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Are we ready for the next coronation? As we approach the end of Her Majesty's reign, a moment of nervousness is not inappropriate

A lot like a wedding: the coronation of Elizabeth II. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A lot like a wedding: the coronation of Elizabeth II. Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


April 23, 2020   5 mins

‘Coronation Maids’, on BBC Radio 4 this week, was an absolute delight. It brought together five of the six women who were the Queen’s young maids of honour at her coronation. And no, I didn’t know she had them either. In the plumiest of tones, the Queen’s maids recounted some fabulous little anecdotes concerning the preparation for the coronation service — of the meticulousness of the master of ceremonies, the 16th Duke of Norfolk, Bernard Marmaduke Fitzalen-Howard; of the grumpiness of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, who surprised them all by producing a bottle of brandy from under his robes, of how much they all enjoyed having Coronation Chicken for the first time back at the Palace after the ceremony.

The programme, part of Sue MacGregor’s Reunion series, brought home how much like a wedding the whole thing was. The Coronation ring, placed on the fourth finger of her right hand, is also known as “The wedding ring of England”. It is a union of sorts, being struck between the Queen and her subjects. And back in 1952, both sides enthusiastically consented. The PathĂ© newsreel of the time spoke of “The happy heartbeat of the cockney crowd. London is royal and gay.”

Queen Elizabeth II with her maids of honour. Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images

It’s not just our language that has radically changed since then. The aristocracy is no longer treated with deference, the Church of England has been substantially abandoned, Coronation is a street in Manchester, and Coronation Chicken has becomer retro at best, and an embarrassing empire hangover at worst. Which raises the question: are the British people ready to get married again, and to get married like this?

This is not an academic question. The Queen was 94 this week. And the presence of Covid-19 within the palace walls was a reminder of her mortality. The Queen retains the love and admiration of her people — but what on earth would 21st-century Britain make of the Coronation service itself. It’s a ceremony that exposes in liturgical form the nature of the British state, and, in particular, its intimate relationship to God?

At the beginning of the service, the archbishop asks the people present of they are “willing” to “do homage and service”? As Archbishop Charles Le Grice preached in 1821 on the day of George VI’s coronation:

“The solemn ceremony of this day is not the pageant of a Monarch receiving the homage of his vassals; it is not the triumph of despotic power 
. The poorest subject is a party to the covenant which the King now makes.”

In other words, consent is vital to the delicate constitution balance as played out in the coronation. Indeed, it is even there in the National Anthem itself: “May she defend our laws, and ever give us cause, to sing with heart and voice, God save the Queen.” (Not that everybody knows that verse.) But here we sing of the hope that the monarch will always give us a good reason to defend her; subtly suggesting, of course, that if she doesn’t, we won’t.

How will the congregation react to the next coronation? Not so much the hand-picked thousands in Westminster Abbey, but the wider congregation at home. I doubt they will dress up in their Sunday best, as they did last time, and hang on every detail of a three-hour church service. But will they even understand what is going on? Will the deliberately Christian nature of the service be alienating in a post-religious and multi-cultural society? Will the plummy accents of the lords and ladies in waiting feel like the sound of another age, as if we are being secretly governed by some occupying power?

Understanding the symbolism of the service itself — the emphasis on anointing, for instance, and its origins in the Hebrew scriptures — requires a level of theological literacy that has been largely lost. Will the puzzled onlookers be like awkward guests at a wedding who feel uncomfortable in church, itchy in their hired suits, who don’t know the hymns, stumble over the words, and who snigger during the prayers?

That sort of thing might not matter so much at the wedding of someone else. But at the coronation, “the People” themselves have to say “I do”. And it’s been so long since the last coronation, I wonder if we will understand that we too have a part to play in the ceremony.

I ask these questions nervously. The coronation may only be an ‘ornamental’ aspect of our constitution. But I do worry that any interference in the complex dynamic of informed consent that the monarch and the people are believed to express to each other through the coronation could have unknown consequences for our historic constitutional arrangements. Brexit challenged us with a number of constitutional questions that we were not expecting. Helen Thompson, Professor of politics at Cambridge, thinks that the death of the Queen could well do the same. It could precipitate a constitutional crisis for which we are ill prepared.

Republicanism is not especially strong on these islands — but when the leader of a major political party (Nicola Sturgeon) reacts to the Prince Andrew/Jeffrey Epstein scandal with the comment “I think there is a debate to be had about the longer term future of the monarch”, you just know that the death of the Queen is going to be a moment of opportunity for those who want radically to reshape our constitution. Especially with brand Archwell — more Beckingham than Buckingham — continuing to chip away at the mystique that royalty requires to successfully operate.

