Another time, another country: a view on the last coronation in 1953. Photo: ROLLS PRESS/POPPERFOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Charles will be sorely tempted to overhaul the coronation. Here's why he should resist

Know your country—and know your history
August 15, 2017

The coronation ceremony is more than a piece of antique flummery. It is an enactment of the kind of nation we think we are. Getting the performance right is also the most important way the next king can secure legitimacy, something which is going to be especially important during the next transition, which could be—as Emily Andrews argues—uniquely risky for the monarchy. The public is not in love with the idea of King Charles (see our polling); he cannot afford another televised disaster like the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. So what should he do?

The first thing is to know your country—and know your history. That sounds easy enough, but the two halves of that don’t combine smoothly. If you watch the ceremony from 1953, then it’s obvious that we’re not that nation any more: the past is another country indeed. The Queen’s coronation was a profoundly Christian assertion of the feudal order of the British state, centred on the aristocracy paying homage as they kneeled—in order of precedence—in front of the new monarch.

The coronation of the next monarch cannot escape some change. Where once we had a visible social order that corresponded to real power and wealth, we now have a House of Lords which is a parking lot for discarded politicians. We now defer to celebrity, not heredity. The last coronation was televised, if only in black and white. The next one will be livestreamed round the world through a thicket of hashtags. The Royal Family is now a celebrity business, in which importance is measured by the magazine covers it can command.

Change in the coverage is a given, and the pageantry will almost certainly need to change too. But changing the ritual risks exposing it to dangerous scrutiny and debate. Charles is unlikely to thrive in that spotlight. Nor is the kingdom he will rule over.

The last coronation took place eight years after victory in the Second World War, an event which briefly (it now seems) gave a mongrel British state an assured sense of self. Today, the British nations are more uneasy about their own identity than at any time since the civil war. All sorts of egg-shells will have to be danced around—the legacy of empire, Scottish nationalism, sensibilities in Ireland, where the border is newly salient with Brexit. Beyond that, as was seen when the Queen (apparently) donned an European Union-themed hat for the recent state opening of parliament, eagle eyes will be out for any possible assertion (or denial) of Britain’s identity as a European state.

And then, of course, there is religion. It may only have been a minority attending church each Sunday in 1953, but it was a much larger minority than it is today. Most people felt a deep connection with the institution in which they had been married and would be buried. To see authority and legitimacy as deriving from Christianity was routine. Whether that would be true today is doubtful. When the Queen Elizabeth swore to “maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel,” Anglicanism was still at least a notional affiliation for an overwhelming majority of people. And it really was an established Church when she vowed that “to the utmost of [her] power” she would maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law... to maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.”

“The involvement of religion is not an optional add-on, but the whole basis of a King’s standing as monarch”
This last pledge, however, has over time been emptied of meaning. In 1953, the “settlement of the Church of England” meant its government by parliament; since 1969, however, it has in practice been self-governing through the General Synod. Meanwhile, the doctrine of the Church of England (CofE) has turned  out to be (in law at least) whatever the Church decides it to be. Charles has personally proved as much. His unwise marriage to Diana, followed by the couple’s televised confession of adulteries, left the church in an absurd position when it came to conducting his marriage to Camilla. A previous Archbishop, in 1956, had stopped his aunt Princess Margaret from marrying a divorced man. What Charles wanted—and got—was forbidden by the Church when his mother swore to uphold it.

No-one could have done anything about that. The CofE accepted divorce and remarriage because society did. Besides the influence of the church has shrunk, especially among young people. Queen Elizabeth is part of a generation of Anglican women who failed to pass their religion onto their daughters, still less their granddaughters. Although a majority of English people still call themselves Christian, only 3 per cent attend Anglican services on any Sunday. Those weddings and funerals, which were once routinely CofE affairs, are no longer ubiquitous.

Enter into this unhappy scene Charles, a man always ready with a suggestion to make a bad situation worse. His previous answer to the collapse of the old Protestant order was to suggest he take the title of “Defender of faiths” rather than “Defender of the Faith,” which has long effectively meant defending the CofE against Rome. It makes sense, in theory, that the new monarch should dissociate himself from Protestant bigotry and Christian triumphalism. But if all faiths are treated equally, why should the Archbishop of Canterbury crown him?

We got a foretaste of the potential for muddle at the 2013 service for the Queen’s 60th anniversary as monarch in Westminster Abbey. The CofE was effectively rendered first among equals in religious bodies. There was a Roman Catholic bishop (though not a senior one) from England along with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Cardiff. Most Protestant denominations were recognised. Walking behind them were two Muslims (one Sunni and one Shia), three different Jewish groups, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Jain, a Buddhist and a Bahai.

This strange selection in no way corresponds to the numerical or political importance of the communities involved. Apart from the Jews, it was drawn from the religions of the old Indian empire. There was no representation for African or Caribbean Pentecostal Christianity, although there are almost certainly larger now than the Orthodox Jewish community and certainly than the churches in Wales. And if this was supposed to be representative, where were the humanists?

In a multi-faith society, the Church of England can no longer ensure doctrinal orthodoxy, but merely provide a ceremonial into which people can read their own meanings. This can backfire, as it did at the funeral of Diana. What went on in the Abbey was not marked by any Christian spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, but by Earl Spencer drawing a poisonous distinction between the Windsors and his late sister’s “blood” family. The spontaneous rituals outside were little to do with orthodox Christianity either—none of the gospels record that Jesus was crucified on a mound of teddy bears.

