Church and state in European monarchies

At his coronation, Charles III will swear an oath to uphold the Protestant religion in a ceremony overseen by the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, while many European monarchs retain a link to their national church, the UK is alone in continuing to have a coronation ceremony. Frank Cranmer discusses how monarchies throughout Europe have attempted to reconcile their historical religious traditions with the reality of modern multi-faith societies.

In addition to the United Kingdom, there are 11 other monarchies across Europe, with varying constitutional arrangements when it comes to religion: Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden – and, of course, Vatican City, where the Pope is head of state. In Andorra, the Bishop of Urgell and the President of France are co-Princes and its constitution gives special recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. Under the constitution of Liechtenstein, the Roman Catholic Church is the ‘National Church’, while the constitution of Monaco declares Roman Catholicism ‘the religion of the state’.

Under the terms of the Act of Settlement 1700, the monarch of the United Kingdom may not be a Roman Catholic, and the relationship between church and state means, in effect, that he or she must be a member of the Church of England as established by law. Uniquely in Europe, the British monarch is also the Supreme Governor of the Church: a title that goes back to the Act of Supremacy 1559, when the Protestant Elizabeth I succeeded the Catholic Mary. Henry VIII had declared himself the ‘Supreme Head in earth’ of the Church, but Elizabeth chose a less confrontational title.

The monarch also has a unique association with the Church of Scotland, appointing a Lord High Commissioner to the annual General Assembly of the Church who makes opening and closing addresses to the Assembly as the monarch’s representative and carries out a number of official functions while the Assembly is sitting. In 2002, Queen Elizabeth II attended in person rather than appointing a commissioner.

Scandinavia also preserves a Protestant succession. The Church of Sweden was disestablished on 1 January 2000. Furthermore, ties between church and state in Norway were somewhat loosened by an amendment to the constitution which came into effect on 1 January 2017, which removed the previous reference to an ‘official religion of the State’. However, both countries still require their monarch to be Lutheran. In Sweden, for example, under Article 4 of the Act of Succession 1810, ‘The King shall always profess the pure evangelical faith, as adopted and explained in the unaltered Confession of Augsburg and in the Resolution of the Uppsala Meeting of the year 1593’. Likewise in Denmark, Article 4 of the Constitution maintains the establishment of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Article 6 requires that the monarch shall be a member of the Church.

In contrast, when France conquered the Netherlands in 1795 and established the Batavian Republic, church and state were separated – and have remained so to this day. Article 20 of the Constitution of Belgiumdescribed by a Council of Europe body as ‘the prototype of the constitutional monarchy, transposing the British customary constitution into a written text’ – guarantees both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The Belgian monarch’s religion is therefore a private matter and the first King, Leopold I, was a Lutheran in a largely Roman Catholic country. So when in 1990 King Baudouin, a Roman Catholic, could not in conscience sign a law permitting abortion, the Cabinet suspended him from governing, assumed his powers, promulgated the abortion law and recalled its parliament for a special session – and King Baudouin resumed office on the following day.

The United Kingdom is also the last country in Europe that crowns its new monarch. Elizabeth II was anointed and crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey in 1953 in a tradition dating back centuries, and the present Archbishop will both crown Charles III and anoint him with oil consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem.

Belgium and Luxembourg do not have royal regalia but have swearing-in ceremonies for their monarchs in the legislature. Even those countries that once crowned their monarchs no longer do so – the last coronation in Denmark, for example, was of Christian VIII in 1840. In the Netherlands, under Article 32 of the Constitution a new monarch is sworn in at a joint session of the two Houses of the States General. They are invested, rather than crowned, at the Nieuwe Kerk, with the crown and the other regalia simply on display. In Spain, the new monarch takes a formal oath before the parliament to uphold the constitution: again, the crown is displayed but there is no coronation. Perhaps surprisingly, not even the Vatican continues the custom: no Pope since Paul VI has been crowned with the Papal Tiara.

Somewhat ironically, Pope Leo X conferred on Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) in 1521, after Henry had published Assertio Septem Sacramentorum: a defence of traditional sacramental theology against the teachings of Martin Luther – and the King or Queen still uses that title’. However, the relationship between monarchy and religion has become more complex as Europe has become both increasingly multi-faith and increasingly secular, and in recognition of those changes, King Charles announced on his 60th birthday, while still Prince of Wales, that on his accession he would prefer to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’.

At a meeting of faith-leaders in September 2022 he re-emphasised that commitment:

‘I am a committed Anglican Christian, and at my Coronation I will take an oath relating to the settlement of the Church of England… I have always thought of Britain as a “community of communities”. That has led me to understand that the Sovereign has an additional duty – less formally recognized but to be no less diligently discharged. It is the duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for Faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals.’

Or as King Harald put it in a much-applauded speech in 2015, ‘Norwegians believe in God, Allah, everything and nothing;. In 2016, Queen Margrethe told Der Spiegel that, though the Danish Constitution obliged her to be a Lutheran, ‘that does not exclude people of other faiths. On the contrary, I believe that the fact that I am religious brings me closer to anyone with a different faith’.

In his strong desire to be seen as a monarch for all faiths, King Charles may well have been speaking as much for his fellow monarchs as they reconcile their historical religious traditions with the reality of modern multi-faith societies.

This post is the fourth in a series of five 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 with UK in a Changing Europe. If you enjoyed this series of posts, you might wish to sign up to attend our summer conference on 28 and 29 June, which is free to attend and open to all. Entitled The Future of the Constitution, it will consist of panel discussions covering topics such as electoral reform, the rule of law, constitutional standards, and how to implement constitutional change.

About the author

Frank Cranmer is Fellow of St Chad’s College, Durham, and an honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Law & Religion, Cardiff School of Law and Politics. He also co-authors the Law and Religon UK blog with David Pocklington.

Featured image: The Protestant Succession (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by alexdavidbaldi.

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