As a country proud of its traditions, Britain is now the only European country that still has the tradition of a coronation. This ceremony is a rare opportunity for the people of the United Kingdom to reflect on the relationship between themselves, the monarchy and the country’s religious lineage.
After a monarch draws their last breath, their heir immediately becomes the new monarch. But very rarely is there an immediate coronation ceremony, as the country enters a period of mourning and reflection. It also gives the British people time to adjust to our new monarch and allows for the planning of good-old British pomp and ceremony. Those watching the coronation will not be disappointed on that front.
The coronation has remained largely the same ceremony since the Norman invasion of 1066, though speaking as a Scot, there has been one large, symbolic change. In 1296, King Edward I of England came up to Scotland and stole the Stone of Destiny (which legend proclaims as Jacob’s pillow) and brought it to London. It was incorporated into a chair specifically made for coronations — the Coronation Chair — and has been used in every English/British coronation since.
In November 1996, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland and is now located at Edinburgh Castle, beside the Scottish Crown Jewels. But as part of the agreement, the stone will only leave Scotland to go down to Westminster Abbey for the coronation of the monarch. Thus, what was previously seen as a symbol of oppression will now, for the first time, become a symbol of the voluntary union between Scotland and England.
As the role of the king or queen has changed over the centuries, so has their coronation oath. Currently the new monarch takes an oath to uphold the laws of the country according to the customs and traditions of its peoples and to defend religion in the United Kingdom. The king is the supreme governor of the Church of England, but he has also stated his desire to be a defender of all faiths and none.
The Coronation Day begins with a procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony itself. The king will be presented to the people on each side of the abbey for them to recognize him as king. The recognition provides legitimacy to the right to rule and establishes a relationship between them.
The king will take upon himself responsibilities and make promises before being anointed and crowned. He verbally swears an oath and then signs a written version as a contract between him and his people. The coronation oath has varied over the centuries to reflect the states in the Commonwealth and the varying religious struggles in Britain. King Charles III will swear to preserve the laws made by the people in each of his realms in the Commonwealth. He will also swear to administer the law in justice and mercy in his judgements. Finally, he will swear to maintain the laws of God and protect faith throughout his Kingdoms. Charles is king of the United Kingdom, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.
The king will don new robes for the next part of the ceremony. He will then receive the Eucharist before being anointed, known as the sacrament of unction. It is one of the rarest sacraments of the Church of England and was considered too sacred to display on television when Queen Elizabeth was crowned. In the same vein, it will not be shown at this coronation either. The anointing olive oil is from Jerusalem. Priests mix in additional herbs and spices, using the same secret recipe over the centuries. When the king is anointed, they place the oil on his head, hands and chest in the shape of a cross. The beautiful words of the blessing recall the ancient origins of the anointing:
“Be thy head anointed with holy oil: as kings and prophets were anointed. And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the Prophet, so be you anointed, blessed and consecrated King over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern.”
After the anointing, senior members of each order of peerage will then pay homage to King Charles III as a show of loyalty. This includes princes, dukes, and other inherited titles descending from feudal roots.
The coronation being first a religious ceremony is very important. The king promises to follow God and to defend faith, and this moment in the ceremony is a timely reminder of the need for keeping God at the forefront of society. The covenant between God and the nation harkens back to the Israelites who were God’s covenant people.
The anointing is an outer cleansing, symbolic of the inner one needed to follow God. A reminder for everyone to follow God and love others as themselves seems to be ever needed in deeply divided times.
This is an opportunity for the monarchy to renew their contract with their people throughout the world and to promise to serve them faithfully. Many political philosophers discuss a social contract between government and the governed. It is good to see the embodiment of this idea in the coronation. The people will obey the laws and serve the king, while he will enforce them justly and serve the people. Too often people forget government is a two-way street and respect from both the government and governed are required.
Mindful that the United States fought to be independent and particularly free from a king, and that the monarchy is increasingly a symbol, may I suggest the coronation can serve as a powerful reminder of the foundational ideas that make government work and of a societal need to rely on God, to rely on each other, and on the importance of honest, good and wise leaders.
Stephen Kerr is a member of the Scottish Parliament and a former member of the United Kingdom Parliament.