From its ancient roots to the modern-day spectacle, the tradition of the royal coronation has been a defining moment in the history of the British monarchy. It is a powerful symbol of authority, legitimacy, and continuity that has been performed since ancient times. During a coronation, the words and actions are a visible representation of the invisible duty and responsibility of the monarch.
In Britain, the coronation has evolved over the centuries to become a grand and spectacular event that is watched by millions around the world…
Why a Coronation?
Coronations have always been seen as a special and important moment in the early part of a monarch’s reign. But why do we have coronations? The answer lies in the importance of legitimacy. In the early days, monarchs had to prove their right to rule, often through divine mandate or conquest. The coronation was the moment when the monarch was elevated to a higher status, recognised as the rightful ruler, and given the authority to govern the land and its people.
Constitutionally, there is never a moment when we do not have a monarch. When the king or queen dies, the heir instantly becomes the new monarch. This is a process called accession, meaning 'to come to'. At that very moment, the successor has all the status and authority that they need to be monarch.
At its core, a coronation is the act of crowning a monarch and anointing them with holy oil, imbuing them with the divine right to rule. But a coronation does have three key purposes. First and foremost, it has a religious significance, with the monarch making promises to God as part of a Christian ceremony. Secondly, while the monarch has acquired the status and authority at their accession, it is at the coronation that the monarch makes promises to the people that they serve. Finally, it is a moment for public celebration and affirmation in a way that would be inappropriate in the days and weeks following the accession.
Why is Westminster Abbey the traditional site of coronations in Britain? The answer is rooted in history. Westminster Abbey became the coronation church more by accident than intention. Before 1066, there was no established location for the coronation of a monarch with known locations including Kingston-upon-Thames and Bath. St Edward the Confessor, who built the first stone abbey in Westminster, was crowned at Winchester Cathedral. The change happened with William I, also known as the Conqueror, who was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. After his victory at the Battle of Hastings, he wanted to be crowned at the centre of government and near the principal palace at Westminster. More importantly, by choosing the burial place of his predecessor as the location for his coronation, he cemented the legitimacy of his rule.
Since the coronation of William the Conqueror, every English and British monarch (with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII) has been crowned in Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is not only a place of great historical significance but also a symbol of national unity and continuity.
Power & Influence
Precise details of the earliest coronations at the Abbey are not known, but we do know that elements were added to the coronation over time, with the coronation ceremony evolving to reflect the times. In the early days, it was a simple affair, with the monarch being anointed with holy oil and presented with symbols of their authority.
However, as the monarchy grew in power and influence, so too did the coronation ceremony. It was Protestant Queen Elizabeth I who requested that parts of the service should be said in English instead of Latin for the first time. During the English Civil War, after the execution of King Charles I, the original regalia was destroyed and had to be remade in 1661 for King Charles II’s coronation. The coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 was a particularly grand event, with a new crown and regalia being created specifically for the occasion.
In the modern era, coronations have become grand spectacles watched by millions around the world. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was the first to be televised, bringing the ceremony into the homes of millions. Since then, the coronation has evolved to incorporate modern elements, such as musical performances and live broadcasts.
From its ancient roots to the modern-day spectacle, the coronation ceremony is an important moment in the history of the British monarchy. So, the next time you watch a coronation, take a moment to appreciate the rich history behind this tradition.
The Royal Collection
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