.
13. What could possibly go wrong?
All sorts of things have gone wrong at previous coronations. At the coronation of King George IV in 1821 his estranged wife Queen Caroline tried to attend, but was refused entry; she died two weeks later. For the coronation of Queen Victoria the royal goldsmiths made the ring for the wrong finger, thinking it should go on her little finger. The Archbishop forced it onto her ring finger and Queen Victoria had to soak her hand in iced water after the ceremony. The coronation of King Edward VII had to be postponed from June to August 1902 when the King had appendicitis. At the coronation the ageing and almost blind Archbishop placed the crown on the King’s head the wrong way round.
14. Which monarchs have not been crowned?
The two monarchs who did not have any coronation were Edward V and Edward VIII. Edward V (the boy king) acceded in 1483 aged 12, but reigned for only two months before being deposed by his uncle the Duke of Gloucester, who then became King Richard III; Edward was later presumed murdered in the Tower of London. Edward VIII abdicated 11 months after succeeding his father, before the date set for his coronation in May 1937; the date was subsequently used by his brother King George VI.
This post is the first in a series of articles about the monarchy, which will be published regularly in the runup to the coronation to promote the Unit’s new report, The British Monarchy, co-published today with UK in a Changing Europe. Subscribe to this blog to receive notifications when other posts in this series are published. A longer list of 20 FAQs about the Coronation, together with a set of more general FAQs about the monarchy, can be found on the Unit’s website.
About the authors
Professor Robert Hazell was the founder and first Director of the Constitution Unit. He is the co-editor of The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy.
Dr Bob Morris is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, and has for some time led its work on Monarchy, and Church and State. He is the co-editor of The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy.
The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy: European Monarchies Compared (Hart Publishing, 2020).
The Coronation of Charles III (October 2022)
Swearing in the New King: The Accession and Coronation Oaths (October 2022)