Guide to the Coronation

Hofdame Note: Thank you very much to Baguette Royal Warren(t) for this description of the British coronation process! Dig in and get ready for tomorrow!

We do not know precisely what will occur on the 6th of May when King Charles III is crowned and anointed in Westminster Abbey. This will provide a guide to help understand the historical event. Watching this ceremony live, we can, at least, have an appreciation of the significance of what is transpiring by knowing more about this occasion.

There are many who read Lilibet’s Handbag who know more than I about past coronations, but my thrust for this article is for the new royal enthusiast who is not as familiar as others. This might be a re-telling of already known facts and data. For others, it will be a general introduction to a grand and once-in-a-lifetime event. If I have erred with my facts, I will gladly accept corrections.

A view of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, with the various participants labelled, London, 2nd June 1953. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The crowning of the Sovereign is an ancient ceremony rich in religious significance, historical associations, and pageantry. For the last 900 years, it has taken place at Westminster Abbey, the royal church for the Palace of Westminster.

The Sovereign sets out from Buckingham Palace, escorted by the Yeomen of the Guard, the Household Cavalry, and the Royal Bargemaster and Royal Watermen. As it enters the Abbey, the Sovereign’s procession has traditional representatives from Crown, Church, and State.

Three bishops carry the paten, the chalice, and the Bible; selected peers bear the regalia, and the Lord High Steward carries St. Edward’s Crown. Also in the procession are Church leaders, the Great Officers of State, the Lord Chancellor in his ancient capacity of “Keeper of the King’s Conscience”, members of the Royal Household, Commonwealth Prime Ministers, the royal bodyguards, the Yeomen of the Guard, the heralds, civil and military leaders, and traditional figures from the nation’s pageantry.

The service is led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose task this has always been since the Conquest. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, for the first time a representative of another Church, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, also took part in the service. The Sovereign is traditionally flanked throughout the service by the Bishop of Durham and the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The first English coronation of which a detailed description survives is King Edgar at Bath in 973, conducted by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. The modern service is based on that set out in the 14th century Liber Regalis. There are six basic phases:

  1. the recognition,
  2. the oath,
  3. the anointing,
  4. the investiture, which includes the crowning,
  5. the enthronement; and
  6. the homage.

The first act of the coronation service is the recognition, a rite dating back to the ancient procedures of the Witan – the supreme council of England in Anglo-Saxon times. The Sovereign stands in the center of the ‘theater’, a central space designed for this very purpose by Edward the Confessor in his original Abbey, and then shows himself ‘unto the people’ to the east, south, west, and north. Each time the Archbishop in the words of the service for the present King, ‘shall with a loud voice, speak to the people, . . . . saying “Sirs, I here present unto you King Charles, your undoubted King. Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service, are you willing to do the same?” ‘ And the people ‘signify their willingness and joy by loud and repeated acclamations, all with one voice crying out, “God Save King Charles” ‘

The Sovereign then takes the coronation oath. The form and wording have varied over the centuries; today the monarch undertakes to rule according to law, to maintain the Church of England, and to exercise justice with mercy – promises symbolized by the four swords in the regalia:

  1. the sword of State,
  2. two swords of justice; and
  3. the blunt Curtana, or sword of mercy.
Swords of Spiritual Justice, Mercy and Temporal Justice
Sword of State

For the anointing, the Sovereign removes the crimson robe worn and sits in King Edward’s Chair under a canopy held by four Knights of the Garter. The Sovereign is then ‘anointed, blessed and consecrated’ by the Archbishop, using the ampulla and the most ancient treasure of the regalia, the 12th-century anointing spoon. This was one of the only items to survive the rule of Oliver Cromwell, who melted down most of the other regalia in 1649, although King Edward I’s scepter of 1272 with a dove on top was rediscovered (and replaced) in his tomb when it was opened in 1774.

Anointing Spoon
Jeweled Sword

The anointing is the central act of the religious ceremony. During it the choir sings the anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’, set to music by Handel for the coronation of George II on 11 October 1727. It is a solemn moment, for every Sovereign since 1626, except for King Edward VIII, who was never crowned, has sat on that same chair, under which rests the even more ancient Stone of Scone. The Stone is now kept in Scotland with the Scottish Crown Jewels when not used at coronations. Historically, it was captured from the Scots in 1296.

St. Edward’s Chair

Having been sanctified, the Sovereign is ‘qualified and entitled’ for investiture with the ornaments that are ‘the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace’. First, the Sovereign puts on a sleeveless white garment – the Colobium Sindonis – and then a robe of cloth of gold – the Dalmatic or Supertunica. The Lord Great Chamberlain presents the golden spurs, the symbol of chivalry, after which the Archbishop of Canterbury presents a jeweled sword and then the armills, the golden bracelets of sincerity and wisdom.

Glove and Belt

Finally, the Sovereign puts on the stole and cloth of gold Robe Royal (Imperial Mantle), or Pallium Regale, and receives the orb (the globe dominated by the emblem of Christianity), the coronation ring, which is placed on the fourth finger of the right hand, the glove, the scepter with the cross and the rod or scepter with the dove.

Sovereigns Ring

There follows the actual moment of crowning. The entire assembly stands as the Archbishop raises St. Edward’s Crown, which is placed on the Sovereign’s head. A great shout goes up: ‘God save The King’. Trumpets sound, and ‘by a signal given, the great guns of the Tower and the guns in the Park will be shot off.

St. Edward’s Crown

After the Benediction, the sovereign is enthroned, and then receives the homage, first of the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of the Lords Spiritual, and then the Princes of Wales.

The homage is completed, drums beat and trumpets sound, and the assembly acclaims the new Sovereign. The pomp and ceremonial are over, but the service fittingly ends with the Sovereign taking Holy Communion and offering a pall or altar cloth or a wedge of gold of one pound in weight.

The Sovereign finally withdraws to St. Edward’s Chapel, changes into the robe of purple velvet, and puts on the lighter Imperial State Crown.

Imperial State Crown

Queen Camilla will be crowned with King Charles III in a similar but simpler ceremony. She is anointed and crowned, after which she receives ornaments similar to, but smaller than his. She does not receive an orb.

The coronation is an occasion for great pomp and celebration. Still, it is basically a religious ceremony, the significance of which was well expressed by the Archbishop of York, Dr. Lang, at the coronation of King George V on 22 June 1911: ‘The King comes not alone to his hallowing, He bears his people with him. For the national life, as well as for its representative, this is a day of consecration . . .’

The coronation is a deeply religious occasion steeped in centuries-old traditions and showcases the sort of lavish royal pageantry for which the British are famous.  It is an important event that demonstrates the transfer of power and marks the beginning of a new era for the country.

With the indulgence of the Hofdames and speaking as an American who appreciates the heritage and cultural legacy of the British Monarchy, I send my sincere best wishes to their Majesties, King Charles III and Queen Camilla.  I hope that they have many happy, healthy, and prosperous years as monarchs.  This is a momentous time for the United Kingdom as it moves forward after a long and memorable reign of Queen Elizabeth II. 

Take a tour of Westminster Abbey to prepare for tomorrow’s big event!