About an hour and a half into the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, just as the august baritone of Richard Dimbleby proclaimed “the moment of the Queen’s crowning is come”, a BBC camera cut to a small boy, his hair glossy with punitive brushing, the splayed fingers of his hands pressed against each other in excitement.

And I, also a small boy, wondered out loud to my parents as we watched on our 9-inch Ekcovision TV, “Have his mummy and daddy told him he will be king one day?” “I expect so,” my dad said; “His father, anyway,” added my mum. “It’ll be a bit of a wait,” said Dad. But no one, least of all the little Duke of Cornwall, could have guessed that the wait would run to 70 years, the most protracted gap between coronations in all of British history.

This matters, more than anecdotally. In 1953, a Britain still recovering from the trauma of the war was in desperate need of what the sociologists Edward Shils and Michael Young saw as “an act of national communion”, especially when its embodiment was a graceful 27-year-old woman, a bare-armed Britannia. The core of the ritual — oath (originally the “tria precepta”, the three promises); anointing, investiture with ring, sword, sceptre, rod and crown; enthronement — does actually descend from the coronation of the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar at Bath Abbey in 973, so it was possible to understand the spectacle in 1953 as the victory of British endurance against the fascist attempt to break it. 

But will all or any of this fly nearly three-quarters of a century later, even if modest gestures of modernisation have slimmed down the ceremony, the chrism of unction is no longer perfumed with animal effluents — ambergris, musk and civet — and Andrew Lloyd Webber added to Handel and Elgar?

The long history of coronations is full of revisions but, if mishandled, well-meaning adaptations can rebound disastrously. The invitation for the TV audience watching Charles III’s coronation to “swear allegiance” was doubtless meant as an act of popularisation but it has registered instead as a tone-deaf command. Perhaps Insta-Britain — all the manic yelling, the digital twitching and fidgeting — will stop and let the ritual, transferred from Christian to national mystique, wash over it? But then again perhaps many will find it all incomprehensibly archaic, like a poorly edited, weirdly scripted and overlong episode of Game of Thrones.

Rituals are risky, their lofty mystery brought down to earth by inconsiderable gaffes and pratfalls. Costumes, in particular, have had their challenges. In 1937 the Dean of Westminster was about to set the colobium sindonis (the white linen shift beneath his robe) on King George VI inside out. Only the intervention of the Groom of Robes came to the rescue. In 1953 George’s daughter discovered that the nave carpet pile, laid the wrong way, slowed her progress and had to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to “get me started”. Edward VII’s crown was set on his head the wrong way round.

In 1838 a misunderstanding led Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, the jewellers responsible for the ring used in Queen Victoria’s coronation, to make it to fit her little, rather than ring finger. With some difficulty, the Archbishop of Canterbury struggled to force it on that wrong finger. After the ceremony the queen bathed the tortured digit in iced water so she could remove it “with great pain”. No one remembered to supply chairs for George III and Queen Charlotte (or for that matter to bring the coronation sword), so there was a lot of wandering around. 

The snafus have not all been comical. In 1189, the medieval historian William of Newburgh tells us that Jews wanting to bring congratulatory gifts to Richard I were shut out of Westminster Abbey but managed to gain entrance to the feast at Westminster Hall, where they were brutally set upon with sticks. The violence spread beyond the crowd and ended in the deaths of many Jews, some from beatings, others trampled on in the chaos and horror. This year, however, the King (a warm friend of British Jews) has provided accommodation at Clarence House for Chief Rabbi Mirvis so that he can walk to the Abbey on the Sabbath. 

Surprisingly, William IV felt so strongly in 1831 that the coronation was a ridiculous and expensive anomaly that he let it be known it ought to be done away with. Horrified Tory peers persuaded him to go through with it. But in reaction to his elder brother George IV’s obscene extravagance 10 years earlier (£238,000 at the time, or roughly £20mn in today’s money), William insisted on a cut-price affair, the “Half Crown-ation” as it was called. No customised crown for him, just the one worn by George I, with padding inserted so that it would fit William’s smaller head. There was no coronation after-party in Westminster Hall, which may have been just as well, since at George IV’s do, the excessive numbers of chandeliers dropped hot wax on the heads of diners. On one element alone William did not stint: the procession from the Tower of London that was the moment when the sovereign could receive the acclaim of the crowds.

In 1953, despite the revolutionary presence of television cameras (opposed by Winston Churchill as intrusive “mechanical arrangements”), Richard Dimbleby presented the coronation as prescribed by ancient, unbroken tradition. Ancient it is; unbroken not. All coronations are a negotiation between the mystique of remote history and the political urgencies of the immediate moment. More often than not, they are defensive reactions to dangerous discontinuity rather than a celebration of seamless succession.

