This week’s glorious coronation of King Charles III conjures memories going back 10 centuries in the UK. On Christmas Day 1066, Westminster Abbey rang to the cries of “God Save the King!” for William the Conqueror, founder of Britain’s modern monarchy and effectively the country’s chief executive in 21st century terms – ruling the kingdom with his powerfully wielded sword.
By comparison, the modern King Charles III is a figurehead – constitutionally restrained from getting involved in politics. As a keen environmentalist, the new King would like to travel to the Cop28 climate conference when it takes place in the UAE, in Dubai Expo City later this year – and the hope is that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be happy for him to attend. But last year Mr Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss stopped King Charles from attending Cop27 in Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh: Britain’s then-prime minister had no time for eco-conferences, though the King had made no secret of his wish to be present.
This royal lack of ultimate authority stems from another King Charles – King Charles I – who reigned over Great Britain and Ireland from 1625 until 1649, when his people ordered his head to be cut off. Their monarch had attempted to rule without their consent. This first Charles to reign over Britain had even fought a civil war against Parliament, and he was duly rewarded for his defiance of the popular will. The King was put on trial for treason, and he was ceremonially beheaded in front of awed crowds on January 30, 1649.
England thus became a republic, or “Commonwealth”, ruled by Oliver Cromwell, the puritanical general who had led the national rebellion against the King.
After 11 years, however, England’s people decided they did not enjoy the rule of puritans who banned gambling, theatres and alcohol, sought to impose their own puritanical dress code upon the populace, and who even frowned on smoking. The moment Mr Cromwell died, his compatriots invited back the old king’s son, Charles II, and England has been a monarchy ever since.
This second King Charles was actually known as the “Merry Monarch”, and he was celebrated for his many affairs. The Camilla of her day was the actress Nell Gwyn, famed for commencing her career as an orange seller – and Nell Gwyn’s sweet and bitter orange marmalade graces English breakfast tables to this day. Camilla, meanwhile, has risen from royal mistress to Princess Consort and, eventually, Queen.
So now we celebrate the coronation of the third King Charles and his Queen in the splendid rituals of Westminster Abbey. From earliest times, the sacred vestments and chantings of our national coronations have provided camouflage for the blunt and often bloodstained realities of English power politics.
In recent weeks, some American commentators have been comparing Britain’s coronation rites to the US’s more modern, but equally freighted four-yearly ceremonies of presidential inauguration. Since September of last year, in fact, King Charles III has been rather like a victorious US president in the aftermath of his election. He’s got the job, but he has not been fully in office. The new boss has not signed his contract with his people, swearing the oath of service and obedience to the law that seals the deal on the two sides of the Atlantic – with hand rested upon holy book on both occasions.
Symbolism is the essence of these UK and US ceremonies, from the wording of the marriage-like vows to the make-up of the respectful congregation. At the heart of Britain’s coronation is the need for the monarch to be crowned in the “sight of all the people”. Then let us switch back to Washington in 2017 to recall the controversy over the bare patches of grass that put a question mark over how many people actually turned up to witness the “crowning” of President Donald Trump.
King Charles has worked hard to modernise his forthcoming coronation, cutting the religious ritual from the three hours it took to crown his mother in 1953 to little more than 90 minutes in 2023. The Abbey congregation has also been drastically reduced from 8,000 to little more than 2,000 – which is the building’s historical capacity. In 1953, the Abbey was packed to its rafters with hastily constructed stadium seating to quadruple the audience. Today, that would never pass health-and-safety regulations.
More importantly, King Charles has declared that he wants to be seen as the Defender of all Faiths, not just the Faith – i.e. the Church of England – in harmony with his increasingly racially and culturally diverse kingdom. As a result, there will be participants in the ceremony representing Britain’s Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and Muslims. Lord Syed Salah Kamall, 56, a Conservative Party peer and practising Muslim, will be carrying the ornamented gold arm bracelets which the King will wear during the most sacred part of the ceremony. Lord Kamall went to Buckingham Palace last week to rehearse his role.
King Charles III has even dared tackle Britain’s poisonous legacy of slavery and empire. Indian activists have complained at the prospect of Camilla being crowned Queen with the Imperial State Crown that features the priceless 105-carat Koh-I-Noor diamond. Queen Victoria graciously accepted this treasure in 1850, sent as a “gift” from the child Maharaja, Duleep Singh – but many maintain that it was effectively “theft” to take the jewel from a boy who was only 10 years old. Camilla and Charles have prudently decided that the Koh-I-Noor can stay in its jewel box on May 6.
Changing traditions … changing times. In 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II cost £1.57 million – some £50m in modern terms. Estimates for King Charles’s ceremony range as high as £250 million, though much of this is explained by the massively increased costs of security in modern times. Now 74 years old, Charles has waited more than a working lifetime to take up his destiny in the unique ceremony in which more than 40 of Britain’s monarchs have been blessed. Will his reign be long or short? To date, the evidence certainly suggests that the new King has prepared thoughtfully and carefully for the challenge.