Coronations at the Abbey
A history of coronations
Westminster Abbey has been Britain’s coronation church since 1066. King Charles III was the 40th reigning monarch to be crowned in May 2023.
The English coronation service proper was drawn up by St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, for the grand coronation of Edgar, first King of All England, at Bath Abbey.
The first documented coronation at Westminster was that of William the Conqueror on 25th December 1066. Before this year there had been no fixed location for the ceremony. Edward the Confessor does not seem to have deliberately planned his new Abbey as a coronation church. His immediate successor, Harold Godwinson, is likely to have been crowned here following the Confessor's death but there is no surviving contemporary evidence to confirm this ceremony. William probably chose the Abbey for his coronation to reinforce his claim to be a legitimate successor of Edward.
The Abbey's role as a coronation church influenced Henry III's rebuilding of the church in the Gothic style of architecture from AD 1245 and a large space or "theatre" was planned under the lantern, between the quire and the high altar. The first king to be crowned in the present Abbey was Edward I in 1274.
The two monarchs who did not have any coronation were Edward V (the boy king), who was presumed murdered in the Tower of London before he could be crowned, and Edward VIII who abdicated 11 months after succeeding his father and before the date set for his coronation.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, public spectacle sometimes overshadowed religious significance. At George III's coronation some of the congregation began to eat a meal during the sermon. George IV's coronation was a great theatrical occasion but he flatly refused to allow his estranged wife Caroline to enter the Abbey. William IV had to be persuaded to have a coronation at all and spent so little money on it that it became known as 'the penny coronation'. With Queen Victoria's coronation in 1838 came a renewed appreciation of the true religious meaning of the ceremony.
By the time Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953 millions around the world were able to witness her coronation on television.
Arranging and planning
All arrangements for coronation ceremonies are made by the Earl Marshal and his Coronation Committee on behalf of the Crown and not by the Abbey authorities. But the Dean of Westminster instructs the sovereign on all matters connected with the service and assists the Archbishop of Canterbury, who always crowns the monarch (unless the See is vacant and then a senior bishop will perform this).
Since the late 14th century every coronation ceremony has basically followed the same order of service laid down in the Abbey’s magnificent medieval illuminated Latin manuscript, the Liber Regalis, which can be viewed in the Galleries at the Abbey. The coronation of Elizabeth I was a mixture of Latin and English but that of James I in 1603 was an entirely English liturgy.
Queen Elizabeth II's coronation
The main elements of the service, as performed on 2nd June 1953, were:
A procession of the Regalia takes place, from the Jerusalem Chamber, in the Abbey precincts, to the High Altar, where the special coronation oil is consecrated. Other items of regalia are taken to St Edward's chapel and to the Annexe ready for the main processions.
Entry into the Church
The anthem "I was glad when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord" was sung by the massed choirs as the monarch entered the west door. The boys of Westminster School shouted their "Vivats" as the procession emerged into the quire. The monarch sat in the Chair of Estate, in front of the Royal Gallery, to the south side of the Altar.
The sovereign stood beside the Coronation Chair and was shown to the people on all sides of the theatre.
The Archbishop asked three questions of the monarch and the Oath was taken. At the Altar the sovereign touched the Holy Bible saying "The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God". The Oath was then signed.
Presentation of the Holy Bible
The Bible, "the most valuable thing that this world affords", was presented by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland (the first time the Moderator had performed this duty at a coronation). The Communion service then began, following the order in the Book of Common Prayer.
Seated in the Coronation Chair the monarch was anointed with oil. A canopy is held over the sovereign to shield this part of the ceremony from the congregation as this, and not the crowning, is the most sacred part of the service.
The monarch put on the robes known as the Colobium Sindonis and the Supertunica of cloth of gold. The ceremonial sword and spurs were presented and the Sword of State was offered at the Altar. The sovereign was invested with the armills, or bracelets, the Stole, the Robe Royal and the Orb. Then the coronation Ring was put on and the Sceptre with the Cross and the Rod with the Dove were presented.
The Crowning and Homage
The Archbishop of Canterbury brought St Edward's Crown from the Altar and placed it on the sovereign's head. After the Benediction the monarch moved to the Throne, in the centre part of the lantern. The royal princes and senior peers of each degree ascended the steps to the Throne to pay their homage. A congregational hymn was sung and the rest of the Communion service took place, ending with the Blessing and singing of the Te Deum Laudamus.
The monarch retired into St Edward the Confessor's chapel, behind the High Altar, and put on the Imperial State Crown and Robe of purple velvet and carrying the Orb and Sceptre the procession moved back to the Annexe, while the National Anthem was sung.
Music plays an important part in the service. Many of the texts have been used at successive coronations. "Zadok the Priest" was sung at Edgar's coronation, receiving its famous setting by Handel in 1727 for George II's coronation. A congregational hymn and the singing of the National Anthem were only introduced at the 1953 coronation.
Coronation of King Charles III
The Coronation of Their Majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla was held at Westminster Abbey on Saturday 6th May 2023. The theme of the liturgy was 'Called to Serve', reflecting His Majesty's commitment to serve God and the people.
Alongside the ancient traditions, the service included new elements recognising and celebrating the character of the United Kingdom today, these included:
- The King praying aloud in the Abbey, saying, ‘Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and belief’.
- The service included languages other than English associated with the British Isles – with a prayer in Welsh and a hymn (Veni Creator) sung in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic.
- The traditional Homage of Peers was replaced with a Homage of the People. Those watching and listening at home were invited to join the congregation in the Abbey sharing in this solemn and joyful moment.
- Girl choristers participated at a coronation for the first time, as did female clergy with the Bishops of London, Dover and Chelmsford all having roles.