The most radical answer would be to say we don’t need anything religious at all. Other countries have secular ceremonies, where the head of state is validated by an expression of democratic will; in the United States, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swears in the new president. Coronations haven’t always needed religious validation. The Emperor Caligula was proclaimed emperor by the Senate before deciding that he was himself a God. Julian the Apostate was hoisted on the shields of his legionaries, a ritual which which simply proclaimed him the biggest warlord around.

The idea that a priest should first bless the new emperor started in Byzantium with the grandson of the Emperor Constantine and slowly spread across Europe. It had reached England by around 730, when Egbert, Archbishop of York, wrote a Latin prayer which still survives—translated—in the coronation service:


O God,

who providest for thy people by thy power,

and rulest over them in love:

Grant unto this thy servant

ELIZABETH, our Queen,

the Spirit of wisdom and government,

that being devoted unto thee with her whole heart,

she may so wisely govern,

that in her time thy Church may be in safety,

and Christian devotion may continue in peace;”


There isn’t merely greasing up to the powerful by anointing them with holy oil. The various prayers for the sovereign to show justice, wisdom and humility imply that these are qualities she may lack. In 1804, when Napoleon grabbed the crown and put it on his own head, it was a bald declaration that he alone would be the judge of that. But his Empire did not last long.

The involvement of the Church is a way to say that naked power is never enough. Without justice, it has no legitimacy. Right is distinct from might, at least in principle. But who certifies which might is right? When the CofE was truly established, the answer was obvious: it was the Archbishop of Canterbury. This position was unaltered by Henry VIII’s break with Rome. He made himself the Church’s hirer-and-firer in chief, but his children were still crowned in much the same way he had been.

But there are times when the coronation has evolved in line with religious attitudes in the country. After the convulsions of the civil war, the logic of Henry’s break from Rome finally bore upon the vows. From 1689 onwards, the monarch, along with anyone who held office under him, had to swear to renounce specific Catholic doctrines as “superstitious and idolatrous.” This was abolished for everyone else with Catholic emancipation in 1829, but the Crown lagged characteristically behind the tide of tolerance. It only caught up in 1910, when George V refused to say these words.

One could, in principle, now put together a ceremony that was purely symbolic. The model would be the widely admired opening of the 2012 Olympics in London, which was designed exactly to evoke the spirit of the nation in a non-specific, non-religious way. But even the smallest moves in that direction would be politically explosive. Evangelicals are already prone to persecution fantasies. A sizable subculture—several hundred thousand people—supposes that secularists and Muslims are allied to extinguish Britain’s Christian character. Any move away from tradition would provoke outrage. It is far from clear that Charles will have the strength to tackle that sort of controversy. But even if he could, there would be a more fundamental problem. A post-religious coronation would demean his reign, not just in the eyes of sectarian Christians, but in the wider country too. Why? Because rituals, like poetry, contain meaning that can’t be translated into prose.

There was a certain brutal realism to the old Roman shield-raising method; it recognised that power is all that ultimately matters. But we would like that not to be true. The new king needs to  find some way to convey the idea that his reign is legitimate because it is also moral. The absence of any sense of legitimacy beyond the showbiz itself is what was ultimately hollow about the Olympic ceremony. You may feel that the bench of bishops is an anachronism and their pronouncements vapid, but the stars of Love Island are not yet ready to step into their shoes. Countries such as France where the transition to democracy was more abrupt and perhaps more complete than Britain have ceremonies where legitimacy is conferred by representatives of secular institutions. But it is part of the dysfunction of contemporary Britain that no such alternative figures are available.

All of this points to leaving the basic pageantry well alone. But what of the vows? Surely the words have to chime with the times if they are to have any integrity—or do they? A sociologist friend of mine supervised a thesis into attitudes to the next coronation. The chosen panel was made up of people who worked at M&S—a beautifully representative sample of the apolitical. The first difficulty was that none of them knew what a coronation was. YouTube put that right. Then they were asked about what they had seen. They all thought it was wonderful. Was it too religious? They hadn’t actually noticed it was religious. It was just ceremony: the way things had always been done, and the way they always will be. The words meant nothing: the solemnity, the music and the dressing up did all the work.

So maybe nothing about the ritual needs to change at all. The involvement of religion is not an optional add-on; it is the whole basis for the king’s standing as monarch. As for the detail of that religion, no one will be listening to the theology, except perhaps the man on the throne, and his personal views may be the least important thing about the ceremony. Whether this counts as secular or not hardly matters. Any effective ritual is indistinguishable from religion. It is the last remnant of our protestant character that we believe—mistakenly—that it is theology which makes religion, rather than the other way round.

Charles may be a meddler, but as the years pass it has become ever more evident—from Poundbury to Paternoster Square—that he is a hopeless nostalgic too. For his own sake, I hope he listens to the reactionary rather than the reforming part of his personality here. If he has any sense, he will grasp that it is tradition, “the way that things have always been done,” which give hereditary monarchs the only legitimacy they have.

Exclusive Prospect polling: fewer people than ever before want Prince Charles to take the throne