Part of the problem in answering the Republican challenge is that it’s not straightforward to say what the monarchy achieves for the British constitution. Even the Queen herself has described it as “a puzzle” and “always will be”. There were times, before dreary things like evidence based policy, when you could have got away with this sort of answer. To this extent, royalty and divinity do have something important common: they don’t readily give up their advantages to empirical scrutiny.

Perhaps I am fussing unnecessarily. Patriotism in these islands is on the up, and affection for the Queen herself, and indeed for the Prince of Wales, is probably as high as ever. Her Majesty has had an especially good Covid crisis — her broadcast on Palm Sunday was well received a home and across the globe. At a time of crisis like this, where death has come amongst us so visibly, our connection as a nation to our past, our continuity over time and symbolic links to each other, feels especially important.

In this midst of this, William and Kate are quietly getting on with the business of working out how to preserve the best of the Queen’s legacy. Even the relationship of England with Scotland — currently the weakest link in our constitutional settlement — hasn’t seen anything like the stresses and strains that other political unions, the European Union and the United States, have experienced in response to this virus.

But nonetheless, as we approach the end of the Queen’s reign, a moment of nervousness is not inappropriate — us getting ever closer to a moment where one wrong move could give us “President Blair” or some other similar indignity.

Over in the United States, they now have an elected official who behaves like the worst sort of dominating monarch. “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total”, Trump recently boasted. By contrast, here in the United Kingdom we have a monarchy that, for those who can see past the pomp and the diamonds, goes in for quiet dignity and servant leadership. And long may that continue.

Happy St George’s day. And Vivat Regina.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
4 years ago

I do enjoy your thought provoking articles and this time I agree with you!
I think to change our radically constitution would be a dangerous move, I do not like the idea of a President Blair or Major and cannot see it as an improvement.
Indeed to move to an elected executive President is unlikely to solve everything as you point out with President Trump.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
4 years ago

The game is up. No-one can fault the Queen’s devotion to duty and personal sacrifice but the nation she rules over has changed beyond recall and cannot be put back to 1952. The world of the monarchy then was one not only based around a society where deference was a living tradition but also with the remains of the landed classes, the Dukes Duchesses etc, where deference existed but where mum was always the word when it came to family secrets and misdemeanours. During (I think) the 60s the Royal Family decided they needed to swing with the age and be in everyone’s living rooms via news and television. They have, like much of television, degenerated to the form of soap opera and reality TV. More significantly the reign of the Queen has shown how insecure the rights of the people via Parliament actually are. The constitution rests on what one might call the “Decent Chaps” rule that is, the Monarch will not refuse a reasonable request from the Prime Minister but, the Prime Minister would not make the sort of request the Monarch might feel obliged to refuse. During the Queen’s reign this has been shredded to nothing. Prime Ministers will ask for dissolution of Parliament just because they feel they can win the election and last summer Johnson wanted Parliament closed because he didn’t want it to discuss his Brexit policy. There was a facade where the Privy Council advised the Queen to agree, the council has 600 members and only three were required to give her advice, needless to say Jeremy Corbyn was not one of those asked. This move was reversed in the Courts but Prime Minister (or do we now call him President) Boris Johnson has announced that legislation will be brought to keep the courts out of these things. So no need to worry about President Blair or Major, we have President Johnson (not of the same mettle as his US namesake) Elections are increasingly becoming an occasion when we elect a Prime Minister who goes through the motions of consulting Parliament but with no sense of accountability. The only service Prince Charles can do for this nation is to announce that he will abdicate after 3 years and call a constitutional convention to restore a sense of democracy to the nation. I am not optimistic

John Ellis
John Ellis
4 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

I disagree with the last part of your post, Richard. The PM goes through more than the motions when he or she asks Parliament to approve legislation – see all the rejections of the Withdrawal Act in the last one, for instance!

I am no fan of the Monarchy conceptually, but I see no better system than a Parliamentary Monarchy that has been enacted anywhere else in practice. Can you suggest such a system, and give an example of the country that has made it work?

Dominic Straiton
Dominic Straiton
4 years ago

Its worth remembering that our Monarchy survived the two ugly sisters of Communism and Fascism. It weathered, in the Nineteenth century the poison of “liberte egalite, fraternite”. Countless millions of dead and for what. Louis XIV in the fifth Republic in France, A Tzar in Russia and an Emperor in China. Whats the the point. A thousand years of stability except for a few wobbles is by far the best way forward. All the places where humans wish to live are monarchies including George III in the white house since 1776. Not even our one can give pardons anymore. Charles III or more likely George VII will be King the moment Elizabeth II breaths out her last breath. A coronation is a party. The Crown carries on regardless.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

