A Reflection on the Coronation of King Charles III

In Adamnan’s Life of St Columba c640, Adamnan records that there appeared to Columba the vision of an angel who held in his hand ‘a glass book of the Ordination of Kings’. On meeting Aidan, and ‘laying his hand upon his head, he ordained him and blessed him’.  Aidan was made King of Dalriada, the modern county of Argyll, in 574.  The first recorded instance of a Christian Anglo-Saxon King being elevated with a religious ceremony is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 787 ‘Offa King of the Mercians, designated his son Ecgfrith as his successor, and Ecgfrith was anointed with oil’. The inspiration for these events is without doubt the account of Solomon’s anointing as David’s successor by Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet, recorded in 1Kings:1.

The ceremony of the anointing was a specifically religious ceremony, performed by the bishops; in consequence it contained religious implications for the kingship.  The Synod of Chelsea (787) referring to the King as ‘the Anointed of the Lord’ goes on to express the kind of moral and religious conduct required of them.  They are ‘to judge with justice; to honour the Church of God; to take to themselves wise counsellors who fear the Lord’.  It is clear that the King had a divine duty  as well as a divine right.  He was more than the supreme chief of his people, their military leader and their upholder against their enemies.  He was King ‘by the grace of God’, and the ‘Protector of God’s church and People’.

The first English Coronation Service of which details have survived was drawn up for the coronation of King Edgar in Bath Abbey on Whitsunday, 973 by St Dunstan (909-88). This took place before the Great Schism, the Reformation or modern corrosive biblical criticism. While details have been adapted over the centuries, the basic format for coronations has essentially remained the same for over a thousand years. The crowning of the monarch is just one of several distinct elements in the service. Others include recognition by the assembled congregation representing the people of their new sovereign, administration of oaths, anointing with Holy Oil, investiture with the royal regalia, and celebration of Holy Communion. All these elements are present in the earliest surviving order for the coronation of an English monarch, prepared by St. Dunstan as Archbishop of Canterbury for the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar in 973 CE.

Edgar’s coronation, which took place in Bath Abbey, included many features found in all subsequent coronations. It was held on Whit Sunday, the traditional day for ordinations to the priesthood. Considerable emphasis was laid on the theme of consecration and the priestly aspects of kingship, exemplified by the wearing of priestly robes. Anointed and crowned by St Dunstan, Edgar was entrusted with the protection and supervision of the Church and graced with the title “rex dei gratia” (King by the grace of God).  

Edgar was led into Bath Abbey in 973 by two bishops just as Charles entered Westminster Abbey more than a thousand years later. Here, near the tomb of St Edward the Confessor, the last Saxon King, all English coronations have been held since 1066. As did Edgar so Charles took three oaths which form the basis of those still taken by every British monarch. They include promises to adhere to the rule of law and the principles of justice and mercy, and to maintain the laws of God, the Protestant religion[1] and the Church of England. Having taken the oaths, the monarch is anointed with Holy Oil, a further sign of being set apart and consecrated in the manner of a priest.

The King commissioned Aidan Hart, an iconographer from Shrewsbury, member of the Orthodox Community and long-standing friend of the King, to make screens to veil the sacred moment of anointing.  The much acclaimed design was inspired by the Commonwealth Tree in a stained glass window in St James’ Palace. Commonwealth countries were embroidered on leaves of the tree in soft blue fabric by the Royal School of Needlework (founded by Lady Marian Alford who built Colemere Church) based at Hampton Court.

At the central moment of the service, the throne, facing towards the East, was screened from view.

The Archbishop, bearing the holy oil from the Garden of Gethsemane consecrated by the Orthodox Bishop of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, approached.  ‘It seemed that these two men were alone with God, performing an act greater than they knew, more solemn than any person present could hope to understand’[2].

Edgar’s coronation included the celebration of Mass, and it remains the case that the coronation is embedded in a celebration of Holy Communion although the hieratic language of the English Prayerbook has replaced the Latin Mass.  The lesson was perfectly read from the Bible commissioned and authorised by the King’s ancestor King James I by the Prime Minister. The Archbishop, adopting the ancient eastward position[3] (ad orientem) for the Consecration, then administered the Blessed Sacrament to the newly anointed King and his Queen.

 St. Dunstan’s order clearly established the church’s control over royal inauguration rites in England, and specifically the key role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in presiding over the ceremony. In the sermon that he preached at a second coronation over which he presided – that of Ethelred the Unready at Kingston Upon Thames in 979 – he preached on the duties of a consecrated king, describing him as the shepherd over his people and reminding him that ruling justly would earn him “worship in this world” as well as God’s mercy.

As Professor Ratcliff wrote of the Coronation of the late Queen in 1953: ‘The Coronation Service is a mirror, as no other English institution can be, of the historical process in which our ancestors have lived, in which our nation has been formed, and in which we ourselves are living today. It reflects the persistent English intertwining of sacred and secular, of civil and ecclesiastical.  It reflects particularly the historic English conception of the mutual relations of Sovereign, Church and People, and of all three to God, Whose blessing and protection it invokes.  In a word, the English Coronation Service symbolizes national continuity considered sub specie Christianitatis (under the guise of Christianity)’[4].

[1] The term ‘Protestant Religion’ was added in 1701 after the disastrous reign of James II.

[2] The Times, 13 May 1937

[3] The Eastward Position for the central prayers of the Mass dates from at least the second century. The modern fashion of moving altars forward allowing the minister to face west is a modern one dating only from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s without any ancient precedent.

[4] Ratcliff, E.C.,The Coronation Service, CUP, 1953

Leave a Reply