The king promised a thoroughly 21st-century ceremony, but when push came to shove, he took his place on a 13th-century throne.
The coronation of King Charles III was billed as a chance to usher in a new kind of monarchy — slimmer, more accessible and more inclusive — for the 21st century. Though Saturday’s ceremony had its share of modern flourishes, it was hard to escape the sense that they were mostly tweaks to an ancient ritual which, like the monarchy itself, can’t escape the heavy burdens of the past.
As it happened, the coronation was a huge success by most measures. It proceeded on time and on schedule. No one dropped anything. Prince Harry came, saw and left, without apparent incident. King Charles looked burdened, and then relieved, by the responsibility of it all; Queen Camilla looked radiant.
And Britain thrilled at the spectacle of Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, successfully wielding an eight-pound jewel-encrusted sword while wearing a blue dress-and-cape ensemble, like some sort of proud English Valkyrie. (She was a big hit on social media. “The Penny is mightier than the sword,” Chris Bryant, a Labour member of Parliament, tweeted.)
But it’s hard to use the word “modern” to describe a ceremony that included, among many other exotic elements, an ancient 350-pound rock from Scotland called the Stone of Destiny; a hollow gold “Sovereign’s orb” encrusted with emeralds, rubies and sapphires, resembling a magnificent Fabergé egg, topped by a cross; numerous embroidered robes and jewel-studded crowns; two golden monarch-conveying carriages; and thousands of people in elaborate military costumes processing like some sort of fancy-dress army along the vast Mall that runs between Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace.
British royal ceremonies — marriages, funerals and coronations — are of course heavily choreographed affairs, their details designed to convey specific messages to the nation and to the world about what the monarchy stands for.
The last coronation, Queen Elizabeth’s, in 1953, felt like the final hurrah of an empire and served to elevate a young woman who, untested and full of promise, could only grow into the job.
King Charles has had a lifetime to think about the sort of coronation he wanted, and it turned out that he had some very specific ideas. He wanted the ceremony to include representatives from the world’s religions, not just the Church of England, and it did; he wanted it to include new pieces of music, sung by a range of performers, and it did.
The ceremony’s guest list included fewer hereditary peers and fewer people in highly formal attire, and more celebrities — including Katy Perry (dressed in a daringly low-cut pink suit and a massive hat), Lionel Richie and Emma Thompson. And it included efforts to put modern flourishes on ancient traditions, though those were often subtly applied.
So Charles retained the custom by which the monarch, when anointed with oil by the Dean of Westminster, does so out of view, behind a special screen. (The idea is that the ritual is so sacred that it should involve only the monarch and God.)
He used oil made from olives harvested from two groves in Jerusalem, employing the same formula used for his mother’s anointment. But Charles also had a special anointing screen commissioned for the occasion, using “traditional and contemporary sustainable embroidery practices” to depict a tree reflecting his “deep affection for the Commonwealth,” the palace said.
In a reflection of the king’s love of nature, and of recycling, the screen was held up by oak wooden poles made by a “windblown tree from the Windsor Estate, which was originally planted by The Duke of Northumberland in 1765.”
Charles’s decision about where in the abbey to place the two most divisive members of his family — his brother Andrew, disgraced because of his ties to the financier Jeffrey Epstein; and his son Prince Harry, who lives in angry exile in California and has been stripped of all his royal offices — shows his practicality, and perhaps a bit of ruthlessness.
The two both attended the ceremony but were relegated to spots in the third row, far behind so-called “working royals” like William, the Prince of Wales, and Princess Anne, the king’s sister. (Prince Harry was not allowed to wear his military uniform. With his face partly obscured by the enormous feather atop Anne’s military hat, he suffered the double indignity of being seated between Jack Brooksbank, the husband of his cousin Eugenie, and an 86-year-old minor royal named Princess Alexandra.)
And neither stood with the rest of the family at the traditional appearance on the Buckingham Palace balcony later in the day.
Now that the coronation is out of the way, King Charles can get on with the business of beginning his reign in earnest, however that looks in 2023. Of course, not everyone is as excited as the crowds who waited outside in the drizzle for a glimpse of him on Saturday. As the satirical magazine Private Eye described the coronation on the cover of its “historic souvenir issue”: “Man in Hat Sits on Chair.”