With less than 3 months before the coronation of King Charles III and the Queen Consort, London Blue Badge Guide Maria Perri takes a deep dive into the majestic rituals and some of the unfortunate coronation mishaps over the centuries.
Westminster Abbey has been the Coronation Church since 1066
This will be the 40th Coronation at Westminster Abbey, and King Charles III will be the oldest person to be crowned monarch in British history. The record had previously been held by William IV who was 66 at his coronation in 1831. For various reasons not all coronations have taken place in Westminster Abbey, the earliest recorded, in some detail, was that of King Edgar in Bath Abbey in 953. William the Conqueror began a tradition of having a coronation in Westminster Abbey, his was on Christmas day in 1066. His Norman knights cheered so loudly that the soldiers outside thought there was a riot and set about burning nearby buildings.
Each monarch since has made slight changes to the service, but it is essentially one of religious and secular rites that have remained unchanged for thousands of years. Elements of the pageantry go back to the 11th century and many continued as most monarchs wanted to show they were part of a long-standing tradition. The main purpose of the ceremony is for the monarch to swear an oath to uphold the church and to rule with honour, wisdom and mercy – many have not been capable of living up to their oath. The ceremony consists of anointing the monarch with holy oil, the presentation of a sword, orb, ring, sceptre and the crown. Then all present nobles and clergy swear loyalty to their sovereign, after which the monarch embarks on a procession to be presented to the people, sometimes this was even done the day before, then there would be a great feast, although over time this became less significant and fashionable. For many coronations before 1838 it was only the peerage who took part. It began in Westminster Hall, then the peers would have walked across the road to witness the ceremony in the Abbey. The ceremony has not changed much since the late 14th century, it follows the order of service in the Abbey’s illuminated Latin manuscript the Liber Regalis, partly done in English for Elizabeth I’s coronation, and all in English from the time of James I’s in 1603.
An anonymous engraving of the Stone of Scone in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey. Public domain
The crowning takes place on the Coronation Chair which was commissioned by Edward I. He had the Stone of Scone (used for Scottish coronations) incorporated into the ceremony in 1300 so that English royals could sit on the Scots. A replica of the chair was made for Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. The Stone of Scone was returned to Scotland by Prime Minister John Major in 1996 and is currently in Edinburgh castle. The deal was it came back for the next coronation, so we shall have to wait and see if that is the case in May 2023.
In the Middle Ages, monarchs prepared for their coronation by having a bath as an act of purification in the Tower of London. In 1399 Henry IV invested some new knights on the eve of his coronation, who were known as the Knights of the Bath. As it involved knights bathing the monarch it died out with the reign of Mary and Elizabeth, was briefly reinstated, but had disappeared by the time of the Georgians. It changed to a military order, the order of the Bath with George I.
King George IV depicted wearing coronation robes and four collars of chivalric orders by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Traditionally the monarch was also a knight and so the coronation ceremony involves related symbols such as golden spurs, armills and swords. There used to be a custom for a Champion to ride into Westminster Hall, fling his gauntlet to the ground and to challenge everyone present to deny his sovereigns right to the throne. If no-one accepted this challenge the Champion, dressed in full armour, then had to reverse out of the hall to the entrance. In 1685 at the coronation of James II the Champion threw down his gauntlet with such enthusiasm that the rest of his body followed through. As he lay on the floor on his back in his heavy armour resembling a beetle in difficulty, the King burst out laughing. At the coronation banquet for George IV the King’s Champion rode a horse he had hired from a circus. When the horse heard the applause, it did its full routine of tricks.
Two coronations, one King
Some Kings had 2 coronations. Henry III, aged 9, was crowned king in Gloucester Cathedral in 1216 and again in 1220 at Westminster Abbey. Charles II was crowned king in Scone Abbey in Scotland in 1651, then after the Restoration, he had another coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1661.
