11 Thoughts on the Coronation of King Charles III

11 Thoughts on the Coronation of King Charles III May 7, 2023

I got up at 5:00 AM to watch the coronation of King Charles III. There hadn’t been a coronation in my lifetime and there may not be another one (or at least, not one like this) and I wanted to see it. These are my thoughts and observations, in no particular order.

1. An American perspective

I am neither a republican nor a monarchist – I’m an American. I have an American fascination with monarchy in general and British royalty in particular – a fascination that costs me nothing. If my taxes went to support the royal family that fascination might be severely tempered. I have British friends who strongly believe the monarchy is an institution that has ceased to be useful. I have friends in countries that were colonized and oppressed by the British Empire – and some that still are. I understand and respect their feelings. These are mine, for whatever they’re worth.

photo by John Beckett
Westminster Abbey 2007. I used this picture because I took it and I don’t have to worry about copyright issues, but also because it illustrates that some heritage would remain even if there was no longer a monarchy. 

2. The cost

I would be disingenuous if I did not point out that the coronation cost the British public around £100 million (current exchange rate: 1 GBP = 1.26 USD). This at a time when Britain’s National Health Service and other services and infrastructure are underfunded. Whether this was a wise use of public funds is not for me to say, but when my British friends complain about spending priorities, I hear them.

The Conservative Party has been in power in the U.K. for the past 13 years. Parties in power always find the money for things they want to do and then plead poverty for things they don’t want to do.

3. This felt different from other royal ceremonies

I’ve watched royal weddings before. I watched the funeral for Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King Charles in depth. This felt different.

This felt like too much.

Maybe it was the cost. Maybe it was that I’ve been to plenty of weddings and funerals (including a couple of rather extravagant weddings) and so those felt familiar. While I’ve seen inaugurations and installations, this was nothing like any of that.

The two things that stood out were the ermine robes and the Gold State Coach. They are traditional – the coach has been used in every coronation since William IV in 1831. They are majestic. But they seem so ostentatious, so over the top that for the first time they left me feeling like this just shouldn’t be, that they detracted from the ceremony rather than added to it.

4. Charles is not Elizabeth

I think the focus on Charles was part of it too. I’ve watched Charles all my life, though not closely, and not with any real feelings one way or another. He’s always struck me as someone who generally means well, but he lacks his mother’s sense of duty and obligation. Or maybe it’s just that as an American – or as a person of the modern era – I have no intuitive understanding of kingship.

I appreciate Charles’ words “I come not to be served, but to serve” and I think he means them. I just don’t get the impression he fully understands them.

5. A very Christian ceremony

The second thing that grabbed my attention was just how Christian the coronation ceremony was. I knew that would be the case, but it still stood out to me. The divine right of kings is not dead, it’s just that the power of the king has been significantly reduced.

The churchmen would say that the authority of the king comes from the Christian God, but what does that mean in a country that has become a land of many faiths – and of no faith?

6. A callback to Magna Carta

Between the Church of England standing in for the Christian God, and the numerous references to “the law” it’s clear that this ceremony has roots in an era where the king needed to be reminded that his authority is not absolute. The king’s authority comes from the Christian God and the Church represents the Christian God, and so serves as a check on his ambitions and indulgences.

7. Inclusion and its limits

I appreciate the efforts to be more inclusive in the ceremony. I appreciate that Charles promised to “foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.” I appreciate the inclusion of women – including women clergy – in the ceremony. Charles promised to maintain “the Protestant Reformed Religion” but there were blessings from Catholic and Orthodox leaders and greetings from Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders.

No Pagans, sadly. I’m sure there’s a royalist Druid somewhere of sufficient renown to have been included.

But the limitations of this inclusion were clearly demonstrated when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – who is Hindu – read from the Christian scriptures. He was included. His religion – that he shares with about 2% of the U.K. population – was not.

What unites a country? Religion no longer does that, at least not in the West. What happens when one religion sets itself up as a civil authority? That’s one thing our American ancestors got right, even though we have to fight this battle again in every generation.

8. The Sword Lady

Speaking of women in the ceremony, the unintended star of the coronation was Penny Mordaunt, Conservative MP and Lord President of the Privy Council, who carried a huge sword during the procession and later presented it to Charles. I can’t find a picture with a Creative Commons license, but here’s a link to a news article with plenty (it’s the Daily Mail, but they have the best pictures).

I didn’t know who it was (though I suppose I should have recognized her from her work in the accession ceremony last year), and when I started to Google it the first thing that came up was “coronation sword lady” – apparently she got a lot of people’s attention. She was actually the second sword lady – the sword was brought into Westminster Abbey by Petty Officer Amy Taylor, as a representative of U.K. service people.

9. There is no perfect form of government

For all my discomfort with this ceremony, and my philosophical misgivings about the institution of monarchy, I cannot state that a republic is absolutely superior to a constitutional monarchy. France is not clearly a better place to live than Britain and the United States is not clearly better than Canada. At the end of the day, the quality of government depends on the quality of the people in government, no matter how they get there.

10. The last of its kind

According to one of the TV commentators, when Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1953 there were over 100 reigning monarchs in the world. Today there are 28 (a number I can’t precisely verify, but if it’s not exactly right it’s close). Does a modern nation need a king? Perhaps more relevantly, does a modern nation need a king in ermine robes processing through the streets in a gold coach? That’s not for me to say. But it is for me to point out that of all the remaining monarchies in the world, only Britain still conducts elaborate coronation ceremonies.

11. A shift in my opinions

I’ve always said that if I were a U.K. citizen and if there was a referendum on the monarchy, I would vote to abolish it, because it’s the right thing to do. But I would do so with reluctance and sadness for what would be lost.

After watching the coronation, I’m not sure how reluctant that vote would be.

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