words Jack Jewers
On May 6th the UK will witness its first coronation since 1953. Trumpets will sound, choirs will sing, and there’s going to be a concert with Katy Perry and Take That. Pass the coronation quiche.
But do you have to be an ardent monarchist to enjoy the spectacle? Can you both wish for an elected head of state and get a bit of a tingle when Huw Edwards says ‘orb and sceptre’ like a kindly uncle at a fancy dress ball?
There’s certainly going to be lots of history on display. Charles will take an oath that is, in essence, the same as that taken by King Edgar in 973. He will sit on the same chair that has been used at every coronation held at Westminster Abbey since 1300. (Although if you rub away some paint, you’d see a mess of 18th century graffiti, when tipping the attendant a few coins to turn a blind eye was a popular pastime for tourists who carved their names into the chair). The words that the choir will sing during the coronation is unchanged since 1327. So the coronation is a real connection with our own history; an experience shared with generation upon generation of people long since lost to time.
It’s quite the spectacle, crowning a king.
These days it’s what we call ‘soft power.’ The battle for hearts and minds so often played out in the media. But in centuries past a coronation was the hardest of hard power. The king or queen was presented to the people and as ruler as God’s chosen representative on Earth. Go back a few centuries and the monarch was as all-powerful as a Roman emperor, a capricious overlord who it paid to love and fear on pain of death.
Magna Carta, civil war, and successive centuries of political struggle have tempered that power into something that is for the most part symbolic, but its remnants are still very much on display in the ceremony we’ll witness on May 6th.
Buckingham Palace has let it be known that we should expect something a little toned down this time around. Acutely aware that the country is living through a crippling cost of living crisis, some of the gaudier excesses of the ceremony will be toned down or done away with. The guest list runs to a positively restrained 2000 (compared to the late Queen’s 8000), and includes charity workers, choir teachers, and other representatives from every day life as well as celebrities including Victoria Beckham, Stella McCartney, Rowan Atkinson, and Bear Grylls.
And yet, none of this is exactly… necessary. A king doesn’t need a coronation to be a king. In fact, of the 12 monarchies left in Europe, Britain is the only one to still bother with a coronation at all. So why bother?
The answer, of course, is tradition. And tradition draws its power from history.
When I was researching my novel, The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys, I became immersed in the world of the 1660s. Samuel Pepys was a civil servant who wrote a diary almost every day from 1600 to 1669. It’s an incredible read. He had a front row seat at some of the biggest events in English history, including the Black Plague, Great Fire of London and the coronation of King Charles II.
When Pepys begins his diary, he is working on plans to return King Charles II from exile in France to be reinstated on the throne. These were the dying days of the Commonwealth, after two decades of civil war and rule by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament – a time that even the biggest Cromwell fans would concede was turbulent to say the least. In fact Pepys gives us a flavour of how the government had come to be viewed by the people when, on February 7th 1660, he writes: “Boys do now cry ‘Kiss my Parliament’, instead of ‘Kiss my rump’.” Rather telling!
When Parliament invited Charles II back to England, it was as a very different kind of monarch. Gone were the days of the king as absolute ruler, and while Charles would wield far more power than his 21st century namesake, the balance of power had shifted to the people for good. The plans for the exiled king’s return didn’t go off without a hitch. Pepys describes how, at the eleventh hour, it is pointed out that the vessel chosen as the king’s flagship still bears the name of a civil war battle his late father lost; it has to be hurriedly repainted. Things descend even further into farce when, on May 25th 1660 Pepys writes: “I went, and Mr. Mansell and one of the King’s footmen, with a dog that the King loved (which shit in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are).”
The coronation of Charles II took place at Westminster Abbey on April 23rd 1661. Pepys’ description of the coronation itself is beautiful: “A great pleasure it was to see the Abbey raised in the middle, all covered with red, and a throne… and footstool on the top of it; and all the officers of all kinds, so much as the very fidlers, in red vests: At last comes in the Dean and Prebends of Westminster, with the Bishops (many of them in cloth of gold copes), and after them the Nobility, all in their Parliament robes, which was a most magnificent sight.” Of course what Pepys neglects to mention is that the coronation procession passes Banqueting House – where, as a schoolboy, he skived off school to watch the new King’s father having his head chopped off.
Just as Charles has planned for the coronation on May 6th to be a toned-down affair, for Charles II it was equally important that the opposite was true. The king was back after 11 years of exile. The institution of monarchy itself was reasserting itself. And to do that, it needed a sense of majesty. It needed showbiz. For equal and opposite reasons, it was every bit as political as the coronation of 2023.
But now let’s let turn to the big issues. Such as: will Take That end their set with with Never Forget or Back For Good?
Jack Jewers is the author of The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys published on 11th May £8.99 available online here: https://amzn.eu/d/ba8kXdb