Britain’s oldest monarch can scarcely be less successful than its youngest one. Henry VI was a mere eight months and 25 days old when he came to the throne in 1422. His reign dissolved into a civil war – “the War of the Roses” – which eventually saw his murder. Political stability wasn’t fully restored for the best part of a century.
Not that the congregation at Henry VI’s coronations brooded, presumably, on the grim realities of everyday life, any more than they would have known the horror of what was to come. I write in the plural because there were two – one in England and one in France, because young Henry was king of both.
The child was “in infant bands crowned king/Of France and England, did this king succeed,” as Shakespeare put it. “Whose state so many had the managing/That they lost France and made his England bleed/” By the time of his coronations, Henry was seven years old.
The French one, in December 1431, was rushed (the food, one observer wrote, was “shocking”). The English one, some two years earlier, was sumptuous. “What followed took hours,” writes Dan Jones in The Hollow Crown. “The congregation gave a roar…crying “ye, ye”.” (The thirteenth century had its own “homage of the people”.)
Henry “was first girded with the spurs and swords of a warrior, then in a bishop’s robes and sandals, before finally being arrayed in a gleaming cloth of gold, with Richard II’s crown placed on his head since the traditional crown of Edward the Confessor was deemed too weighty for a seven year old”.
Charles III’s coronation will be a good deal more simple – and modern. Neither of Henry’s ceremonies featured “representatives from Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Buddhist communities”, as Saturday’s will. (Nor a Hindu Prime Minister.) Neither was there diplomatic work to be done about the role of non-Anglican clergy – the Reformation having not yet taken place.
Nor was either event at risk of disruption by protestors wearing t-shirts proclaiming “Not My King” (Richard, Duke of York, was to get round to making the point later.) Neither had Henry been married before, or was at the time. Yet there is a continuity between that coronation and Saturday’s, not least the heart of the ceremony: the anointing.
Some assessments of the Coronation will focus on what that touching of King Charles’s body means: that for him, as for his mother, he has been chosen to reign by God – though his conception of the divine seems to be more interfaith in flavour than hers was.
Others will zero in on his own story, with its ups and downs. Others still will ask what makes constitutional monarchies tick, and whether the future of Britain’s is secure. (The most recent YouGov poll on the matter found that “two thirds of Britons say they think the UK should continue to have a monarchy”.)
I want instead to continue where I began. There may seem to be no connection between the coronation that will take place in King Charles’s kingdom on Saturday and the riots happening now in what was part of King Henry’s – France. But perhaps there is one, after all: age.
The French protests were sparked by Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the age at which the French qualify for the state pension from 62 to 64. The Coalition Government managed to get our own up from 65 to 66 by 2020, and has it set to rise to 67 by 2028, without getting anything like the same reaction.
But before we get too smug at Macron’s expense, it’s worth contemplating the significance of the King’s age. At 73, he became the oldest British monarch on record to come to the throne: indeed, he is one of only two to have been over 60 on accession (Edward VII only just got in under the bar).
During the twentieth century, British monarchs tended to come to the throne later than in earlier times. George V was 44 when he did so, Edward VIII 41, and George VI 40. The trend has mirrored lifespans: not to put too fine a point on it, Charles III will be an ageing monarch reigning over an ageing country.
Tony Blair said, not all that long ago, that he wanted Britain “to be a young country again”. Whether he succeeded in a metaphorical sense is debatable. Whether he did in a literal one is not. Britain was an old country in the mid-1990s and is even more so now, despite the recent fall-off in life expectancy.
This state of affairs is so familiar that we may not recognise how unusual it is – historically, anyway. Britain is roughly in the mid-table of European fertility rates. But our continent is in demographic decline. We can keep up our standard of living only by working longer or through higher immigration: a third way, growing faster without cutting spending, recently came to grief.
There are upsides. It’s no bad thing for healthier people to work longer or for there to be a certain amount of immigration: Peter Lilley once compared it to the oil that lubricates a car. But new generations can’t be denied the retirement that older ones had without political downsides, as we see when we glance across the channel.
And as Lilley pointed out, “beyond a certain point, adding more lubricating oil does not make your car go faster” (to say nothing of the pressure that migration puts on housing – and that’s before one gets into the debate about growth per head). These abstractions have political consequences: national conservatism is partly a response to demographic fall-off.
YouGov’s file on King Charles has his popularity at 55 per cent, with 17 per cent disliking him and 25 per cent neutral. He is roughly in the middle of the royal family table (Queen Elizabeth’s popularity rating was 80 per cent.) You may counter that polls change but the monarchy endures – and that the King is off to a good start of four-fifths of the public find him acceptable at least.
That’s true, but it may be that age has some effect on enthusiasm for a coronation. The evidence is ambiguous. Princess Anne is ten per cent more popular than the King: the finding is more likely to be related to character than age. But the latter surely has something to do with the relative popularity of Prince William, who squeezes those don’t knows into positive ratings.
Like most of the rest of us, I wasn’t alive in 1953, when Queen Elizabeth was crowned. Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and her own father, George VI, may indeed have been relatively old when crowned, at least compared to previous generations of monarchs, but Elizabeth II wasn’t. She was 27.
We may get a sense over the weekend of how the King’s coronation compares to his mother’s – as this old country embraces its new-but-old monarch. As a king, it will be a joyful day for him, as it will be for Britain. As a son, he will still be mourning his mother, to whom he paid a moving public tribute, ending with a quote from Shakespeare.
The King knows his Shakespeare well – well enough to know that his summary of the civil war’s causes is contestable. Jones says it happened not because of over-mightly barons or state incapacity or bastard feudalism or the rest of it. The “Wars of the Roses” happened because the monarch bungled his reign.