“It’s not Glastonbury!” a friend of mine expostulated. She has been ringing me at frequent intervals, each time with some fresh worry about the Coronation.
First it was the failure to invite the dukes. More recently, she was concerned that tiaras and court dress were to be done away with, and replaced, as at some pop festival, by flowers in ladies’ hair, though then came the joyful tidings that this ruling has been reversed.
Yesterday she lamented that the rolling news coverage, which she has been watching because alas she is unwell, might mean everyone was bored by the Coronation before it actually happened.
But although I have not subjected myself to the rolling news coverage, I confess I have not found the press coverage leading up to the Coronation in the slightest bit boring. It has offered a delightful holiday from the usual tyranny of party political news.
Kingship is an inexhaustible subject. As Ted Hughes once remarked, “Kings didn’t impose themselves; they came out of the dreams of ordinary people.”
This popular element in monarchy is what matters most, and is understood least. It is real, but as any thoughtful royalist realises it should never be taken for granted.
Editors know how widely it is found, and demand ever more pieces about the wonderful spectacle of the Coronation, but the depths of the connection between King and people remain mysterious.
Here is a pre-modern feeling which is at times overpowering, while defying definition in the terms nowadays used by political commentators.
Michael Oakeshott, a philosopher who mocked the absurdities of rationalism, observed in one of his notebooks: “We are still looking for an emotional substitute for feudalism.”
Hughes was a poet, and the Coronation is better understood as poetry than in the severely rational terms of democratic theorists who accept no need for religion and ritual, acknowledge no source of legitimacy beyond their own ideas, and feel insulted by the continued bond between monarch and people.
Tomorrow’s service begins with an innovation. A young chorister from the Chapel Royal will say: “Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings.”
The King will reply: “In His name, and after His example, I come not to be served but to serve.”
Here, one notes, is a deeply traditional innovation: an ideal of sacrificial leadership taken from the Bible. A useful summary of the various biblical sources for the Coronation service has been compiled by the Bible Society, one of whose founders was William Wilberforce.
As that Society observes,
“Not everyone who watches or listens to the Coronation will pick up all these references. But Bible Society found in our research after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth that many people found the use of the Bible helpful, and that very few found them alienating or out of place. The King’s Coronation is another way in which the Bible can speak into the life of the nation.”
Dr Francis Young has published a comparison of the Coronation services in 2023 and 1953, which shows a mixture of old and new, but much of the new is drawn from ancient sources.
It is too early to know what impression tomorrow’s Coronation will make, but Chips Channon, who married into the Guinness family and served as Conservative MP for Southend-on-Sea from 1935-58, described in his diary the scene at the Coronation of Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953, when he took his seat in Westminster Abbey at 8.25 a.m.:
“Opposite, the peeresses’ benches were gradually filling up; the front row of 13 duchesses was a splendid sight. Mollie Buccleuch on the extreme left was royal and elegant but her daughter Elizabeth [the Duchess of Northumberland] outshone her! The Duchess of Portland, grey and dignified and magnificent, was between the two ‘bogus’ duchesses of Argyll and Sutherland who talked across her. The new Duchess of Westminster made a dark note: she looked well, as did ‘Debo’ Devonshire. The long wait was enthralling, as every few minutes there was a procession of distinguished guests, relations, minor royalties…”
My friend is right: there were more dukes and duchesses in 1953. There were also about four times as many people inside the Abbey, that being the last occasion on which special stands were erected for them.
But in 1953 the daring innovation of allowing television cameras into the Abbey enabled the Coronation to become the first great spectacle of the television age, with Richard Dimbleby, as commentator, presenting the old order to a new audience of millions.
The established order, it would perhaps be better to call it, for the words “new” and “old” cannot do justice to a continuous but always changing tradition.
At George VI’s Coronation in May 1937 – which was to have been the Coronation of his older brother, Edward VIII, who had abdicated in December 1936 – the processions to and from the Abbey, the latter over a six-mile route including Oxford Street, were filmed for the first time.
The Abdication had been caused by the determination of the King to marry Mrs Simpson. Some objected to the fact that she had two former husbands still living, while others were more appalled that she was an American.
This crisis could have been used to overthrow the monarchy, had there been any general wish to do so, but when a motion to that effect was introduced in the House of Commons as an amendment to the Abdication Bill, it was defeated by 403 votes to five.
After George V’s Coronation in June 1911 he wrote in his diary:
“The Service in the Abbey was most beautiful & impressive, but it was a terrible ordeal. It was grand, yet simple & most dignified & went without a hitch. I nearly broke down when dear David [the future Edward VIII] came to do homage to me, as it reminded me so much when I did the same thing to beloved Papa, he did it so well.”
George V’s father, Edward VII, who reigned from 1901-10, is in some ways the decisive figure in this story, for it was during his reign and under his leadership that British standards of ceremonial were brought up to the high level we now imagine always to have existed.
Queen Victoria’s Coronation in 1838 had been a chaotic affair, but in the new age of photography and mass-circulation newspapers this was no longer acceptable.
The Daily Mail had been founded in 1896, and from the Edwardian period onwards the monarch supplied the grand ceremonial needed to fill many of its pages, and to show that Britain could hold its head high in the company of such grandiose rivals as imperial Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia.
David Cannadine, mentioned yesterday on ConservativeHome by Sunder Katwala, has observed, in his brilliant essay on The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition”, how as the age of the motor car dawned, the British Royal Family invested in new horse-drawn coaches.
Lord Esher organised the great state pageants of the Edwardian period, the Church of England learned how to conduct immaculate services in place of the error-strewn occasions of the past, and Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Edward Elgar composed sublime music.
A unusually large number of mistakes had occurred at the Coronation in 1761 of George III, when the service in Westminster Abbey lasted six hours.
For the Coronation Banquet held afterwards in Westminster Hall (a tradition abandoned in the 1830s), the Lord Steward, Lord Talbot, had trained his horse to walk backwards away from the King and Queen, but the horse instead insisted on approaching the royal couple backwards, to the vast amusement of the onlookers, especially as Talbot was unpopular.
There is something about a royal occasion which raises people’s spirits. “It is a solemn day,” a steward told ConHome last September as people queued for many hours along the Thames to see Queen Elizabeth II lying in state in Westminster Hall, “but people are quite jovial.”
And so they were, for they knew in their bones they were doing the right thing.
This freely given loyalty has been seen at every recent Coronation, and is by no means limited to the Commonwealth. In Germany, for example, it is impossible not to be struck by the affectionate regard for the British Royal Family, seen again during the King and Queen’s recent visit to Berlin and Hamburg.
The essentials of the Coronation service were, it is generally agreed, devised by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, for King Edgar in 973.
While checking that date, I was reminded that Dunstan had previously served as Abbot of Glastonbury, which was close to his birthplace and where he had distinguished himself not only by his godliness (he was canonised about 40 years after his death) but as a musician, silversmith and illuminator of manuscripts.
So there is a direct link to Glastonbury in tomorrow’s Coronation, but not quite the one my friend was complaining about.