St Edward’s Crown, and the sovereign’s orb, sceptres and ring. Public domain
Crowns weren’t always used, an ornate helmet was sometimes used to crown monarchs. New regalia was made for Charles II after the selling off and destruction of the old set by Cromwell. The precious stones that survived were incorporated into the new Crown Jewels and the new St Edward’s Crown, which is the one in use today. Until 1911 the gaps had been filled with hired gems. This solid gold, very heavy crown (2.23 kilos or nearly 5lbs) is only ever used at the coronation, and during the service is replaced with a lighter one such as the Imperial State Crown, which had been created for Queen Victoria. The current one was made in 1937 for the coronation of George VI. This very impressive crown has 2,868 diamonds, the 317 carat Second Star of Africa, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 4 rubies including the Black Prince’s ruby, and 269 pearls which include Elizabeth I’s earrings. In the top of the cross is the Saint Edward’s sapphire, the oldest item in the crown jewels. The First Star of Africa, which is 530.2 carats, is in the Sovereigns Sceptre, first made in 1661. This is the largest cut diamond in the world.
The monarch’s consort is crowned during the ceremony, the most famous of these crowns was that of Charles III’s grandmother. Made of platinum in 1937 it contains the 105.6 Koh-i-Noor diamond. We now know that the current Queen Consort is to be crowned with Queen Mary’s Crown. The crown jewels have been kept and protected by the Tower of London since 1661.
Coronation procession of King George V in 1911. Public domain
The procession to Westminster Abbey was a spectacle allowing as many people as possible to view the pageantry of the coronation. The monarch would be accompanied by musicians, flag-bearers and dignitaries. The starting point changed from the Tower of London to a point nearer the Abbey; in modern times this became Buckingham Palace. Sergeants-at-arms would follow the crown jewels carrying a ceremonial mace, protection was their primary duty. Music has always been an important element, Handel’s Zadok the Priest has been played at all ceremonies since 1727. The tradition of anointing comes from the anointing of Solomon, the Jewish king, by Zadok the priest and Nathan the Prophet. Samuel Pepys was present at the coronation of Charles II and recorded the event in his diary. From his seat on the scaffold across the north end of the Abbey, where he sat with “a great deal of patience” (from around 4am to 11am) he writes of the spectacle that “to my very great grief, I and most in the Abbey could not see”. He recounts how that there was such a noise in the Abbey that you could not hear the music.
The anointing is done today by the Archbishop of Canterbury, using the 12th century spoon which survived Cromwell’s destruction of the crown jewels. The oil at the coronation of Henry IV in 1399 was said to have been given by the Virgin Mary to Thomas Becket and had only recently been discovered in the cellars of the Tower of London – this was useful in legitimising his usurpation of the throne from Richard II. However, during his coronation he dropped the gold coin he was supposed to offer ceremoniously to God which rolled out of sight and was never found again. This was later seen as an ill omen of the rebellions that later ruined his reign.
When it came to Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1559, there was no archbishop of Canterbury. Hers was the last coronation under the auspices of the catholic church, but she insisted on changes to reflect her protestant beliefs. This resulted in many bishops refusing to officiate at the service, leaving it to the low-ranking Bishop of Carlisle to conduct the service. Unfortunately, he had upset Elizabeth at the Christmas mass a month; apparently he elevated the host despite being told not to, so the Queen walked out of her own coronation service! And at George III’s coronation the sermon was so long, the congregation decided to have a meal during it.
Coronation feasts were often expensive, riotous and disorganised. The first was of Richard I in 1194 and the last was George IVs in 1821. Guests at Edward II’s feast in 1308 drank 1000 casks of wine. After George I’s coronation there were advertisements in the London newspapers pleading for the return of stolen royal silverware including “dishes, trencher plates, knives, forks, spoons and salts”. George IV had a truly ostentatious banquet after his coronation in 1821 which cost at the time £240,000. Queen Victoria did away with a lavish feast in 1838; her coronation cost a modest £70,000. The British aristocracy were so livid that some medieval trappings had been eliminated that they called it the queen’s “Penny Coronation”. William IV’s coronation in 1831 had cost £30,000 and the event was called the “Half-Crown-ation”, he did not even want to have one and had to be persuaded to do so.
A portrait of Queen Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel by Sir Thomas Lawrence
The Estranged Queens
George IV had his coronation postponed by about a year in the hope that parliamentary proceedings would deprive his estranged wife Queen Caroline of her titles and grant him a divorce. He was unsuccessful but had her excluded from the coronation. She turned up anyway but had the various doors to the Abbey closed in her face. She died two weeks later. George’s extravagant outfit for the day included a 27ft (8.2m) red velvet robe which was then sold to Madame Tussauds wax museum. It was rediscovered and has been used at all coronations since George Vs in 1911. For other spurned royal wives you will need to consider poor Queen Isabella’s experience. Edward II’s (nearly 24) was crowned alongside his 12-year-old Queen Isabella. Edward wore a green robe and was barefoot at the ceremony which was performed by the Bishop of Winchester. Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, had been given many important roles in the coronation, including organising the coronation feast which was sabotaged by the nobles to make him look bad – badly cooked food served very late. Edward had ordered tapestries with the coat of arms of himself and Gaveston and not of Isabella to adorn the halls and to top it all, the King spent most of his time talking and laughing with Gaveston; tactless rude behaviour which the French relatives of Isabella found very insulting.
