Guide to the Coronation Service

Once a new monarch succeeds to the throne the work of planning his or her coronation begins almost immediately. Coronations are State occasions, so although they take place in Westminster Abbey they are not organised by the Dean and Chapter but by the Earl Marshal, one of the great Officers of State. He has authority over all matters regarding the ceremony and the Abbey’s keys are surrendered to him while the church is made ready.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has the duty of preparing the order of service and to him alone belongs the right of officiating at it and of crowning the Sovereign and the Queen Consort (though for various reasons others have very occasionally taken his place). Many other officials of Church and State traditionally participate in the ceremony. The Dean of Westminster, as successor to the medieval abbots of Westminster, has the right to instruct the Sovereign in all matters relating to the ceremony and to assist the Archbishop at the anointing. During the investiture the Archbishop receives from the Dean the various items of Regalia, culminating in the Crown of St Edward.

At various times in the past the historic fabric of the Abbey has been badly damaged by these preparations. Not only is it necessary to construct the raised Theatre and the Annexe but also a large number of galleries to accommodate the congregation. In 1953 the Abbey was closed for five months while the building was made ready to receive 8251 guests.

The essential elements of the coronation service used in modern times can be traced back to the crowning of King Edgar at Bath in 973. That tenth-century liturgy, drawn up by St Dunstan, underwent various adaptations in the early middle ages. Around 1382, probably in preparation for the crowning of Anne of Bohemia (Richard II’s consort), a new fine copy of the order of service was made. This illuminated manuscript, known as the Liber Regalis, is one of the great treasures of the Abbey’s library. It provided the order of service for all subsequent coronations up to, and including, that of Elizabeth I. For the coronation of James I the liturgy was translated into English. Nevertheless, with occasional adaptations to suit the political and religious circumstances of the time, the Liber Regalis remained the basis for all later coronation liturgies.

On the night before the coronation the Regalia is brought from the Tower of London to the Abbey and kept overnight in the Jerusalem Chamber. The next morning the Abbey’s clergy process with the Regalia through the cloisters and into the church. Most of the Regalia is placed on the High Altar, but the Imperial State Crown is taken to the altar in St Edward’s Chapel.

Monarchs have always been crowned in the context of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, the coronation ceremonies being interpolated at various points in the Eucharistic liturgy. Only for the coronation of the Roman Catholic James II in 1685 was the Communion service omitted.

The service can be divided into five main sections and a description of these follows, based largely on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

1. In the first part of the service the Sovereign processes from the west end of the Abbey through the nave and choir to the Theatre. During this verses from Psalm 122 are sung: ‘I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord’. Several musical settings of these words have been used over the centuries, but Sir Hubert Parry’s version has been sung since its first performance at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. Parry incorporated into it the cries of Vivat Rex! and Vivat Regina! (Long live the King/Queen!) with which the Scholars of Westminster School traditionally acclaim the Sovereign.

The Archbishop of Canterbury presents the Sovereign to the people and they respond with ‘God save the Queen!’. The Sovereign takes an oath, swearing to govern faithfully with justice and mercy, to uphold the Gospel, and to maintain the doctrine and worship of the Church of England. In 1953, for the first time, this part of the ceremony ended with the presentation of a Bible, ‘To keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Law and Gospel of God as the rule for the whole life and government of Christian princes’.

2. The Communion service proceeds. After the Creed the choir sings Veni, Creator Spiritus, the ancient hymn invoking the Holy Spirit, the Sovereign’s crimson robe is removed and she is seated in the Coronation Chair (placed facing the altar). Four Knights of the Garter hold a canopy over the Chair and, concealed from view, the Archbishop anoints the Sovereign with holy oil on the hands, the breast and the head. This is the most solemn part of the coronation service, for by anointing the monarch is set apart or consecrated for the duties of a Sovereign. Meanwhile the choir sings the anthem Zadok the Priest, the words of which (from the first Book of Kings) have been sung at every coronation since King Edgar’s in 973. Since the coronation of George II in 1727 the setting by Handel has always been used.

3. The Sovereign is dressed in robes of cloth of gold and returns to the Coronation Chair to be invested with the Regalia. Some items, such as the Orb, are presented symbolically and then returned to the altar, but the Sovereign retains the Sceptre (symbolising kingly power) in one hand and the Rod with the Dove (symbolising justice and mercy) in the other. Finally the Archbishop receives St Edward’s Crown from the Dean of Westminster and places it on the Sovereign’s head. Trumpet fanfares are sounded and the congregation acclaim the Sovereign ‘with loud and repeated shouts’.

4. The newly-crowned Sovereign leaves the Coronation Chair and moves to the Throne in the main part of the Theatre between the sacrarium and the quire. Now visible to all and supported by the Archbishop and the great Officers of State, the Sovereign is placed in the Throne and at that moment takes possession of the kingdom. The Sovereign now receives the homage of the people, performed first by the Lords Spiritual (the bishops) and then the Lords Temporal. Anthems are sung during this and at the end there are further fanfares and acclamations.

If there is a queen consort her anointing and crowning follows. The male consort of a Queen Regnant is not crowned.

5. The Eucharist resumes at the Offertory. The Sovereign receives Holy Communion, Gloria in Excelsis is sung and the Archbishop gives the Blessing. While the choir sings a Te Deum the Sovereign withdraws to St Edward’s Chapel and there puts on a robe of purple velvet and exchanges St Edward’s Crown for the Imperial State Crown. Finally, carrying the Sceptre and the Orb the Sovereign processes through the Abbey to the Annexe at the west end.

Selected reading list:

“The Queen’s coronation – the inside story” by James Wilkinson, 2011
“Coronation June 2 1953” by Conrad Frost, 1978
“When the Queen was crowned” by Brian Barker, 1976
“Coronation” by Sir Roy Strong, 2005
“The Stone of Destiny – artefact and icon” edited by R.Welander, D.J.Breeze and T.O.Clancy, 2003
“Coronations – medieval and early modern monarchic ritual” by J.M.Bak, 1990
“A history of the English coronation” by P.E.Schramm, 1937
“English Coronation Records” by L.G.Wickham Legg, 1901
“The coronation of Richard III – the extant documents” edited by A.F.Sutton & P.W.Hammond, 1983
“The coronation order of King James I” edited by J.Wickham Legg, 1902
“The coronation of...King James II” by Francis Sandford, 1687
“A faithful account of the..coronation of George the Third” edited by Richard Thomson, 1820.
“History of the coronation of King George the Fourth” by R.Huish, 1821
“The coronation of...King George the Fourth” by Sir George Nayler, 1839
“The coronation of Edward the Seventh” by J.E.C.Bodley, 1908