May 7, 2023 - 8:00am

Amid the many and varied delights and glories of Coronation Day, I was moved by a letter from the King to his ex-shipmates on HMS Bronington, a Ton-class minesweeper which Charles briefly commanded in 1976. “I admired your professionalism, close-knit teamwork and unfailingly robust good humour,” he wrote. 

Remarkably, the ship still exists, unlike most of her class, albeit in a somewhat sorry state, having partially sunk at her moorings in Birkenhead a few years ago. Perhaps now that one of her old COs is Commander-In-Chief, she might be properly restored. It was a charming reminder of the long association between the Senior Service and the monarchy. Charles’s grandfather, George VI, and his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, were both mentioned in dispatches for their wartime service at sea. 

But the Bronington note also hints at a reason why I felt a certain underlying melancholy when watching the festivities. When the Ton-class were built in the 1950s, the Royal Navy ordered 115 of them. To put that in perspective, the modern RN has just 77 operational commissioned ships of any type, and fewer than 35,000 active duty personnel. When Charles joined the Navy in the early 1970s, that figure was still above 80,000.

What has this to do with the Coronation, you might very well ask. To me, it is a striking illustration of how much the country has changed in its fundamentals over Charles’s adult life. That, in turn, leads to some unavoidable reflections on whether the undoubted magnificence and ritual splendour of what happened in Westminster Abbey on Saturday is, as the cultural critics say, an empty signifier; an event that no longer connects with an underlying reality.

Now this ambivalence was not the whole of my reaction. My conservative English heart was deeply moved by the details of the ceremony — the deep historical resonances of the prayers and the mystical symbolism of orb, sceptre, sword and crown. I was almost in tears when the screens were placed around the ancient throne for the sacred moment of anointing, to the accompaniment of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. I took enormous pleasure in explaining to my children the importance and seriousness of what was happening. When Prince William swore to his father that he would be his “liegeman of life and limb”, I experienced a thrill of excitement. 

And yet the questions remain. What does it mean to have a monarch who has sworn to uphold the “Protestant Reformed Religion established by law” in a country as religiously diverse as Britain, where barely anyone under thirty has any meaningful connection with the Church of England? What is the point of having a Christian King as the fount of our law, when his subjects are routinely arrested and even prosecuted for praying in the wrong place, or for stating the basic moral teachings of the Christian faith?  

Such hand-wringing is not new. As long ago as 1897, with the Empire at its zenith, no less a figure than Rudyard Kipling welcomed Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee with his poem “Recessional”, full of foreboding about the future of the seemingly invincible Britain.

“The tumult and the shouting dies:
The Captains and the Kings depart…
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!”

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.