There was no set venue for pre-conquest kings to hold their coronation ceremonies at. Besides Bath, they took place in London, Winchester and even Kingston upon Thames.
Nine days after the consecration of Westminster Abbey on 28 December 1065, it is assumed to have been the venue for the coronation of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king. This book will examine the thirty-eight ceremonies held at the abbey for the subsequent rulers, from William I to Elizabeth II (as well as the proposed coronations for the two uncrowned monarchs, Edward V and Edward VIII).
While other European countries have abandoned elaborate coronations in favour of enthronement and inauguration ceremonies, the British monarch is still crowned in a ceremony that retains many of the rites that Henry V, Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria would recognise.
The coronation has always had five main elements: the recognition and oath, the anointing, the investing, the crowning, the enthronement and homage, and the final procession.
1. The Recognition. When the monarch enters the abbey, they are taken by the archbishop to face the east, south, west and north sides of the abbey to call for recognition of the sovereign using the words: ‘Sirs, I here present unto you [the monarch’s name], your undoubted King/Queen. Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service, are you willing to do the same?’
2. The Oath. After the people present in the abbey acclaim the monarch, they promise to govern the UK and all their overseas territories, exercise law and justice and maintain the Protestant religion.
3. The Anointing. The monarch is then seated in the Coronation Chair and anointed by the archbishop. This was the only part of Elizabeth II’s coronation not to be photographed or televised as she regarded it as a sacred moment. Holy oil is poured from an Ampulla onto the Coronation Spoon, a late twelfth-century silver-gilt spoon which was the only item of the medieval crown jewels not to have been melted down and sold off by the Parliamentarians after the English Civil War.
4. The Investing. The monarch is then robed in the colobium sindonis (a simple white linen shift) over which is placed the more ornate supertunica, a gold, silk, full-length, sleeved coat. They receive items of royal regalia including the Orb, surmounted by a cross, a ring representing the sovereign’s ‘marriage’ to the nation, the Sceptre with Dove, and the Sceptre with Cross. The latter contains the Cullinan I (also known as the Star of Africa), the largest clear-cut diamond in the world, given as a much larger uncut gem, to Edward VII in 1907.
5. The Crowning. St Edward’s Crown is brought from the High Altar and taken to the Coronation Chair by the dean, who hands it to the archbishop. After it is placed on the monarch’s head, the congregation shout three times in unison: ‘God Save the King/Queen.’
6. The Enthronement. The sovereign is taken from the Coronation Chair and is seated on the throne, where the statement beginning ‘Stand firm, and hold fast from henceforth …’ is said. In its original Latin, the formula was first used in tenth-century English coronations.
7. Homage. The Archbishop of Canterbury and senior clergy are traditionally the first to then kneel in homage to the crowned and anointed sovereign, followed by the royal dukes and representatives of the peerage.
8. Final Procession. The monarch arrives at the abbey wearing crimson robes of state. After they retire to St Edward’s Chapel, they return in procession through the abbey wearing the Imperial State Crown and a robe of purple velvet, prior to leaving through the Great West Door.
While the above format has been more or less adhered to down the centuries, everything from the accompanying music to the processions to the abbey has varied immensely.
The length of the service has grown shorter over the centuries. Elizabeth II’s coronation lasted three hours, while that of the first queen regnant, Mary Tudor, ran for five hours.
On the other hand, the time between accession and coronation has grown. William the Conqueror was crowned on the day he became king, for fear another claimant could snatch the throne. It was sixteen months from Elizabeth II’s accession to her ceremony to give time for mourning and then preparation.
The day a coronation is held has also changed. For two thirds of a millennium of coronations, the ceremony was held on either a Sunday or a saint’s feast day, whereas the Met Office recommended 2 June for Elizabeth II as it had the highest probability of good weather (though ironically it poured down).
The procession to and from Westminster Abbey has also varied through the centuries. For 300 years, from the coronation of Richard II to that of Charles II, the monarchs traditionally processed from the Tower of London to Westminster on the eve of their coronation. The following morning, they then formed up at Westminster Hall with the clergy, nobility and the regalia before processing to the abbey for the service. This was also discontinued.
Since the coronation of William IV, the monarch has instead ridden in a carriage procession – in the Gold State Coach since Victoria’s coronation – down the Mall and through Whitehall. George VI and Elizabeth II both extended the return route to go back to the palace via Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street and Park Lane to enable more people to witness the spectacle.
Developments in the media have made some of the most fundamental changes to the way the coronation is now perceived. George V allowed a photographer, Sir Benjamin Stone, to photograph certain parts of the ceremony. His son, George VI, agreed to live radio coverage of the service, and the BBC filmed a short section of the return procession as its first major outside broadcast on its fledgling television service. It was Elizabeth II’s agreement, after her initial reluctance, to allow television cameras into the abbey to broadcast her coronation live that was the most radical departure. For the first time in a thousand years, the monarch was truly crowned before all her people.