Charles II’s immense orchestration of magnificence in 1661 was the ceremonial and festive rejection of regicide Puritanism and perhaps of Cromwell’s presumption in seating himself in St Edward’s Chair for his installation as Lord Protector. The Commonwealth had destroyed the regalia? Very well, let there be a new imperial crown, groaning with colossal gems. The aura of the divinely appointed king had been stripped away? Charles II “touched for the king’s evil” 23,000 scrofula sufferers between 1660 and 1664 in a marathon exercise of his purported powers of healing. A quarter of a century later, in 1689, William III, representing himself and Queen Mary as anti-absolutists, brought members of the House of Commons into the Abbey by way of demonstrating that his would be a constitutional sovereignty. Alterations to the coronation oath now made the sovereign the defender of parliamentary statute, not “customs and laws granted” by the king. 

Centuries earlier, the antagonists of 1066 had played out their rival claims to be the true heir of Edward the Confessor in the locations and circumstances of their respective coronations. Acutely aware that his own title to the throne would be contested, Harold had himself crowned in a hurry at Winchester Abbey after Edward’s death. Though the trial by blood had settled the matter at the Battle of Hastings, the Norman conqueror William insisted on a coronation on Christmas Day at the still more momentous foundation of the Abbey of St Peter at Westminster, built on a scale to rival the most magnificent churches in Europe and the burial site of the Confessor.

Since Stigand, the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to crown William, his place was taken by the more obliging Archbishop of York, though the proceedings did not go entirely as planned. To emphasise his legitimacy, William ordered a voice acclamation, a ritual borrowed from Roman and Byzantine practice. But the armed and mounted men posted around the Abbey, hearing a roar in an alien language, assumed something sinister had happened and set fire to the environs. Smoke entered the Abbey; terrified clergy exited while the Conqueror gritted his teeth and saw the solemnities through to the end. 

The smaller the boy, the bigger the coronation, and the more fantastic the vision of monarchy devised by their protectors and regents. The 10-year-old Richard II’s coronation was stage-managed by his uncle John of Gaunt (improbably represented by Shakespeare as the salt of Albion’s earth). Four years later the teenager had to ride to meet the leaders of the Peasant Revolt. But as he was crowned in 1377, Richard mantled himself in the aura of the god-king seen in the Wilton Diptych, his majestic election blessed by the Madonna and Child and a company of angels.

Such grandeur needed a theatrical performance space in which to be beheld. So Richard demolished the interior columns of Westminster Hall and replaced the roof with stupendous hammer-beam vaulting designed to take visitors’ breath away and (always on the mind of English kings ) outdo the French. It was exactly Richard’s success (or over-reach) in creating an aura of sacred-imperial numen that contributed to his brutal comeuppance.

Coronations, especially in England or Britain, have always been triangulations between the monarch, the spiritual powers in whose hands (by their own lights) lies the decisive capacity to transform a dominus lord into a rex or regina, and, in some incarnation or other, the people. However sealed off from hoi polloi the monarch might be at the climactic moment of this mystical translation, that last element has always been integral to acceptance; first at the “recognition” of the king or queen on entrance into the Abbey; then in the form of homage and not least in the public appearances, processions and feasts that anticipate or follow the solemnities. 

For centuries those “publics”, especially in London, were, inevitably, very restricted. It took a ruler with the confidence to believe that selective exposure could be an asset for popularity to embrace processions through the citizenry as a way to create a plausibly national monarchy. Elizabeth I’s entry into London on the eve of her coronation in January 1559 has been described by Roy Strong as the moment of invention for a “walkabout monarch”, the apparently effortless managing of the rope line by a sovereign gifted with the common touch. On January 14 1559, Strong writes in his superb book on coronation history, “a great star was born”. 

That theatrical analogy is exactly right. Seated on a golden litter in the midst of a procession of a thousand horses, the richly arrayed grandees of England, female as well as male, with no clergy at all in sight, Elizabeth was the ultimate trouper; her body language alone a promise that she would be the epitome of an assertively and exclusively English monarch (unlike her older sister, who had married the king of Spain); a ruler for her people.

So she accepted posies thrown at the litter; raised her eyes heavenwards when passing the orphanage of Christ’s Hospital; when given an English Bible, held it tight to her breast; and “holding up her handes, and merie countenance to such as stood farre of, and most tender and gentle language to those that stode nigh to her grace . . . To all that wished her grace wel, she gave heartie thankes, and to such as bade god save her grace, she sayd agayne god save them all, and thanked them with all heart”.