I very much doubt if Charles I would have describe his beheading as one of the few “wobbles”. Nor I doubt would his lacklustre son James, when he fled the country in 1688.
With the exception of HM the Queen, the performance of most of the Royal family can only be described as mediocre at best, and appalling at worst. As the Union is under increasing stress, can the Royal family rise to the challenge?
The omens are not good.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
4 years ago

About thirty years ago, the people of Canada awoke to a new $1 coin that had the image of Queen Elizabeth on one side and on the reverse was a depiction of a Loon – the magnificent Canadian water bird. The exceedingly common people of Canada quickly dubbed the coin the “Loonie” and that designation remains the virtual exclusive term for the coin to this day. With the rise of Charles to the throne, the application of that moniker will become total and all-encompassing.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
4 years ago

Shouldn’t that be George IV in 1821?

I hope Charles ‘modifies’ the ceremony a bit, and expect that people will accept that and make of it what they will. At the very least a triumph of ‘soft power’. If you’ve got cultural richness that’s the day to flaunt it. It may come to be a sort of forgiveness for the adultery, and acceptance of Camilla — after this long. Charles doesn’t look like he has all that long to go himself and we can view his reign as an interim period ’till the popular and perfect William & Kate take centre stage.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
4 years ago

I hope you are wrong re Charles- and I do not regard William and Kate as ‘perfect’-although this is how they-(she) may present herself!
As for ‘us’ forgiving’ Charles for adultery- this sounds punitive and from the middle ages!I
hope Covid 19 might stir in us all a more generous thoughtful and forgiving face, not just towards royalty, but each other, and ourselves!

Dominic Straiton
Dominic Straiton
4 years ago

As we saw with the last Parliament the British Constitution is easily manipulated by people who wish it ill. The Crown, however, regardless of who sits on the throne, sails on. There will be no Republic. I doubt Australia will become one anytime soon after this pandemic. Prince Charles will become George VII( or possibly Charles III. EdwardVIII was called David) as soon as Elizabeth II breaths out her last breath. Coronation has nothing to do with this. Its a party.A monarchy constrained by a parliament is by far the best way of human governance as we see when we look over the other side of the pond where George III has been in the White house since 1776 and still gets to hand out pardons.

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
4 years ago

The future king has said he wishes to be defender of Faiths but that would mean a complete revision of the coronation oath in which the monarch agrees to retain inviolate the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law. And can the future king given his past confession be ‘anointed’ which if you remember from the 1953 Coronation the present Queen when being anointed was shielded by a canopy as this is regarded as the most sacred part of the whole Coronation ceremony ? I feel these are important questions but knowing the present state of the Anglican Communion will result in the usual ‘fudge’.

666bobtodd
666bobtodd
4 years ago

Hi I am Bob Todd the godless,The prospect of the “queen’s” idiot son becoming another puppet “king” fills me with contempt & derision,The whole gang of the “royals” should be put in a nursing home paid for out of their ill gotten gains,

John Romanowsky
John Romanowsky
4 years ago

Abolishing the monarchy would be disastrous and suicidal for the U.K. as it would be for Canada. Would Scotland accept a head of state with American-style presidential executive power? Would Quebec accept an Albertan president with the same, or vice versa? Ironically, the monarchy with its head of state above politics and the marketplace, allows for authentic diversity to flourish, as it has done in both countries. Such diversity is inherently problematic in republics. Constitutional monarchies are the most stable, modern, prosperous, and diverse countries on the planet. There is a good reason why so many of us Americans look with admiration and perhaps some unspoken envy at your head of state who personifies quiet dignity and servant leadership. We see no alternative, of course, but we have to obey a head of state who is almost forced to operate according to the logic of cynical, self-interested party politics and Wall Street. Politicians motives are always suspect; the Queen’s are not. Finally, the ancient and hallowed tradition has always been that those who rule as they ought to ensure the peace, prosperity, freedom, and common good of their people were called monarchs; those who abused their power were called tyrants.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
4 years ago

A Thank you for a thoughtful and interesting read-
I agree, and hope you are right.
Perhaps Charles will slim down the coronation ceremony without diminishing its integral connection between sovereign, people- and faith-possibly making it more religiously-faith, inclusive, as far as that may be possible.

Michael Upton
Michael Upton
4 years ago

May I ask whether my comment was veto-ed by the editors because it drew a comparison between the Scottish Nationalist Party and Sinn Fein?

crazydiamond2310
crazydiamond2310
4 years ago

It is time to replace the monarch with a democratically elected Head of State. Such a person would be held accountable for their actions and could be voted out of office if they are not seen to be carrying out the job well. Why should one family be allowed to exclusively produce our heads of state?
We could start by ensuring that we only fund the monarch, their spouse and their children up to the age of 18. Various extended family would need to find their own way in life as the rest of us do.