George IV’s Coronation
Orders of Service were given to participants. As the manuscript text of the coronation oath could not be found when needed, George IV just signed the order of service instead. The choir departed before he did, so he had to pass their empty benches strewn with litter, the press described it as “a most unpicturesque arrangement”. The procession to the hall after the coronation was also an inelegant affair. The Barons of the Cinque Ports exercised their tradition of carrying a canopy over the king. The king decided to walk in front of the canopy, perhaps so more people could see him, but the elderly Barons walked quicker causing the canopy to sway and alarm the king, who walked even faster. The press reported it as “a somewhat unseemly jog-trot”. Then there were the 2,000 candles in chandeliers lighting the hall. The heat of the day caused large blobs of melted wax to fall continually on the peers and peeresses below. The supervision of bringing out the food was done on horseback, riding along the centre of the hall. One rider was the Lord High Steward who unfortunately had to dismount to uncover the first fish dish on the royal table – he had a prosthetic leg which made dismounting nearly impossible without the help of several pages, the whole scene was found very amusing by the unsympathetic guests. When the King departed, the spectators from the galleries were allowed down to eat the leftover food they had been watching for hours, they also helped themselves to the table ornaments, silver platters, cutlery and glasses. Armed soldiers arrived in time to stop the kitchen being ransacked. As in previous coronations, some effort was made to involve the general public. The Household Cavalry had to disperse a mob supporting Queen Caroline from breaking windows in the West End, but others peacefully watched a balloon ascent in Green Park, boat races and fireworks.
The coronation of Queen Victoria 28 June 1838 by Sir George Halter
Queen Victoria’s ceremony in 1838 was seen as the last of the botched coronations. Due to little rehearsal all participants were always in doubt as to what came next. The whole service lasted 5 hours and at points when the royal party were not needed at the Coronation Theatre, they went to St. Edward’s Chapel where the altar was covered in plates of sandwiches and bottles of wine. The lords of the land queued to touch the crown on Victoria’s head as part of the ceremony, but old and feeble Lord Rolle, despite being held up by two other lords, fell down the stairs and landed in a crumpled heap. He was lifted to try again and again listening to shouts of admiration for his bravery. The social theory writer Harriet Martineau said it made her sick and recorded a sceptical view of the day calling it “highly barbaric”. The archbishop placed the ring on the wrong finger causing Victoria considerable pain getting it off. At the end of the service silver coronation medals were thrown into the crowds by the Queen’s Treasurer causing a very undignified scramble. Queen Victoria’s coronation had two long processions through London so that the people could see her in her Gold State Coach, the other coaches and the cavalry escort. With the availability of train transport, around 400,000 travelled to London to see the procession. It was the longest coronation procession since that of Charles II in 1660, so much of the budget was used on it that there was no coronation banquet. This first procession by coach to and from the Abbey has been repeated in all subsequent coronations.
At the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 it was decided that the Hereditary Grand Falconer could not attend with a live falcon on his arm, which was his hereditary right. Palace officials suggested he could come with a stuffed bird on his arm instead, but he was so incensed that he boycotted the coronation.
Thankfully some traditions never caught on – Elizabeth I at her coronation in 1559 had a cat burned in a wicker basket to symbolise the releasing of demons. Some traditions are not noticed when omitted, even accidently. For instance, in 1953 during the first televised coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II, she failed to curtsey with her Maids of Honour at the north pillar of the Abbey. The 20 million viewers did not notice this error, but the Archbishop of Canterbury did. Let’s see what the next coronation will bring…..
About the Author
Maria Perri is a London Blue Badge Guide with 30 years of experience in the travel business. She has an extensive working knowledge of England, Scotland, Italy, as well as other parts of Europe, the Caribbean, North Africa and Canada. She loves sharing her knowledge of London with visitors from all over the globe. You can book Maria here