Five pageants punctuated the day-long procession: one which emphasised her as a peacemaker descending from the union of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York that had ended the Wars of the Roses; another which brought her into personal dialogue with the Lord Mayor of London; another which represented her as the biblical prophetess Deborah, wise and fearless. “Be ye ensured,” she said, “that I will be as good unto you as ever queen was with her people . . . for the safety and quietness of you all I will not spare if need be to spend my blood.” Cue the cheering.

Can Charles III — and Queen Camilla (since coronations of consorts have also been a constant feature of English royal tradition) — match the popularisation skills of the two Elizabeths, and deliver both magic and modernity? As a keen history buff, the King will be aware that James I’s assumption of divine authority above statute law, his distaste for public ceremonies, fed a reaction that would end with his son’s Charles’s execution in 1649. After that interregnum, the only period in modern British history when republicanism became a genuine threat were the years of Victoria’s seclusion following Prince Albert’s death. This was all the more dangerous because, at the start of her reign, she too seemed to have been blessed with an instinct for common humanity. 

Enthroned at the coronation on the raised dais that had long been a feature of the ceremony, she saw the octogenarian Lord Rolle stumble backwards as he made a desperate effort to ascend the few steps to the throne. Taking pity on the old boy’s struggle, Victoria advanced to the edge to accept his homage. The moment was widely and appreciatively reported by the press, shaping the initial image of the young queen as a decent sort while at the same time she remained incommensurably majestic. Though there had been public celebrations before 1838 — usually fireworks — nothing came close to the great fair in Hyde Park, where hundreds of thousands of Britons, transported to London by train, could raise a bumper of ale to the young queen and the nation she was thought to personify. The Hyde Park fair made the coronation, somehow, the people’s event as well as the queen’s.

But that was in an age when the popular press profited from graphically pumping up enthusiasm for royal events (not at all to be taken for granted). The long years of austere seclusion from public appearances following Prince Albert’s death in 1861 posed fundamental questions about the point and purpose of the monarchy, and the rise of republican feeling was only reversed by the outpouring of public enthusiasm during the diamond jubilee of 1897, when a camera actually recorded the old queen smiling. The vast spectacle of Edward VII’s coronation in 1902 — a Gesamtkunstwerk of Elgarian music and massively restored ritual — was an effort to make the country, top to bottom, glow with a sense of imperial grandeur, “wider still and wider”. And much of the press fed off the pomp.

Those days are long gone. Though uncritical devotion to Queen Elizabeth was a given for most of the tabloids, the default relationship of the media with her son has been less charitable, especially since the tragic wreckage of his first marriage supplied so much material for irresistible takedown copy and screenplays. 

Not that family embarrassment necessarily dooms the monarchy’s prospects. The only one of the Hanoverian kings not to have mistresses was the romantically domestic George III; four of William IV’s 10 illegitimate children by the actress Mrs Jordan were seated in Westminster Abbey for his coronation. (As far as I know, history does not record how Queen Adelaide felt about that.) Edward VII’s procession of mistresses does not seem to have got in the way of his popularity as king. 

The real determinants of whether the monarchy will flourish or wither in the reign of Charles III will lie elsewhere, beyond the feeding frenzy of family feuds: a deeper issue in the life of any national community. Does the King have what it takes to answer the need (not confined to Britain or indeed to monarchies elsewhere) for some sort of incarnation of national community, especially when the nation is so deeply divided after Brexit?

There is a negative argument for monarchy, no less persuasive for being so, that it offers a way for people of sharply opposed opinions to share at least a common sense of affinity in being part of the country’s history — good and not so good — institutions and habits without letting the bitterness of division overwhelm patriotic sentiment. This is all the more important in a world full of morally squalid despots all claiming to be the personification of their nation and its religion, and treating those who presume to disagree with torture, imprisonment and death. By comparison, a monarchy is an innocent bargain. 

But there is also, I think, a positive argument. Whatever the monarchy cannot do, one thing it can do is to convey a sense of civic decency; a disinterested alternative to the disingenuousness of politics. However remote from the daily life of their people, kings and queens can somehow seem to connect with matters that really do shape their present and future. In a country that — as Sir David Attenborough has reminded us in his recent television series Wild Isles — has the most calamitously depleted natural environment in Europe, the King has been, decade after decade, prophetically passionate about the most existential issue of all: the fate of the Earth and our small, still breathtakingly beautiful piece of it.

Paradoxically then, when all the vivats and the Andrew Lloyd Webber, the unction and the orb, the arcane rituals and the street bunting have all faded and been swept away, the mark of whether this king will be thought a good one is the degree to which he is seen, and felt, to be a good citizen.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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